Adam Wright creates for the freedom to be weird. Through creating the animated video for Open Mike Eagle’s track “Idaho,” Adam proves he feels no obligation to reality. Freed from the shackles of plausibility, Wright’s animations are able to manifest the most abstract of ideas, making his style a natural fit for the visualisation of music.
Wright’s story sees him fall out of love with mainstream animation — exploitation and distortion of the art increasingly apparent. Channeling his love for music to literally put poetry in motion, he created his own standard of animation. The first projects he released, videos for Thundercat’s “Rabbit Ho” and “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” display the multiple shades of surrealness. The latter blends Wright’s style with Thundecat’s tendency towards absurdist comedy, while the former is a true journey into mystery — coming with a dark, mythological aura. Wright establishes a mood and welcomes his viewers into a surreal space of form-shifting cats, silver lakes and talking woods.
I sat down with the animator to discuss the development of his style, where 2D surrealism sits within the current landscape of animation, and what it is about abstract artists like Kendrick Lamar, Denzel Curry, and Childish Gambino that inspires him.
Ryan: I want to take it to the basics and talk about your style of animation. It’s 2D, hand-drawn animation. What made you choose that specific style?
Adam: Right now we have the two biggest areas of animation: 2D and 3D. I’ve always been an artist traditionally with pencil and pen so [2D] kind of came to me naturally, but I did try 3D. 3D is more like being a sculptor, and I find that a lot more difficult to do. It was kind of like learning a new language. I am also a ‘90s kid and I watched a multitude of stuff on Cartoon Network, Toonami; that kind of stuff. Obviously stuff like “Dragonball Z,” “Cow & Chicken,” “Powerpuff Girls,” every single thing you can think of under the sun, I watched it as a kid. I think those directly come into my style.
I became familiar with your work, through the video you animated for Open Mike Eagle’s “Idaho.” Talk to me about hearing that song for the first time. What made it stick out to you among the other tracks on Dark Comedy?
I found out about Open Mike Eagle due to Anthony Fantano. I’ve watched his stuff for years now. That was when I was first starting to get into rap music and he did a review of Dark Comedy. I decided to listen to it and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, this guy is a genius.’ He’s found some way to make rap fun and also has kind of a dark side to it as well. When I was listening to that album, ideas would spark just from me closing my eyes.
The one that gave me the biggest idea was “Idaho” straightaway. It has this perfect, sinister sound to it and I loved that there’s a kind of transition halfway through from the beginning — which is kind of solitary sounds with just his spoken words — which then turns into this very heavy synth. It’s a perfect way to transition the beginning part of the story, where it’s just this guy traveling in a van, into this darker and more surreal story.
One thing about the “Idaho” video that sticks out is how suffocating it feels. Talk to me about the techniques you used to create that feeling in the animation.
I knew that it was going to be confined to one space from the get-go. I knew that it had to follow this vehicle. After creating the video, I noticed that the way that I designed the project was land, sea, sky. I never really thought about it until I finished the project.
I felt that all of these spaces I decided to put Mike into have a suffocating aura to them. When he’s first in that car, I liked the idea of using a lot of these close shots, a lot of spaces that would kind of narrow him in so you can focus directly on his image and the stuff that is happening inside of the vehicle. Because of that, it traps you in that space and puts you in the driver’s seat with him. As the project moves on into the sea stage, I use that as a physical metaphor because he’s kind of drowning. It’s a space where he is suffocating. And again, another physical metaphor is when he’s in space. In space, you can’t breathe. But at the same time, the only safety he has is the vehicle that he’s in.
Talking about that sea stage, my favourite visual in the whole thing is the giant silver snake, swimming stealthily below the van. Where did the idea for that visual come from and what does that snake represent to you?
Funnily enough, that is my favourite shot in the entire project as well. It’s because it took me a very long time to experiment with the idea of the lightning strikes and actually trying to make that physically show in the video. Because my original ideas were just, ‘I’ll just draw a few lines that look like lightning,’ but that has no effect on the screen. How do I make that reflect on the sea and vehicle? And then what does that do to the snake? I always had this idea that he was submerged just following along with the vehicle.
The only thing I can think of that correlates with the submerged monster under the water is Godzilla from 2000, because I remember directly at the beginning of the film the monster is just literally under the water and all you can see is the fins. It was the most gratifying shot to do. I love the idea of having this silhouette of the monster underneath lurking.
