The Evolution of Gorillaz
Samuel Spencer tracks the virtual animated band into the lair of Passion Animation Studios, the studio behind some of Gorillaz’ greatest hits.
The gorilla (Latin name gorilla gorilla) is a large simian, with males of the species reaching heights of around 1.7m. Gorillaz (Latin name gorillaz gorillaz, probably), is a huge animated band, reaching number one in the singles and album charts and selling over 17 million records. While the former only has a grasp of the most rudimentary tools, the latter has been at the forefront of animation technology for nearly two decades.
Samuel Spencer heads, Jane Goodall-style, into the mists of Soho to track these wild animators in the lair of Passion Animation, the studio behind some of Gorillaz’ greatest hits - and the current shots cover.
Simple Simians: 2000-2002
While today’s apes evolved from insect-eating proto-primates, the Gorillaz evolved from a project for a brand that’s also been consigned to history. As Cara Speller, Passion’s EP for animated film and TV, who has worked on the band’s projects since its inception, reminisces, “We had been working on a Virgin Cola spot with Jamie [Hewlett], and he mentioned that he and his flatmate were starting an animated band, and asked whether we were interested in doing a music video with them. Then he mentioned his flatmate was Damon Albarn and we said: ‘Where do we sign?!’”
Despite their name now being synonymous with the latest tech, Gorillaz’ first video, Tomorrow Comes Today, released in 2000, could not have been any more traditional if Walt Disney had awoken from his cryogenic catacomb and directed it himself. “We were using pencils and paper,” remembers Speller. “I think it was lightboxes with people flipping paper, drawing in pencil, photographing the paper, scanning it in. I think the only digital elements were the ink and paint, the colouring of the drawings, which we did in Toonz software at the time.”
“Inspiration is never restricted to one project. It comes in from everywhere and goes out where needed” - Jamie Hewlett, co-creator, Gorillaz
The reasons for such a traditional approach? “With that first video, it was an unknown quantity. Even though Damon and Jamie’s work was very well known in their respective fields, no one knew if this was going to work or not. We had a relatively small budget from the record label, so by necessity we made something very simple, which had Jamie’s beautiful artwork barely moving against some video footage that we shot around Soho one night.”
That said, even in the tetralogy of videos released from the band’s eponymous debut album (Tomorrow Comes Today, Clint Eastwood, 19/2000, Rock the House), there is huge development. Of the progress between Tomorrow… and Clint Eastwood, Speller says: “On [Clint…] we were able to be a bit bolder with it. It’s an incredible track, and there was definitely a progression there, with much more movement in the animation. Saying that, it was still fairly limited – we used a lot of cycles of animation. But that didn’t feel like a compromise stylistically. It really suited the track and that really suited the mood at the time.”
The song was a top five hit in the UK, and much of that is due to the video, a classic of its kind, offering a primate pastiche of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “It was so well received worldwide that it really helped kick things off for the band,” says Speller.
This success presented Passion with both benefits and challenges. What made the Gorillaz so popular (apart from the fact that those early singles are certifiable bangers) was Jamie Hewlett’s unique animation work, but there was only one Hewlett. “What has always been a struggle throughout our years of working with the band,” Speller says, “is finding enough people who can draw like Jamie. His style is incredibly unique. We are lucky enough to work with the finest 2D animators on the planet, but even so we’ve had a really hard time getting enough people who can really do the artwork justice and produce a video in a reasonable amount of time.”
“[Clint…] is an incredible track, and there was definitely a progression there, with much more movement in the animation” - Cara Speller
How do they find these feted animators? Do they have to pass a draw-like-Jamie test? Well, in a way. “On every production there’s a period where people have to spend a little time getting into that style and maybe not quite getting it right first time. Honing that creative eye that Jamie has takes a little bit of ramp-up time.”
Apes Around the World: 2002–2010
But finding Hewlett-alikes would be the least of Passion’s problems when it came to the next stage of the Gorillaz project. If a virtual band is to truly be a band, then it has to tour. But how can four characters who only exist in storyboards and on a group of animators’ computers take to the physical stage? One solution presented itself when Passion helped the band to perform at the 2002 Brit Awards. Set among a night of performances including Mis-Teeq, a Shaggy duet with Ali G, and a Jamiroquai and Anastacia collaboration were the four members of Gorillaz, seeming to appear on stage with rap group Phi Life Cypher. How was it done? “We had these enormous LED screens, that were matched into the look of the stage so that it looked like the characters were there. They had one screen each and they were about 20 feet high,” explains Speller.
“It was a big illusion, trying to convince people the characters were really standing on the stage. The show’s producers wanted to create one of their famous musical mashups between guests” - Cara Speller
For their next major awards show appearance, the 2006 Grammys, Passion went back to the history books to get the band on stage, choosing a hi-tech solution plucked straight out of the 19th century. Pepper’s Ghost is a Victorian parlour trick that reflects the image of an object from one room to another. While the original effect used plates of glass, Passion used a kind of transparent film, described by head of CG Jason Nicholas as “a very large diameter film, almost like the film used to make audio cassette tapes, but entirely transparent”. Alongside this film they rigged up “a system of projectors and reflecting surfaces – white surfaces rather than mirrors – so that the image gets bounced on to this transparent screen, which is at a 45-degree angle to the stage. That makes the image appear to be upright and behind it.”
