Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 4 (April 2000)


On August 1, 1981,teens across the US sat glued in front of their television sets as MTV, the first 'round-the-clock music video cable station, hit the airwaves. The video with which MTV chose to make its debut, prophetically enough, was for the song "Video Killed the Radio Star," from the British band The Buggles.

In those days, videos were fairly nondescript. If they didn't depict bands performing at a concert or similar venue, they were like The Buggles' video, which showed band members shot against a simple backdrop as they lip-synched and pretended to play their instruments.

But today, thanks to the enormous success of MTV, VH1, and similar outlets, a band's music videos are just as important as its songs when it comes to driving the group's popularity. As a result, music videos are far more creative now than they were even five years ago. Playing a major role in helping to spawn that creativity are 3D computer graphics and animation tools.
A photorealistic fly lands in a live-action background (above) in a music video created for the rock group Supercollider by London studio Realise. Procedurally animated flies then swarm around a distraught victim.

The use of digital imagery in music videos isn't new. It dates back 15 years, when the video for Dire Straits' 1985 hit "Money for Nothing" was released. In that video, primitive, block-shaped computer-generated 3D characters lumber across the frame carrying 3D microwave ovens and TVs as footage of the band plays on a giant TV screen in the background.

Coincidentally, 1985 was also the year that morphing-the 2D visual effect developed in 1982 in which one object appears to metamorphose, or morph, into another-was first used in a music video. That video, for the song "Cry," by British band Godley and Creme, depicted a succession of characters' faces melting together.

Although the effects in "Money for Nothing" and "Cry" might look crude by today's standards, they were state-of-the-art back then, and they helped generate enthusiasm for further CG efforts. As a result, by the early 1990s, music video directors were increasingly using 2D visual-effects tools to enhance and manipulate music video footage. And today, 3D graphics, 3D animation, and compositing technologies are commonly used to incorporate realistic-looking 3D objects, characters, effects, and set extensions into music videos. It also is becoming more common for entire videos to exist as 3D digital creations.

As directors have begun to realize what 3D technology can do, their concepts have started to increase in sophistication. This is great news for digital studios working in this industry, as it enables them to flex their creative muscles and show off their artistic and CG skills. It also lets them try innovative techniques that haven't been used in commercials and feature films.

This is important because studios that create effects for music videos work primarily in the commercial and feature industries, which tend to eventually adopt radical, new digital techniques but are notoriously unwilling to act as test beds for them.

"Music videos are only 40% of what we do," says Paul Simpson, a CG director at Realise, a 2D and 3D graphics and animation house based in London. Simpson acknowledges that the remainder of Realise's paycheck comes from creating 2D and 3D effects for TV commercials. "From what I've seen, nobody who does really good music videos manages to make a good living out of them (even the big-budget projects) because music videos are essentially show-reel pieces. They're more a means to demonstrate how good you are. Then you make your real money using those same techniques in commercials or features later on."

The story is the same at other CG and effects studios that are considered leaders in the music video industry. At Buf Compagnie in Paris, for instance, which posted 10 music videos in 1999, commercials and features contribute heavily to the company's bottom line. And at Toronto-based Transistor, the computer graphics and visual-effects arm of Blackwalk Productions, the largest music video production company in Canada, only half the company's business is in music videos. "The real money is definitely in films and commercials," states Harvey Glazer, a visual-effects supervisor, director, and vice president of Transistor.

Although these studios' bread and butter comes from commercial and feature work, most still jump at the chance to work on a music video because it's the best way to try novel techniques. One reason for this is that musicians are artists as well, so they tend to be fairly open-minded when it comes to trying new things like digital effects. After all, the music industry is notorious for driving new trends and fads.
Mannequins modeled in Side Effects' Houdini star in the video for the Yazoo song "Only You." After the male mannequin assembles his partner in a dark, dusty shop, the two dance together through an abstract, brilliantly lit white space.

