Frater hits the road for Ladyhawke

For Ladyhawke’s latest single My Delirium, directing duo Frater teamed up with artist Sarah Larnach to create an all-American road trip, animated in a retro watercolour style.

After months being touted as one of 2008’s rising stars, the debut album of electropop singer-songwriter Ladyhawke (real name Pip Brown) was hotly anticipated.

The eponymous album featured non-chintzy, hip watercolour artwork by Australian artist Sarah Larnach that instantly became a key part of Ladyhawke’s visual identity, setting the tone for her website, singles artwork and other materials.

When it came to creating the promo for My Delirium, her fifth single, Brown decided that she wanted a piece where the watercolours themselves were animated.

The task of creating this fell to directing partnership Frater (Benji Davies and Jim Field), of direction studio Partizan. Sasha Nixon, Partizan’s head of music videos, explains how the job landed in Frater’s inbox.

“Glen Goetze from Modular Records, Ladyhawke’s label, came to me to enquire about our animation directors. Frater were suggested, and they did such an amazing pitch that everyone just instantly said, ‘yes’ to it.”

Frater started their pitch by brainstorming a possible storyline. “When we read a brief we tend to throw ideas back and forth between us, discussing some possibilities and initial thoughts. Something usually sticks and we take it a bit further. Then we’ll type it up, and prod and poke it until it starts to work,” says Benji Davies.

The promo Frater came up with starts in live action, with Ladyhawke restlessly prowling a motel room, before escaping into the watercolour paintings that adorn the walls.

Once inside the paintings, an animated watercolour Ladyhawke drives across the desert in a Ford Thunderbird, flitting back to the live-action Ladyhawke, who is moving towards escaping her motel room.

The duo were immediately struck by the fact that the track sounded like driving music. “This evoked a kind of Thelma & Louise vibe, and got us thinking of road movies such as Wild at Heart, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” says Jim Field.

“We wanted to thread a simple narrative into the video: the road movie is all about escaping from your current situation, and so we came up with the idea of Pip ‘escaping’ the seedy motel she’s stuck in through Sarah’s Arizona paintings on the wall,” Field continues.

“We could then explore the live action and animated worlds, and play with what is reality and what is fantasy, evoking the song lyrics.”

“Heading into the Arizona desert, we carried on the theme and paid homage with some canyon-leaping antics – and then where?” adds Davies. “Into space, of course, which was a good opportunity for some psychedelic guitar action.”

Much of the promo’s aesthetic was set by Larnach’s distinctive Ladyhawke watercolours, which have retro, slightly girly themes and a pastel palette – the image on Ladyhawke’s homepage features a kitten pawing an old games console.

“We wanted to get the 1980s feel in there too, and let that dictate some of the styling and atmosphere,” says Field. “We really liked [Larnach’s] contemporary approach to watercolour and thought there was a lot of scope for translating this to animation.”

Frater submitted a brief test movie for the promo, demonstrating how they intended to filter and layer live-action and rotoscoped drawings. Davies says that this was “something close to how we envisaged creating the finished look using some live action footage in After Effects and some hand-tracing using the Wacom in Photoshop.”

The test was enthusiastically received by Modular, so Frater contacted Sarah Larnach to start discussing how the collaboration might work.

Larnach is based in Sydney, so at first they communicated mostly by email. “She had seen the treatment and really liked the idea, so things ran smoothly from the beginning,” says Field.

“She was happy to divulge her painting techniques to us, which we attempted to recreate in our studio at Partizan – although in the end Sarah produced virtually all the background artwork single-handedly.”

Enter the artist

“We had planned that we would shadow Sarah’s artworking but we soon realized her style was very unique to her hand,” adds Davies. So they flew Larnach to London to produce endless paintings for the promo.

“Apart from Pip and the Thunderbird car, which were created using a rotoscope layering technique, I think there are maybe only one or two elements that Sarah did not paint – which is no mean feat in the month she was here in London,” says Davies.

Frater had to make their rotoscoped footage match Larnach’s painting style, while juggling the deadline and budget.

“We knew it would be hugely labour-intensive to draw and paint frame by frame – there just wouldn’t be enough time to do that,” explains Field. “Also, we felt it needed to look contemporary, so wanted to avoid a solely traditional technique.”

They looked closely at the process of painting in watercolour, then recreated this with a combination of hand-drawn and digital elements. They then painstakingly hand rotoscoped the pencil lines, tracing the live action of Ladyhawke to achieve realistic movements.

Then came the colour: Frater filtered various levels from the live-action footage to infuse the watercolour scenes with realistic colours, and then recomped everything, together with a CG version of the car, created in Maya.

“Initially we thought we might be able to use found footage of the car in several different movies and roto that, but we soon realized that this was going to be impractical, as we would have more problems erasing the drivers we didn’t want, the wrong scenery, camera moves and so on, so we decided to recreate the car in CG [using a stock Maya model] and add live-action greenscreen of Pip,” says Field.

