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 shots’ cover)
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 lm 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 atmate 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.”
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 nest 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.”
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.”