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Billy Corgan Talks The Smashing Pumpkins ‘In Ashes’ Music Video Series

With the final short’s release, the famous alt-rock musician discusses animated storytelling and his ambitious and expansive five-episode 2D series, produced to support the band’s long-awaited double album, ‘CYR’; watch ‘Purple Blood,’ the fifth and final film.

With this morning’s YouTube release of Purple Blood, the fifth and final episode in his In Ashes 2D animated music video series, Billy Corgan, famous frontman of the alt-rock band, The Smashing Pumpkins, completes his ambitious foray into animated storytelling, a creative medium he admits he’s not familiar with, but nonetheless wholly embraced as a way to support the release of his long-awaited and warmly received double album, CYR.

Produced by Portland, Oregon-based animation and live-action studio Deep Sky, In Ashes is unique, both as an expansive, narratively-driven episodic animated music video production, and as Corgan’s first attempt at producing music videos, using animation, that are scored, rather than timed in sync, to specific songs.

The five shorts - The Colour Of Love, Confessions of a Dopamine Addict, I'm In Love With Your God, Wyttch, and Purple Blood – together tell a story of disconnect, with characters based on a generation influenced more by Instagram than anything else. Corgan has described the series as his “fantastical and surreal sci-fi adventure,” sharing that, “The original story is something I’ve written and although it’s (mostly) lighthearted, In Ashes does address many things we face each day. That is… if… we live in dystopia, or paradise, or both. The choice, some say, is yours; and could even be a quantum issue.”

Purple Blood brings together all the themes from the Episodes 1-4 for a memorable conclusion. Deep Sky focused on heightening character development by building a strong atmosphere, using color, shape, and symbolism. Every scene needed to tie into previous events, while also hinting at things to come.

In describing the final episode, the studio shares, “Sometimes the answers are harder than the questions. Light gives way to smokey darkness: translucent to hot coil bulb. With a flicker, we are introduced to an aesthetic we can only define as carnival-goth: a vibrant pallet, grand shapes, and a hint of retro dark mechanics. But, still classic in design. Is this an end, a rebirth, or just part of a never-ending cycle?”

In the extensive interview with AWN below, Corgan shares his process, and embrace of animation. You should also take a moment to read AWN’s in-depth look at Deep Sky’s production of the series, which includes Episode 4 - Wyttch, as well as our coverage of Episodes 1 and 2 - The Colour Of Love and Confessions of a Dopamine Addict; and Episode 3 -  I'm In Love With Your God.

First, enjoy Purple Blood!

Dan Sarto: You’ve been producing and recording music for over 30 years now and made countless music videos. What inspired you to embrace animation for this expansive, five-part themed music video series, In Ashes?

Billy Corgan:  Well, when it came time to start talking about videos, everybody threw up their hands and said, "Well, we can't work because of COVID." This was when things were bad, a few months ago. Somebody said something about animation, and I said, "Well, I really want to release five songs before the record. So, the only way I'll do it is if it'll be a five-part series." Everybody around me sort of went, "Okay, that's fine." I was like, "I'm not sure you're going to be able to make the budget work."

Once they figured out that they’d be able to make the budget work, and we started working with Deep Sky, their first question was, "Well, do you really want the animation to be responsive to the music?" I said, "No, not at all. Just let the music play like it's a score, and you guys just animate however you want to animate it, based on the story that we have."

They've done a really good job. They cut here and there to the beat, so it doesn't feel completely not in sync. But they've let the animation speak for itself, without having to worry too much about the tune. What I told them was, "Let's just trust that the synchronicity on this thing is going to work." And for the most part, it has. We kind of laugh about it, because we haven't had one where you think, "Oh, that didn't really work." The pieces lined up quite well, and they've done a beautiful job.

DS: Though the series is not animated per se in sync to the music, the episodes do use the music for cues that make them flow quite well.

BC: Yeah. They've done a really good job of pacing the feel of the animation to the music. They don’t feel like music videos. Because I literally said, "Please don't do that."

