Artist: High On Fire
Video: The Black Plot
How were you approached for the job?
Skinner approached us in December 2015 about producing/directing a project for High On Fire. We first met Skinner while working on Mastodon's "Asleep in the Deep" and developed a really amazing creative partnership that we wanted to continue. We knew we wanted to create something traditionally animated based on Skinner's conceptual designs but there wasn't a story yet. We also knew that the budget from the label wasn't going to line up with what we wanted to produce so we became EP's and funded a big part of the project. This put us in a unique position as far as creative control. It was a true collaboration between us, Skinner and High On Fire.
What inspired your idea?
Skinner had a simple story about Humans v Monsters on an alien planet locked in a endless war in which an indigenous species of creatures ended up monopolizing the results of a bloody battle. Gina and I then through storyboarding/edit started to add and enhance the narrative. We made the hero blinded by hubris and ego willing to sacrifice his army to finally defeat his longtime nemesis. Gina totally reworked the indigenous creatures to be a lone female Yeti that was more of a shaman/witch that had been plotting to take advantage of the warring factions for some time. She essentially became "The Black Plot".
Tell us about the production process?
The process was very similar to an animated feature film but with a much smaller team of artists. Skinner created the initial concept designs but we had to simplify them to be more animatable. His artwork is so special and unique it was challenging translating it into three dimensions. Gina's editing on this project was probably on of the most crucial creative aspects. She treated this bombastic metal song into as a film score that had three major story arcs in six minutes. You don't see that with music videos these days.
As far as the design, we knew pretty early on we wanted treat this as a mix media project. That is why there is digital glitch, hyper detailed matte paintings, and CGI all co-existing harmoniously. It is something Gina and I like to do with almost all of our projects. This process creates a more robust original look.
What programs did you use?
Flash, TV Paint, Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere, After Effects, Cinema 4D and Autodesk Flame. All of the layouts was painted by Skinner.
What were the limitations you faced with the production?
We had to produce this project while commercial projects were happening at our studio. Having to juggle corporate clients and something this ambitious was very challenging and not something I am going to repeat. The budget was also very challenging. 2D animation is very expensive and laborious and most of our team was in Canada so that added another layer of production complexity to the project.
What was the project turnaround?
We originally wanted to have the final in April... then it became June... then it became August. It was very frustrating but something as complicated and ambitious as this wasn't going to be born without a fight.
It was clear the project was a beast to tame. How did you and the team battle to meet the deadline? Did you have to re-invent the production process at all or did you all just get on with it?
Comprising was never an option for us that was the big motivator to reboot the project with a new animation team but simplifying some action, using more of Skinner's matte paintings and moving some animation and other FX into comp was our solution. In the end, we probably had too many characters but we had to match the intensity of the song. I love that you need to watch the video a couple times to catch all of the animation and layers of the scenes.
Who were your key collaborators?
Aside from Skinner, our animation lead Simon Ampel contributed quite a lot. He is one of the few animators in NYC that can animate Frank Frazetta/Jack Kirby style heroes and monsters. Also animators David Routhier and Sam Leyja also added so much to this project. Our editor/C4D artist Jonah Oskow created all of that amazing Kirby Krackle animation during the dream/death sequence. One other collaborator/supporter was Adult Swim. I can't thank them enough for airing a teaser and the video.
Have you worked with any of them before?
This was our first time working with the entire team on this project. I can't wait to work with them again.
How involved were the band and label?
They really left us alone. We never got any creative input. We actually created all of the marketing assets as well. Which include a trailer, 4 montage clips for social media and a PR deck. I really wanted to create a cinematic Hollywood trailer for it that got people amped to tune into Adult Swim so our collaborator Chris Denman scored the trailer with those metal BRAHHMMMMS you hear in the intro. It's over used with Hollywood films but I thought if they were guitar chords it would breathe some new life into the format.
If you had a chance to approach it again, what would you do differently?
We learned so much on this project. I would be much more selective in the hiring of animators. Also, the next project we produce with Skinner we are going to travel to Oakland. I feel the pre-production stage is the most important in the animation process. Technology allows us to work with artists remotely around the world but you need to be in the same room with your collaborators to produce the best work possible.
So is there any anything else in the pipeline with Skinner? Or a long form project you both are planning?
We have multiple animation projects in development right now because of "The Black Plot". HBJ is developing a series as well. We want to make the "Breaking Bad" of dramatic animated episodic content. We had the biggest metal band in the world reach out about a video but we had to pass because of schedule. Hopefully we can work together in the future. We love working with Skinner as well and can't wait to collaborate with him again soon.