The concept of putting together pop music with animation is not exactly something new.
The legendary Max Fleischer was probably the first to realize this when he started the “bouncing ball” ‘toons way back in the silent era (the theater organist played the music…the audience sang). Warner Brothers really DID use their original Looney Tunes to publicize their song catalog.
In the 60s, you had the Chipmunks, Beatles, Impossibles, Archies, Jackson 5, bands both real and imaginary, crossing both the TV screen and the radio charts, with it all leading up to Jamie Hewitt (Tank Girl) and Damon Albarn (of the band Blur) deciding that while they were sharing a flat, they might as well take over the music industry with The Gorillaz.
Well, the latest adaptation of this formula is about to release their first DVD/CD, and it’s the kind of stuff that should excite the hell out of both music and animation fans.
They’re called One EskimO. They are lead by former chart topping pop singer Kristian Leontiou. After having a hit on Def Jam, he got tired of the way things were going, and felt he could do a lot more with his talents. As it turned out, he happened to be right.
“It’s really weird, actually,” Leontiou said from his native London. “I was talking to someone yesterday and I came to realize that when I was in school, I also studied illustration. I wanted to be an artist. Then I remembered a distant family member once saying to me ‘Why do you want to be an illustrator?’ He was a businessman and he couldn’t understand why I wanted to be an artist. He thought I would end up drawing pictures of people on street corners and there’s no career in that.
“I just love drawing. As a kid, I spent more time drawing than I did music. In fact, I would say my childhood was made up of singing songs and drawing. Then a little bit later, I started getting into production. I think there is a magic to illustration you just don’t get in making regular movies. You can go anywhere your mind takes you with animation. There are no restrictions.
Leontiou also watched his share of cartoons growing up. They left a proper dose of residual damage.
“Totally!” he laughs. “Everything from Alec Jones’ The Snowman to Snoopy (meaning Bill Menendez’s Peanuts). I’m a massive Studio Ghibli fan. I love anime and that whole Japanese kind of illustration. They were all big influences. So I would say they came from a few places. Totally."
“Actually, because we’ve been on the bus for the last 6-8 weeks touring with Tori (Amos), I haven’t been able to see Ponyo yet. My girlfriend’s an illustrator. She’s a massive fan, too. Now that we’ve just gotten off tour she says she has a lot of movies to show me. I’m thinking that’s one of them.”
The deal now is, Leontiou is taking his love of illustration, animation and music and is fusing them together. This September, WB Premier (the group that gives us all those great DCAU DVDs) is putting their debut release out as an 11-song CD/DVD.
Accompanied by guitarist Peter Renaldi, bass player Jamie Sefton and drummer Adam Falkner, the music of One EskimO is a dreamy pop confection highlighted by the songs “Hometime” and “Kandi.” It’s the kind of thing one can put on low on the stereo and drift off, enjoying its mix of acoustic instruments and multiple layering. In other words, One EskimO is the absolute opposite end of Dethklok’s brutal supremacy or the Gorillaz mental agitpop.
Still, the kicker is just as Leontiou’s sound is as distinctively different from those other two animation/music hybrid bands; his background in illustration provides the band with their own unique visual flavors.
“You know, there are a lot of people using plug-ins these days, and I think it’s a shame,” says the band’s singer. “I think animation is still better when it’s hand drawn. Yes, the plug-ins are amazing, but there’s something to be said for the old school magic.
“I think CGI is getting amazing, but I also think it also takes away from the magic. No matter what, you can see it’s CGI. [Traditional] animation is just more dreamy. It’s also easier to do the image you are trying to create.”
The animation looks simple but moves with a masterly touch, uses a lot of muted colors and with deceptively simple character and background designs. Leontiou not only developed One EskimO as a band, but also as the lead character in the DVD. From there, he uses the songs to tell an actual story.
The tale has One EskimO meeting the love of his life, named Little Feather. She’s is kidnapped by a Svengali-like character Leontiou named Mr. Top Hat. From there, One EskimO goes on a quest, along with his animal-musician pals Penguin (Renaldi), Giraffe (Falkner) and Monkey (Sefton), to get his sweetheart back. It’s a sweetly surreal mission and a true pleasure on the eyes in its own right.
