We first featured talented animator John Morena on DN back in April with his year-long experimental Instagram project Area 52, John now rejoins us to talk about his new spellbinding music video The Drought for Ryan Chernin. I caught up with John to discover how he seduced and manipulated the essence of the song into a video which pulls your heartstrings, becoming increasingly addictive and enticing with every watch.
What drew you to this collaboration?
My friends at Spot On NY work with the artist/songwriter, Ryan Chernin, very often. Frank Mosca, head producer at Spot On, asked me if I wanted to contribute to a set of music videos for Ryan’s new album entitled, You Know Who You Are. He sent me The Drought to listen to and thought that a more obscure, experimental piece would fit well with it as opposed to a performance video. As is with most indie music vids the budget was ultra low. I agreed to do it on the pretence that I was able to do whatever I pleased as long as they were happy with the outline of the concept in advance. Luckily, they agreed and we were off to the races.
How do you approach writing a script and storyboard for an animated music video?
As of recent years, I’ve been doing projects by myself and I’ve learnt to skip steps that are unnecessary to me. For instance, I don’t need to explain my idea to a team of designers and animators so I generally skip the storyboard stage unless there is something that I can’t fully work out in my head. I listened to this song probably 150 times and totally fell in love with it. I think a huge part of directing a music video is loving the song. Especially when doing an animated video because of how long you have to live with it. This project took about three months to complete and I never got sick of the song.
While listening to the song over and over, I started to develop this idea of life, death, and rebirth. The song’s chorus talks about a vast disconnect and lack of harmony between the mind and the soul. “My mind is a storm while my soul feels the drought” is the core lyric that speaks to this. The basis of the story was drawn more from the music itself. The beginning of the song almost sounds like a funeral is about to happen and the lyrics are in mourning for the person they used to be: “Where did you go to all of my promise?”, “Where did you come from all of my doubt?”
I think a huge part of directing a music video is loving the song. Especially when doing an animated video because of how long you have to live with it.
The pre-chorus introduces a sense of hope which then kicks into a full-on, angst-ridden, existential shedding of the proverbial skin, all the while still yearning for the “promise” that’s been long gone. So the themes of the circular nature of the seasons, and death and rebirth kept manifesting more and more with each listen. Since the second half of the song is so aggressive and seems to lift itself into the stratosphere, I decided to take its hand and ride with it into the depths of outer space.
I really liked the idea of varying the settings; being at ground level, then underground, then into the sky, stratosphere, space, and beyond. I essentially blocked out each part of the song, made marks where new sequences were to begin and separated them into scenes in After Effects. I ended up with 14 scenes in total. I had some landmark points in the song that I knew certain visuals were going to match up 100%. The gaps in between those landmark points were improvised. Kind of like the way jazz songs are written. It’s a very free-form way of working that has yielded great results for me.
What software did you use for this project?
I keep it simple, for the most part. The entire video was animated in After Effects. I’d say about 90% of the visuals were also designed in After Effects. The guy flying through space was hand drawn. Almost all of the outer space visuals were bits from free photos that I found of star clusters and whatnot and I collaged together in Photoshop. I pretty much work exclusively in After Effects when it comes to animation. 3D animation software is like Greek to me so I tend to do any light 3D stuff in After Effects or by shooting real items and compositing later on.
How do you feel that Area 52 has developed your work as an animator and how in particular did that project feed into this piece?
The Area 52 films have really helped me develop a personal style and voice, which I feel is evident in The Drought as well. My workflow has developed into a reckless one and has allowed for my imagination to be unfettered. Sometimes I make it up as I go along which, I’ve found, is where the magic happens. As filmmakers, we tend to “stick to the script” quite literally speaking. That means, what we originally thought up or planned for becomes the law!
Sometimes I make it up as I go along which, I’ve found, is where the magic happens.
I find that working that way makes for a constrained atmosphere when in production and post-production. Even in animation, things are usually rigidly planned in the early stages, since we basically work in reverse as compared to live action. In short, I learnt to embrace accidents. Throwing the plans in the garbage and going with my gut has led to lots of wonderful surprises, both for myself and for the viewer.
Eyeballs seem to be a reoccurring theme in your work, what’s the fascination?
I don’t know what you’re talking about!
Seriously though, I didn’t know that I had a fascination with eyeballs until I made all those films, and this video, in 2017. Aside from the obvious “windows to the soul”, eyes are the most expressive feature humans have. But I suppose the eyeball, in and of itself, has no expression so it changes the resonance of it. Also, eyeballs lack gender and race, which allows them to speak to literally everyone. As it pertains to this music video, it humanised the flower while adding a curious, surreal element.
What delights are in store for us next?
This year I’m trying to create a life for my Area 52 films outside of Instagram. Possibly festivals but I’m looking into maybe creating some sort of an experience for them in more of a gallery setting that I can possibly take on the road. There is still lots to do and figure out before that happens. I want to submit an obnoxious amount of the Area 52 films to Annecy in February and see what happens with that first.
Outside of that, I’ll definitely be making more films. I’m trying to outline 3 or 4 films that I can complete this year and spend a good amount of time tending to them, as well as a good amount of time walking away from them. I’ve found that to be of utmost importance! Lastly, I was blessed to be part of a really compelling, true-crime documentary series for Netflix that is supposed to drop sometime this year. I don’t think I’m allowed to say the name of it just yet, so maybe we can talk about that next time I get down with DN!