But the main reason studios like to work on videos is that they represent less financial risk for clients, whereas the success or failure of a commercial or film involves an enormous amount of in come for the client. "The amount of money involved in music videos is tiny compared to commercials and films," says Simpson. "In music videos, the product (the band) gets to reinvent itself with every song." But a commercial, for instance, is usually part of an ongoing ad campaign. If the campaign is built around an effect and the effect doesn't work, that can destroy the commercial.

In music videos today, directors and viewers expect to see cinematic, feature film-quality work. And this is one of the most challenging aspects of creating graphics and effects for this industry. "You're essentially trying to create the equivalent of a mini feature film but with one-fiftieth of the budget of a film," says Realise's Simpson. "Yet your production has to look as good as anything people have just seen on TV or in the movies. It's difficult to create something of excellence within those confines."

Another challenge is time, or a lack thereof. Deadlines for music videos are extremely tight. Whereas a studio gets four to six weeks to create CG effects for a typical 30-second commercial and upward of six months to create effects for a film, in the music video business deadlines can average only 10 to 14 days for 3D effects and animation in a production that lasts three to four minutes.

Why are the deadlines so tight? "When a band records an album, the record company doesn't really know which song will be a hit until the radio stations start playing cuts from the album," explains Simpson. "Then, all of a sudden, a particular song is in heavy rotation, and the record company says, 'OK, we need a video for that song, and we need it in seven days.' "
The digital fly in the Supercollider video for "It Won't Be Long" looks disconcertingly real-until it undertakes a funky fly dance.

According to Simpson, for a project requiring heavy compositing of green-screen layers, Realise generally gets a deadline of three or four days. Projects requiring 3D animation sometimes get the luxury of a 14-day turnaround, and a three- to four-minute, entirely computer-generated animation may get a 30-day deadline. "Most of the time, though, it's three or four guys working straight for seven days, sleeping on the couch," he says.

Although deadlines are tight and budgets are small, these factors aren't stopping studios such as Realise, Transistor, and Buf Compagnie from creating outstanding 3D graphics and animations for a number of new music videos.

One such project is "Only You," a re-mix of the 1980s ballad from Yazoo and the latest project from Realise. This entirely computer-generated music video, which stars a pair of 3D mannequins, is slightly less than three minutes in length. Part of the video takes place in a dusty, rundown shop, but most of it is set in an abstract, brilliantly white space in which the mannequins dance romantically as though in a ballroom.

The mannequins are modeled and keyframe-animated in Side Effects' Houdini. "Although motion capture can be good in some cases, we wanted to give a special quality to the movement of these characters," says Simpson. "Because they're mannequins, they're supposed to have slightly restricted joints." For the animators, the key to overcoming this challenge was ensuring that they animated the fluid movement of the dance while making sure the mannequins' joints remained somewhat stiff. "Keyframe animation gave us complete control over the characters' movements," Simpson says.

Also challenging in this project was the CG environment. "Making the inside of the shop look dirty and rundown was hard artistically," Simpson says. "It's easy to make things look clean and nice in the computer, but it's much harder to make things look dirty." ShadeTree, an interactive shader authoring tool from Cinema Graphics, was instrumental in helping the artists achieve the grungy look they were after.

Additional tools for this project (which took about four weeks to complete) include Pixar Animation Studio's Render Man for rendering and Adobe Systems' After Effects for compositing the CG layers in the video and for creating lighting and lens-flare effects in the dance scene. All software was run on Linux- and Windows NT-based PCs.

Another video Realise completed recently is Supercollider's "It Won't Be Long," directed by Dawn Shadforth, one of the most influential directors in the music video industry. (Shadforth also directed the video for the song "Special" by Garbage, covered on pg. 54 of the November 1999 issue of Computer Graphics World.) This video marries a live-action background with a photorealistic 3D fly. "When the fly first lands on the person's nose, you think it's real," says Simpson. "But we cut to a close-up, and the fly starts swaying to the music. Then it does a funny fly dance that is completely unexpected." According to Simpson, it was tricky getting the fly to move to the beat of the music. To achieve the feat, the animators constantly scrubbed back and forth across the music track so that they could make sure every beat coincided with the fly's legs twitching or with his wings buzzing.

