After she becomes separated from a late-night party, a young woman’s evening takes a sinister turn when she finds herself being stalked by a large predator. Nikita Kibirev’s animated music video for adiiilya and szdåt‘s NOIR is a thrilling, visually-dynamic exploration of obsession and toxic masculinity. Kibirev takes the internal emotive state of his characters and makes it external through a fragmented, comic book like animation aesthetic. The result is a completely spectacular visual feast with a strong thematic exploration of knotty codependent relationships. When we first watched NOIR we knew we had to speak with Kibirev about his creative process and the techniques he employed to deliver such an incredibly realised piece of work. You can read our full conversation with the filmmaker below where he discusses storyboarding, designing and animating at the same time, and the challenge of moulding your ideas within the music video format.
What did you want to explore with NOIR and how was it collaborating with adiiilya?
I wanted to convey the full range of emotions that a person experiences when trapped in the suffocating grip of a toxic relationship. From paranoia to the unsettling feeling of gaslighting by those who should protect you. When adiiilya approached me with the song, she told me that this track is part of a triptych of songs exploring the life cycle of a destructive relationship, the rise, stagnation, and fall of a couple that should never have been together. NOIR sits in the middle, capturing the moment of the darkest night, when she accepts her ex-lover back, he drags her even deeper into the shadows of their destructive relationship.
I always begin by pondering the core essence of the story and determining the trajectory for the protagonist, and the core value that the hero would fight for.
When you’re embarking on the journey of making animation, where do you start?
My process begins with scriptwriting, which is based on brainstormed ideas. The biggest influence for the video was Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. When I start working on an idea I start from a point of deciding what is the biggest value of the story, where am I leading the hero? I’m a big fan of Robert McKee’s screenwriting approach, so whenever I embark on a new project, I always begin by pondering the core essence of the story and determining the trajectory for the protagonist, and the core value that the hero would fight for. Originally, adiiilya approached me with a song that was part of a trilogy centred around a doomed couple. This particular song fell in the middle of the narrative, depicting a moment when their relationship had already shattered, and an ex-boyfriend reenters the scene, propelling the story toward an irreparable juncture.
And once the script is locked in, do you start with sketches or storyboards?
Following this, I create storyboards that serve as the foundation for generating backgrounds and character art. I use software such as Photoshop and Blender, choosing the one that allows for faster execution for each moment. At this stage, I also create a comprehensive map of the pipeline in Figma, which enables me to visualize the entire project at once. This phase involves Blender for tasks such as modelling, texture painting, creating or repurposing shaders, and searching for finished models from previous personal projects. Subsequently, I proceed to model the elements and rig anything that requires movement, also using Blender.
In the After Effects file, I populate the storyboards with more finalized components to create an animatic and start recording reference footage for character animation, acting out each scene myself. In instances where a scene involves multiple characters, I may seek assistance from another person, act out both characters myself, or construct a makeshift mannequin using hangers and brushes attached to a chair, draping clothing over it. For the werewolf scene, I created a hat out of a cardboard tube and a baseball hat to gauge how much space the character’s elongated head would occupy during animation.
In addition to the original references and ideas, I embark on a search for more in-depth concepts, transitions, and camera techniques to effectively convey the character’s experiences between cuts. I compose the animation scene by scene while simultaneously animating each scene with completed backgrounds. This process can be likened to a loading bar; the extended duration of work can be challenging, so I implement various visual indicators to track progress and outline future tasks. Once all the necessary components are in place, I initiate the editing phase. This step is expedited because, by this point, I have already populated the animatic with sufficient finished footage or at least video references, making it the quickest part of the project.
I’m not an animator myself but I’d be really intrigued to hear how you create such a vibrant, stylised aesthetic on a technical level.
For the animation to have a stylized look I created my own custom toon shaders using Blender material nodes, my general shader tree always consists of two main elements. Firstly, a painted image texture that has all the illustrative details that I need. Secondly, a simple diffuse shader where each color channel can get more contrast, but also can react to the light source.
Probably the biggest thing that gives out any 3D graphics is the edge of the object, if you can make it seem more stylized you’ll create an illusion of a painting.
There are lots of small details that I add to each object depending on its complexity but they all have that in the beginning. After that, I start heavily compositing all the needed effects and sometimes separate renders, in some cases, I add grease pencil, and sometimes I add effects in After Effects where I burn out the remaining 3D render with color and distort it as a separate layer above the main character so it looks as lines. Probably the biggest thing that gives out any 3D graphics is the edge of the object, if you can make it seem more stylized you’ll create an illusion of a painting.
And from what I can tell you blending both 2D and 3D objects too, right?
Every frame of the video has 2D objects and 3D ones. Based on the way how the object will behave in the scene I decide if I need to model it and project a texture or just leave it as a flat cardboard object. Creating an animatic helps a lot with that. If the object moves or has some light interaction, that indicates to me that I’ll need to make it 3D, but also sometimes I just add the needed properties as shader nodes leaving the object flat.
Obviously this is all the design phase too, what’s it like bringing these scenes together and linking them in the edit?
After Effects is a very important step. I compose and edit the entire animation in After Effects. So after the most complex animations are created in Blender and rendered as PNG sequences I stack them inside of After Effects and start matching them together. I can’t tell you how much post-production there is on the animation, I have my own weird effects that I came up with that give my characters and scenes their look.
Right after I create a storyboard I stack all of the images inside of After Effects and create a rough version of the video, then I start adding the animation references, and after that everything else. It helps me a lot to see the entire picture at any stage of the production.
I have my own weird effects that I came up with that give my characters and scenes their look.
What was it about a wolf that made you decide on it for the predatorial creature?
In various cultures, wolves symbolize masculine power and dominance, making them a fitting representation of toxic masculinity in our psychological horror tale. I crafted a narrative where the hero’s antagonistic forces manifest as wolf-like entities, with her violent, jealous ex taking on the terrifying form of a werewolf. His motivation and inner thought process are shown in his design, he goes from a person wearing a stylized wolf mask that was based on obsessive Slick Joe McWolf from MGM’s cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood to a painfully looking werewolf that resembles a mix of a monstrous form of the clown from it IT and the alien from The Thing.
What, for you, are the biggest practical challenges of creating an animated music video like this?
In terms of the biggest challenges of creating a music video, there are three main ones. Firstly, to get the idea across. Secondly, to get the right emotional feel from the video. And lastly, to hit the timing of the song.
It is a very interesting and challenging task. Everything starts from the initial idea, you start outlining the main beats of the story, and when you have it all, you start laying out these pieces in time and make them emotionally connect with the viewer and make the goddamn timing work. Many great moments were left out of the video because we needed to fit the run time of the video. But for me, it was a great experience. Usually, I work alone and rely only on my own art and tools to make a person connect with the video, but when you collaborate with an amazing musician there’s another dimension that gets added to the video.
What else are you working on at the moment?
The next big project I’m working on is a pilot for an animated miniseries. It’s a blend of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with a focus on a family of immigrants who fled their authoritarian homeland due to persecution by the government. The story is deeply personal, based on my experiences and the experiences of those close to me. It’s still in its early stages of development, preproduction is almost over and I’m starting to make props for the first episode. Even the name may change at this point. P.S. If someone knows Guillermo Del Toro, please let him know that I would love for him to be the producer of this project. I’m seeking the same opportunity he provided to the creators of The Babadook, Mother, and Antlers.