Toons for Tunes

Although MTV has long abandoned music videos, a new crop of imaginative music videos are keeping the genre alive by using stylish animation and cutting-edge vfx.

‘Number One with a bullet’ is a classic music business moniker for a chart-topping song. But the phrase takes on new meaning when applied to the music video for ‘Stylo,’ the first single from Gorillaz’ latest album, Plastic Beach. To the music of ‘Stylo,’ action star Bruce Willis sprays bullets at animated characters that are outrunning him in speeding cars. The mix of live-action and CG was a collaboration between Gorillaz co-founder Jamie Hewlett’s Zombie Flesh Eaters and Pete Candeland and Hugo Sands at Passion Pictures, which created the animation and effects.

The platinum-selling Gorillaz has long been a leader in animated music videos, which are marked by the kinds of drawings that made Hewlett famous with the comic Tank Girl. But ‘Stylo’ marks the first time that Hewlett’s iconic 2D character designs are represented as 3D-CG figures. Passion Pictures used XSI to make the transition from flat art to 3D, and character modeler Mario Ucci notes that ‘decisions had to be made about which lines on the 2D drawings to take as silhouettes (eyes, jaws, etc.) and which to use as fleshy volumes.’

Candeland’s crew also used PFTrack and Nuke to integrate the CG characters within the speeding car. For the extensive visual effects animation in the video, Passion used Maya Fluids and XSI ICE, and relied on SyFlex to simulate the characters’ hair and clothing. The result was a level of realism that hasn’t been seen in Gorillaz videos before.

The Cool Eskimo Way

While Gorillaz may be the 800-pound giant among animated music video makers, it’s hardly alone. The London-based indie band One eskimO turned heads when it released fanciful animations in conjunction with its self-titled debut album and wound up winning a 2008 British Animation Award. Singer/songwriter Kristian Leontiou had approached Nathan Erasmus and Matt Latchford at the animation collective Gravy Media to produce videos in which band members were depicted as simple, 2D characters. In these whimsical videos, the Eskimo character is accompanied on adventures by band-mates that include a Giraffe, a Monkey and a Penguin’in what has been called a Peanuts-meets-Manga style. As Gravy Media founder Nathan Erasmus observes, ‘We were really lucky to be able to make all of this stuff at home, and by collaborating with people over the Internet. None of our projects would have been possible five to 10 years ago.’

One eskimO has continued to pursue new animations with’perhaps fittingly’Passion Pictures, and most recently with the NYC-based Lifelong Friendship Society. LFS departed from the whimsical One eskimO characters in favor of a graphic design approach for the band’s September 2009 single “Givin’ Up.” As Travis Spangler, co-founder and creative director of LFS explains, ‘The production agency Bullet approached us with this video, and we had free reins on concept, storyboarding and design. The only caveat was that we had to finish in less than two weeks’ time. We consciously chose an abstract and minimalist approach. Not only did this fit a song filled with a looping, melancholy lyrical quality, but also it fit the timing and budget.’ Spangler, who has worked on a number of animated music videos, observes, ‘Music paired with image is a powerful combination: They can build off of each other in unexpected ways. Sometimes they even end up becoming something that you never expected to create.’

A Valentine to Fleischer Toons

Another recent indicator of the animated video trend can be found in the clip created for the song “You Look Familiar,” by the Belgian indie-pop band

Team William. Directed by Joris Bergmans and Mich’l’ De Feudis, the video evokes memories of colorful Max Fleischer characters, which Bergmans admits is no accident. ‘Our main animator, Koen De Koninck, is a true expert on classic cartoons!’

Like many indie-created animations, “You Look Familiar” had to come together quickly. Bergmans, who’s based in Ghent, Belgium, recalls, ‘We had to do this video in one month, after regular hours. It was madness. We collected a small team from all over Belgium and the Netherlands to help us. As the deadline was so short, there were hardly any actual meetings. Most of the production was organized online. We could basically go anywhere we wanted. We told them there was not much time to change stuff around anyway! Meanwhile the song was climbing the charts in Belgium, so we had to make sure the clip was finished before it reached its peak. And we did.’

Bergmans, who previously had interned on the Oscar-nominated feature The Secret of Kells at the Belgian studio Walking the Dog, admits, ‘Animated music videos are quite rare in Belgium, due to the high costs. But thanks to this music video we got in contact with some good international clients and agencies.’

Putting the Fans to Work

While some bands seek out animators for their videos, there are projects being initiated by fans as well. Darin Bristow, a 16-year animation veteran in Toronto, approached ex-Van Halen rocker Sammy Hagar with an idea for an animated video for Hagar’s latest band, Chickenfoot, and he made it happen. The band appreciated Bristow’s concept art, and soon he was working with Pipeline Studios on an animated video for the song ‘Get It Up.’ ‘Pipeline works on highly recognized children’s productions,’ remarks Bristow, ‘and this motivated some of their most talented artists.’

The characters in ‘Get It Up’ were animated ‘tradigitally”hand drawn using Cintiqs and Toon Boom’s Harmony software. Bristow’s initial character designs were streamlined to require a little less ‘line-mileage’ for the animators, and Pipeline used Harmony’s Z-depth capabilities to create multi-plane effects for the backgrounds. The resulting video, says Bristow, ‘has gotten massive worldwide exposure. Pipeline has also been contacted by band managers in Asia and South America with requests on other animated video concepts, so stay tuned!”

Bear Necessity

In a medium as fluid as music videos, it’s probably not surprising that there are Cinderella success stories like that of Southern California-based freelancer Gabe Askew. The self-taught CG animator decided to make a video’in his spare time’for the song ‘Two Weeks’ by his favorite band, Grizzly Bear. Askew spent four months creating a computer-animated video filled with amazingly realistic textures and elegant lighting and camerawork. He used an arsenal of tools’3ds Max, VRay, Photoshop, After Effects and RealFlow’and produced a mesmerizing piece. When Grizzly Bear saw it online, the lead singer posted a Twitter response, and everything changed. ‘That Twitter post lead to a spike in views,’ recalls Askew. ‘Things snowballed from that point on.’

Today, Grizzly Bear has Askew’s video of ‘Two Weeks’ posted on its website, and Askew has quit his day gig and is attracting assignments as a commercial director. ‘I’ve gotten proposals from many bands to do videos for them,’ he notes. ‘But a large percentage are indie bands that have no budget for music videos, so I think the feasibility of me making a living out of music video work at this point is a stretch.’ But Askew believes that fan videos can blur the line between paid and non-paid work, and that posting clips on sites like Vimeo might just be the breakthrough that an animator needs.