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Chalk talk: behind Shynola’s epic stop-motion Coldplay video


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Chalk talk: behind Shynola’s epic stop-motion Coldplay video



Coldplay’s Chris Martin soars over a chalk cityscape on the Los Angeles set of “Strawberry Swing”.

British animation collective Shynola insist they do not thrive on tricky technical challenges. But despite a self-proclaimed tendency toward laziness, the trio recently spent two weeks with their noses pressed against a Los Angeles street, painstakingly hand-drawing an epic stop-motion music video in chalk for Coldplay.

“Why run a marathon when you can cover the distance over the course of a year?” says Shynola’s Richard “Kenny” Kentworthy. “We’re naturally incredibly lazy. We tend to pitch ideas and only later think how the hell we are going to fulfill our promises.”

For the song “Strawberry Swing”, Brit rock band Coldplay and their video commissioner at EMI wanted to produce a short film-style music video that could be screened in UK cinemas. Shynola pitched a stop-motion story about a superhero (played by band front man Chris Martin) who must battle a maniacal squirrel in order to rescue a kidnapped damsel.

Though the hand-drawn chalk style differs wildly from Shynola’s previous music videos, “Strawberry Swing” shares the the rigorous attention to detail, off-kilter plot and overall lo-fi sensibility inherent in the collective’s best work. “I think pretty much all of our work falls into a category we think of as ‘naïve animation’,” says Kentworthy. “That is to say, we are not particularly interested in making or watching slick animation. We are attracted to the more unusual uses of it, and the inherent charm that something hand-crafted has.”

Kentworthy, Jason Groves, Chris Harding and Gideon Baws founded Shynola in 1994 while studying at the Kent Institute of Art and Design. After graduation they relocated to London and parlayed their collective illustration, painting, CG and animation skills into directing music videos for artists such as Radiohead, UNKLE, Blur, Queens of the Stone Age and Beck.

Last fall, the group suffered a loss when member Gideon Baws died suddenly at age 33. Thus “Strawberry Swing” marks a bittersweet return to the music video fold for Shynola’s remaining three members. To find out more about the “Strawberry Swing” experience, we asked Kentworthy to outline exactly how they made it.

Why were you guys interested in taking on this project and how did the brief differ from other music videos you’ve directed?

Actually we almost passed because we had pitched for Coldplay before and failed. Once, admittedly, because our idea was poop. The other time however we were really excited about our idea - we still think it would have been a really great video. But that was an epic, stadium-filling fail also. This brief was intriguing - it seemed more like they wanted to commission a short film without any of the presumed music-video-trappings of such a large band.

I’ve read that your initial pitch was quite different from the final version. What was the original idea and what kind of feedback did you receive from the commissioner and band?

It was an homage to Sesame Street. Like all things labeled homage it was a little short on much original thought, but it was very charming and suited the mood of the song, and that was the feedback we got: “Like this, but not this.” You’re under so much pressure initially. The idea has to be so complete, yet you have little time to form it. So you do all the most important work, the thinking, squeezed into a matter of days and then you are tied to this rushed concept. So it is great to get a second chance to pitch. It has happened to us a few times before, but it is rare. Rather than being insulting it shows great faith in the commissioner - or desperation, I don’t know.

What did you guys do to prepare for the shoot?

We made three versions of the video in the end. We made a simplistic animatic to work out the timings and the edit. Then we remade this in hair-thinning detail. Chris’s moves were all worked out beforehand using a simple CG model. So when we finally came to do the shoot we had a detailed pre-viz and pages of frame-by-frame instructions for every shot.

Can you describe the physical experience of animating with chalk? How long did it take?

We shot in Los Angeles. We were there for almost two weeks. Beforehand we were really concerned about Chris’s health, as he had to lie in awkward positions for long periods on the floor. So we had his costume fitted with movable padding and he also had a padded layer underneath. We didn’t really think how hard it was going to be on the chalk drawers until we got started. We had a pile of sweaty knee pads that had to be thrown away afterward and Jason had a big dent in his finger that has only just gone.



Kenthworthy draws among the chalky clouds.


Shynola show Coldplay’s Chris Martin how to be a superhero.

What kind of direction did you give Chris Martin?

Chris was genuinely brilliant. We had very detailed instructions that he absorbed like a sponge. He’s very fit from touring and he does yoga, so he managed everything in his stride. He was also totally committed to the job, and was willing to do anything for us. We shot some tests in London and I stood in for him. After ten minutes I felt like I needed a hip replacement.

Did you have to redo many takes or was it mostly first takes?

We had to reset the very first shot, where we draw out his room. We were using grid markings to help us with the drawing, but when we watched back the first few seconds they were clearly in the shot. Other than that we didn’t actually have time to redo anything. We did a re-grade of the footage when we got back to London.

Are there any characters or moments in the video that you are particularly proud of or fond of?

The handstand was not in the script. Chris mentioned the day before we started that he could do them with ease, so that night we frantically planned that shot and made room for it in the edit. We already had enough on our plates, but the result is great so I’m glad we made the effort.

We were sad to hear the news of Gideon’s passing last year. How did you guys proceed without him, especially on such an ambitious and challenging job? How has the working dynamic changed now that you are three?

Thanks. Well, it’s very hard to talk about these things. Gideon wasn’t just our work mate, we’ve been best friends for 15 or so years. We can all finish each other’s sentences, so some days you forget that he’s gone because he is still ringing in our ears. Which, of course, is sometimes incredibly depressing, but more often it is something to try and hang on to.
























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