Two rookie directors at Axis Animation went back to basics to create the promo for a pop song about music’s feelgood potential.
There are certain concepts that are so well-worn that coming up with an original, attention-grabbing way to illustrate them is a serious challenge. The music promo for the song Sing, by French dance act Jealousy, could easily have been one of those concepts: the song is about music’s feelgood power and ability to bring people together.
However, the end result is far from predictable. Instead, it’s a quirky, funny little tale in which an Elvis-coiffed caricature of lead singer Mani Hoffman roams the world ending tyranny, oppression and stultifying corporate cultures of all kinds through the power of song.
Packed with offbeat characters and primary colours, it has an eye-catching, retro feel that’s helped by the slightly jerky animation and 2D appearance of the characters. When Jealousy’s record label, Zero Degrees Entertainment, commissioned Axis Animation to produce the animated promo, the brief was vague.
“They wanted something funny, something that had a light, fresh feel that matched the track,” says Richard Scott, executive producer at Axis. “They also had a desire to give the promo worldwide appeal, and this meant the brief called for Mani Hoffman travelling across the globe.”
“The label also wanted his voice to ‘change the world’ by making people happy,” add Stephen and Dave, two of Axis’s young directors who were handed the project as their first music promo.
They started by fleshing out the brief, deciding that Mani was travelling the world to tackle injustice purely by singing.
“From there, we developed the idea to feature some of the issues that are concerns for people all over the world, concerns about global warming, war and dictatorships came to mind. All we had to do next was work out how to incorporate them into a light, fresh and funny promo.”
They tackled this through a careful use of absurd elements, to stress the animation’s tongue-in-cheek qualities. “We just made sure we kept a good blend of the weird in there, so we have characters wearing apples as shoes and headwear, or paintings of the king wrestling lions. These all said that the whole thing was meant to feel a bit strange and not take itself too seriously.”
The conflict between topic and tone was far from the only challenge the team faced. “Technically, we had a big challenge getting through the whole project with the small team we had. Everything had to be done simply: there was no time for extreme technical challenges.”
Axis turned this to its advantage, adopting simplicity as a trademark of the assignment. “Simplicity was everywhere in this project, and that applied to animation as well. We knew we wanted a real pose-to-pose style in the animation: it gave a different feel, and also meant we could get through the three minutes of animation quickly.”
This principle extended to the character design: “We devised these little interchangeable bullet-men who could stand in for the common man,” says Stephen.
“We designed the characters so that they all had the same body shape and face; this allowed us to then re-version them with different textures and props – a moustache or hat, for example – to create a range of characters for our scenarios within hours.”
The distinctive retro styling that Axis adopted posed its own problems. “Hands on creatively, it was hard to transport the extreme pose-to-pose 2D sensibility that we had onto the 3D models in a convincing way. We solved it by adding little bits of follow through squash and stretch after the extreme poses to make it less jarring,” says Stephen.
For the promo’s visual aesthetic, Stephen and Dave turned to the colours and styling of classic children’s TV. Stephen says: “I think we’re both very fond of 1950s animation, in terms of both design and animation style.
Roger Ramjet was something we looked at as everything is extremely angular and snappy. Pocoyo, the kids’ TV show, in terms of giving 3D a 2D animated feel, is a big inspiration too.”
They aimed to create a slightly rough, off-kilter feel to the animation, as though it, too, was decades old. “We wanted it to look like there was something ‘wrong’ with the animation, that it had been unearthed on 8mm film and had faded or been water damaged.
So we applied lots of grainy filters and even shifted one of the colour channels over a few pixels to give the impression it had been recorded badly off TV,” says Dave.
“After we had pitched our ideas for Mani righting the world’s wrongs to the client, we quickly did sketched layouts for each scenario. This allowed us to see what we needed to design and build and also how we could frame the animation,” explains Dave.
For the next stage they looked in detail at the song. “From the layouts Dave created a 2D animatic, timing out how long each scene needed to be, and then we began to rough out how the animation would work to a click track that gave us the right tempo throughout,” says Stephen.
At the same time, they were developing the characters. “During this stage, Stephen was finalizing all the designs for the characters and any props that were required. They were then modelled in 3D and given a simple rig on Maya,” says Dave.
Next, they moved onto making the animation itself. “After a first pass on the animation we assembled our first edit with the 3D footage, and played around with the timings and positioning of the different scenarios and shots.
"As we were using some repeating elements in the promo it was easy for us to be very flexible with the way we could edit, which was great and allowed us to really experiment.
"After that first cut, we reworked some animation before moving on to the lighting stage. The final step was to complete some simple compositing and grading, and we were done,” says Stephen.
Because of the project’s simplicity, the team’s software requirements were modest. “Modelling was handled by a mixture of LightWave and Maya,” explains Dave.
“Because the characters and style were so simple we were able to use the ‘vanilla’ Maya renderer without the need for all the bells and whistles. Some of the animation was also handled in 2D and composited back in with the 3D in After Effects.”
Stephen and Dave say that throughout the process, Zero Degrees Entertainment was a laid-back, supportive client: “We had a great deal of creative freedom on Sing,” say the directors.
“It was the first time we’ve been basically paid to experiment with a look and animation style with minimal input from the client, who seemed to trust us to come up with something strange and unique.”
Richard Scott is also satisfied with the end result. “I think the whole thing just feels solid. I love the sense of humour, mixed with some strong messages. It’s what I expect from Stephen and Dave, and they delivered the goods.”
For speed and simplicity, all the characters but Mani were designed around the same bullet-shaped frame; they were then put into situations littered with absurd little details.
The caricature of Mani turned out to be quite different from the band’s real-life singer: “Mani’s character came from a picture we saw online of him in a peacock-like cool-dude pose. Which, having seen other pictures, is not representative of him, but nobody told us off, so we pushed on with this super-confident, slick-haired dancing man-child of a character.”
Project: Sing by Jealousy
Client: Zero Degrees Entertainment
Studio: Axis Animation, www.axisanimation.com
Software: NewTek LightWave, Autodesk Maya