For Mike Anderson, Jared Hobbs, and Barret Thomson, producing Billy Corgan’s ambitious, five-episode project meant matching a 2D style to the frontman’s vision, while finding innovative ways to develop useful animatics just from scripts, well before the unreleased music made it into their hands.
For director Mike Anderson, producer/executive director Jared Hobbs, creative director Barret Thomson, and the rest of their team at Portland, Oregon-based animation and live-action studio Deep Sky, besting 9 other studios to work with The Smashing Pumpkins and their famous frontman, Billy Corgan, on his ambitious, five-episode In Ashes animated music video project was truly a dream opportunity.
As big Smashing Pumpkins fans, the three were all eager to work with Corgan on his unique idea for an episodic series of music videos timed to the release of the band’s brand-new double album, CYR (released November 27). The music videos, written and created by Corgan, with songs he produced featuring founding band members James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin, and guitarist Jeff Schroeder, are highly stylized 2D shorts developed over a six-month period beginning this past May. You can find AWN’s writeup, with images, and watch the first three videos, here: Episodes 1 and 2 - The Colour Of Love and Confessions of a Dopamine Addict; and Episode 3 - I'm In Love With Your God. The fifth and final piece, Purple Blood, is currently premiering on Apple Music and will be available on The Smashing Pumpkins YouTube channel tomorrow, December 4th.
The just released Episode 4, Wyttch, builds on the language of color and motion from the previous three shorts. Transitioning from dance to conflict, control to chaos, Wyttch explores the blurred lines between ritual and revolution. This transformation, both figuratively and literally, shows the loss of humanity with a hint at the occultists’ true identities. Take a look:
“When we got awarded the project, we had a video call with Billy the following day and got to talk to him,” Thomson shares. “We’re all ecstatic fans saying to each other, ‘Oh, I can't believe we're talking to Billy Corgan!’ And he was great. He was cool, he was very straightforward, and he was excited about animation.”
According to Hobbs, they were careful in the original pitch about being too specific about the animation style. “We were deliberate about how we described the style of animation we wanted to do. We didn't compare it to anything. We talked about line boils, where everything would be very rough and painted. We knew Billy didn’t want anime, or anything super clean. Since it seems pretty much every style has been done out there, we were trying to find a good balance.” Working from a few concept illustrations Corgan had provided, Deep Sky submitted a background, a couple characters and a concept car that illustrated the 2D style they were recommending. “They liked a couple of our concept boards,” Hobbs notes. “So we put together a process to show them like, ‘Here's what the storyboard thumbnails would look like, here's what the storyboards would look like… when we provide the animatic, we do passes, so here's what a rough looks like, and with clean-up and color.’ That made them feel comfortable that we knew what we were doing, rather than us just saying, ‘Hey, yeah, we'll do it for a flat cost and we'll figure it out.’”
“We wanted to keep the backgrounds more painterly and have them exude more of a raw mood rather than really tight line that you see in a lot of animation today,” Thomson says. “That allowed us to open things up and be a little bit more expressive. After we’d developed and shared a couple frames and a couple background paintings, with additional discussion, we learned more about what the world was, who the main characters were, and what they were like.”
The trio each shared how easy Corgan was to work with, and, most notably, how direct he was with his vision for the series. “He was very mindful,” Thomson continues. “He knows that whether it's video or animation, there's a process. He asked a lot of good, direct questions.” “We also asked a lot of questions about the story, how it was evolving, looking for more details about the characters,” Hobbs adds. “That helped us develop the characters. Billy’s very quick, very responsive. He knows what he wants. I don't think there were any times where he wasn’t clear about his vision for a character or how the story progressed.”
“Unlike agencies that often push back during a project, or aren’t open to new ideas, Billy shared his vision, his story, and provided guidance, but let the team run with his ideas,” Anderson says. “It's been a smooth process for us, fortunately. He's been super happy. We deal with a lot of big brands, and usually we have to try and talk people into agreeing with why we should do something. But for Billy, as long as we stayed true to the story he was developing over the course of the five videos, he was great to work with and let us run with the project.”
Of the five videos, the team worked on the first two with some overlap, then the final three more or less sequentially. “For each video, we’d do a kickoff call and go through the script and talk about the stories,” Thomson describes. “From that, our director, Mike, would carefully write out the timing of the visuals, using the scripts. Those boards were only text but were very detailed.”
As the music for the videos had not yet been released to the public, it was imperative that Corgan trust the studio to handle the materials carefully, knowing they were needed to produce the shorts but had to stay under wraps. Notes Hobbs, “We didn't get all the tracks right away. We had to build that trust to be given tracks early because no one had heard them before. When we listened to them the first time, we were all like, ‘Ah, these are really, really great tracks.’ It's been awesome to be able to be a part of that.”