DS: Once you realized the budget would work for animation, did you have any preconceived notions of what animation style or thematic tone you wanted to use? I understand you did have a bit of concept art to begin the project.

BC: I had a story in mind and I knew I wanted the characters to be these kind of modern, I don't even know what you call them…people call them SoundCloud rappers, or just this, whatever this generation is…I don't even know how I would qualify them. They have tattoos on their faces. They don't seem to come from any particular cultural background… it’s like a hodgepodge of a lot of things.

Certainly, I recognize from my own experiences that you can't necessarily make any judgment about that. For a generation that's growing up with the Internet, of course that's the way they're putting the world together, kind of in a disassociated way. They're probably more influenced by Instagram than by anything else.

I knew I wanted this to be about characters from that background. I had my friend Linda do some original concept drawings, just to get a sense of the way the characters would feel. Once the animators got involved, they essentially disregarded them, and I was fine with that, because I saw that they had a vision based on what I was saying.

They were quite comfortable coming at it that way. As I like to call it, it's kind of like dystopian Scooby-Doo. There's something about the combination of modern characters and a hand-drawn style; it reminds me of how Scooby-Doo was kind of hipster in 1967.

I'm sorry, I don't have enough animation background to even have an opinion [about the animation style]. I'm in the punter crowd of, I know what I like, and I know what I don't like. But I couldn't tell you…I don't have any favorite animators, and I literally don't know anything about the world.

DS: Well, you’re not alone. When it comes to animation, there are many people that finance and make decisions about shows that know almost nothing about the world. Having more direct knowledge about animation wouldn't have necessarily made this come out any differently.

BC: That's good to know.

DS: In some ways it's almost better to have distance, because you can focus on tone, story, the important things that need attention irrespective of technique and visual development. You can have the most appealing visuals, and if they don't tell the story properly, there's a disconnect.

BC: Right. I think the only note I had on that level was, I didn't want it to feel like - and I don't even know how you quantify this - that very modern animation style where everyone almost seems to be using the same computer program.

DS: Well, there's a lot of puffy, shiny 3D/CG stuff, and a bunch of 2D that’s pretty uniform in a lot of shows.

BC: I think it's the 3D you're talking about. I just said, "Please, whatever you do, I don't want that style." Because that's just not going to work in the Pumpkins' world.

DS: I would agree, and that's why you still see so much innovative 2D, including a lot of stop-motion and mixed media, more individual artist-driven visuals, in music videos. Budget aside, it just feels more direct from the artist's hand to the frame.

BC: Right.

DS: When you’re writing music, how often do you have a story, or set of visuals in mind? Is that something that helps with your musical creativity, or is that not necessarily a part of how you make the music?

BC: I always have a visual sort of emotional narrative that guides me, kind of grounds me. The thing is, I don't often express it in public, or endeavor to try to put image to film. Because it's just too expensive. The inspiration that comes from the visual side, oftentimes, it just doesn't get manifested, or it’s kind of loosely, symbolically part of how we present ourselves. But in terms of a full rendering of the visual information that I get while writing music, most of that's sort of just laying, waiting. We just passed the 25th anniversary of our Mellon Collie album, and I'm hopeful that at one point, we'll be able not only to stage that album live, but also our album from 2000, Machina, and then the album we're working on now that'll come out after CYR. [Hopefully] We'll be able to stage those all live with grand theatrical productions. At some point, I hope to turn those into movies. I can't even imagine I would ever have the budget to work with live human beings. So, I'm pretty much thinking that if I ever do get those movies made, I'd have to turn to animation.

DS: Aside from the story you wrote for the series, did your musical tastes or other artistic ideas impact how Deep Sky created the animation?

BC: Honestly, I think my experience in professional wrestling was more impactful. Because I've been doing television for the past five or six years.

DS: Right!

