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Jumpin’ & Jivin’: Animated Music Videos

Fred Patten interviews Cliff Galbraith, Fluorescent Hill, MK12, Moneyshots, Girdwood Partners and Zoic Studios to find out more about the role of animation in music videos.

Music videos can be one of the most free-spirited forms of animation, where visual imagination is encouraged to run wild. Although artistic and technical experimentation are not the primary goals of music videos, they are often an ideal opportunity for the animator to stretch his or her limits. Here are six views of music videos from both the designers and animators who create them and the clients who request them.

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Cliff Galbraith (top left). Fluorescent Hills (top right) Mark Lomond, Johanne Ste-Marie and Darren Pasemko. MK12 logo (middle left). Moneyshots (middle right image) visual effects supervisor Chris Eckardt on left and creative director Elad Offer on right. Co-founder of Girdwood Partners, LLC Howard Soriano (bottom left). Zoic Studios Andrew Orloff (bottom right), founder and head of CG projects. Galbraith photo courtesy of Cliff Galbraith. Photo of Eckardt and Offer courtesy of Moneyshots. Soriano photo courtesy of Girdwood Partners, LLC. Orloff photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

Cliff Galbraith is an independent producer/director in North Hollywood, California. He also produces the comic book Rat Bastard under his Crucial Comics, Inc. label.

Fluorescent Hill is a collective formed by Mark Lomond, Darren Pasemko and Johanne Ste-Marie, in Montreal, Canada. Lomond responded for the three entrepreneurs straight out of school.

MK12 is a design collective consisting of 10 to 15 creative artists based in Kansas City, Missouri. Matt Fraction answered us as MK12s spokesperson.

Moneyshots is a full-service visual effects design facility in Santa Monica, California. It was founded in 2001 by Chris Eckardt (visual effects supervisor) and Elad Offer (creative director) as a music video post house, and has worked on videos for artists including Celine Dion, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears. Both Eckardt and Offer contributed to this response.

WeeBeeTunes Travel Adventures is a series of award-winning educational animated music videos intended to introduce kids to countries and cultures around the world. Howard Soriano, co-founder of the Chicago-based Girdwood Partners, LLC which produces and markets them, and the executive producer of the series, tells us what his company wants when it commissions these music videos.

Zoic Studios was founded in Los Angeles in September 2002 to provide visual effects and CG animation for commercials, music videos, feature films and TV. Andrew Orloff, one of Zoics founders and head of CG projects, has given us his viewpoints.

1. How do you get music video assignments?

CG: Im currently working on an animated video for a band called Trouble Is. I got this gig from former MTV VJ Matt Pinfield, who is now with Sony Music. Pinfield was a huge fan of my work on a comic I put out in the late 90s. So much of a fan that he invited me and my partner Tim Bird to be interviewed on the MTV Beach House in 97 to talk about our comic book Rat Bastard.

Tim and I were from a very music intensive scene in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Everyone we knew was either in a band, worked for a record label, booked talent or was in management. Tim also worked in a record store. Underground music was our culture since the early punk days. So we know a lot of people in the industry. You could say we made our connections without even trying, over 20 years ago, because we shared a passion with people who went on to make music their career in some way or other.

FH: Were all big fans of music. Our tastes really fill up the spectrum, so we tend to search out musicians or bands that we feel have a strong artistic sensibility to their music. Not every musician and song lends itself to animation, but when it does it makes for a really fun collaboration. We also send out newly completed projects to bands and labels as a gift. Sort of a, we like your work heres some of ours Either they really appreciate it or they want to collaborate on something.

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MK12: We shared mutual friends with a band called The Faint. They asked if we would do a video for them and we did.

We tend to wait for a request to do a video, but if anyone in the music video industry circle is reading this, MK12 is available.

Moneyshots: We get work by having a relationship with several production companies in the music video business. When they have a job they need post work on, they call us and ask us to bid on it.

WBT: At the outset of the project we reviewed samples and demos from a lot of different animators. We narrowed the list down and made personal visits to about seven different animation studios, mostly on the West Coast and in Canada. It was important to find a studio that had the technical skills to animate to music, could carry the creative process from storyboards through to final animation, and understood and believed in the goals of the project (with the ability to deliver production quality to match).

Zoic: Usually an artist or company is known for the work they do on animated videos. A music video production company will often look at another video or commercial that they like and contact the artist or company responsible for it. Directors develop a level of trust with people that theyve worked with in the past and come back to them over and over again.

2. Who are some of the well-known animators of music videos that you know of and admire?

Galbraiths work on the Trouble Is video. Photo courtesy of Cliff Galbraith.

Galbraiths work on the Trouble Is video. Photo courtesy of Cliff Galbraith.