In addition to the one fly, Realise also modeled and animated a swarm of 100,000 flies. This was both technically and artistically challenging, says Simpson, because each fly had to move in an erratic, fly-like manner, but as a group they had to form a swarm, twirling like a tornado around the live-action character. To model and animate the single fly, the team used Houdini. To create the swarm of flies, they animated a particle system using Houdini's POPS procedural animation system. Render ing was done in Ren derMan, and com positing was done in After Effects.

While a 3D fly takes center stage in the Sup er collider project, a 3D mouse steals the show in a new video for The Johnny Fav our ite Swing Or ch estra's "We Still Talk." In this video, created by Transistor, the band members have moved into a house inhabited by a mouse, and she wants them out. "Every time a guy in the band tries to catch the mouse, the mouse gets him, and every time the mouse tries to go after a guy in the band, the guy captures the mouse," explains Transistor's Harvey Glazer.

For this project, the record company initially wanted a cel-animated mouse. "But we had only 30 days to shoot the video and produce the 22 mouse shots. We couldn't get the cel animation done in that timeframe," he says. So, the team modeled, rendered, and animated the 3D mouse in Alias|Wavefront's Maya on NT-based workstations and then did an initial composite of the animation with the video footage using Avid's Illusion on a dual-processor SGI (Mountain View, CA) Octane. After the animators ensured that the mouse was properly situated within the frame in each shot, they imported the CG animation into a proprietary Mac-based package, similar to Adobe's Streamline, which converted the imagery, including its colors and shading, into line art. Explains Glazer, "The difference between our software and Streamline is that ours kept the mouse in the right place within each frame. That way, we didn't have to go back and massage every single image to make sure the character was correctly positioned."

Transistor also has worked on a number of additional videos recently, most of which required CG set extensions. "We get a lot of requests for digital set extensions and for entirely CG sets, because building sets on the computer costs less than building real sets," Glazer says. It also adds production value. "If we build half a physical set and build the rest in CG instead of shooting outside in a real city, we could save a day on the shoot. A lot of music videos are shot over only a day or two. A three-day shoot is rare, especially in Canada where the record companies don't have the money for it." Some recent Transistor projects in which digital set extensions played a major role include The Rascalz's "Sharp shooters/Gametime" and The Dream Warriors' "Breathe or Die." For these projects, the team used Maya for 3D modeling and animation, Discreet's 3D Studio Max for lighting effects, and Illusion for compositing.

Meanwhile, in France, innovative and technically challenging CG techniques play a major role in the latest crop of videos to come out of Buf Compagnie. In this business for 14 years, Buf is known for devising clever CG tricks to achieve difficult or never-before-seen effects. For in stance, five years ago the company simplified the time-slice effect (which was originally developed by a French photographer) and used it in The Rolling Stones "Like a Rolling Stone" video for a sequence that shows a girl jumping up and down on a bed.

Instead of using 200 cameras, all of which would have had to take a picture of the subject sim ultaneously, Buf animators used two pictures taken by two cameras. They then created a 3D morph (using proprietary technology) between the two pictures to create the feeling that the viewer was moving around a subject that was frozen in time. Buf has since used its version of the time-slice effect in the series of television commercials for the Gap clothing stores in which dancers appear to stop in mid-air as they're dancing.

In the past year, Buf has worked on several innovative music videos. In "Si-Mince," by Arielle, for instance, the set continually appears to turn upside down and then right-side up. In reality, each shot alternates between a live-action and a photorealistic CG set that has been texture-mapped using photos from the live set. When the singer appears in the live-action set, we see live-action footage of her. When she appears in the CG set, she's a digital creation.
A mouse animated in Maya interacts with a live-action environment and characters in Transistor's video for "We Still Talk" by the Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra.