In a literal sense, [the serpent] is meant to be the road. But the way that I took it was that the snake is what he’s following, but it’s also danger. He is on that road drunk, having smoked a bit and if he swerves or moves away from this monster, it could be a life and death situation. That’s always what I used, the road is the thing that’s keeping him safe, but also the danger. That kind of leads into the end of the story when he’s in space, and the road/snake finally eats him up.
Open Mike’s writing can be very whimsical with its imagery, does it help with making the video when the artist’s writing is just so visceral?
Indeed, I think it helps a lot that Mike’s way of storytelling is surreal, but also he doesn’t just chuck a few ideas and then move away. He typically tells a story from one end to another and just closes off that story. Whether you listen to stuff like “Qualifiers,” whether you listen to stuff from his newer albums like [Anime,] Trauma and Divorce, he always likes to give you a full rounded story and this was the easiest for me to work from.
The darkness of this video carries over into your other projects, particularly your video for Thundercat’s “Rabbit Ho.” That video is very shadowy and mystical, what is it about that track that conjured this imagery for you?
Obviously it alludes to ideas like Alice in Wonderland with going down the rabbit hole. But the way that he’s telling it — and he’s always been surreal with his storytelling — is that this is his first drop into the drunk space and I felt like, as you watch him following through towards the silver lake and falling into it, that is him diving into the drunk state. The lights and how the fireflies kind of create signs that you’d see in liquor stores and triple x stores, that’s the kind of things that he would be following towards [the lake]. It had this more adult, dark version of Alice in Wonderland, but with Thundercat at the middle of it.
The thing with Thundercat and also his comparatives, like Flying Lotus, is that they do typically have a darker nature to their projects. I probably say Flying Lotus more because Thundercat recently has been a little bit more whimsical. But there’s projects that he’s done like Where the Giants Roam which do have a darker tone. Even if you look at the album artwork for Where the Giants Roam, it’s directly referenced in my project with this dark woods.
I’m glad we have talked a lot about surrealism because it’s the reason I love animation so much. Do you feel like animation itself leans into surrealism naturally?
Perfectly, because there is no limitation in animation. With film projects you obviously have a limit on what you can do in real life. The way that animation lends itself to doing surreal imagery is perfect because whatever you can come up with in your head, you can put it directly onto that screen as long as you have enough creativity. So that’s always the way that I’ve seen the work, there is no limitation to animation as long as you have imagination. It’s as simple as that.
Even looking at stuff like when [Walt] Disney was friends with Salvador Dali. The early works like “Fantasia” were actually directly influenced by Salvador Dali because [Disney] would bring Dali over to the animation work and say, “What do you think of this?” And [Dali] would then directly say, “Well, I think you could bring this more surreally. Here’s what I would do.” So if you think of stuff like the scenes with the moving brooms that walk on their feet, those are direct ideas that come from Salvador Dali. It’s just so interesting to see that even people like Walt Disney at the beginning of animation were thinking, “We need people who are surreal,” and how a surreal mind shows what we can do with this platform.
How important do you think surrealism is to music?
It depends. Let’s specifically say in hip hop, for example, if you’re meant to be a rapper from the hood, typically, your stories are meant to be grounded in reality. Now there are new voices coming out every day that are changing this. Whether you look at people like Flatbush Zombies, or if you look at people specifically like Kendrick [Lamar], who have made a name with stories that are completely surreal, whether that’s through their music videos or not. It seems like more and more artists are starting to tend into that area.
Thundercat writes completely differently to someone like Open Mike Eagle, is it a challenge to blend the style of the artist with your own vision?
Definitely. The way that I went with the original Thundercat project, with “Tron Song,” that was a more whimsical track and it kind of reminded me of something that could be upbeat, that could be fun. That’s why I tried doing something a little old fashioned. I went for the line drawing, just black and white silhouettes and characters. That fit because it had that childlike nature to it along with the song where he’s dreaming of being a cat. When it came to “Rabbit Ho,” it has a darker nature to it, it has this drunk nature to it, and I felt that it needed some more fantasy. That’s why the woods have this engrossing, dark nature to them.
With Open Mike Eagle, my plan was to make the snake and everything look very realistic but I felt like it didn’t have enough character to it. So, I looked at different things that would be a good reference point, and it’s good that someone said in the YouTube comments, ‘this reminds me so much of “Courage, the Cowardly Dog,”’ that’s an exact reference that I used for this project. If you look at the sky tones and the way that the car is stylized, where it’s simple lines with shading and such, that is exactly what they used in their stuff. I used that to give me my foundation, and then see where I could take it from there.
