Under Neil Pymer’s creative direction, animated short artfully captures triple platinum-selling musician’s uplifting song about relationships in the digital age.
Aardman Animations creative director Neil Pymer has just shared with AWN his new project, triple platinum-selling Jamie Cullum’s music video, Age of Anxiety. The song is taken from Cullum’s latest album, Taller, an exploration of personal subject matter where each song reflects a desire to grow, learn, and explore life.
Pymer manned the production with a team of Aardman stalwarts working around other their other projects. “I’ve been with Aardman for almost eight years now as a freelance creative director, mainly working in the interactive department,” he explains. “But, I love to dabble in anything film, music or animation related.”
The project began, modestly enough, without specific visual direction. “All I was given was the song and lyrics, which were enough to conjure up so many images as the song is so emotive,” Pymer reveals. “Jamie and his team gave us complete creative control which was incredible; I shared a paragraph about the idea, then the mood video and storyboards and they said, ‘Great, go make it!’ It’s rare to be given so much freedom, so props to the team.”
For Cullum, trusting Pymer’s creative vision was amply rewarded. “This animation has beautifully interpreted and brought out an aspect of the song I hadn’t anticipated,” he says. “It makes it feel both larger than the song, but also more personal - that’s quite a high wire act! I’m so moved by it and absolutely love what has been done.”
Pymer normally begins creative development by cutting a mood video. “This one had footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Radiohead - No Surprises (one of my favorite music videos of all time), Gravity, Interstellar, The Wizard of Oz (as the house falls to Oz) and The Hudsucker Proxy (as he jumps out the window),” he states. “I watched it again the other day and realized how much this mood video informed the final piece; the spinning piano in space was inspired by Dorothy’s house as it spins in the tornado.”
For the design, Pymer created a mood board and sketches for both the characters and the world. According to the director, “I worked with Henry [St. Leger] on initial character designs. Then, [art director] Dan [Binns] took all this and created the concepts. He has such a unique style; combined with his obsession over 50’s sci-fi art, he came back with these incredible designs. From the first concept he sent through, [we knew] he’d nailed it. He made the spacesuit and space station look like they were made of tin foil, which looked great. Other references for us were The Little Prince, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Kubrick’s 2001 and Bladerunner.”
The animation took about 15 weeks from storyboard to finished piece. “We had a team of essentially two designers, two animators and a comper,” Pymer notes. “Henry storyboarded the project and worked on the character designs from my mood video, sketches and notes. Animators Jane Davies and Phil Parker worked from these and created 2D animations in Flash, which then were passed over to Andreas Niklas, who had an immense job compositing - adding all the colors and gradients, getting them as close to the concept designs as possible. No small task as they were really textured and sketchy and we just didn’t have the budget to treat each shot with its own nuanced textures and shading.”
Binns, whom Pymer declares “a crazy talented animator and director in his own right,” created all the concept designs, coming up with a clever solution on how to deal with the compositing challenges that had cropped up in testing. “Dan used only three textures in all the concepts and then animated large 3-frame boils of them for Andreas to use across all the shots, which saved a lot of time,” Pymer says. “Andreas, who’s primarily a 2D animator, but an After Effects whiz kid, comped the whole project in Ae using the concepts as reference, adding some of his magic to pull the whole project together.”
“My role as director and producer was firstly to come up with the concept and then, most importantly, to pull the team together who could make it happen,” the director adds. “I’d wanted to work with Jane for ages but she’s a busy bunny; it was just lucky she had a gap and really liked the concept (in retrospect, after weeks animating the piano shot, she might have declined!). I’ve worked with Dan on many projects, but we’ve wanted to do a music video together for ages. Even though he had multiple projects going on, he thankfully found the time! From there it was directing duties, which wasn’t hard; the team did all the hard graft, I just pointed at stuff occasionally.”
Check out these videos showing a 2D compositing test, 2D animation look before compositing, and a 2D animation before / after compositing comparison:
Assessing his team’s work, Pymer notes they faced two main challenges. “Firstly, the original track is over 5 minutes, but we didn’t have the budget for that amount of animation,” he says. “So, they actually created a shorter version just for this video, which was nice. But the mood video and storyboards had all been created for the original song, so compressing the idea down was a difficult process as the original song was so burned into my brain. The other was trying to get the animated video as close to the concepts as we could within the timeframe. Dan created a comping test of the piano falling, and luckily it worked and looked pretty similar.”
“From an animation point of view, the hardest part was probably the piano burning up, as all the separate parts were quite complex,” Pymer continues. “We even shot reference of my friend Ed playing the song on a piano, so the hands would appear to be playing the correct keys. All the effort was worth it though, as there's been such touching feedback already from all over the world and in these crazy times of isolation, it feels special to be able to collaborate with Jamie on this emotional track and share it with everyone.”
For the director, the music video perfectly illustrates Cullum’s track about modern society; how attached we are to the digital world and all that goes on within it and our turbulent political landscape all come to life within the film. “Age of Anxiety is a hugely pertinent track for the time we live in; to our politics, media, culture and our relationships both digital and personal,” Pymer shares. “I wanted to create an intergalactic allegory set in a future world that’s slightly to the left of ours, but not too far away. It observes loneliness, blind acceptance of digital media and crowd mentality. But, it’s ultimately an uplifting love story spanning space and time, prompting us to bypass the rat race and take our own path. We had to get a piano in there too… it is Jamie Cullum after all!”
“I think much of the story within the animation has an openness to it that allows you to impress upon it your own anxieties, pain and beauty,” Cullum adds. “And that is really all you hope a song can be - a vessel for hard things that aren’t always easy to say out loud.”
With 10 million album sales to date and a successful BBC Radio 2 show, Cullum is a celebrated musician with loyal fans worldwide. In a career spanning over 20 years, he has performed live and worked alongside artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar and Lang Lang. The success of his major label breakthrough, Twentysomething and its follow-up, Catching Tales, saw him nominated for a BRIT, Grammy and numerous other awards around the world. In addition to his successful recording career, Cullum has also established himself as a multi-award-winning music broadcaster; his BBC Radio 2 show celebrates 10 years on air this month.
Song: Jamie Cullum
Director: Neil Pymer
Lead Animator & Editor: Jane Davies
Animator: Phillip Parker
Art Director & Design: Dan Binns
Compositor & SFX: Andreas Niklas
Storyboards & Design: Henry St.Leger
Grade: Bram Ttwheam
Producers: Sam Goddard, Neil Pymer & Jane Davies
Exec Producers: Jenny Carroll & Marc Connor
Creative Consultant: Codey Dyer
Label: Island Records
Special Thanks: Aardman Animations
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.