Inside the unexpected rise of animated music videos

Billie Eilish in my future

With in-person shoots no longer a viable option, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and more are all entering the cool world of digital animation for their visuals.

An animated version of Dua Lipa, looking like a cross between Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit, bounces around a psychedelic fantasy world populated by retro, rubber hose Fleischer-style cartoons in her music video for Hallucinate. With its colorful Cuphead-meets-Cool World aesthetic, the clip boldly deviates from the pop star’s typical sultry, choreography-focused music video style, as seen in New Rules and Break My Heart. But it’s not just Lipa – animated music videos are having a moment in 2020.

Lil Wayne (I Don’t Sleep), Grimes (Darkseid), Victoria Monét (Jaguar), Lady Gaga (Sour Candy), and J Balvin (Azul) are just a handful who embraced animated music and lyric videos this year in lieu of the trad live-action video par the course for major label artists. In July, The Weeknd released the video for Snowchild, in which an anime-style Abel Tesfaye battles shape-shifting demon jaguars. The same month, Billie Eilish kicked off the promotion of her forthcoming album cycle with a whimsical, mind-melting animated visual for her new single, my future, featuring a cartoon Billie riding a tangle of enchanted vines into a pastel atmosphere.

So when it comes to music videos, why are cartoons suddenly cool again?

The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the very fabric of the music industry, including the way artists create, release, and promote their work. The production of music videos has been presented with its own unique set of challenges, rendering musicians, particularly those currently based in the US, unable to execute many planned live-action video concepts. With quarantine making it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for artists to safely film with a full crew, a new age has dawned for the animated music video.

But the concept of the animated music video, which can trace its artistic roots all the way back to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies (1929 – 1939), thrived long before quarantine hit.

Released in 1979, Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Accidents Will Happen is widely considered to be the first fully animated music video, and precedes the first substantial boom in the animated music video trend, which arrived in the 80s in lock-step with the rise of MTV. During that decade, genre-spanning artists such as a‑ha (Take On Me), The Rolling Stones (The Harlem Shuffle), and Paula Abdul (Opposites Attract) released partially or fully animated clips. A more artistically adventurous wave of animated music videos followed in the 90s, when musicians like Pearl Jam (Paranoid Android) and Björk (I Miss You) collaborated with acclaimed illustrators and cartoonists, resulting in some of their most iconic videos. The trend continued into the 2000s with Kanye West (Good Morning), Daft Punk (One More Time), and the Gorillaz (Clint Eastwood).

As the new millennium rolled on, however, the popularity of animation in music videos appeared to dwindle in favour of the glossy, live-action narrative and performance videos popularised by mainstream pop, hip-hop, and rock stars. It did not disappear completely though, with rappers, hip-hop and indie artists in particular occasionally embracing the style. However, 2020 has ushered in a new necessity for the animated music video: social distancing.

Unlike live filming, animation rarely, if ever, requires subjects to be present or on set, making it an ideal alternative for quarantine-bound musicians separated from their directors, camera operators, producers, DPs, and other creative staff. Animation is invincible, more so during these times. Our cast and crew can’t be infected with the virus and our actors’ – the cartoons – can travel anywhere, even to worlds that don’t exist,” says Juan M. Urbina, the COO of Colombia-based Venturia Animation Studios, which produced the wacky, Clampett-esque animated video for Tove Lo’s sadder badder cooler.

Beyond its obvious usefulness in an industry landscape where in-person filming isn’t always feasible, animation also provides musicians with a near-limitless palette of creative expression. It lends itself particularly well to fantastical visuals – escapist motifs which tend to gain traction in times of economic disaster (such as the fantasy and dystopian novel boom following the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis) and political or social unrest (such as the rise of epic fantasy and superhero films post‑9/​11 recession). With animation, the sky’s the limit.

You can push the stylistic envelope much, much further,” explains Mike Anderson, who directed the surreal computer animated sci-fi video for Ashnikko’s Cry feat. Grimes, after the artist found herself unable to film a live action visual at the onset of the pandemic. When things get tough, people dive into fantasy. It happens over and over. Now that we’ve got more interest in animation, it’s an even deeper dive into fantasy.”

When things get tough, people dive into fantasy. It happens over and over. Now that we’ve got more interest in animation, it’s an even deeper dive into fantasy.”

Mike Anderson

Unlike commercials and Hollywood feature productions, music videos can pivot quickly to animation, and because music videos typically come with a lower budget than other media, animation offers an opportunity to showcase big ideas for a smaller spend – sometimes. You can get severely limited creatively by the budget for a live-action video, which has so much more overhead. But with animation, even though it can be expensive – at least creatively and stylistically – you have a vast spectrum of possibilities to draw from,” Anderson explains.

On the other hand, clients often lack an understanding of the animation process and its limitations. Depending on the medium, certain things that you might not think about, like hair and water simulation, are expensive,” he adds. Music videos are fast turnaround and animation is a slow process, so you’re not looking at a final image until very close to delivery. It takes a lot of trust on the client side.”

Another potential pitfall is the risk of detouring from one’s visual branding, which may deter some musicians who are hesitant to test out the medium. As Urbina notes, if an emerging artist has a low budget, then animation is going to be more expensive than recording quarantine home video material. Plus, rising stars usually want to position their personal brand and image, so unless they’re thinking of going Gorillaz with it and staying animated for the rest of their career, they might want to show their real face.”

Regardless, in 2020 mainstream artists seem more willing to experiment. Lipa’s aforementioned Hallucinate, for instance, offers a fresh product for fans to consume, while also allowing the pop star to display her playful and energetic personality through a colorful, physics-defying cartoon magnifying glass. (At the top of the year, Lipa also explored animated segments in her video for Physical, and she recently announced plans to release an animated music video for every track on her forthcoming Club Future Nostalgia remix album.)

But Lipa isn’t the only one experimenting. We’ve noticed that musicians, managers, and their labels are also beginning to experiment more with formats like visualizers’ and lyric videos, too,” Urbina says. Animation is a craft that takes its sweet time, mostly because we have to create everything from scratch – sometimes even the singer – but the process is an exciting adventure and the results are out of this world.”

While the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, it’s unclear if animated music videos will continue to rise in popularity once Covid-19 is in the world’s rearview mirror – or if the style will wane in the wake of the pandemic as musicians venture back out to their crowded production studios and film sets, which some are already starting to do. For now, though, business is booming: Both Anderson and Venturia Animation Studios have a number of animated music videos in production, and other animators report they are generously booked with musician projects.

Many in the industry are hopeful for the future of animation’s place in the music industry. I hope it sticks,” Anderson says. Animation is a bit of an unknown for a lot of artists and producers. [People] kind of stay in their lane, be it live action or animation, and I hope this blurs the lines a bit. We could really use each other.”

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