Search form

Music for the Eyes: What’s Hot in Music Videos

Janet Hetherington takes a look at how and why animation and music videos make beautiful music together.

They Might Be Giants get animated via LAIKA. Courtesy of LAIKA.

When the arts converge, it can be a beautiful thing. And when animation merges with music videos, it can become something fun and exceptional.

Animation house LAIKA teamed up with They Might Be Giants to create the bands music video, Bastard Wants to Hit Me. The motivation was pretty simple, says LAIKA/House animation director, Aaron Sorenson. The idea was to have a fun down-time project that could promote 2D animation at LAIKA and ride on the popularity of They Might be Giants.

The motivation may have been simple, but the resulting video earned both an Annie Award nomination for Best Animated Television Commercial, the Judges Award at The Northwest Film & Video Festival in Portland, Oregon (October 2005), and a competition spot at the Annecy International Film Festival.

Being nominated for competition by a prestigious international film festival such as Annecy is always an honor. The fact that we are the sole U.S. representative makes this distinction extraordinary, says Lourri Hammack, president/exec producer of LAIKAs House division.

Sorenson says that he started the animation process with a storyline and characters inspired by the They Might Be Giants song and from his personal experiences. He created animation that follows the tale of a violent misunderstanding that begins in a parking lot between two strangers.

An unusual image is seen in the first glimpse of the mullet-sporting protagonist the bastard who is working out when he spots the main character. I was walking by a park one day and I saw a guy working out with a log as if it were weights. The scene stuck with me, Sorenson says. The music video story continues as some crazy bastard thinks he recognizes the main character and waves to him. An intense chase follows, ending with a fist to the main characters face.

The video was a combination of traditional hand-drawn animation and After Effects, explains Sorenson. Ink and paint was done in US Animation then exported to After Effects for final composite and camera. It took about six months to complete, even though it was short (2:00) because it was a down-time project and we were all working on commercials at the same time.

Despite squeezing in the work on the video, Sorenson is pleased with the experience, the results, and the bands approval. Music videos are a wide-open medium. We had a lot of freedom, says Sorenson, adding, They Might Be Giants [John Linnell and John Flansburgh] liked everything we brought to them.

Original U2

The TMBG offering from LAIKA is not the only music video attracting award nods. Spontaneous, and its sister post-production company Bluerock, have been nominated for MTV Video Music Awards for their work on U2s breakthrough Original of the Species music video.

The Original of the Species video was nominated in the categories of Best Special Effects and Best Editing. The video blends 3D animation with 16 mm film footage to deliver a haunting and evocative visual story. Original of the Species has an ethereal, otherworldly look that resulted from the combination of live-action photography, photoreal computer animation, motion-capture technology and design.

The music video utilized Softimages character animation technology called Face Robot. SFX artists created digital images of U2 band member Bono and a computer-generated woman, who in real life is a friend of the lead singer. The image of the woman was first generated by Spontaneous artists for use as background imagery for the bands Vertigo tour, which took place in 2005. Animation World Network examined the making of the Original of the Species video in the VFXWorld story, Technology Serving the Idea.

This nomination is the culmination of an exciting year of working with U2 during their Vertigo tour, says Spontaneous creative director John Leamy. The band is so open-minded and responsive to creative input that, despite all the hard work, its been a series of dream assignments.

In fact, after we finished the Original of the Species video, Bono was kind enough to give Spontaneous a shout-out at their most recent Madison Square Garden concert, with all of our crew in attendance, Leamy says.

The VMAs will be announced at an awards ceremony in New York on Aug. 31, 2006.

Gorillaz is always an animated band.

Monkey Shines

Softimage technology has also been busy helping to bring a different, virtual band to animated life Gorillaz.

Gorillaz is the musical fiction of artist Jamie Hewlett, who also created Tank Girl. The band is made up of a lead singer (2D), a 10-year-old girl guitarist and martial arts master (Noodle), a 340-pound drummer (Russell) and a rambling, ribald bassist who just might be a Satanist (Murdoc Nicalls).

