As our series continues, we discuss the role visual effects have played in the evolution of music videos in the 1990s. Be sure to check out our previous post on visual effects in ’80s music videos, and be on the look out for our ’00s post next week.

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Peter Gabriel – “Kiss That Frog”

The early ‘90s saw an increase in crude computer generated imagery blended with live action, which allowed artists to play with scale and create intense dreamlike/nightmarish scenes.

Billy Idol – “Shock To The System”

There was still some reliance on stop-motion techniques to create shots, although editors were becoming more aware of the obvious nature of these shots and cut the stop motion in a more choppy and hectic manner. See Billy Idol’s “Shock To The System” and Bjork’s “Human Behaviour”.

Videos produced from the 1990s onward were often listed with director credits, as the popular medium gave budding prodigies an entry point to the lucrative film world. Notable directors making music videos during this decade include David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Floria Sigismondi, Michel Gondry, and Hype Williams.

Paula Abdul – “Opposites Attract”

Paula Abdul exploded onto the music scene in the early ‘90s with “Opposites Attract” featuring MC Skat Kat: a sassy animated feline who gyrated with a live-action Paula. The video fed off the film success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, released in 1988, but the Jerry Mouse dancing scene in Gene Kelly’s 1945 movie “Anchors Aweigh” originally inspired it.

MC Hammer – “Here Comes The Hammer”

MC Hammer (yes, the same one who made parachute pants popular) released an important special effects music video in 1991 to accompany his track “Here Comes The Hammer”. The video is notable for its early and successful use of particles, which helped transition the teleporting Hammer & Co. from scene to outrageous scene.

U2 – “Even Better Than The Real Thing”

Post-punk Irish rockers U2 and director Kevin Godley gained notice for the opening fist fractal at the beginning of “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, but what made an even bigger splash were the vertiginous 360° shots of the band using a unique rollover camera rig.

Let’s Get Rocked’” by Def Leppard saw the return of creative genius Steve Barron, who directed “Money For Nothing” and “Take On Me” (see them in our The Evolution of Music Videos – 1980s post). Steve’s profound sense of style and desire to push the technological boundaries served him well as he crafted a singular work of high commercial art. The video embraced 3D wireframes, animated avatars, highly stylized color-treated live-action, and CG environments.

Rolling Stones – “Love Is Strong”

While the Rolling Stones had achieved major music success, they hadn’t produced a video to equal their record sales triumph. That all changed when they teamed up with famed feature film director David Fincher in 1995 — the same year he directed “Seven” — and made the exaggerated scale-disparity video for “Love Is Strong”. Oversized band members and others rise up from the streets of NYC, and strut through the Big Apple in a video that is ripe with amazing cinematography and thick with stellar compositing.

Michael Jackson – “Scream”

1995 saw struggling star Michael Jackson team up with sister Janet for a track that rallied against Michael’s rampant detractors and accusers. “Scream” was a pure minimalist, sci-fi invention that utilized intense lens distortions, gravity-defying performances and employed extensive CG environments. Directed by Mark Romanek, the video even sported a customized font to add some typographical flair. Both siblings embraced a darker self-image and performed powerfully on screen. “Scream” is widely regarded to be one of the best music videos of recent decades. Period.

The Smashing Pumpkins came out strong in ‘96 with their video for “Tonight Tonight,” directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who went on to direct feature film “Little Miss Sunshine”). Dialing into a popular steampunk aesthetic while taking inspiration from Georges Méliès’s silent film A Trip to the Moon, the video showed Corgan and band members clad in turn of the century garb, aboard a space-bound zeppelin. Moon landings, space jumping and alien bashing ensued. The video and song were spectacularly popular. Two videos stood out as being fascinatingly surreal in 1998. The first was Aerosmith’s highly polished catwalk fantasy for their track “Pink”. The video was created by music video veteran Doug Nichol and showed the band members’ heads atop bodies that are certainly not their own. The minimalist aesthetic of the white environment allowed viewers to focus their concentration on the live-action, upping the ante on the compositors, which they handled beautifully. The second example from 1998’s surreal reel was Garbage’s “Push It”. This video was very different both in the look and feel of their production and also in the techniques used. “Push It” was definitely a piece that wasn’t afraid to embrace the technological issues that were present in the collective psyche as the clock counted down to Y2K. The myriad of scenes styles, the film stock used, the make-up worn, the post-production techniques all contributed to a rare, if not coherent, dystopian piece of work.