CG: I like Kevin Altieris Do The Evolution for Pearl Jam. Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett did some nice work on the Gorillaz videos. Theres a pretty cool Rob Zombie Flash video in black-and-white with hot rods that Ive only seen once. The White Stripes have a stop-motion video for Fell In Love With A Girl thats done entirely with Legos it blows me away every time I see it.

FH: None of us have MuchMusic or any of the music video stations so we dont see a lot of the current videos. But we do see a large amount of work at festivals, and do a fair amount of scouring the Web for the couple of gems that do get out there.

MK12: Who was that dude that did the a-ha video? He was rad.

WBT: Our songs are animated by a studio called Atomic Cartoons located in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Zoic: Companies like Hydraulix, Digital Domain, The Syndicate and R!OT have all done some great work with animated music videos.

3. To what extent does the client have an idea of what the animation should look like, and to what extent does he just say we want an animated video to go with our song and let the animator design it? This varies considerably from project to project, but is there an average procedure?

CG: In my case they just said go for it.

FH: Generally weve had complete creative control over the look of the videos. The musicians have asked us to put their likeness in there or something thats personal to them, but they also want it to be hidden. For the new Boy video, his picture is in there twice, but its REALLY buried. I dont even know if hes seen it yet.

MK12: Weve only done two videos, and in both, the bands were fans of our work and let us go nuts with what we were doing. Very little input, stylistically, on both instances.

Moneyshots: In most cases the director knows what he/she wants and directs the action. There is usually a lot of room for play, though, because most directors are not really aware of whats possible and what isnt within the budget and timeframe they have.

WeeBeeTunes Travel Adventures even goes as far as Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Girdwood Partners, LLC.

WeeBeeTunes Travel Adventures even goes as far as Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Girdwood Partners, LLC.

WBT: The animator has a high degree of flexibility, but must work within certain parameters. First, the animation studio must be able to work with the WeeBeeTunes characters (the series revolves around seven animals that are indigenous to the seven continents). To some degree, this dictates the overall art direction of the series. Next, the animation for each episode (content, energy, editing, etc.) needs to follow the musical style of the song. The style of music varies depending on the place being visited (i.e., a tango in Argentina, country music at the Calgary rodeo, New Orleans jazz, or the cancan in Paris). Finally, the specific lyrics of the song and the overall educational focus of the series will influence decisions on backgrounds and storyline. There is much research that goes into each animated episode.

Zoic: All music videos start with a treatment. The treatment is written by the director and has a two-page written description of the main action and tone of the video. Once the treatment is approved, a storyboard and animatic (rudimentary CG animation) of the song is generated and cut to the song. From that point on its a lot of hard work until the delivery. 

4. Once a project is approved, how long does the animator have to complete it?

CG: Ill let you know when Im done.

FH: In Canada, a lot of the labels dont have money for music videos so you have to apply for grants. If you get approved by the grant committee, you have 90 days to complete the video. But if the label needs it to coincide with a release you have to work inside the 90 days. We did our first video for Pilate and it took five weeks, it was just over five minutes long. The video for Boy is under three minutes and it took about six to eight weeks, and thats with all the paperwork and transfers included. Nothing will ever be under four weeks, not with the grant process.

Moneyshots has worked on high-profile videos like Janet Jacksons Son of a Gun (remix). Photo courtesy of Moneyshots.

Moneyshots has worked on high-profile videos like Janet Jacksons Son of a Gun (remix). Photo courtesy of Moneyshots.

MK12: That depends. We did the Hot Hot Heat video in six weeks. The Faint video took a little longer, but there was a rolling deadline on that.

Moneyshots: Most music videos have no more than two weeks to be completed. Sometimes, if the client is really great, you can have as much as a month. It used to be that post schedules were longer, but that isnt the case anymore.

WBT: Anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Zoic: Usually for a big animated project the schedule will range from about six to 12 weeks. I worked on Californication for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and that was tight around four weeks.

5. How closely does the animator work with the client? Does the animator usually work alone until the video is finished, or does the animator frequently show his work-in-progress to the client?

Galbraiths work on Rat Bastard proves that just doing great work can open doors for you.

Galbraiths work on Rat Bastard proves that just doing great work can open doors for you.

CG: Ive got a free rein up to a point. Then well all sit down and see what works for the band, the label, etc.

FH: We usually work alone and show the video at the very final stage. But we do send the artist and managers a couple of stills of the first few completed scenes so they know what to expect. After that, there isnt much going back. Due to the grant process, every detail of production is hopefully, ironed out long before we begin. Everything from the designs to the final timing of the animatic is seen by the musician before its sent out. So they get a feel for the general flow of the video, long before we begin production.