To visualize Gorillazs cruelly apocalyptic song, El Mañana, London-based Passion Pictures used Softimage|XSI. Ours is an open and customizable system, so Passion Pictures could write their own custom plug-ins, comments Gareth Morgan, product manager, Softimage.

El Mañana opens with blissful Noodle perched with her own castle in the air a castle that is actually a windmill. 2-D sings mournfully as two military helicopters appear in the cloudy sky. Noodle seeks refuge in her now bullet-riddled windmill, but the helicopters return again and again, wreaking havoc. Noodles floating castle plummets to earth in a fiery flash. Then, a final bomb drops to obliterate the heavenly world and its owner.

This video had a lot of 3D elements windmill, helicopter, clouds but theres also a lot of 2D animation, Morgan says. The software provides all the tools in-house to create what, in effect, is a mini-movie.

Through animation and video presentation, Gorillaz find visual form. A music video like this is a way of branding the band, comments Morgan. The combination of the visuals and the music is very powerful.

The Music and The Feeling

Another U.K.-based firm, Baraka, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2006, and the company has been busy too. Baraka completed post-production on the second music video for You Fill My Little World by The Feeling, directed by Jon Riche and produced by Malachy McAnenny for Island Records. The first was called Sewn.

The Feeling band is made up of five twenty-somethings from Sussex and London who love pop music. Dan Gillespie Sells is the vocalist and guitarist, and the other members include Richard Jones on bass, Kevin Jeremiah on guitar, Ciaran Jeremiah on keyboards and Paul Stewart on drums. You Fill My Little World can be seen on MTV and other music TV channels.

The video features the band being miniaturized and placed in a glass tank with different reptiles ranging from large snakes to leaping frogs and chameleons but all were, in fact, greenscreen composites. In the playful music video, a little girl presses her nose against the glass tank to watch the band playing their instruments and singing the infectious tune.

Eliot Milbourn, one of Barakas compositors, used Mistika to achieve the special effects. Every shot was formed from a background and the band were filmed against a greenscreen. I comped in the band, tweaked the grades and added shadows some of which were generated in Maya by Aleksandar Stiglic in our 3D Department. It was all about playing with scale, Milbourn says.

The backgrounds were selectively defocused to add realism to the scene, Milbourn explains. Ferns and bushes were also placed in front of the composite to add credibility to the bands reduced size. A dragonfly, which attacked the drummer, was entirely created within Barakas 3D department, then composited into the scene in Mistika.

The wings of the dragonfly were made in great detail and flap faster depending on the flys speed of movement, says Stiglic. More 2D compositing included the creation of a campfire, flames from the nose of a dragon, landing jets underneath a flying saucer and poisonous spray from a giant insect-spray can.

Stiglic says that he recreated various shadows within Maya by using mattes created via the greenscreen process. He mapped, softened and repositioned them to fit the position of the band in order to create long shadows from a low light source. In these shots I first located the lights angle and intensity so that I could tune the light source to be as close as possible to the light in their new environment, he says.

Singer turned candidate for Governor of Texas Kinky Friedman use music videos on his campaign website to get out his message. © 2005

All Dolled Up

Writer/director/animator and co-owner of Collection Agency Films, Dano Johnson, helped the New York Dolls to Dance Like a Monkey. The intended audience was obviously fans of the band, despite their 30-year hiatus and new band members, Johnson says. But they also just wanted something fun, cute and appealing to match the great song.

We had an initial phone conversation with Johansen and pitched to him the idea of museum exhibits run amuck due to some mischievous monkeys, Johnson recalls. He really liked it and some of the satirical and political subtext we were throwing in there. The songs lyrics poke fun at both sides of the evolution controversy and Johansen simply wanted the point, just dance like a monkey, child to get across. He also specifically requested that Dick Cheney shoot monkeys in a barrel, and we happily complied.

Johnson says that since the song deals with intelligent design, he thought of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (from I wrote the creator, Bobby Henderson, Johnson says, and asked for his permission to use the FSM in the video, and he thought it was a great idea.