Busta Rhymes – “What’s It Gonna Be?”

Janet Jackson enjoyed another successful video collaboration in ‘99 when she teamed up with rapping sensation Busta Rhymes for “What’s It Gonna Be?”. CG liquid effects were featured heavily throughout the piece, showing a significant advancement in fluid techniques on this scale. Bear in mind 1991’s Terminator 2 featured a liquid metal T-1000 model that had only 5 minutes of VFX screen time, which took 25 people 10 months to complete. Too many numbers? Agreed. Let’s move on.

Fast forward to the 2000s! Or, check out part 1 – 1980s!

In this latest series, we’re taking a look at the role visual effects have played in the evolution of music videos. We’re focusing on the ’80s for this first post, and will share our thoughts on the ’90s and ’00s in the upcoming weeks.

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Music videos have only been “music videos” for a relatively short period of time. The genesis of the music video, as we know it today, began with promotional videos from the 1960s, consisting mainly of edited performance footage that was cut with additional b-roll.

As television shows featuring contemporary music increased in popularity, bands and producers were able to find new creative outlets by filming specialized performances, and occasionally adding some avant-garde material.

Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Bohemian Rhapsody bravely cracked open the unsullied shell that had cocooned music video potential up to this point. Set to Freddie Mercury’s “mock opera” sounds, bassist Brian May says the 1975 video was shot as a way for the band to minimize the amount of time they would have to lip-sync to the complex arrangement while appearing live on television. Little did director Bruce Gowers know that his promotional video was about to ignite a flame of artistic pursuit that would blaze throughout generations of audio/visual achievement.

Michael Jackson – “Thriller”

Less than a decade after “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a diminutive former boy band frontman known as Michael Jackson blew the collective music video fan-mind. Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” video was a watershed moment, bridging the gap between the short film and the music video, and forever blurring that line. The thirteen-minute spectacle transformed the music video from a sometimes awkward screen filler into a sensational cog in the music industry machine.

Inspired by the visionary nature of Thriller, coupled with the digital tools pioneered by filmmakers and a dedicated channel called MTV, music videos in the ’80s quickly became a rich playground for aspirational and daring visual effects artists. This transformative decade brimmed with experimentation as artists found ways to combine their carefully honed skills using in-camera effects (matte paintings, miniatures, make-up, costume, stop motion animation) while adding digital enhancements (painting over video, CG objects, virtual backdrops, atmospheric effects and, eventually, particles).

A-ha – “Take On Me”

The Cars employed some promising digital techniques in their video for “You Might Think” (1984) thanks to Chrlx, while Lindsey Buckingham collaborated with notable editor and VFX pioneer David Yardley for his effects-enhanced video “Go Insane” (1985). But it was Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha and their release of “Take On Me” in 1986 that garnered a massive amount of critical acclaim for the innovative sketch technique used in their video. Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger’s frame-by-frame drawings transformed a common love story/quest into a fantastical journey that involved a parallel world crossover. Months of rotoscoping and thousands of pages of pencil work ensured this piece would be one of the most expensive and impressive music videos of its time.

Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing”

That same year director Steve Barron, who worked on Michael Jackson’s mega hit video “Billie Jean” and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” was also behind the Dire Straits video “Money For Nothing” which featured blocky CG characters and frame-by-frame enhancements to footage of the band. By today’s standards the chunky figures appear laughably crude, but at the time the video first appeared the visual impact and techniques involved were quite stunning.

