Just recently, Jesse Ewles’ music video for Of Montreal‘s “Spiteful Intervention” hit the web and it was a strange color orgy off giant eyeballs, chromatic matter, and Kevin Barnes’ face bobbing and stretching and mutating in an abyss. It’s weird, and yes, I’m going to use that lazy descriptive word, trippy. But it’s great fun and falls into that finest of music video traditions where the images before your eyes confuse and disturb, but ultimately entertain you. Which is how it should be.
But this isn’t Ewles’ first music video. He’s been doing quite a few of them, all using different styles and techniques and featuring everything from projection-mapped shapes with human legs to reanimated space lasers. It seems anything’s fair game in one of his videos, but if they did have a unifying theme it would probably be their inclination for the peculiar.
Wanting to find out a bit more about the mind behind this madness, we fired a few questions over to the animator and director to find out how he creates these remarkable visuals and from whence these strange ideas come.
The Creators Project: The video for Of Montreal’s “Spiteful Intervention” is pretty bizarre. What was the general idea behind it?
Jesse Ewles: The song is about combating dark thoughts. I thought the most fun way of illustrating that would be to have Kevin’s head morph into different creatures. My first write up for this track was rejected. Treatment #1 was far too positive and pop-arty and didn’t mesh with the dark lyrics in the track. I think it was the Beatle-esque hooks in the track that threw me off. For version #2 I went a lot darker. The main inspiration for the images in “Spiteful Intervention” were 17th century still life paintings, the fruit-filled portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and William Blake’s paintings for the Divine Comedy, which I riffed off heavily. I also drew inspiration from the brilliant Allison Schulnik, black velvet paintings, as well as the dream sequence in Disney’s Dumbo.
What did you use to create the effects in the video?
I was excited about doing a totally animated video. It’s been a number of years since I did full on animation. I’ve spent the early part of 2012 experimenting on how to make a “painterly” image move, while avoiding the flicker one gets animating loosely painted characters traditionally. You can see a precursor to the style featured in the Of Montreal clip in my video for the Canadian band Bruce Peninsula.
To get the look I wanted, I painted the images with acrylic paint onto a clear acetate laying on top of black paper. When it came time to photograph the paintings, a green piece of paper was slid beneath the acetate. With green background, the paint strokes on the plastic could be keyed out easily in the computer. From there, the paintings were mapped onto a 3D mesh in the animation program Maya. An example of the animated mesh can be seen below.
I was checking some of your other vids. The Kathryn Calder one uses projection mapping, “Spiteful Intervention” is animation, and others feature puppets. What do you enjoy about working with a variety of different media?
They say you’re never supposed to pitch an idea you don’t know how to execute. I do that all time. I’ll see something online like giant origami, or a big vegetable that has a face on it from being grown inside a mold, and I’ll say “That could be a video. That would be fun to try.” The interesting part of making videos is the experimentation. The medium demands you do something different, something that will be distinctive among the hundreds of videos released every day. I’ve been trying to embrace the idea that working online puts us all in the fashion business. As Seth Godin would say, “Yesterday’s remarkable is today’s average and tomorrow’s boring.” Culture doesn’t move that fast yet, but we’re getting there.
I also enjoy switching media from a storytelling point of view. I’ve become super curious about how different stories are best told with different media. Using puppets to tell a story has a very different vibe than the same story told with animation, or CGI, or Iive action actors in costumes, and all of these approaches have a very different impact than reading the same story in an ebook. The art, I think, is in choosing the best media to tell a chosen story and to set a certain mood—this goes beyond music videos, but I’ll try to stay on point. I’m curious, what if a band decided that animated GIFs were a better fit for the mood for their music? Could I offer that? Perhaps the band could commission a website of looping animation instead of a video? Or perhaps the music works best as a game sound track, like Jim Guthrie’s work in Sword and Sorcery. For instance, it would be interesting to see a band invest 50K into making a game for their music.
Ewles’ video for Kathryn Calder’s "Who Are You?
Lots of your videos are full of strange and twisted imagery. How do you come up with an idea? Do you interpret the song or just have weird visions that you then actualize?
I had a hard time arriving at the style for this video. I knew the mood I wanted but coming up with the actual designs took a lot of trial and error and banging my head against the wall. For some reason I thought that I would be able to design a whole new art style in a couple of days, even though I haven’t painted since college. What a fool I was. I ended up breaking through the block by stealing some compositions from William Blake and remixing them—the secret of all great modern painters! By the end of the video, I actually had too many designs to fit in the three minutes, so I’m going to take the orphan animations and make some GIFs. Perhaps they’ll find a new life in another medium.