As if dealing with multiple top-of-the-range projectors and setting this all up wasn’t complicated enough, Passion also had to project the real Madonna alongside the animated Gorillaz, with the Queen of Pop seeming to interact with the band. As Speller explains, “It was a big illusion, trying to convince people the characters were really standing on the stage. The show’s producers wanted to create one of their musical mashups between guests. So we asked Madonna, who was about to do her track on the next stage, made sure she was in the same costume that she’s going to appear in three minutes later, and filmed her in advance in the same way, so it looks like it’s in the same space. In that way you could get Murdoc walking in front and behind her, which wouldn’t have been possible if she had been live on stage.”
Whereas the first stage of the band had relied on traditional animation, this project saw Gorillaz working at the forefront of technology. “Arri, the camera company, was literally making modifications to the chip in the camera while we were shooting, and it kept overheating because it wasn’t quite production ready.” Those of you looking for gossip on Madonna’s notoriously diva-ish behaviour, however, will be disappointed, as apparently, “She was awesome. Entirely professional.”
Gorillaz Go 3D: 2010–2017
Following these high-profile performances and technological triumphs, Passion and Gorillaz had to up the ante when it was time for the band to release their third studio album, Plastic Beach. They did it by literally adding another dimension to the band, turning the quartet into 3D CGI characters.
Full-on is definitely the word for the first video from this new-look Gorillaz – Stylo, a five-minute mini movie featuring car chases, stunts and Bruce Willis. “It was a lot of fun, a big ‘We’re BACK!’ for the band!” jokes Speller, “and at that point it was probably the biggest budget that we’ve had for a music video.” Despite having acted alongside such luminaries as Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and the babies of Look Who’s Talking/Look Who’s Talking Too (as well as having the simian-titled 12 Monkeys on his reel) working with four Gorillaz was still a challenge for Willis.
“We needed him to interact with the space the characters would occupy,” Speller explains. “The flow of the events is that Jamie did the storyboards and we cut that to the track, so we had a fantastic template of what needed to happen and when. We shot the live action with Bruce Willis acting to markers where the characters were going to be. Then we came back to the studio and went through the process of animating those characters individually and placing them in the scene at the right point in the right place.”
Why was 2010 the right time to take the characters into three dimensions? For Passion, it was a technical decision, with Nicholas noting that “Over the years, processes become so much easier to deal with. You don’t have to have ILM and 200 people working on it.” Plus, the look of the band had already altered between Gorillaz and sophomore album Demon Days.
“The characters have evolved each time there’s been a new album,” says Speller, “not just the design of them. They grow up, they look slightly different. Murdoc and Russel are fairly constant, but 2D and Noodle in particular have changed drastically. Each time it’s been a new process of Jamie preparing sketches from every angle and with every expression. If it’s CG we model a character, we overlay one of Jamie’s drawings on it, we check the proportions are looking mostly right, then we show him and he comes in and says ‘Yeah, but actually that hair isn’t quite working at the back with that volume,’ or whatever.” Nicholas adds that this process takes “about a month from 2D to a model Jamie’s happy with. Some are quicker than others, but things like mouth shapes and hair take time because they’re quite distinctive.”
Very Modern Monkeys: 2017–
Even considering their previous technological successes, the band really outdid themselves in the run-up to their latest release, Humanz. So far we’ve seen a 360-degree VR video, a live interview with the animated band, and a selection of augmented reality work – including the cover of the current issue of shots magazine, which stars sassy lead guitarist Noodle. Why was she chosen? “I suppose we all love Noodle unerringly, and she does guide my hand the most, but I don’t have a favourite among the characters,” insists Hewlett. “They’re way too complex for that.”
“I suppose we all love Noodle unerringly, and she does guide my hand the most, but I don’t have a favourite among the characters. They’re too complex for that” - Jamie Hewlett
Our fantastic cover aside, one major highlight this year has been a live YouTube interview, which saw two members of the band, 2D and Murdoc, transformed into digital puppets to answer questions posed by fans in real time. But how do you get what are essentially cartoon characters to react to people in the real world? For inspiration, Passion looked to their 2014 Nike campaign, The Last Game, which featured footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic in animated form. Using motion capture, they created an animated version of the Swedish forward who answered fans’ questions, which had been submitted via social media. A voice actor provided an impersonation of Ibrahimovic’s voice, and the whole thing was brought together using a game engine. For the Nike project they had what Speller estimated was a “10-minute turnaround”, whereas the Gorillaz YouTube interview was live, partly due to an improvement in game engines over the years since the Nike campaign.
Then there was Saturnz Barz, a 360 promo so technologically cutting edge that “the team at Google Spotlight Stories were writing code while we were in production on the video,” says Speller. The retina-burning experience was a project beyond the comprehension of many VR experts. “What we did there was put traditional 2D hand drawn characters into a CG 360 stereoscopic environment. If you say that to anyone who works in VR they will look at you like you’re insane. But it worked, and people seem to really like it. That’s a really interesting collision of worlds – the absolute forefront of technology. It’s where viewing experiences are potentially headed, combined with the oldest form of animation.”
What will the next evolution of Noodle, Russel, Murdoc and 2D look like? Not even Hewlett knows. “Inspiration is never restricted to one project,” he concludes cryptically. “It comes in from everywhere and goes out where needed. Sometimes the characters are 3D, sometimes 2D, whatever suits them at the time. They have moods like the rest of us and have grown up with the same needs and challenges as we have.” One thing’s for sure: these simian superstars will continue to astound, delight and awe audiences with their blend of the traditional and the technological.