Every time you pass from one shot to another, you're passing from the real to the CG set and back. The trick of making the transition between live action and CG imperceptible was accomplished using a proprietary technique similar to a fade. In total, about 30% of the video is CG. To complete the project, which took about four weeks, the team used proprietary software for modeling, texture mapping, and compositing, Softimage for animation, and Mental Ray for rendering, all running on SGI workstations.

Other innovative music videos to come out of Buf recently include "Let Forever Be" by The Chemical Brothers, and "In Our Lifetime" by Texas. In "Let Forever Be," directed by Michel Gondry, Buf mixes morphing and 3D animation with live action. The result is a colorful, eye-catching mixture of constantly evolving footage, similar to what you'd see through a kaleidoscope, showing the main character and a group of women moving about and dancing on set.

The Buf animators used morphing whenever possible to transition from one shot to another. When they couldn't use morphing, they used 3D. For instance, at one point in the video, the main character is shown sitting in front of a mirror, which then morphs into a window. The animators found this scene difficult because they were dealing with not only the actual scene and the woman, which they could morph, but also the reflection of that scene, which they couldn't morph at the same time. To accomplish the ef fect, the team built the mirror in 3D, projected the reflection of the wo man and the set onto it, and morphed it as one element. The 3D mirror was created, textured, and composited using proprietary software; the morphing was done using Avid's ElasticReality.

Taking center stage in the "Texas" video, meanwhile, is an anamorphic effect developed at Buf that shows various distorted images of the singer depending on the viewer's perspective. At times she is shown sitting on a staircase or leaning against a wall. When she's sitting on the staircase, it looks like she has been horizontally sliced into several pieces, similar to the shape of the steps of the staircase. When she's shown against the wall and the camera moves to the side, she looks completely flat.
Booby-trapped microphones emerge from a wall in a CG environment created by Transistor for the Rascalz's "Sharp shooters" video.

The Buf team built the stairs and wall in 3D and used the studio's anamorphic technique to project in the computer the real footage of the singer onto the 3D steps and against the 3D wall. The singer's body is not a 3D element-it is 2D footage that is being projected on to 3D elements. There fore, when the team moved the virtual camera around the 3D set, if the singer's body was against the 3D staircase, her body more or less took the shape of the staircase. When it was shown against the flat wall, her body appeared to be flat.

It's clear by the projects covered here that computer graphics technology is be ing used to good effect in music videos today. But al though the technology's ever-increasing sophistication has made it relatively easy to create photorealistic CG elements, characters, and sets, music video creators sound a note of warning.

"It's almost like when synthesizers first came out. Everyone was saying that now anybody could conduct an orchestra. But that didn't mean just anybody could make this orchestra sound as good as a real conductor conducting a real orchestra," says Simpson. "It's the same in this industry. You still need a good director to make an engaging video."
Buf's video for "Let Forever Be" by The Chemical Brothers mixes morphing, 3D animation, and live action. The mirror at right is a 3D creation.

One also must remember that more isn't always better. "You shouldn't use CG just because it's the fashion. This is already happening in features, and there's a danger this could happen in videos as well," concludes a Buf spokesperson. "It's easy to do special effects just to do special effects. But no matter how good the technology gets, it will never be easy to create special effects that help a video tell a story."
Real footage of singer Sharleen Spiteri appears against a 3D wall and stairs in a video for the group "Texas."

Freelance writer Audrey Doyle is a Computer Graphics World contributing editor and former editor in chief of Digital Magic. She can be reached at

Software for effects in music videos

Adobe Systems
San Jose, CA


Avid Technology
Tewksbury, MA

Cinema Graphics
Chatsworth, CA

Discreet (Autodesk)

Pixar Animation Studios
Richmond, CA

Side Effects Software