ZZ Top – “Rough Boy”

ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” single, also from 1986, was accompanied by an impressive piece of VFX compositing. Suspended rectangular frames featured a scene within them that changed as the camera rotated behind it. A simple device that was well used to great effect.

Michael Jackson – “Leave Me Alone”

As the eighties matured, there was a rise in stop-motion and collage videos where bits and pieces of background, foreground and characters were cobbled together from obviously diverse sources and animated to form some surreal sense of place, space and time. VFX auteur Peter Gabriel applied this technique in his fantastic “Sledgehammer” video, and Paul Simon received notable acclaim for his use of the aesthetic in “The Boy In The Bubble.” But nobody came close to Michael Jackson’s 1989 “Leave Me Alone”, a sheer tour-de-force of animated photo-montage goodness. While it would be another 12 years before the animated newspaper photo would achieve near-perfection in the Harry Potter movies, Jacko’s VFX guy Jim Blashfield offered a damn good rendition as the ‘80s came to a close.

Up next – the 1990s!

In this post we speak with Dave Walvoord, Visual Effects Supervisor at DreamWorks Animation, who oversees the CG work for the Oscar nominated How to Train Your Dragon films (with the third installment currently in production). Our very own Jesse Vartanian (MindInMotion) catches up with Dave to discuss his role at Dreamworks, the key to making hit films, and creative inspiration.

JESSE VARTANIAN: Would you mind giving our readers a rundown on your direct responsibilities as the Visual Effects Supervisor?

DAVE WALVOORD: At DreamWorks the Visual Effects Supervisor is responsible for supervising the CG department. This includes modeling, rigging, surfacing, character effects, crowds, FX, lighting and matte painting. In reality though the role is far more nuanced.

As part of the core creative team, I partner with the director, production designer, head of layout, head of character animation, producer, etc. to help the director realize their vision on time and on budget. We all collaborate and our roles are never quite so clearly defined as an org chart might suggest.

One of my biggest responsibilities is working with the producer and director to discover creative ways of achieving a vision that might otherwise be over budget. This was especially true on a film like How to Train Your Dragon 2 which was extremely ambitious in scope.

My favorite part of my responsibilities is contributing to the creative direction for the departments I work with. In pre-production I do a lot of planning, bidding and scheduling. The fun happens in production when we start making the film and finally get to see the pictures.

JV: What is the first month of work going to be like when you start on How to Train Your Dragon 3?

DW: For How to Train Your Dragon 3, it will start slow with a lot of reflection on what parts of our process we were happy with and what parts of our process we found frustrating on How to Train Your Dragon 2. From there, we will plan how we want to run production of the third movie.

Once we have the script, we can break it down and really start to understand what challenges are ahead of us. I can guarantee that our Director, Dean DeBlois, and our Production Designer, Pierre-Olivier Vincent, will dream up new challenges that we do not yet know how to tackle.

How To Train Your Dragon 2

(Photo credit to: http://moviepilot.com)

JV: Your professional background is really interesting to me, starting in live action film and switching over to animation. Did you have to drastically change your approach in visual effects from a live action film to an animated film or did you find it to be quite similar?

DW: The last time I did live action work was in 1999 on Fight Club. Back then I was primarily doing character integration into live action plates. So, as Blue Sky did its first animated film, Ice Age, the work was quite a bit different, although the fundamentals were perhaps the same. Mostly it differed in scale and ownership. We were no longer matching to a plate that a cinematographer had shot, we owned the entire frame. That was incredibly liberating and rewarding.

Now though when you look at films like Gravity or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the visual effects are at an enormous scale and there is a lot of close collaboration with the cinematographer, so those dynamics have shifted dramatically during the 15 years I have been away from visual effects.

JV: Over the years you have been a part of incredibly successful animated films such as Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2, Over The Hedge, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and many more. Is there a specific recipe that you follow in hopes to make another hit movie, or techniques you take from past films and apply them to your new project?

DW: The success of the movies that I’ve worked on is mostly because I have been at a company that has a good story process and good storytellers. I have very little input on story, so I will gladly take credit for being part of the visuals, but the box office success is tied much more to making movies with stories that resonate with our audience.

