Interview: Karni and Saul tell us about animating an unsettling forest for The Staves' Winter Trees music video

The latest single by folk act The Staves features a beautifully creepy animated music video directed by Aardman's Karni and Saul.

Winter Trees (above) features a woodland filled with hybrid creatures part-rabbit, part-owl and part-squirrel and a guitar-playing tree. It was created using a mix of Flash and CG animation.

We caught up with the directorial duo (and real-life couple) to discover how they conceived and created the video – and how they bring a wonderfully organic feel to much of their work.

NB: How would you describe your approach to music videos? 

K: "We like to react and relate to the music in a 'gut-feeling' kind of way. We avoid showing exactly what the song is talking about, and instead love searching for an undercurrent of meaning.  We think a music video should be a visual piece that’s been set to music.

"We listen to a song a few times and just write down whatever visions appear. The seed is always crucial: the hook between the visuals and the song. It might be a word that caught our attention or a feeling we get. We are very attracted to fantasy – but we call it 'casual fantasy' – fantasy that’s believable or set in a more real setting. We don’t really do aliens and spaceships, but we like to escape."

NB: Much of your work includes a lot of organic forms and natural palettes. What attracts you to these?

K: "We believe that a more organic feel and imperfections make the work more emotive – that as humans we can relate better to it and be more moved by such work.

"In our fantasy we usually imagine nature: water, cliffs, rivers and the elements. It’s more inspiring. It’s going back to basics, which is always best, as it feels like a good setting for a story.

"Finally, we live in the middle of a city and probably crave something visually fresh and different. It's more dramatic."

NB: What was your initial reaction to the track Winter Trees? What response from the viewer did you want to the video to evoke?

K: "We felt a strong emotional vibe from The Staves song, and a kind of honesty.  It’s very beautiful simple in a way, yet has dark and complex undertones. We both thought of a bare forest with creatures in it, [something] escaping and the subject of carrying someone to safety. We developed the seed into a small narrative."

S: "We wanted to work with the fact the song felt bare and minimal, yet complex at the same time. We wanted neutral, organic-looking colors and delicate details – mixed with the drama of a story. We made sure it had an edge to it, so as not to be too soft or floaty. It [should] feel strong as well as beautiful – like the song."

NB: Tell us a bit about how you developed the narrative from the concept through storyboards to the final piece

S: "We first sketched some rough thumbnails together with colour palate and mood board, and from there we developed the CG animatics. Once the band and label ok’d the outline, we basically got on with it together with Aardman’s great animation and CG team and the whole film started to come together in a very fast and fluent way."

NB: Tell us a bit about how you designed the owl/squirrel/rabbit creatures

S: "[I always have] a black pen in [my] hand and create lots of creatures on [my] sketchbooks.  As for them being hybrid animals, we found it more interesting and edgy to have an imaginary creature – less twee and more fantasy. It makes the imagery and story more complex.

"We are huge fans of Miyazaki and are always inspired by his very free way of designing creatures. Also creating creatures is one of the most fun games we play with our seven-year-old son. He inspires us."

NB: How did you create the feel of a world created from cutout wood?

S: "The technique of the film is quite elaborate and – as schedule and timings were very tight – it was very intuitive and new. The challenge of doing such a piece in four-five weeks meant we decided to make it all in CG, which gave us huge flexibility to use a wide range of techniques: from 2D drawn animation and artwork to sophisticated in-house coding in Maya to get all the assets together.

"In short, we can’t really say how we did it, but we knew what we were looking for and with the help of many talented people at Aardman, we bought it to life."

NB: What are you working on next?

"We are currently making a short film for Random Acts at Channel 4. It will be a live-action and animation mix, quite different from Winter Trees. We are also developing our first feature film with Creative England and Film4 – all of this while promoting and screening our short film Flytopia, [which was] made with Film4 and is based on a Will Self story. This is now screening at festivals round the world.

"We’d also love to make more music videos and commercials with Aardman."

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