Frater filmed Ladyhawke in a driving position against greenscreen at a range of angles and in two different light setups: one for the desert, and another for the space sequence.

They then keyed out the green and placed the plate of Ladyhawke on a grid in Maya to simulate her driving the CG Thunderbird. They also created a motion that mimics driving on a bumpy desert road.

Next, they rendered the comp and meticulously rotoscoped it by hand in Photoshop, before tweaking the colour. All the while, Larnach was producing paintings, from a studio she set up in the room next door to Frater’s.

“She painted whatever background elements were required for the scenery, which we then took into After Effects for 3D layering and compositing, to sit behind the animation of Pip in the Thunderbird, to give the realistic depth as the car raced through the landscapes,” explains Field.

Field adds that it was crucial for Larnach to be in London for the production, rather than attempting to do the work long-distance, as “we were able to keep a direct attachment to her style while keeping the whole project manageable for a small team.”

Frater say that even with Larnach’s direct involvement, convincingly translating her painting style into animation was still the hardest part of the project.

“It really was a very complex process and took a lot of trial and error to get it right – but I think we managed it in the end,” says Davies. “It was a very fine line between the comp renders looking like watercolour artwork or still looking too much like badly filtered footage - something close to one of those hideous Photoshop paint-effect filters where you press OK and get yourself an instant Monet,” adds Field. “Not what we were after.”

The project’s limited timeframe made this doubly challenging. “When we started the compositing, some of the comps were taking a couple of days to get right, and seeing as we only had a couple of weeks and about 30-plus shots to deliver, it was rather worrying,” recalls Field.

“Once the first few were solved, though, we could apply the same layering and re-import the frames for each shot, which then only required tweaking, rather than comping from scratch.

“Again, the tweaking wasn’t as easy as pressing a button and voilà, but it did save a lot of time doing it this way.”

“There are only a couple of places in the final video – a few frames here and there – where I think the live-action-ness shows through and breaks the illusion of it having been artworked,” says Davies.

As the song reaches its bridge, the car takes off into a paint-splattered, psychedelic space scene: this is a favourite moment for both Davies and Field.

“The car taking off sequence feels like it really matches the breakdown of the track to me – that slow part of the song as the car floats in slow-motion, with the space effects starting to creep into the skyline,” says Field.

“I really like that part too, as I think it really grabs your attention – although technically I think the best shots are the final guitar-playing shot and the large close-ups of Pip’s face, which I think really sell the mimicry of Sarah’s watercolour, and give a visual nod towards the 1980s tone that runs through Ladyhawke’s music,”

Creating clouds

Frater added in a sky made of footage from a cloud tank, which resembles slow-moving wisps of wet ink or paint, and chimes neatly with the spot’s watercolours.

“The cloud tank footage was originally filmed as an experiment for another project, but when the Ladyhawke promo came up, it fitted the need perfectly,” explains Frater’s Jim Field.

“It was a small desktop setup that we constructed ourselves, and filmed on an HD cam. This footage was overlaid using a variety of blending modes, and was colourized and tweaked, until it bit into the paper texture and gave the feeling of moving watercolour.”

Days of thunder

Frater had problems finding the right stock Maya model to use for the car. They wanted to use a convertible 1966 model, like the one used in Thelma & Louise, but no such model was available, so they had to use a 1964 model.

“The one we did have had a roof and no interior details, so our Maya modeler, Naweed Khan, took out the unwanted geometry and rebuilt the insides, while finessing some of the curves and exterior details. Time was very tight so it had to be done in a matter of days,” says Field.

The demands of matching live-action footage and watercolours meant that the watercolours had to be handled with care: it was especially important that the texturing and materials of the watercolours were relatively realistic, so that when the filters were applied the colours would behave in the same way as the filtered live-action footage and sit well together on the compositing stage.

One of the trickiest aspects of the job was getting rotoscoped footage to resemble hand-painted images. “We then took the colour from the render and filtered it to break it into separate colour layers, then added loops of splattered paint here and there to achieve something closer to Sarah’s style. A final layer of watercolour paper texture rounded off the look,” explains Benji Davies.

While Frater came up with the plot and created the animations, watercolour artist Sarah Larnach’s influence is everywhere. “I think the video benefits vastly from her direct involvement – plus it was really great to have the opportunity to work with her and have her style influence some of the directing choices we made,” says Davies. ”The feline version of Mount Rushmore was something we knew Sarah would appreciate to break up painting the cars, rocks and cacti and add personality, as cats have been a repeat theme in the album artwork. She was pretty happy


Project: My Delirium promo
Client: Ladyhawke/Modular Records
Studio: Partizan.
Software: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, Autodesk Maya

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