Production-wise, we were given the radio edit of the song and set loose, Johnson says. Cameron Petri did the majority of the sets and character design, while Maura Murnane did some of the backgrounds for the montage sequence in the middle. I brought in animator R. Don Smith to animate the Johansen monkey. Don was also a huge New York Dolls fan, and I knew no one would animate Johansen like Don, a very accomplished traditional/Flash animator. So Don used Camerons designs, animated them in Flash and then exported PNG sequences for me to import into After Effects. I had so many other things to animate, I was happy to have someone so talented focusing on making the main character come to life.

The music video was released online. It is playing in rotation on Austins music cable network, ME TV, Johnson says. Were also submitting it to various film festivals with animation/music video categories.

Something Kinky

Collection Agency also worked on a music video with a different agenda one that was aimed squarely at Texas voters. Bill Hillsman, head of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, had seen the companys short, Tall Tales and Other Big Lies, and hired Collection Agency to create cartoons, and, ultimately, a music video for Kinky Friedman, candidate for governor of Texas.

Bill really wanted to create a viral campaign of funny cartoons later to be dubbed Kinkytoonsto get the message out about Kinky and his independent campaign, Johnson says. Indie candidates have to collect thousands of signatures to get on the Texas ballot. So he contacted Troy and I about making the cartoons and we were off. We made the first one, I Looove Texas in summer 2005, and it became a big hit across the blogosphere and within Texas. It won a Telly Award for Best Online/Internet Ad.

I dont have any figures from the campaign, but I know they were pleased with the increase in site traffic (when emailing supporters about the video, the campaign requested they help it spread through the internet like a bad rumor), Johnson says. We made a second in early spring 2006 that educated voters about signing Kinkys petition, and they wanted a third one to come out right before the petition deadline, yet still be timely afterwards.

Our producer/music supervisor Troy Campbell is a singer/songwriter, so he thought an insanely catchy song would be a great way to end the Kinkytoon trilogy, Johnson says. Bill agreed, and we began writing the Save Yourself for Kinky jingle the title and chorus comes from a slogan the campaign had already come up with. Lots of Texas performers who support Kinky gave us permission to use their images (Pat Green, Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks) and others actually recorded the song for us (Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Little Jewford, Billy Joe Shaver, and Danny Levin). We recorded at Tequilla Mockingbird Studios here in Austin and got several local musicians to perform.

Working with the illustrators, I was able to animate the video in time for the release, Johnson says. Once again, the site got a lot of hits and attention across the state and nationally. Johnson notes that earlier this summer, the cartoon was No. 1 on the National Journals list of best online political ads.

The petition drive received over 140,000 signatures well over what the state required. Theres still the possibility that a short fourth Kinkytoon could be commissioned, or the three Kinkytoons could be compiled on a DVD with other material for fundraising purposes, Johnson adds.

The surreal setting of the Willowz’s music video fits their musical style. Courtesy of Outside Editorial.

Flaming Willowz

Inferno/Flame artist Steve Mottershead of Outside Editorial had to wear both an animators and a co-directors hats when he worked on a surreal music video for the Willowz track, Walk Straight. This video was given to us, the Beta Movement (my LA-based directing team), near the end of the DVD compilation project that the Willowz was putting together, Mottershead says. This made our deadline very tight, so I wanted to still do something original and cool while trying to keep the amount of time I would have to spend on post to a minimum.

The motivation behind this video originated from a Photoshop tutorial I saw online. In the tutorial there was a picture of a woman just sitting there and another picture exactly the same, except she was wearing a mask. The tutorial goes on, and the end result was to blend the mask into her face, so it looked like it was her original chin and mouth but in the middle of her face, the mask started to appear. Anyway, this image got me thinking, and I came up with idea of having the band members of the Willowz blended to trees.

In fact, with so many videos produced for the compilation DVD, See in Squares, there was virtually no budget remaining when it came time for Mottershead and LA-based Craig Bernard to begin working on Walk Straight. The pair was challenged to complete the 35 mm shoot-on-a-shoestring at various LA-area locations.

There wasnt really a cost factor since we had no budget for this video, notes Mottershead. We paid for all of it out of our own pocket. And having a Flame at my disposal really helps budget-strapped videos shine.

