Lockdown music: 2D animation steps up

Depending on which side of the crisis you’re looking at, the pandemic has impacted the independent music industry in more ways than one. On the one side, there’s amateur home quarantine videos and on the other, a cache of incredibly creative animated videos. The lockdown seems to be the golden age for the latter, with everyone from country star Keith Urban to alt-rap duo Run The Jewels making one. And the views suggest that the audience is hooked.

Closer home in Kozhikode, Kerala, actor-rapper Neeraj Madhav has gained over 1 crore views for the 2D animated video of his Malayalam rap song ‘Panipaali’. NJ, as he is known, believes that comedy and animation can help increase the following for hip-hop in the state. “My last EP [extended play record], ‘Jungle Speaks’, was political and received well, but it wasn’t super popular,” says the 30-year-old. In ‘Panipaali’, he switched to all-out fun, complete with a dance sequence and a bloodthirsty vampire. No, it isn’t ‘Thriller’, but the comic-style pop animation got his audience to take up a dance challenge (which has gone viral on social media) thus bringing the song more eyeballs. “Animating the dance, frame by frame, was the most challenging [and fun] part,” says Aluva-based animator Amal Anthony, who used the rotoscope technique to trace over moving images, creating realistic animation.

NJ shares that besides the logistical challenge of being unable to shoot a live action video during the pandemic, animation held more appeal because it did justice to the fantasy element in his song. It took close to a month for Anthony, who goes by the name Spacemarley, to wrap up the video, but the effort has clearly been worth it. He has been inundated with work ever since the video went viral. “I actually have no time to take on more work and have committed to five videos so far,” says the 24-year-old.

A still from Anisha Uppal’s ‘Skin’, animated by Nandini Gautam

A still from Anisha Uppal’s ‘Skin’, animated by Nandini Gautam
 

Free your imagination

As with all genres of performing art, reaching out to audiences via videos on social media and YouTube has been a crucial part of staying relevant in the last few months. And engaging visuals are key to this. For many, the lockdown has been an escape from reality and animation is one of the best forms of surrealistic expression, agree artistes. This week, singer-songwriter Banat Kaur Bagga launched a lyric video for her track ‘Flish’. The soulful pop song is on a fish and a fly that imagine the grass is greener on the other side even though both live around the same murky pond. “I’m always imagining my songs in my head as a phantasmagoria, and that’s often too expensive [or impossible] to replicate in real life. You can explore all these possibilities with illustrations or animation,” says Bagga, 25.

However, for animation artists, music videos provide an opportunity to experiment. “Abstract combinations that we don’t get to see in this world, like a purple sky or blue grass, were the initial images that popped into my mind, to balance the real and the mystical,” says Mumbai-based animation artist Drishali Motwani, 23, who worked on the video for ‘Flish’, which is a departure from her branding work for companies.

While animation for music videos has been around for years — especially for lyric videos and animated album covers — they have been popular with independent artistes of late because of the budget. The cost to produce these range anywhere between ₹15,000 and ₹30,000, depending on the scope and quality of graphics (a 2D video will need a minimum budget of ₹1 lakh). Artistes also prefer animation since the production time is significantly lesser when compared to a live action video. “I can release the video much faster and now is the time to do so since everyone is at home,” says Delhi-based singer, composer and pianist Anisha Uppal, 29, who launched the video for her buoyant folk-pop track ‘Skin’ last month.

Uppal’s shimmering vocals and honest lyrics seem to have been written to fit the endearing images created and animated by Nandini Gautam. The 20-year-old Delhi-based graphic artist, who drew every frame by hand, tells us that the lockdown gave her a lot of time to focus on the video — she spent close to 25 days on ‘Skin’. “Whenever I work on a music video, I tend to listen to the music on loop and the colours just come to me. Mostly, it is impromptu,” says Gautam, who has worked on three music videos during lockdown, with more in the pipeline.

(Anti-clockwise from top right) Animators Drishali Motwani, Amal Anthony, Nandini Gautam and director Daksh Jain

(Anti-clockwise from top right) Animators Drishali Motwani, Amal Anthony, Nandini Gautam and director Daksh Jain
 

All senses alert

Beyond the realm of fantasy and folklore, animation also brings stories of yore into the present. Singer Pragnya Wakhlu’s video for her evocative Kashmiri-English track, ‘Katyuchuk My Love’, deserves special mention because of its standout arrangement and equally striking visuals. Released in June, the song opens with the welcome sound of the santoor and the video recreates the love story of 16th century Kashmiri poetess, Habakhatoon, and King Yousuf Shah Chak using papercut animation and hand-drawn illustrations. “‘Katyuchuk’ is a sensory experience of sight, touch [papercut animation], hearing and the mind,” says Dehradun-based Daksh Jain, who directed the video. Since the 25-year-old is also a musician, his perspective as the video director was invaluable. “Deconstructing another musician’s brief is tricky and calls for empathy, respect to the composition, understanding of the layers of meaning and, of course, preserving the emotion,” says Jain, who worked with illustrator Anubhav Kukreti and animation artist Aditya Verma.

Delhi-based Wakhlu had grand plans for the video, which was produced well before the lockdown. “I wanted to tour with it, showcasing it as a music and art project [as part of her band, Kahwa Speaks Ensemble],” says the 35-year-old singer, whose music is also an effort to spark interest in Kashmir’s rich art and culture. “I released it now because the lockdown was just delaying things.”

A still from Pragnya Wakhlu’s ‘Katyuchuk My Love’

A still from Pragnya Wakhlu’s ‘Katyuchuk My Love’
 

Made for hip-hop

The lockdown has also brought its share of challenges for animators. “Most of our artists had to go back home and it took a while for us to overcome technical difficulties such as file sharing and uploads,” says producer Shivangi Ranawat of Mumbai-based independent media production house Ekabhuya. The studio recently created New York-based Manas Jha’s video for the track ‘Shades’, which is part of his EP, Reimagined. “The animation allowed me to replay incidents from my school days,” says Jha. An evocative video, it is largely in black and white, with pencil-drawn flipbook characters that convey the anxiety faced by children. “Manas’ song reflects a sensitive issue and also had a personal story. So we brainstormed on how we could represent it in a manner that appeals to everyone and yet keep it personal,” says Ranawat.

Hip-hop artistes have always relied on the visual medium to build a culture and community — be it dance, visual art or music. Case in point: Delhi-based rapper Prabh Deep’s new single, ‘Chitta’. Featuring animation by Debjyoti Saha, the video directed by Aakash Bhatia — which premiered on YouTube on July 19 — is trending with over 2 lakh views. Its strong visuals and powerful commentary on drug abuse have struck a chord.

There’s been a 50% surge in demand for animated videos during lockdown, shares Ranawat, who has worked with leading Indian bands such as The Local Train and artistes including Nucleya and Bandish Projekt. “We do have more requests for lyrics videos, mostly from rappers in Mumbai,” she adds. Meanwhile, will artistes look at 3D? “My next video might be in 3D,” says NJ. “Videos [with skilfully-executed animation] might be the best way to introduce a genre like hip-hop that may not be as appealing as say, rock, in Kerala.”

The writer is the former editor of Rolling Stone India.

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