In terms of how we approach our films I believe in something I call “CG Natural Selection.” Good ideas survive and bad ideas go extinct. We carry forward new ideas that work. We also look to the rest of the industry to see what good ideas we can use from other companies. And, we are always pushing for new software and hardware innovations.

One of the rewarding things of being at a company like DreamWorks for 12 years is that I’ve seen our crew’s talent improve dramatically. If I think about where I was as an artist 12 years ago, it is amazing to me how much I’ve been able to grow with the challenges I face daily and the mentors available to me at DreamWorks. Multiply that by hundreds of artists and our entire company has improved in the same way as it has matured. I think that growth shows in a movie like How To Train Your Dragon 2.

How To Train Your Dragon 2
(Photo credit to: www.howtotrainyourdragon.com)

JV: We talked about being locked into software when you start a new project for the duration of the film. The reason being of course, films take years to make and you cannot suddenly switch software halfway through if something new happens to come along. When starting HTTYD 3, do you have any influence in what tools you will use, or is everything proprietary for the most part?

DW: At DreamWorks we are producing two to three films a year and probably have something like 10 at various stages of production at any given time. For cost reasons we maintain a consistent pipeline in the studio that evolves over time.

When a new movie starts I have some influence on software, but really it is very limited. Mostly my influence will involve championing a piece of software that I think will make a positive impact on our production and committing the production to ensuring its successful adoption if we get studio buy in. Likewise it goes the other way, where the studio requires adoption of certain software packages by our film because of the strategic direction the company is choosing to pursue.

We maintain a mix of proprietary and commercial software. Our goal is to write software that we think will be able to fill a need that commercial software currently does not and otherwise to use third party tools when they do fit our needs.

JV: Do you prefer creating sequels to movies, or creating something entirely new?

DW: They each have their advantages. It seems that original movies are harder. Defining an animation universe and style is incredibly challenging. It is very rewarding when it all comes together to create something original, but the process can be painful.

For sequels the universe is well defined, so you get to focus on the craft a lot more. When I look at Kung Fu Panda 2 it was so much better executed than the first movie. The style was solidified and more coherent and the images were richer.

It was a fun production and we were proud of the results. However, looking back at Kung Fu Panda, while it was more raw, there is something so original about it. I think the design ideas in Kung Fu Panda hold up really well even if the visuals have already become dated.

The question I usually have is that while I notice these differences, does the audience? We’re very harsh critics of our own work. I think that is a trait you frequently find in artists doing the best work. But, at the same time animation is a commercial product and you want to spend your effort on the areas that matter most to your audience, not just yourself.

HTTYD2

(Photo credit to: http://saltypopcorn.com.au/)

JV: I know we discussed the work hours becoming quite chaotic during the last six or so months of a film. Can you take your mind off of work after you finish a two or three year production, or are you already thinking about the next new project?

DW: Everytime I finish a project I’m a mess because of the stress more than the hours. We invest so much of ourselves into our films that we lose perspective. As I look back at How to Train Your Dragon 2, I’m amazed at things that seemed like a huge deal: mistakes I made, problems I wanted to fix but ran out of budget for or shortcuts that we had to take because we were running out of time.

With a little perspective you realize that in most cases no one notices those little things, in fact you may even realize it intellectually during production, but at that point in time you are so wrapped up in the success of the project you can’t see that the little things may not matter. It becomes an emotional attachment that can cloud your judgment. My wife is very understanding and patient while I get back to being myself after a movie wraps, but it can take a toll on the entire family.

JV: Last Question: What inspires you?

DW: I think I’m inspired when a story transports me to a different world. And this is not just with animation or live-action, but with books as well. Of course, when the story is told with pictures that is where it is most relevant to my work.

I love being part of the process of creating an alternate universe where the world comes from our imaginations. I don’t think people realize how difficult that process is. It’s very hard just to come up with a unique vision. But even more than that you have to develop a consistent set of laws that governs how things look, move and behave in your universe. And you can’t just violate those rules for the convenience of the plot. The story and design all have to work together so that it meshes seamlessly, otherwise it won’t ring true to the audience.