Mottershead says that he took the post and visual effects work on the project back to his suite at New York-based Outside. He initially approached the project by mocking up the videos concept in Autodesks Discreet Flame, and by creating a key still image for the pitch. Once he sold the band on the idea, Mottershead and Bernard developed the scenario, which centers around two of the band members in a field, dreaming of times past. Their contemporary scene was then inter-cut with shots of a Victorian-era picnic at the same location. Observing the picnic are the band members, whose torsos appear to be grafted onto the trunks of trees as they take on the trees personae.

Working on Outsides Flame, Mottershead used a flat-pass transfer for color grading, which enabled him to retain a normal, colorful palette for the present-day scenes. He then added a number of flares and other sun effects during the post-production process. For the Victorian-era scenes, he created a gray and faded-blue palette reminiscent of the period. Mottershead composited the two band members whom he had filmed greenscreen in locked-off shots onto still photos of tree trunks. He added visual interest by introducing handheld camera moves and adding shadows and depth to the surreal landscape. Mottershead also composited in stylized birds, rendered at various angles, and lifelike insects, which were crafted in Newteks LightWave 3D by Christian Moreton of Skoda Werks/Toronto.

Flame was the main force behind this project, comments Mottershead. Flame was used for DI color grading and compositing, and creating digital matte paintings for some of the distant vistas. LightWave was also called upon for the modeling and animation of the birds that fly around throughout the spot, as well as the bug that flies around the singers mouth. In terms of the time spent on the project, well for post, was about two weeks on and off. The video is about four minutes long.

Outsides Steve Evans performed the videos offline edit, inter-cutting the contemporary and Victorian-era footage with some digital SLR images of plant and grass elements which Mottershead had shot at 5 fps. Then Mottershead conformed the video in Flame.Mottershead also created the cover for the compilation DVD. For this element of the job, he composited digital stills he had taken in Flame at 3K resolution. The Willowzs DVD was recently released by Follin Artist Management/NY. There are 21 videos on it, featuring the work of such other high-profile directors as John Watts, Ace Norton and Michel Gondry, who selected a number of The Willowzs songs for the soundtrack of his feature film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

We are going to do another video for the Willowz, Mottershead says, and Im sure it will include a lot of Flame work and animation.

For the music video, Lightborne combined the Rascal Flatts’ performance of “Life Is A Highway” with scenes from Pixar’s Cars, in which the song is featured. Courtesy of Lightborne.

Driven by Animation

Sometimes its animation, rather than a musical group or artist, which drives the creation of an animated music video. To tie in with the animated feature film, Cars, animation studio Lightborne was tasked with coordinating and editing the video for Rascal Flatts Life is a Highway.

Life is a Highway deals lyrically with topics of love, wanderlust, misunderstanding, fear, and ultimately, freedom, says Scott Durban, executive producer, Lightborne. The brilliantly animated characters and scenes in the movie communicated all of these emotions throughout the film. So it was just a matter of finding those moments, pairing them with the appropriate moment in the song, and creating something visually dynamic between rear-screen and full-screen use of the film clips.

We were contacted by director Shaun Silva about the project, Durban says. He sent over his treatment, which involved shooting at a mock drive-in theater. We first addressed the drive-in screen and how best to do it, and he decided to do rear projection. His producer, John Hopgood, and our team reviewed the aspect ratio to determine the correct proportion and size. Once that was established, Nate Clark, Lightborne editor, began editing the content for the projection screen. Glen Lajeski from Disney sent us an approved footage reel, from which we cut the projection video. Once that was completed, Tacklebox Films and Shaun Silva shot the video and sent us the footage.

Durban says that director Shaun Silva sent Lightborne, a beautiful final transfer of all of the performance footage, with rear-projection elements behind the band in nearly every shot. Knowing that Disney would want their footage to look as they intended, and not as stylized as we might treat any other music video, Lightborne stayed true to the footage.

The edit was assembled in Avid Media Composer Adrenaline, and some minor color correction and cleanup work was output and handled in Digital Fusion, Durban says. But after carefully scrutinizing which shots to use from both the film and the video shoot, 98% of what you are seeing on screen is directly out of the camera and transfer.

