A few years ago I had the opportunity to direct and animate the cartoon music video for Owl City and Hanson’s “Unbelievable.”
The brief for this project was pretty simple. A cool video was needed to match Owl City’s new song. To many, that’s a horrifying brief. To me, that’s where I luv to start, with no plan, no idea, just a blank sheet of paper.
My client, Universal Music Group and Owl City’s management were absolutely amazing to work with. There’s nothing more a director can ask for than the trust to do what they need to do to make an interesting piece of art that will only make sense once it’s out in the world. Throughout the entire project, I received zero pushback on any of my ideas. My client’s gave me full reign to run with whatever idea I came up with.
With a blank slate, a few weeks to produce, and a lot of pressure to deliver, I got to work.
When I first start work on an animated music video, my first step is not to dive in and start writing, it’s to first imagine what a successful project looks like to me and what a horrible project looks like (a “pre-mortem” or negative visualization).
In my “pre-mortem,” I visualize what an unsuccessful project looks like, and try to figure out why it was unsuccessful. In this case, an unsuccessful project would be an unhappy client and viewers that did not share or connect with the video. I spend a lot of time back tracking in my mind about what may have caused that. Did I miss a deadline, was I unclear in communicating with the client, was my original idea off, was something lacking, were there budget constraints, etc…
A successful project always has to do with the reaction of the people who put their trust in me. I want to make them feel over the moon excited that they hired me.
I spend a ton of time day dreaming about the reaction I want from my clients, the reaction I want from the artist, something like this from another artist I created a video for:
…and what I want the reaction of the viewers or fans to be.
I want my client to be thrilled they hired me, almost in shock that they received so much value for their budget, and had to do so little on their end. I want them to look and feel like rock stars to everyone at their company and in their industry. If I don’t do that, the project is a failure.
I want the artist’s manager to be thrilled with the music label for hiring me.
I want the artist to feel like I elevated their song to new levels, above their expectations.
And I want the fans, the viewers to sit back with a smile on their faces and have their brains light up with excitement.
If I take care of the points above, I consider the project a success and know that the video will be widely shared by fans and people in the industry.
Once I have clearly envisioned what a successful project looks like to me, see above, I then move on to the creative.
My next step in the animation making process is to connect deeply with the song, the lyrics, find out what it means to me, find out what it may mean to the artist, and think about how the video could connect with viewers. I do this to find a general direction I want to go in. You need to first point your compass before sailing full speed ahead.
Actually, this process is more like following a compass that already has a direction pointing at ‘success.’ All you have to do is uncover the path, going backwards, that got you there.
A little bit like Michaelangelo saying that the sculpture is already underneath the rock, all he has to do is remove the rock from around it. Following this process, all you have to do is do the work and let go and trust you will find the path to the answers that will get you to ‘success.’
“Unbelievable“ reminded me a lot of the nostalgia of Asher Roth’s “Lark On My Go-Kart” that I created a video for. It’s also just where my mind goes when I hear music.
Having been a fan of Owl City’s “Fireflies” hit song/ video, I knew that nostalgia played well with his audience, and it would work with the vibe of this song. I just needed to be careful to not recreate what he had already done. I knew I could rely on humor and quirky/niche references that would resonate with the Owl City audience.
The fact that Hanson is featured on this song cemented my desire to play off the nostalgia of the song. Needless to say, I listened to a lot of MmmBop while making this song to see what memories that song brought up.
Here are some shots from my notebook. I find writing out paragraphs of free flowing thoughts is one of the best ways to generate ideas. Slowly, you start to see the puzzle pieces take shape.
Here are some really bad character designs I went through trying to figure out how I was going to tie the video together.
I was stuck.
I couldn’t think of what would make this video interesting. I had typical character designs of the artists, but there was nothing fun, quirky, memorable about this concept. I knew I could move these character back in time to show them interacting to the lyrics, but it didn’t have a visual hook.
Then, as you can see above in my notebook sketches, the idea of “Be Kind Rewind” popped in my head.
A rush of ideas flowed in with that concept. This song is about the days that everyone was told to “Be Kind Rewind.” And what was at the center of that concept? A VHS tape:
Once you have your concept, your visual hook, the theme, your characters, I would spend as much time as possible thinking of the ending.
Your audience is really going to remember how they felt at the end of watching your video.
For more on story structure and writing, check out this post I wrote going through the Hero’s Journey.
For this video, the ending came a lot easier than other videos I have worked on. I envisioned the VHS tape slapping a ‘Be King Remind’ sticker on his face. Not only did this represent the era of the VHS tape, but it could literally mean, rewind this video to rewatch it. I’m not sure how many times that happened, but I thought it was an interesting layer of deeper meanings.
Let’s talk a little bit about my technical process for making animation.
I’ve storyboarded quite a few productions before and I’ve always thought it was a bit of an inefficient process to make drawings of the movie, commercial or video and then try to time things afterwards.
So my process always starts with creating an Animatic to the song. Here’s the animatic for this video. Very very rough as you will see.
Creating a rough animatic allows me to time things out and make sure things will work visually before investing anytime into the final animation. It’s also a great way to get the client on board with your idea before you put their budget into the animation.
The traditional method is: storyboard, character design, animate, pray it works. Big waste of time and money in my opinion.
I say: make the animatic, screen shot storyboards from the animatic, then start building your animation based on what works.
Once the animatic is done, and the storyboard screen shots are snapped, I put them into a spread sheet like this:
This is my production bible. It’s a shared doc with simply named scenes, and it’s shareable, so anyone working on my team can track what they are working on and we can remotely discuss the scenes.
From here, it’s as simple as putting all of your focus into each scene. It’s way easier to do this now that you created an animatic, because you know when you go to put the scenes together, they will work and work well.
I’ll do a more in depth post about the tools I use to create my animated music videos, but for now, here’s a quick list:
– Adobe Animate CC for creating animatics, character design and animation
– Manga Studio (Now Clip Studio – Horrible name, great program) for sketching characters and doing final background designs
– Adobe After Effects for compositing and Effects
– Adobe Premiere for editing scenes together and correcting audio
– Google Docs
There is an expression in football, “hit past your target.” That is, when you go to tackle someone, don’t tackle them where they are, run as if you are trying to tackle ten feet behind them. This is a badly botched analogy, but the point being, when you are working on an animated video, it’s easy to get lazy and rush for the goal line so the pain of the production process is over.
But that doesn’t make for something people will remember. That makes an ‘eh’ product.
Instead, once you can see the finish line, the last few scenes, push further and harder than you would at the beginning of the project. Push past your target.
If your target was making your clients happy, the artist and managers happy and the viewers happy, what is something extra you can do or add to make your project really special?
In the case of the Owl City video, I created a frame at the end with a ton of different nostalgic items I remember from my childhood. The van with the wooden panel on the outside, Super Soakers, etc… It’s these little details that, after a viewer has already been hooked to the story, will really appreciate and point out when they are watching it.
I know this post was supposed to be about making animated music videos. I did plan on giving you the nitty gritty production details and some short cuts how to make a video, but really, all of that is useless unless you have a solid strategy.
As an animation maker, it’s very easy for me to get hung up on the details of a scene, the look of a character etc…, but it’s really important to zoom out and have a very simple game plan.
Below is the general game plan for all of my creative projects and animated music videos. I hope it helps you if you are stuck or are just getting started.
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