Monday, August 16, 2010

Post 500: Celebrating the pioneers of animated music videos

To celebrate the 500th post in this blog in less than a year, I'm turning back the clock today to examine how we got to this point - to the point of being blessed with a seemingly never-ending stream of creative animated music videos in every conceivable format and style.

Animation is now ubiquitous in our visual culture. So much of today's marketing output uses 'motion graphics' in some form or another, and much of this output blurs the line between advertising and pure audiovisual artistic creation. The animated music video is an amorphous concept in many ways. Though there are many clear instances of animated music videos that fit the obvious definition of a PV for a song from a band's new album, there are also many other videos that are slightly outside of that framework but that still function on a basic level as animated music videos. This blog has tried to cover the obvious instances as well as the gray area, because it's impossible to be clear cut, and no fun.

For animation fans like me who love nothing more than seeing a good blending of music and animation, we're lucky to be living through a veritable renaissance of animated music videos. That's what's made it possible for me to post 500 music videos in less than one year. (and I've been somewhat selective about what I post, too.)

Although the genre of the animated music video as it exists today may perhaps be more directly the issue of the music video culture that emerged in the 80s, I'll be taking a different perspective here.

I'll be looking at things through the lens of animation as a tool for interpreting music; or to put it another way, I'll be pointing out animated films from the last 100 years in which the animation and music are intrinsically tied to one another, to a greater extent than would be the case in a normal film, animated or otherwise - films where the symbiosis of music and audio creates a new form of expression that is not merely mimetic but operatic. Films where there is a two-way conversation going on. This is the spirit that is shared with today's music videos.

Looking back over the last 100 years of animation history, there are a lot of candidates that seem to point forward to the music video, ranging from the cartoonish to the experimental. There's no single, clear-cut approach that you can pinpoint as the forbear. Just like today's videos, there are any number of different approaches you can take to visually interpreting music, or otherwise creating an audiovisual work of art. And I'm not just talking about using different techniques from hand-drawn animation to stop-motion to CGI to pixellation. The visual interpretation can be abstract, as in experimental films like the Poeme Electronique, or figural, as in traditional animation series like the Silly Symphony; it can be ephemeral and not literally tied to the music, or it can be synced in a very obvious and literal way; etc.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the best audiovisual works of the last 100 years; I'm sure there are many important ones I've left out. (feel free to supplement this list) These are just some of the ones that spring immediately to mind as being among my favorite and/or among the more innovative and significant forebears of today's animated music videos.

Noburo Ofuji: The Black Cat (1929)

Noburo Ofuji was not only one of Japan's pioneering animators, experimenting with various techniques including Chiyogami paper animation and colored cellophane/silhouette animation; he was also a pioneer in animated music videos. The Black Cat was the result of Ofuji being inspired by Steamboat Willie (1928) to experiment with making a record talkie film. He took an existing song and created animation matched to the music, so that they sync when the film and the record are started simultaneously.

The Fleischer Studios' Screen Songs series (1929-1938)

The Screen Songs were a series of animated films set to popular songs of the day made by the Fleischer Studios between 1929 and 1938, featuring lyrics with a bouncing ball. This makes the Screen Songs one of the more obvious precursors of today's animated music videos, in which an animated video is made based on a pre-existing song.

Disney's Silly Symphonies series (1929-1939)

Over roughly the same time period, from 1929 to 1939, Walt Disney Productions produced 75 films in their Silly Symphony series of animated musical shorts. Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first Silly Symphony made in Technicolor. These are not music videos set to a pre-existing piece, but rather musical animation.

Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker: Night on Bald Mountain (1933)

Outside of the big mainstream studios, a lot of more art-oriented animated films in the early-to-mid 20th century were set to pre-existing classical music rather than popular music. Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker invented pinscreen animation with this film set to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. This is one of the masterpieces in the history of animation. It's remarkable how brilliantly achieved most of the complex movements in the shots are, considering the whole film was essentially shot 'blind', on the completely new and extremely laborious medium of the pinscreen, without the ability to check a shot once it was photographed and do retakes, or to 'flip' the paper as you're animating to make sure the movement is coming out right. Even more remarkable is how, after all these decades, the film retains its impact as an exciting and imaginative visualization of this great music - the hallmark of a great music video.

Oskar Fischinger: Allegretto (1936)

Fischinger, the father of visual music, set many of his films to popular pieces out of the shrewd realization that catchy, popular music would make his abstract imagery more accessible to audiences than dour classical music. Some of his films were even used as actual promo videos to advertise new record releases, making him not just the father of visual music, but also one of the pioneers of today's animated promo video. Allegretto is perhaps his most accessible and vibrant visual music creation. He made many other great musical animated shorts in the late 20s and early 30s, notably the 12 films in the Studies series (which Andreas Nilsson paid homage to in his video for The Knife's Silent Shout), but Allegretto benefits immensely from the color, adding another dimension to the visual interpretation of the music. It's an exuberant, rhythmic, catchy piece, one of the best examples of proto-music video.

Fantasia Night on Bald Mountain sequence (1940)

A very different visual interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, this time the famous Chernabog sequence animated by Disney animator Vladimir "Bill" Tytla.

Len Lye: Free Radicals (1958)

New Zealand-born experimental film pioneer Len Lye made this film set to the music of the Bagirmi tribe of Africa by etching directly onto film, a technique earlier put to stellar use by Canadian Norman McLaren in Blinkity Blank (1955).

Edgar Varèse: Poème électronique (1958)

Electronic music pioneer Varèse composed this piece for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, and architect Le Corbusier, who designed the pavilion, put together a film interpreting his music. (more info)

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (1968)

Directed by George Dunning, this feature-length musical set to the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was novel in format, draping animated interpretations of the various songs in the cloak of a loose narrative about animated renditions of the Beatles fighting off Blue Meanies to save Pepperland. The format is thus unique, a whole film unified in the same style set to songs by the same artist, unlike Fantasia, with its various segments directed by different teams set to unrelated pre-existing pieces of classical music. It's perhaps the most obvious precursor of the animated music video, and of music videos in general.

Norman McLaren: Synchromy (1971)

McLaren made many other films set to music that could be included here, but this is my favorite. (Notably, McLaren joined hands with the aforementioned Alexander Alexeieff to make a pinscreen video to the Quebecois folk song En Passant in 1944.) One of the great masterpieces of visual music, in this amazing film the visuals ARE the music. The music was made by etching patterns onto the soundtrack portion of a film, and these patterns were then photographed onto the film, so that the images you are seeing are actually producing the sounds you are hearing. It's the ultimate in visual music. Norman McLaren himself describes the procedure for the film in detail here. The low-quality Youtube video does not do this film justice - buy the McLaren DVDs to see it in good quality.

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