“I think the dreaminess of Alec Jones’ Snowman, again in my head, was also important,” Leontiou said. “That was what I was aiming for. We got old style drawing with modern sound.”
Leontiou also acknowledges the Gorillaz as an important factor, although for different reasons.
“I think they’re biggest influence on me was they were able to put illustration to their albums,” he said. “I’m a fan of the Gorillaz, but we haven’t taken their style at all, animated or the music. Also, I have to admire how they keep moving forward. I mean when I was first speaking to people about doing illustration to music, they were the biggest comparison. It helped make everything clear in their heads. Without the Gorillaz, it would have been a lot more difficult. It helped people see my vision.”
The Gorillaz also gave One EskimO another inadvertent contribution. The animation team he employed, called Gravy Media, worked on Hewitt/Albarn’s animations.
“It was through a friend of mine,” Leontiou recalls. “At that time, I had already developed the characters. Then some friends of mine also helped me develop the characters. That didn’t work out though. So I had the character One EskimO drawn and the songs already far down the line. So I had this one friend and he said he could make it work. So I did my designs and he did his, and he started up Gravy Media.
“He’s a very talented guy. He knows how to get things done and also very creative. In fact, they were all very creative guys to work with. They got it for the whole project, both from the animation side and making it work with the audio side of the album. It was a case of getting the right people.”
Even with the right talent, the creation process wasn’t that easy.
“It took 2 ½ years just for the animation,” Leontiou recalls. “The whole project, including the songs, took about 4 ½ years start to finish. The first two animations, ‘Hometime’ and ‘Kandi,’ were just five minutes each. They took 6-7 months each to produce with about 6-7 animators working on them. Then we spent about ten months on the rest of it.”
Oddly enough, one of the things that also helped was “Hometime” and “Kandi” got One EskimO attention really fast, especially when “Hometime’ won the British Public’s Choice award for best animated short. This, in turn, got Toyota really interested in the band. The car company then decided to use “Hometime” for their Prius commercial entitled “Why Not?”
“That was a dream come true,” Leontiou admits. “We’re not with any record label over here. We had no money coming in at that time. Toyota came up with a really nice advert and it gave us the funding to get our animation done. That was really cool.
“It feels like we’re getting somewhere. It was a struggle, especially without any money. Now it definitely feels like we’re getting a reaction. That’s been amazing. A lot of people seem to really respect where we’re going.”
Leontiou also admits he learned a few valuable lessons during his near five year creation process.
“You know, it’s really difficult to write an album. It’s even more difficult to make it all fit into a story. That’s the one thing I will work harder on as we move forward. I think next time I’ll work on the story first and the songs second. It really is something to try to fit 11 completed songs into a story when the songs already existed.
“They [the animation and the music—ED] were both developed together. That means they also had to work together. It’s not that one was more important than the other. Yes, writing songs and being in the studio is my main thing. I can’t do the 24 frames a second animation. I just came up with the character designs, main screen shots and that kind of thing. But yes, they definitely do work well together. That’s a really nice situation to be in.
“Another thing, nothing’s been rushed. I had plenty of my own time to develop my illustrations and the music. That is another reason why they worked together so well. We did write the songs first, then we fit the animation to the songs. Then we went back into the studio to make sure the percussion and the other outside sounds fit. I think what really made it work was us going back into the studio. When we were done we wound up with a much more unique sound.”
As for the band’s plans after the release? They will be coming back to the U.S. to start touring again.
“We’re going to be coming back in a couple of weeks,” Leontiou said. “We’ve got two more weeks of our Tori tour. We’ve got some dates here in England to do with her. After the Tori dates we’re back in the States. We’re going to be doing a full press with that because we’ll be doing rear projections of the animation on this new tour. We weren’t able to do that on the Tori tour. It will be much nicer to do a proper show this time.”
That in and of itself sounds like it would also be something worth seeing.
NEXT COLUMN: During World War II, FDR needed to send a team of agents to stop the Axis from taking over South America. Who did he send? Try Walt Disney and his team of animators. Find out more next Tuesday.