MK12: Weve worked alone, mostly. We showed some animation tests, but even then, they werent requested by the bands. We just wanted to show them what we were up to. This most likely varies.

Moneyshots: This depends on the relationship with the director and the label, but there are definitely show and tell schedules while post is going on. With a really trusting client these might be only a couple of times a week. With other more controlling clients, this might be every day, or the director might even sit in on the sessions on a daily basis.

WBT: There is a close working relationship between the animation studio and Girdwood Partners. Several check points and approval steps are built into the process.

Zoic: Animated music videos are like a feature film on fast-forward. The crew is smaller, but there are animation supervisors, modelers, texture artists, character animators, compositors. It takes a lot of work to get this kind of project done. The visual effects or animation supervisor is involved with the project from start to finish, but individual animators may come on and off, as their skills are needed. 

6. Are clients requests for an animated music video usually realistic and practical, or do they sometimes show a lack of understanding of what animation can accomplish?

CG: I think they have some idea of what to expect. They know my work, my style, my sense of humor.

FH: The managers and artists have had a pretty good knowledge so far. We do make every effort to explain the many levels of the production. While working on the video for Boy, his manager Larry Wanagas and promoter Antonello DiDomenico from the Bumstead Recording came to town to see how the video was progressing. We were in the compositing stages of the video. We showed them the video pieced together from finished scenes, line tests and animatics. The video is quite nonlinear to begin with, so when we saw this rough edit, we thought we would get fired on the spot, but they surprised us quite a bit with how much they knew and understood.

MK12: Again, both times we had a free rein to go nuts. So we cant really answer that.

Moneyshots: They always show a lack of understanding of what can be achieved within the timeframe and budget. The clients see all this cool stuff in films from Pixar, Disney and the like, and want that within two weeks and for a really small budget.

WBT: It is an ongoing and evolving process. Both sides continue to learn as the project evolves. 

7. How long have you been animating music videos? About how many have you made?

What kid could resist these cute critters? Photo courtesy of Girdwood Partners, LLC.

What kid could resist these cute critters? Photo courtesy of Girdwood Partners, LLC.

CG: This is my first one.

FH: We began just about a year ago while in school. But we had to kind of sneak around and do it behind the schools back during the end of the year and summer. Boy is our second video, and were in the development stages of a couple right now. The first two were made while in school.

MK12: About a year-and-a-half; two.

Moneyshots: Moneyshots has been active in post for the last two years. We have done over 80 videos, only one of which was CG animation from beginning to end. Most videos have short (:30 to :60) sequences that involve some form of CG animation.

WBT: There are 29 travel episodes in the series [which started in November 2001] to date. In addition, there is an animated theme song for each of the seven characters as well as two different productions of the WeeBeeTunes theme song.

Zoic: Ive been working on animated music videos for about four years.

Computer animated music videos credits:Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication lead animator Linkin Park: In the End visual effects supervisor/lead animator (the band won the VMA [MTVs Video Music Award] award for best rock video)Linkin Park: Points of Authority visual effects supervisor (nominated for two VES [Visual Effects Society] awards)

8. About what percentage of your work has been music videos as opposed to other types of assignments (such as TV commercials or TV cartoons)?

Is this little guy from the Plane video alright? Photo courtesy of Fluorescent Hill.

Is this little guy from the Plane video alright? Photo courtesy of Fluorescent Hill.

FH: Its about 50% right now. We just finished an animated title sequence for a live-action TV show, and we did some effects and animation for a short film that was part of the 48-hour film competition here in Montreal. We have about three short films nearing completion right now. Johanne just finished a film for the NFB thats really different from a lot of their other works

MK12: Weve done way more other assignments than videos.

Moneyshots: We do about 80% music videos and 20% commercials and other work.

WBT: The entire focus of our company is on the animated music videos of WeeBeeTunes Travel Adventures.

Zoic: About 10%. I work a lot on commercials and television shows at Zoic Studios. Our visual effects and animation projects include: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, as well as spots for Suzuki, Nissan and Popsicle, among others.

9. How do you like producing music videos compared to other types of animation? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

CG: With a rock animation, theres a good chance you wont have to synch up vocals or dialog with the images as tightly as a TV series.

FH: Producing music videos is great! Its a lot of hard work and really challenging, but just as equal in fun. The hardest part is finding something that will complement the music and not deter from it. Having complete creative control over the look and feel of the work is also a major plus, but wed be up to collaborating with a musicians idea.

There are several disadvantages to working in this medium as wellThe hours are twice as many as any Ive had to put in at a studio. And the money is considerably lower (depending on how long it takes you). Sometimes it seems just as much paperwork as there is animation. Balancing a budget is not something they teach you in any animation school Ive heard of or been to. But then again, most animation productions go through all of the same obstacles.