 How To Train Your Dragon 2 Official Opening Scene (2014) - Animation Sequel HD
We’re diving back into the most exhilarating part of the Super Bowl… the commercials!
Only kidding, but it’s where we saw some great visual effects. Check out our favorites from this year’s game.
1. Dodge – “Wisdom”

This Super Bowl commercial for Dodge was simply classic. This approach is so fitting when you factor in that this iconic American brand has been around for such a long time. The art direction in the photography was just as it should be, up-close, dark and gritty while the script is clever and edgy.

 Official 2015 Dodge Super Bowl Commercial | Wisdom | #DodgeWisdom

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2. Mercedes “Fable”

They teased this commercial for a couple of weeks before the big game, and ended up being worth the wait. I thought there really wasn’t enough surprise in the story itself, but on the other hand I thought this commercial was visually top notch. Tons of unique, highly detailed characters all interacting in a beautiful environment. I can’t even imagine what the render times were like, especially on the incredibly photo real Mercedes.

 Mercedes-Benz "Fable" Commercial :60

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3. Mophie – “All Powerless”

This was probably one of the most conceptual commercials we saw this year, and one of my favorites. So the world is ending because God’s phone has run out of battery, and Mophie is a battery backup company. What an insanely creative idea to market a product! The execution was perfect, the dramatic buildup and cinematic quality VFX leading up to the humorous punchline.

 mophie 2015 Game Day Commercial | “All-Powerless”

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4. Kia – “The Perfect Getaway”

This was another one of my favorite ads during this year’s Super Bowl. Pitching a leisurely drive to a cabin for a car commercial, then cutting to action superstar Pierce Brosnan never happens, right? This is the ultimate ironic advertisement, and is done in such a way that it’s too funny. I think we can all relate to the idea of pitching a concept like this, and if not, then at least to the awesome VFX!

Christmas may be behind us but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to enjoy these holiday-themed projects. Check out our favorite festive pieces:
1. Hermes Noel

It isn’t the holidays without a heart-warming underdog story. Hermès Noel Hornet

2. Happy Holidays from Rodeo FX

Two words: Bucking Santa! Happy Holidays from Rodeo FX / Joyeuses Fêtes de Rodeo FX Rodeo FX

3. Ugly Sweater Invaders

We love this creative spin on a holiday video and have our fingers crossed for a longer cut next year! Ugly Sweater Invaders Kelden Peterson

4. Mad Crew Christmas Card 2014

Killer animation! Madcrew Christmas Card 2014 Mad Crew

5. GenArts Holiday Card

Our sponsors, GenArts, put a creative and festive spin on their new software package! Happy Holidays from GenArts GenArts

6. Samsung Holiday Dreams

1stAveMachine puts Samsung’s collection of products to creative use to tell this story. Samsung Holiday Dreams 1stAveMachine

7. Careful what you wish for…

We sincerely hope you had a better Christmas than poor Hubert here did. Careful what you wish for... Sehsucht

This Thanksgiving season we’re enjoying food in an entirely different way.
1. Wrigley Extra ‘Paparazzi’

You know you’ve found true love when he’d change his sprinkles for you. Wrigley Extra The Mill

2. Potatoes that Speak for Themselves

A pack of picked potatoes put in a paper packet…try saying that 5 times fast. Potatoes That Speak For Themselves Blinkink

3. Oasis Be Fruit

Who knew a mango could do the moonwalk and the Carelton so well? OASIS BE FRUIT - #BETROPICAL Marcel

4. Fruit Snacks “Buffet”

A Fruit Roll-Up, Fruit by the Foot, and Gusher walk into a cafeteria… Fruit Snacks "Buffet" Buck TV

5. Naturesweet “Stop The Abuse”

Punctured, poked, squeezed to death — These tomatoes have had it! Wizz // Naturesweet Wizz