How do you draw the connection between music and visual art?
rhythm. Rhythm is the biggest thing that I take note of when I’m thinking of making a music video. If you look at all of the projects that I’ve made, across from the first Thundercat one to Open Mike, all of my projects start with the rhythm being created by an object in the animation and I continue to use that rhythm throughout.
So you see in “Tron Song” that I use the cat’s walk animation to create the rhythm of the song. So as he presses his pads on the floor, you hear the drum beat move to that same amount. In Mike’s project, you see that the car moves up and down with the movement of the song and then it moves into the actual signals in the car. I always use that as the key part in making a music video because I want it to be directly interlinked with the music itself.
The thing that links Thundercat and Open Mike is that they make very abstract art. Do you think that abstract works lend themselves to animation more than others?
I would say so, because I don’t think that Open Mike would have ever made a music video for this if I hadn’t decided to get in contact with him. I can’t ever imagine him making this in a physical medium with normal film cameras. I just don’t know how it would have worked.
I went to a gig of his in Newcastle. I literally just walked directly up to him and I was like, “if there was any music video that you wanted to be made, what would it be?” He wasn’t too sure, so I told him about the idea I’ve always had for “Idaho.” He was interested, I designed the storyboards, and about a month later we greenlit it. It was very interesting to make that and in those initial ideas with the silver snake, for which I was inspired by a game that I was playing at the time, Sekiro.
What’s funny is that I have a huge phobia of snakes but I didn’t mind this one.
I’ll tell you I’m absolutely terrified of spiders and I’ve had an idea for a Childish Gambino video for years. I have wanted to make it but I’m just terrified by spiders. It’s so annoying, because the ideas I have for it are so dope and I just can’t make them. With “No Exit,” there’s two shots, two main focuses that I had when I was originally listening to the track. One is that he’s walking through a club and as the strobe lights flash, they create webs in between each character. Such a cool idea, I just wish I could make it. The second image is very similar to a shot from a film called “Enemy.” There is a shot in the film where Jake Gyllenhaal walks into a room and there is a giant spider just watching him from the corner of the room and the moment it sees him it just backs into the corner and just freaks from him. That imagery has been stuck in my head for so long that it’s now merged with the ideas that I have for “No Exit.”
As he says on the song, “Stare at the recluse,” that imagery really sticks with you.
And again, it’s very surreal. Because his mind is just going from one idea to the next and that’s the way that I would translate that into the project. One scene he’ll be sitting on the side of his car and then next he’ll suddenly be inside of the club, just walking through it. So yeah, so annoying. Why am I scared of spiders?
Circling back to abstract and surreal works, a superpower of animation is that it allows people to accept these fantastical worlds a lot more easily. Do you think that feeds into animation being such a great vehicle for processing abstract thought and emotion?
I believe so. Because the amount of work that you see outside of the popular media of animation is abstract. When I used to do the festival circuits I would always make a focus to go see all of the animation work to see what they were doing compared to my stuff. Every time, whether it was Russian based projects, whether it was French, typically European, you will find that their projects are so out there and so surreal. It’s amazing to see and I wish that more of that surreal nature would translate into traditional popular animation like Pixar and DreamWorks.
You do see that a little bit in stuff like [Pixar’s] Soul, where they designed the afterlife in a more surreal way, but obviously you don’t when you see things like ‘brought to life toys,’ ‘brought to life dinosaurs,’ ‘brought to life cars…’ Do you see where I’m going with this? My main point is that I do think abstract thought and abstract design does tend directly into animation and I think that as the years go by, we will see more abstract design come in. A main one that kind of wowed me recently was [Sony Animation Pictures’] Into the Spider-Verse. The way that they use their art style is surreal compared to your usual animation and I think that was a fantastic melding of that idea. And then that’s also carried on into their next project with Mitchells vs The Machines. The way that they use the main character’s train of thought, which turns into an image which turns into a 2D cartoon inside of a 3D cartoon is a fantastic surreal work. So I really hope that we get more voices like what people are doing at Sony into traditional popular media.
I’m very glad you brought up Sony Animation, because I love the idea of a huge animation company who made The Emoji Movie challenging the very idea of what animation can look like on a mainstream scale. I think that’s a huge moment. So the first time you saw Spider-Verse, how did you react?