Jeremiah Shuff, Lightborne senior editor, worked closely with director Silva to create an energetic visual interplay between the original animation footage, and that of the band watching and performing in front of the drive-in screen. The music video opens with the three band members, Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Rooney, driving up to a classic drive-in theater, each in their own shiny vintage automobiles. The music video then switches between scenes of them watching and enjoying the movie in their cars to shots of them performing the song on top of the concessions stand, with the Cars footage playing on the big screen behind them.

A day into the rough cut, we realized the piece was so energetic and moving so quickly, that we had to request more movie footage, comments Shuff. Once Disney saw the rough cut, they gave us nearly carte blanche over the whole film to select moments for use in the piece. As this was a teaser for the film, we didnt want to give away any secrets. But we picked the most visually exciting, and emotional moments, to allow us to create a constant energy between song, performance and animation shots.

Given six weeks to produce the music video for release, Lightborne was impressed at how smoothly things progressed, considering that there had to be approvals by the director, the band and record label. We expected, when it went to Disney, that the approval process would be long and painstaking, but it really wasnt, Durban notes happily. It went to Disney and they loved it, and they sent us (Lightborne and Shaun Silva) direct feedback with just a couple of suggestions. So it was a smooth approval process.

In a different animation collaboration, Stones Throw/Adult Swim will showcase hip-hop artists Madlib, Madvillain and late rapper/producer J Dilla on the collaborative CD/DVD set, Chrome Children, due out Oct. 3, 2006. The CD includes a track from each artist on Stones Throws current roster, while the DVD contains footage of MF Doom and Madlibs live performance at this years South by Southwest festival.

Fans that preorder copies of the compilation via a host of websites will be entered into a contest to be drawn into one of three animated music videos that will be created by Adult Swim using album cuts by Madvillain, Madlib and J Dilla.

In support of Chrome Children, Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf will kick off a world tour, also in October. The duo plans to make stops in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand before returning to the U.S. for a 14-city trek. Joining them on the U.S. leg are J.Rocc, Percee P and Oh No. D12 affiliate Guilty Simpson will also appear at two of the shows.

Atomic Betty went from TV stardom to launch a music career with a new CD. © Breakthrough Animation.

From Voice to Video

In the world of animation, there are sometimes happy accidents. When teen voice actor Tajja Isen auditioned for the lead role in Breakthrough Animations series Atomic Betty, the producers were looking for an adult actor, not a child. I heard about the audition three or four years ago, Isen says, and I was lucky to get it because I thought it would be fun Betty is such a strong female character. Isen not only got the audition, she got the job.

Atomic Betty is a fast-paced animated adventure comedy TV series aimed at 8- to12-year-olds that currently airs in 120 territories worldwide. The show is currently in season three of production. Betty is a little girl with a big secret; to her friends and family, shes the sweet and brainy girl next door, but when the galaxy beckons, she sheds her humdrum persona and becomes Atomic Betty, Galactic Guardian and Defender of the Cosmos.

Isen, who at age 14 also provides the voice of Jane for Jane and The Dragon, came to her role as Betty with considerable experience including having appeared in The Lion King. Then, when one episode called for Betty to sing, Isen surprised everyone by demonstrating that she had a good singing voice.

Isen recorded the theme song for Atomic Betty, which was produced as a music video and also appears on the Atomic Betty CD. While Isen did not play the keyboards as shown in the video, she is quick to point out that she does know how to play both piano and keyboards. Ive also started writing and recording my own songs, she says.

In March 2006, Isen was awarded the prestigious Young Artists Award for the second year in a row for Atomic Betty, winning Best Performance in a Voice-Over Role for her performance in the second season of the show.

Tajjas role has grown from being the voice of Atomic Betty to the singer of the shows original songs to global ambassador of the entire brand, comments Kevin Gillis, exec producer of Atomic Betty and md of Breakthrough Animation. We are extremely proud of Tajja Isen for winning this significant award. Tajja is an incredibly gifted performer and we couldnt be more thrilled to have this rising young talent as the voice of Atomic Betty.