BC: I have a much better production sense in terms of time versus money. I would tell them, “I've purposely written this because I know it won't take as much of your time.” And they would literally get these relieved looks on their faces, like, "Thank God you understand."

DS: I totally forgot about your wrestling involvement.

BC: Yeah. So, doing TV and wrestling for five or six years, you get a real good sense of, let's call it, “TV time.” Like the pace of ideas, where you really put your money in terms of production and getting an idea across. There was only one time in the whole five video series where they said, "You're killing us here, because this scene requires too much." So, we walked it back through on the production side as to how we could get the idea of the scene across without them having to do too much animation. But that was it. Basically, in writing the story, I was able to anticipate the work that they would need to do in terms of sets. There were times where they would get a bit fussy about something, and I'd be like "You know, I put this in one set so you wouldn't have to draw 15." They were like, "Oh yeah, you're right."

So, we were able to talk more as partners on a TV production than as sort of the musician who didn't understand animation. I found that was more of a useful skill set in working with them.

DS: Looking at the finished series, how close to your original ideas did the episodes turn out, and are you satisfied they tell the story the way you wanted?

BC: Yeah. Emotionally and narrative-wise, it's pretty on-point. There are always concessions. There are things that I wish had more subtext. But I think I would put just as much responsibility on the lack of depth in my ideas as I would their [Deep Sky’s] ability to conceive them. I think they've been super faithful partners in this, and they've really bent over backwards to give me what I wanted. So, I’m quite pleased and happy with it. It's been a really, really positive experience for me.

DS: At some point, this pandemic is going to be brought under control, and live-action filmmaking will get back to business as usual. In the future, will you continue using animation in your music video productions when you won't necessarily just need to consider its practicality?

BC: Yeah. I think to answer your question faithfully, I would love to find a style that's a little bit more... We work really hard in in the Pumpkins to create a unique sound., and if I ever do anything in animation, I will have to work a lot harder than I have up to this point in figuring out how to create a unique animation style that is wholly under the Pumpkins' umbrella, if that makes any sense. That's not to denigrate the people I'm in business with. It's more of like, I need to know more about animation to know what I'm looking for, to know who can give it to me. And it might even be the people I'm in business with now. Because at the end of the day, when you're talking about branding, I think the visual style should as unique as the band. And I don't know how to use the technology enough to know what's reasonable in terms of budgets.

I wish there were a magic wand where I could get more of what I want simpler and cheaper. But I know that doesn’t exist. So, I'm still trying to figure that out. But eventually, over time, I figured that out in terms of producing conventional music videos for the band, and I feel like I’ll figure it out for animation. Because I do think that there's a timelessness to animation that's very attractive to me, and I would love to integrate it into the larger way we promote our music and get people to emotionally connect with what we're doing. I just need to learn more about the world to understand even what I'm asking of somebody.

DS: Last thing I want to ask you. What do you hope audiences take away from watching this animated series? What do you want to share with them through this medium that you can't share with them just through the music?

BC: The animation highlights the emotional layers that are buried in the music, which usually takes repeated listening. The animation assists in getting more of a particular emotional subtext from the storytelling. I'm very attracted to that. That’s much harder in a music video because of how they’re shot, and the pace they must be cut at to qualify as music videos.

Then, secondarily, I love the symbiosis of the images that are used and the way they're played with in this very light, very sardonic way. I love that they also say something about the band's sort of general posture. We've always kind of been pranksters, and in many ways that is demonstrated here.

People tend to take us way more seriously than we've ever taken ourselves. I think the In Ashes series demonstrates that we can deal with deep subjects while sort of playing with them at the same time. This animated series is very much on-point to how we view the world, kind of with a wry eye, but at the same time, with a level of awareness. In terms of themes, the series plays with meta themes, this new generation of kids that are sort of lost.

And then on down to typical tinfoil hat stuff, like government conspiracies, secret societies, and stuff like that, it fun to play with those things. And, because it's animation, nobody gets hurt.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.