Paul Feldman goes behind the animated personas of the band Gorillaz to discover the creative team that put such a dynamic group together and the record label brave enough to take it on.
Gorillaz's appearance on the pop music scene came not a moment too soon. At a time when major record labels continuously turn out bands and albums that seem more the result of market research than creative energies, Gorillaz proves that it is possible to achieve recognition in the mainstream music scene while remaining a truly unique and genuine artistic entity.
What sets Gorillaz apart the most from their contemporaries is the fact that not a single member of the band is human, or three dimensional for that matter. All four members of Gorillaz -- Murdoc, Russel, 2D and Noodle -- are animated characters.
The Gorillaz hit the big time (left to right): Murdoc, Noodles, Russel and 2D. All images © EMI Music. Murdoc shows some star quality in Rock the House.
The initial drawing of the Gorillaz's lead singer, 2D.
A Unique Combo
Gorillaz is the brainchild of Damon Albarn, vocalist for indie veterans Blur, and Jamie Hewlett, known for his authorship of the Tank Girl comic strip. Gorillaz began years ago as a germ of an idea in Hewlett and Albarn's shared flat. The resulting blend of pop, hip-hop and truly visionary character design and animation is a phenomenon whose popularity has outlived its novelty.
Hewlett recently took the time to speak with AWN about the various facets of Gorillaz, including how he and Albarn went about convincing EMI to sign and promote an entirely animated band. "We obviously prepared everything up front. We were working on it for six months before we went in," explains Hewlett of the original pitch. "They saw it had potential."
The band members themselves are humanoid, but not entirely human, much like the characters encountered in the cult animation classic Rock N Rule. "We had the idea and I started drawing the next day," says Hewlett. "Damon was a part of that as well. We're always in each other's studios, [but] we don't stick our noses in each other's business."
Hewlett finds inspiration for his characters from many sources. "I really like Chuck Jones, old Mad Magazine artists like Mort Drucker, Ralph Steadman... I'm into lots of different artists. I get inspired by bands, films...seeing someone on the street who's dressed cool can inspire me."
Creating a 3D version of 2D was required for an awards ceremony. Here we see him in wireframe and 3D CGI.
Passion's Animation Team
Since the band is animated, their every action and word must be written and coordinated before an actual performance. A Gorillaz concert consists of the band's animated show projected on a stage while the musicians are hidden away out of sight. Likewise, any of their other appearances or live interviews are all animated and therefore, quite a bit more work to coordinate than a more conventional group's performance.
Passion Pictures is the animation production house behind the band. Based in the fashionable West End of London, Passion is one of the most innovative animation houses in Europe, working on commercials, music videos, credits for feature films, short films and more. Their commercial clients include Sony, Levis and a recent award-winning ad for Aero chocolate bars which features a CGI hula-hooping mouse. Another recent high profile job, in addition to the Gorillaz of course, was Coldplay's "Don't Panic" video. What is striking about Passion is that they consistently create unusual looking pieces, frequently provoking even the most seasoned animation professional to ask, "How did they do that?"
Therefore, it seems only fitting that Passion Pictures has proved to be a great match for such an avant-garde project. Andrew Ruhemann, executive producer at Passion, discusses his company's involvement with Gorillaz: "Passion Pictures is the company that Jamie Hewlett has asked to turn his 2D designs into moving images. We feel that interpreting design from an animation point of view is one of our greatest strengths."
Going on to elaborate on Passion's role in the overall production of Gorillaz, he continues, "Passion Pictures has been involved in any aspect where the characters move, for example the promos, clips for TV interviews, right up to a performance-based event like the Brit Awards. Animation director Pete Candleland was pivotal in the process of figuring out how the drawn style of Jamie's designs could and should move."
A scene from 19/2000, the third video from Gorillaz (left) and a striking profile of 2D from Clint Eastwood.
With so many hands working on a vision originating with two very individually minded artists, one might think that certain creative compromises would be made, or at the very least some feathers ruffled. Oddly enough, this does not seem to be the case at all.
"We wanted them [Passion] to be the animation company. They always want to make sure I'm pleased. They had to do the characters the way I created them. The first few videos I was very hands on, but Pete got his head around it. I trust them," explained Hewlett.
"Both Jamie and Damon have watched the project very closely. Jamie works very closely with Pete on the storyboard, art direction and original designs for each video and comes into the studio regularly to look at work in progress," explains Ruhemann. "Trust in Pete and the animation team at Passion has built up as the project has progressed. They have been very open to ideas that Pete and others in the team have brought to each project."
Building on the Vision
Wasn't there any trepidation on the part of Gorillaz's record label, Virgin, for signing and promoting such an unusual act? David Wolter, Senior Director of A & R at Virgin, explains: "An animated band wouldn't work if it not for great music. In this instance, we had brilliant ahead of the curve artwork which I felt touched upon anime, video games, and in general, youth culture."
Even so, some at the label did remain hesitant about committing to such an eccentric project. "As with anything great, there are always instances of people not seeing the vision. Fortunately, there were a small group of us who believed in the project and would stop at nothing short of success," says Wolter. "The non-believers slowly jumped into our little group until our little group was the entire record company. This project was a victory the entire label was able to celebrate."
With numerous animation awards, neither the Gorillaz nor their creators are resting on their laurels, however. The Gorillaz team is currently working with Henson in the U.K. to develop the band to where the members can be interviewed in real-time using Pulse technology. An interactive TV show has been given the greenlight and a toy line is also in the works.
Murdoch drives 2D down an American freeway in the video 19/2000. He demolishes the jeep in a fiery crash when an errant moose wanders out onto the road and forces him to fire a missile at the beast.
"We want to do toys," enthuses Hewlett. "I don't want to do a comic or a computer game. Figures, yes! We'll do good stuff and bring them out in time for the film."
Yes, you heard it! A feature film. Work has already begun on the next album, which will be the soundtrack to a full-length Gorillaz animated feature.
"I'm just writing it [the script] now. I'll probably storyboard and direct it with Pete," explains Hewlett. "It's going to be dark. We're setting up our own production company and we just had a meeting with DreamWorks. My main concern is that we do a really good film. I don't want to compromise."
Paul Feldman is an L.A.-based freelance writer who has covered entertainment industry stories for on-line journals such as the Creative Planet community sites of Director's World and Cinematographer.com. While he aspires to one day have rock 'n roll pay his rent, he is sticking to live-action for now and refuses to turn the reigns of destiny over to his animated alter-ego.