I’ve always been intrigued with the relationship between sound and image. From the abstract imagery I see in my mind’s eye when writing a song, to the more tangible marrying of music to moving pictures.
Images can deepen our emotional response to music, and expand the storytelling potential of songs. Music can heighten our emotional reaction to images, and intensify our understanding of visuals.
This is why I enjoy music videos so much. They can provide visual meaning to a song’s narrative, or create a completely unexpected story that the songwriter may have never imagined.
I had the pleasure of working with video artist and motion graphics designer Scott Pagano on the music video for my new song “Betamax”. Scott has created music videos and concert graphics for many notable musicians: Skrillex, Zedd, The M Machine, Dyro, Flying Lotus, Wolfgang Gartner, and BT. Scott has a unique perspective on how images and sound come together, so I thought it would be an interesting topic to share with my fellow music and sound nerds.
But first, the brand new music video!
When Scott sent me the completed video, it immediately struck me that my song had taken on a new meaning. When I wrote the song, I had no idea that it would evoke the story of a crab-like spaceship creature searching through a desolate city! The song was given a new story through images.
It also stirred all sorts of questions. Where does inspiration come from? How do you capture the ideas in your mind? How do I interpret the connection of sound and image?
I figured it would be good to go to the source himself, and ask Scott some of these questions firsthand.
What inspires your work?
A great source of inspiration for me is the overlap and intersection of synthetic and natural forms. Looking at how simplicity and complexity of shape and texture emerge and evolve in organic and manmade contexts provides endless study of our environment and decisions. I am a lover of cinema and take strong cinematographic, compositional, and color palette cues from that world. Architectural forms have also played a large role in my work and are a source of constant visual inspiration.
How do you first approach a new project? When working on a music project, how do the images come to you?
The first thing is to immerse myself in the song by listening to it over and over and over. There are often visual ideas that I have been wanting to explore that influence the overall direction I take – but it is critical to let the song reveal itself visually. It is akin to a changing state of matter. Melting the ice that is the song to become the mist that is the image. I listen, eyes closed, and imagine a world of forms, actions, and colors.
What is the story and inspiration behind the imagery in the “Betamax” video?
This whole record has a nostalgic cinematic vibe to it which felt like a great background to a futuristic road trip through surreal worlds. I wanted to create a calm but intriguing journey through a range of environments for our spaceship-creature’s travel. The growly synth sound in the verses inspired the idea to have this mechanical-organic protagonist whose movement at points is driven by its signature low warbly synth “voice”.
There is a melancholic yet hopeful feel to the song and I wanted to represent this by travelling through a fracturing and changing world that is seen with the buildings emerging through a breaking ground. All of the destruction however results in carefully designed shapes and not a chaotic array of fractured shards. There is change occurring, but in a positive and elegant way despite the potentially aggressive force of destruction. I wanted to inject a hopeful take on powerful changes completely out of our control that occur around us constantly.
We resolve in a cave chamber with the orbs from the opening shot converging like pieces of an atom through dark mysterious liquid. Creating new forms and energy from simple components and resulting in a structure that is greater than the sum of its parts. I wanted to create a fairly still moment to enjoy the organic lusciousness of the fluid animation driven by the simple and orderly animations of the orbs converging. The result is a lovely interplay between synthetic and natural form and motion.
The color palette and neon light vibe draws from the classic 80’s magenta/blue neon look which was a perfect controlled color set to use as a base for all lighting and shading decisions.
What are your thoughts and philosophy on how sound and image relate?
There is an intangible constructive interference that happens when the right combination of sound and image converge. There are endless ways to approach and explore this overlap and my work over the past fifteen years has often involved a healthy dose of experimentation on this front. I am captivated by strong cinematic imagery and when when working on images greatly enjoy the imagination space of conjuring up possible worlds that sync up and enhance the vibe and mood of the associated sonic vibrations.
Having done a lot of work with audio-visual interaction it is always a treat to explore new ways to explore this synchronicity. Often audio-visual synchronicities are represented in fairly abstract ways and for this piece I wanted to tie very representational object and camera movements to the various rhythms, growls, melodies, and pulses.
What methods do you use to achieve your integration of visuals and music?
For this project Ethan provided stems which I then used as source for audio analysis in Houdini to create animation channels that drive various object and camera movement. On top of this I used Soundkeys in After Effects to add audio-synchronized post-effects on top of the edit for more audiovisual synchronization dynamism. Pure audio-analysis techniques can often be not as precise as I want so I’ll also manually create “pulse” tracks in Premiere to have full control over the source that the resulting procedural animation will be driven by.
Can you tell us a little bit about how a project comes together?
The first thing is to break down the various envisioned environments into their component objects. There is a degree of sketching that is done for form exploration, but this is just to get rough ideas into place and I hop on the box pretty early on. Once the asset list is created, simple geometry is built to enable the creation of an animatic to see if everything is flowing visually the way I envisioned. I build geometry and animation with procedural systems and this allows for a lot of flexibility and play in the concept, design, and animatic phase. Once the shots are in place I then go in and flesh out the models to up the level of detail.
This project involved a few other tricks as well such as wire dynamic simulations for the sea-plant strands in the verse shots and the organic tendrils flowing off the back of our protagonist spaceship-creature. Dynamics simulations were run for the ground plates that break apart as the buildings emerge, and a particle fluid simulation was run for the final cave pool scene.
On the software side, all the geometric and effects elements were built and simulated in Houdini and rendered in Maya with the Redshift GPU renderer. The 3D renders were composited in Nuke, edited in Premiere, and a final audio-reactive post-effects pass was completed in After Effects. This is a workflow I have been using for a while now and is quite efficient and leverages a great blend of long-standing and cutting-edge technologies.
What do you like to see in a music video?
This format is superb for creating glimpses into surreal worlds. There is such a gamut of inspiring work in this realm. Early in my artistic development I was struck by the works of Chris Cunningham and Alex Rutterford as well as the fabulous evocative sci-fi worlds explored in movies such as Blade Runner and Alien. I grew up watching 120 Minutes on MTV in an era of My Bloody Valentine, Garbage, and Nine Inch Nails videos that were all gorgeous textural explorations and departures into a myriad of psychological states. I also am smitten with the videos that Jonas Akerlund has directed for Lady Gaga. These are clearly radically different than the kind of work I create but I appreciate their bold visual strength, surreal moments, and wild design. We see such incredible visual effects in cinema these days, but so often it lacks much inventiveness. It is incredibly impressive and humbling on a image-making level – but music videos and short form content can be a wonderful place to explore visual boundaries without the visual safety constraints of large scale dominant mediums.
Scott also put together a stunning visual breakdown video, which peels back many of the layers that went into the making of the animation. Check it out below.
Find out more about Scott Pagano’s visual work at Neither-Field.com.