With the amount of short form content I watch nowadays, it takes a lot to impress and surprise me, but Balázs Simon managed both with his ethereal video for Leifur James track Wurlitzer. A visually striking piece featuring a mystical interplanetary storyline, Simon’s four-minute video is brimming with atmosphere and style. Determined to get to the bottom of how he created such a rich aesthetic and dive into his unusual production process, we asked Balázs to join us to discuss his impressive music video.
How did the opportunity to make this video for Leifur James come about?
We started talking about it back in June. James approached me because he liked some of my previous works and his album was coming out. So he asked me if I was open to do something together. I found myself really connected with his music so a collab was a no-brainer.
Wurlitzer is a visually striking piece, but also grabs the attention with its unusual premise – can you explain the concept to our audience and explain a little about where the idea came from?
We were exploring the connection between human and environment from the get-go. First I pitched something like a reimagined genesis story, the birth of man. As the pinnacle of creation, we people possess a lot of potential. This in itself is neither good or bad, but we carry the effects of both creation and destruction and we have to be aware of that, especially in these times. This co-dependence between human and environment is where the idea came from. So I started looking at ways to express that.
Were you given a brief for the video at all and how much did the music influence the concept and look?
James wanted something that reflected on the aforementioned connection but I was free to approach it in a way that felt right. Interestingly, we locked down this as an overall theme sooner than the track-video pairing. We knew what we were aiming for but it was when James played me Wurlitzer that the idea suddenly fell into place.
This harrowing ambiguity between creation and destruction was the most exciting part.
I really liked the duality in the track – how it opens as a classical piece with a jazzy tinge, then starts clashing with the howling, noisy sounds. As the song progresses it becomes more and more suffocating until the noise masks almost every other sound. For me, this harrowing ambiguity between creation and destruction was the most exciting part and really gave a push to the idea.
Concept graphics for the Wurlitzer video
The aesthetic for your video is stunning, can you provide us with an insight into how about you went about bringing it to screen – how many people worked on it, what tools/processes did you use, how long did it take?
Thanks a lot, I’m happy you like it! Time to have a big shout out to the animators at Airplan who were instrumental in creating the 2D shots, and Umbrella, who provided the studio space and the render farm.
We had a small but enthusiastic crew, all of them friends I’ve worked together with before. The main team was the cinematographer, two animators, a compositor and a graphic designer. The other 3-4 girls and guys helped out in various tasks, like 3D scanning or asset animation, anything that came up on the fly. That’s all the crew involved – and a lot of schedule-juggling from everyone!
We mixed live action, 2D and 3D animation and also scripted visuals. Most of the work was done from November till February, about 4 months. We had around 80 shots which meant 3 days per shot give or take. That was a lot with so many techniques involved! So we kept the whole thing spontaneous and experimental.
I have a love-hate relationship with animation to be honest. Love the possibilities but also crave the ability to ‘stumble on things’ in the creative process. In real life everything is happening now – it’s all uncertain until you capture it with a camera. That’s fascinating for me.
Creation is captured on the fly and I’m exploring possibilities to work in a similar way in animation.
There’s an album called Laughing Stock by Talk Talk which is a huge inspiration for me. The music itself is fantastic, but the creation process is also really interesting. It’s an album that was recorded before it was written I would say – people went in the studio, improvised in a given key without much direction and then they assembled tracks from the recordings. The music carries this method really well. We can hear the conception of every single sound, nothing is certain until you hear it. Creation is captured on the fly and I’m exploring possibilities to work in a similar way in animation.
It’s an experimental process, as nothing can really be that instant in animation though! How can you achieve the spontaneity of a man with a camera with a medium where you’re fighting for images frame by frame? That’s what I’m invested in, finding a kind of documentary approach in my work.
The best way to do that is to eliminate a visual end goal from the process. If there’s no such thing, then you won’t succumb to chasing that and you remain free to wander around. Instead of creating still images first and adding motion later, we tried to reverse the process and create motion sketches first that we could use to put the film together.
To have the maximum artistic expression with minimum user input I wrote a lot of code first, small utilities that helped the process. These include a script that imports After Effects animation data for the desired camera in 3D, taking care of frame-rate, field of view, etc. This made the improvisation easier. It didn’t matter how we started sketching a scene, we could later base a whole shot on that in any environment.
We were already animating without having anything ready!
I had the same goal with a ‘swap anything with anything’ script which further enabled the on-the-fly approach. We were already animating without having anything ready! No stone assets, no orb, no humanoid, etc. We sketched compositions using primitives – a sphere here, a cube there, not worrying about what that will really be. Later we could automatically swap hundreds of stand-ins to finished assets with a click of a button.
Seeing things actually happen and keeping the spontaneity was the only important thing. Did I know what we were about to create? Maybe, I’m not sure! Because of this, when you’re watching the video I really think in a way you are very much looking at us, working on it.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when creating Wurlitzer and with hindsight would you go back and do anything differently?
The biggest challenge for me is always dealing with the human factor. Not everybody would bet on what I’ve just described. It’s a huge favor to ask somebody to place trust in you when there’s no immediate way to make up for it. There will be months of work instead and no pretty images throughout, only maybe at the very end. I tried my best to make this clear for everybody involved. I think I have to work on that but I’m immensely grateful for James and the label believing in the idea and letting us do it.
If I could go back I would definitely see friends and family more often!
What are you working on next?
I think I’ll always do music videos as I’m in love with the format. Next to that I’m writing now and have started developing a couple of short film ideas. Funny thing is, the more animation I do, the more invested I become in live-action. I’d love to see people’s faces and expressions in my works, you know, living, breathing beings. There’s a magic in that I can hardly explain.