The first two videos take place in the Pacific Northwest, starting with some distant, futuristic views of a city before moving into the forest. “[Art director] Sandra [Lanz] had done concepts of all our characters,” Thomson explains, “and in the first two videos, in the forest, there's pine trees and stuff. We had a limited amount of materials to produce for the environment. We also had cars, car interiors, and devices the characters interact with. But with episode 3, things change. The backgrounds have these really garish, bright colors. It’s almost as if the drug trip itself is affecting the viewer.”
“The episodes were staggered, so we were continually developing,” he continues. “Billy would adjust his stories as the world was developing, based on some of our storyboards and ideas. It was a really fluid and dynamic process.”
Anderson agreed, adding, “As Barrett was saying, it was a really fluid and organic process. The scripts were given to us sequentially after we finished an episode or were near completion. The music tracks were delivered to us one by one as well. The way the storyboarding worked was fascinating. We'd be handed a script, initially without the song, and would find moments to break down into beats without images or music. Just with text. Then once we got the music, we’d apply that script and those story beats, which is an interesting way to work. I've done a lot of music videos over the years, and this is a very different way to do it. But it was really fun, and a lot of great stuff came out of this process.”
“Once we got the music, the tricky thing was first, we’d redo the whole animatic and text,” Anderson continues. “You’d open it up in Premiere and just break the animatic into sentences. ‘He goes in the room, the door opens, close up on the door opening, he’s entering the room, POV… whatever.’ It’s basically an animated shot list. With that, you can lock down all the cuts and quickly get a really great sense of the pacing and feel of the video. And then, you can find out where the emphasis should be on the beats. What’s going to be in slowmo, what's going to be close up. Where are you going to pull back the wides? But you do that all in text first. Then you hand it over to the brilliant artists like Barret, Sandra, and [storyboard artist] Ebru Cetiner, who just destroy it with thumbnails as you now go to the storyboard phase. This is your blueprint by which to go forward. We go back, cleanup the boards, Sandra comes in and does line art on top of all the characters to keep them on model. We could get this done very rapidly without losing a lot of man hours.”
“We decided that because of the tight schedule, we wouldn’t use the traditional storyboard process where we deliver still frames and thumbnails in a PDF,” Hobbs adds. “We decided it would be better for Billy, and for how fast we were moving, to go straight to an animatic that would be easier to understand because of the tempo and the beats. It worked really well.”
When it came to producing the animation, working in a pandemic, the team brought together a group of hand-picked animators who were skilled in facial expressions and lots of physical action, like running and jumping, ending up with a dozen animators working safely, remotely, in various teams throughout the project.
“By halfway through the first video, we had a good process and pipeline going on,” Anderson shares. “We were all working on Slack, so everybody could see dailies and get feedback. And Sandra would do draw overs for any of the characters who were looking off model. That really sped things up. This is our first big project, or longer, ongoing project, where everybody worked from home. And even though we missed working and collaborating in person, I don't think working remotely really affected our pipeline or how the project was completed.”
According to Hobbs, animators used several different tools; by creating detailed production guidelines, and doing detailed dailies, the studio kept the output consistent. “Some animators used Adobe Animate, some Harmony, and some TV Paint,” he says. “We created a guideline within the first week of animation - what to do, what not to do, how to keep colors consistent – and that really helped everyone. We used Premiere for editing, After Effects for compositing, and Barret even used the Oculus Quest for visualization.”
“I used Gravity Sketch on the Oculus Quest to block out environments in 3D and then set up cameras based on the storyboard,” Thomson says. “This helped the animators understand what the perspective was and where the ground plane was. That was kind of our bridge between animation and backgrounds. Once the environment is set up in 3D, you can set the camera anywhere and go, ‘Oh, you need reference for this shot, boom, done.’”
Each video took the team about six weeks to produce. “We were shooting to produce a four-minute video in four weeks,” says Hobbs. “Time was obviously a big challenge. We wanted to make masterpieces, but we had to find a balance between how many animators we could put on, how many background artists… one video might have more characters, another more action… so how do we balance making everything look great with getting each video done in the same amount of time?”
Reflecting on how enjoyable and rewarding the project has been for him, Anderson confesses that “Right off the bat, I have to say it's an honor to work with such a storied band that has been so heavily influential across time, that comes up with new music that is just so good. One of the greatest challenges was just trying to match Billy’s intellectual rigor. He was extremely clear with what he wanted. We tried to make sure that we could match tonally and visually what Billy felt and scripted for us to work from. It’s been a wonderful and hard process to pull off. And we're just so lucky to have been involved.”
“Billy had such a clear vision know of what he wanted, that it was really rewarding to match that and deliver on his ideas,” Thomson concludes. “He had great feedback, which we fed off. Building out his world was really enjoyable.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.