How Animated Music Videos Are Helping Artists Dream Big in the Pandemic

“Artists still want to get their music out and make videos, and animation is a vehicle to do that,” says Arthell Isom, whose studio D’ART Shtajio created The Weeknd’s ”Snowchild” music video. (Republic Records/YouTube)

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he video for Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes’ “Nightrider” featuring Freddie Gibbs opens with a familiar scene: Three friends drive down a road in a burnt orange convertible, smoking and vibing out to the track as the world glows with the teals, pinks and yellows of dusk. The simple visual is steeped in nostalgia, and it’s easy to escape into Misch and Dayes’ world as we reminisce about better times before quarantine. 

The only difference from our memories? Everything is animated.

Since the beginnings of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. in March, animated music videos have appeared everywhere. Misch and Dayes followed “Nightrider” with another fully animated video, “Tidal Wave.” Billie Eilish released “my future” as an animated video in collaboration with Takashi Murakami. The Weeknd imagined “Snowchild” in an ethereal, otherworldly anime landscape. Dua Lipa personified a modern-day Betty Boop in her video for “Hallucinate.” Lil Wayne returned to his skater days in “I Don’t Sleep.” Doja Cat and Victoria Monet blurred realities in their hybrid half live-action, half-3D animation in “Like That” and “Jaguar,” respectively. And Grimes took the trend even further, dabbling in a 3D, video game-like space in “Darkseid.

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Animation in music isn’t a novel concept, but the pandemic has given it new relevance. Animated music videos saw their first meaningful boom in the ’80s. And stars of the 2000s, including Kanye West and Gorillaz, helped popularize the 2D format even further.

In recent years, artists who grew up in the ’90s watching Sailor Moon, Naruto, and Adult Swim’s Toonami have shown animation’s lasting influence on their work (Lil Uzi Vert and Megan Thee Stallion, for starters), but the medium hasn’t been as mainstream as it is now. With limitations and increased costs due to COVID-19 precautions, shooting live-action videos has been less feasible, opening the door for the massive rise in animated music videos we’ve seen in the last few months.

Across the industry, animation has gotten this huge uptick in production. Because of the way animation is produced, everyone can work from home easily, whereas with live action you need to be there with your co-stars, the production crew and all this other stuff,” Arthell Isom explains. Based in Tokyo, Isom is co-founder of D’ART Shtajio, the first Black-owned anime studio in Japan and the creators of The Weeknd’s “Snowchild” video. “Artists still want to get their music out and make videos, and animation is a vehicle to do that.”

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any videos originally planned as live-action were actually adapted into animation after COVID-19 restrictions rolled out. For London-based animator Jack Brown, who animated and directed both “Nightrider” and “Tidal Wave,” quarantine became a rare opportunity to work for an artist he had long admired—and a chance to break down barriers in the music industry around animated work. 

“We're so used to us [animators] emailing people like, ‘Hey, does your band want an animated music video?’ and them going ‘No, it's too weird, it doesn't fit with the image,’” says Brown. “And all of a sudden these people are emailing us back and going, ‘Actually, we changed our minds.’ It was a noticeable flip of a switch.” 

Both Isom and Brown hope that animation in music will continue to grow, even as live-action production starts up again. The way they see it, animation offers a freedom beyond what’s possible in reality, and they want to share that with viewers. For artists and fans alike, the ability to both create and escape into an alternate reality is incredibly enticing—especially at a moment when climate disasters, political tumult and a highly-infectious pandemic are sweeping the globe. 

L.A. musician Michi Guerrero recently released an animated music video for her single “Escondida” in collaboration with Spanish animator Maria Medem and creative director Haley Appell, and she’s found respite in creating a world that transcends barriers when real life feels full of them. “I had imagined [the ‘Escondida’ video] being live,” Guerrero says. “But as it went on, [I realized] we literally have so much freedom within animation. It's still that collaborative working together, and what we envision is still there, just in a different medium.”

Working in animation created the opportunity for an international collaboration, which helped Guerrero dream bigger than she could when shooting videos locally. “It's all about finding the positives,” she says. “We’re not completely stripped of everything.”

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sychologically, the freedom to go beyond reality can also positively impact mental health—another reason why many of us have gravitated towards cartoons in during the pandemic. Avatar: The Last Airbender became the top-streamed show on Netflix after it was added in May, for instance, even though it hadn’t had a new episode in 12 years.

In an article for VICE in 2017, Elizabeth Sherman spoke with New York psychotherapist Dr. Laurel Steinberg about the psychological benefits of watching animation. “Cartoons model higher frustration tolerance and activate a person's problem solving abilities,” said Steinberg. She believes that building up these basic problem-solving skills can improve life circumstances and alleviate anxiety and depression in the long term.

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In the United States, we’re just now starting to shift away from the idea that cartoons are only for children—a crucial bridge we must cross in order to understand animation’s true potential as an artistic medium. By creating mostly adult animes, D’ART Shtajio operates constantly in that space and hopes to challenge those stereotypes in their work. The slow, R&B vibe of “Snowchild,” for instance, took much greater emotional expression than a fast-paced hip-hop video like their 2018 release featuring Bad Bunny, Future and Anuel AA for Spiff TV.

“Anime in the West was traditionally viewed as a vehicle for telling stories to younger audiences. That's what we're interested in at D'ART Shtajio—trying to switch that concept,” Isom shares. “Animation is really just a medium; it's a tool you can tell any story in. How do we break that barrier so that adults can sit down, watch and take this story seriously?”

Finding hope, comfort and freedom in our everyday lives is more important now than ever. And if animated music videos help give us a small glimpse of those feelings, we must recognize their value, celebrate them and also keep making them, even after we can gather again.

“Hayao Miyazaki said animation smooths the hard lines of reality. I've definitely butchered that,” Brown laughs. “But it's so true. Everything down to actual hard lines—things can be softer. Brighter.”

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He adds, “People always complain about doing animation over live action because you have to sit there and draw everything and it's exhausting. But the reality is...you're creating something completely from scratch. From a white piece of paper. You can fly. You can do whatever. You can create whatever you want to.”