Music has always been the best cultural tool to reach the primary youth market, Gillis says. Kids are very sophisticated when it comes to music and the TV experience affords you the opportunity to reach the audience with songs people will remember.

In Atomic Betty, Bettys Enemy Number One the ultimate super-villain, the Supreme Overlord, Maximus I.Q. Maximus would love nothing better than to visit Bettys home world and destroy her once and for all. Gillis hints that season three will see Betty spending more time on Earth.

Theres going to be a garage band, so there will be more music, and more songs for Tajja, Gillis says, including another music video.

Atomic Betty also offers auxiliary action and music via the web and through ring-tone or iPod downloads. I dont want to be repurposing content, Gillis says. The audience can go to the telephone or iPod for a unique experience. It creates a seamless feel between that and the TV experience.

Were a portable society now. Its quite amazing, observes Gillis. The entertainment medium is so portable now. You can watch if and when you want to, surf, or download. Gillis currently shows his clients clips of Atomic Betty on his PSP.

Another Gillis creation, The Raccoons, is headed back to the TV screen and is being developed as a feature. The original series has been picked up in 35 countries, including Cartoon Network, Gillis reveals. The Raccoons starred in their own music video in the 1980s, called Raccoons Lets Dance.

Missy Elliot takes over New York City in the Pass that Dutch video. Courtesy of Radium.

Well-Rounded Video

Animated music videos range from straight to experimental, and from 2D to 3D or a trendy mix of all styles. Radium Inc. prefers using CGI to create well-rounded video. The company provided animation for the Missy Elliott video, Pass that Dutch, as well as the Product People dance party spot for Target.

The reason CGI in general animation, matte paintings, etc. was used in the video had to do with the overall design of the piece, says Aladino Debert, creative director/head of CG, Radium Inc. Pass that Dutch is comprised essentially of three parts, and each required a very different approach. In the most obvious example, Missy is seen singing from the top of the Empire State Building, like King Kong, with the city in the background and old planes buzzing about, so CG was the natural choice. Cost was also a factor, since our approach allowed Dave Meyers, the director, to shoot everything on stage, over greenscreen and create all the environments later, with more time and creative freedom.

Debert says that Radium did all the VFX on the music video using Autodesks Maya for the animation, Pixars RenderMan for rendering, and Adobe Photoshop for all the digital matte paintings all running on off-the-shelf PCs.

Radium lent its CG and visual effects expertise to create a high-energy street-party themed spot for Target. Directed by Spaz Williams, with Radiums creative director Jonathan Keeton, the spot features Target store products that merge with each other to form dancing party people.

Stylistically, we wanted it to feel like Rent in outer space colorful, energetic and theatrical, with each character having a distinctive personality, Debert says. Its a rich concept that opens up all sorts of possibilities for other spots for the client.

Created entirely in CG, the camera moves fluidly through the various rooms of an apartment to reveal, in a series of fast edits, Targets Product People dancing at a party. Since all the characters on Product People are anthropomorphic in nature, and they are dancing, we decided that we could benefit greatly by working with a choreographer (Travis Paine) and real dancers, Debert says. By using motion capture, we had a variety of advantages over traditional keyframed animation: We could choose takes in realtime on the motion capture stage, get approvals on the edit using video-feed takes, and get about 75% of the animation straight from the system, with the remaining 25% being keyframe animation.

With the sheer amount of characters, motion capture proved to be invaluable, Debert notes.

While a choreographer was used, the final music track was not. We actually did all the animation and motion capture sessions to a temp track that consisted mostly of beats, Debert advises. The final soundtrack was not finished until the last week!

Debert says that for this project, all animation was created on Autodesks Maya, with the rendering done using Mental Images Mental Ray. Adobe Photoshop was used to create all texture maps and digital matte paintings. All final compositing was performed using Discreets Inferno.

Debert notes that working on a music video can lead to other work, like commercial spots, and vice versa. Every time you work on a difficult project, be it a music video or commercial, you develop tools and techniques that build your how-to library, he comments.

What changes are the parameters and creative challenges, but the tools tend to be very similar, Debert says. And most important of all, software only takes you so far, so you always need talented people.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Ottawa, Canada. She shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.