I didn’t particularly like the story of the film the first time I watched it. Now, I ended up loving it the second time, but the first time my only focus was just on the amazement of ‘Wow, they’ve actually translated comic design into a film, into an animation project.’ This is the first time this idea has ever been explored to this degree, and especially for popular media. I was just sat in every single shot thinking, ‘How the heck did they do this?’ Because they’ve basically gone against every single rule that you have in animation, the way that they work on a very stilted design and very stilted movement with all of the characters, that’s something that most companies would go, ‘you can’t do that, no one’s ever gonna watch a film where the character looks like he’s a photo being run around and zoetrope. There’s no way that could be translated onto a screen for popular audiences.’ But it did.
Obviously, in hindsight now after watching the film at least four or five times, it is a perfect blending of story and the animation. I think that as long as companies like Sony continue to delve into more experimental styles, we’re gonna have more and more fun with how animation is made. And I think it’s a sad thing to say, but Pixar is kind of on the backfoot now, compared to Sony. Sony has become the innovator.
Do you feel like hand drawn animation is fading away or do you think it’s having a comeback?
I think it’s having a comeback. Now, the only reason why I say that is because there are companies that have fully engrossed [themselves] into the animation and they are trying their very best to bring it back. There are companies like Cartoon Saloon over in Ireland who are trying their very, very best to bring 2D back and they are doing a fantastic job. I was wowed by Song of the Sea. Then I saw The Secret of Kells and all of the others that they’ve done. The way that they stylize their stuff is so unique, and it just worked perfectly.
I cannot imagine those projects in 3D. I don’t think it would work. You can see that with [Studio] Ghibli right now. They just released their first 3D film, and it went terribly. A lot of people have said that it’s lost its lustre, it doesn’t really feel like a Ghibli film anymore. So companies like Cartoon Saloon with films like Wolfwalkers, with The Breadwinner, they are finding such a niche to go into, but hopefully, and I pray that it happens, I pray that this will give a resurgence for general populace films to have 2D again. I think if Studio Ghibli goes back to 2D, which I think they should, they, along with Cartoon Saloon, are the two saviours of 2D animation.
Are there any games, in terms of art style, that you think match your style as an animator?
The Binding of Isaac. When I was making my original project, the one that got cancelled, and I was showing that to people as a test, they were saying “this looks a lot like Binding of Isaac.” I looked at it and was like, “I can kinda see it.” I can’t really think of too many other games that have that kind of rough, animated style to them. I can’t say Cuphead, because it has its very unique, 1950s/1940s animation style that is very unique to its time. Oddly enough, Cuphead is to be made into an animated cartoon show. So that is a direct transformation from a game into an actual video project. It seems possible that we may be seeing a [2D] resurgence, just through different avenues than what we expect.
But on the other hand, we have Nintendo and Illumination teaming up to make a Mario movie to kill all of our dreams.
Did you hear about the idea that they were going to make Mark Wahlberg play Mario at one point? Insane. Mario has always been Charles Martinet and it can’t be anyone else. I can’t imagine why you would change it? I think that’s a really sorry state of affairs. I think the treatment of voice actors is similar to the animators of projects as well. There is a multitude of people behind the scenes who ended up doing storyboard work, who ended up doing the provisional designs of characters. I could go into the problem with CGI work and animated stuff in general: animators are paid a pittance. There’s pretty much sweatshops for Marvel work and I think that’s wrong. Entirely wrong. It’s all about just making more money off of the projects for Disney.
These things are made without the actual workers in mind.
Right. I’m outside of the industry, I make these projects because I want to make them, I just want to create, it’s as simple as that. But people who were actually in the industry having to make cartoons over in America, for Disney and such, the stuff that they’ll talk about where they say like, “This was my dream job and then I’ve now been reduced to doing all of these hours every week, and I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
They do so much work for companies that they have lost their creativity and their drive to do stuff which is more experimental, more creative, more surreal. They don’t have the time and they don’t have the space inside of what they get paid for. That’s why I’m lucky to be doing what I do. But at the same time, I don’t get paid, really. So it’s a creative space for me, and I hope one day that I can make money out of this and live off of my creativity but that may be a long way away, or it may be the next project that I do. I never know.
Check out more of Adam’s work over at his YouTube channel, BrainPaintProductions.