Weve done the music videos and promo work with a considerably small staff. The most weve ever had working at once is five and the smallest is one. That involves a lot of pulling double duty, whether its layouts and animation, or directing and coloring or all of the above. It forces you to be a multi-tasked and independent, while at the same time focused, and able to work in collaboration with the rest of the crew. This is something you just dont get at a commercial studio.

Zoic helped bring Blue Man Group from Vegas to MTV. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

Zoic helped bring Blue Man Group from Vegas to MTV. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

MK12: Weve had a lot of fun doing our videos, because we were lucky enough to have full creative control over them. This is very rare elsewhere in our portfolio.

The biggest disadvantage is that videos are, you know, long. A show open or commercial is :30, and videos are much more time- and work-intensive.

Moneyshots: We like music videos a lot, thats why we keep on doing them. The big advantage is the creative edge. You usually get a lot of space for experimentation as well as clients who are willing to listen to your input. The bad part is you dont get to sleep when you work on them, because the schedules are way too short and you dont really make any money because the budgets are too low.

Zoic: The main disadvantage is the restrictions in time and budget. In a video, you always wish you had a little more money and a few more days. On the flipside, the work is really creative and it gives you more freedom as an artist than a lot of the other types of projects.

10. What were some of the challenges you had to meet on a music video or fun things you got to do on it. What tools did you use?

CG: Im using Flash, but a lot of it is frame-by-frame animation and looks like traditional.

FH: One of the projects were working on is a video for the band, Motion Soundtrack. The video is a mixture of live-action film and animation. During the shooting of the film, I rode atop of a freight engine through the highlands of Nova Scotia. It was the combination of intense fun and fear, a definite highlight. We also shot a lot of footage on sunny beaches, which was a nice alternative to the bright light of an animation table. There was quite a bit of shooting of cliffs and mountains. Unfortunately there are also quite a bit of challenges while shooting these videos.

Theres a unique look to Boys Joey that sticks out. Photo courtesy of Fluorescent Hill.

Theres a unique look to Boys Joey that sticks out. Photo courtesy of Fluorescent Hill.

One of the most important things is trying to find the right kind of people to work with; not everyone works well together and its a hard lesson to learn. Weve seen it both ways. But the best part of the video process is when you see a scene that someone has been plugging away at for awhile and when it comes out it just works so well. Darrens shot of the fox ripping off the head of the crow was a scene like that. I thought he did an amazing job on that scene. Johanne has got some crazy visuals for her NFB film that Im nuts about. Funny and stylish. I dont think any of us really like our own work, but were blown away by what the other can accomplish. Thats probably the single most important thing that drives us to get going on more and more work.

In terms of tools we use, its just about everything under the sun, from Super 8mm to ToonBoom Everything we do is run through at least three or four programs before it comes out the way we want it.

MK12: We were asked to do a music video for Hot Hot Heat, and their song No, Not Now.

It was a lot of work to do in a fairly tight schedule. We also had to figure out how to make a realistic running effect.

We got to dress up like killer bunnies and do kung fu all day.

We used After Effects and Maya a lot.

Moneyshots: We did a music video for Linkin Parks remix album for the song Frgt/10. The video was a fully CG animated music video based on a treatment that one of the partners (Joshua Cordes) wrote for the track. We had very little time to do it in, so we had to maximize the use of pre-existing elements. CG elements that were created for different spec spots were modified and reused. Textures that are out of sight were kept simple and basic. The whole thing happens at night so there is less to see. Most of the attention was given to getting the motion of the characters right so that the emotion in the treatment comes through in the final animation. All this was done using Maya 4.0. As each shot was done, it was loaded into flame and treated so that some of the texturing and rendering problems dont show.

Moneyshots relied on Maya to work on Linkin Parks Frgt/10. Photo courtesy of Moneyshots.

Moneyshots relied on Maya to work on Linkin Parks Frgt/10. Photo courtesy of Moneyshots.

WBT: One of the primary challenges is to maintain the educational integrity of each episode while producing finished product that is highly entertaining. This is also what makes this project so fun and rewarding.

Zoic: When I did Linkin Parks Points Of Authority with Joe Hahn and Patrick Tatopolis (which was completed when I was at Radium in Santa Monica, California), we developed the most creative involvement Ive had in a project. We started with storyboards and concept art. We worked on the CG characters and started blocking out the shots at the same time. Patrick and Joe worked with me and the artists on every detail from the lighting to the camera angles. These animatics were later integrated with the final models and animation and lighting was applied. Joe and Patrick were involved every step of the way. It was a real collaborative process. We did 4.5 minutes of CG animation in a little over 10 weeks. It was a lot of fun.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).

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