Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Your Shot: Ashnikko and Grimes’ Twisted Anime Horror Story

London, UK
Director Mike Anderson explains what went into this violent tale of a “Sailor Moon transformation gone awry”
When the video for ‘Cry’ by Ashnikko featuring Grimes dropped a couple of days ago, LBB’s Alex Reeves was floored by it. He wasn’t alone, if you read a few choice comments from YouTube.

“Didn't realize that Winx Club and Silent Hill crossover would be so cool,” noted one commenter. The combination of wood fairy cute and raw horror is indeed quite something.

“Am I the only one who's creeped out by her character design.. Creeped out in a good way though..” No, YouTube commenter. The video is certified creepy.

Another commenter imagined an early discussion between director Mike Anderson and the artist:
“Animators: ‘How traumatized do u want ur viewers?’
Ashnikko: ‘Yes’”

Also wondering what those conversations were really like, Alex got in touch with Mike to take a dive into the making of this twisted, beautiful nightmare of a music video.

LBB> Where did the video begin for you? What was the spark of the idea and where did you initially take that?

Mike> Initially, Sam Seager from Warner UK reached out to me, before they had a track. I checked out Ashnikko’s work and got really into it - she’s really smart, has a great aesthetic, and balances a lot of different tones simultaneously. I was pretty into it before I heard the song. 

When I write a music video, I basically just try and shut out all the noise, listen to the song, and let a bunch of imagery flow through my head. And I guess by noise I mean all the visual and narrative noise you get bombarded with 24/7. Probably the hardest part is filtering all that Instagram and TikTok junk and whatnot that’s constantly bombarding, and just try to listen to yourself and make something that comes from within, rather than from outside. 

For this one, I was thinking about how raw the emotions of the song were, and how being hurt can make you respond in a monstrous way, with violent daydreams, and what these internal states would look like if they walked out of your body. And for some reason I got pretty into the idea of a Sailor Moon transformation gone awry, who knows why.

LBB> What were your thoughts and inspirations in designing the characters? Why did you decide to make Ash into a contorted, three-faced mutant and Grimes a sort of gothic bat-fairy that someone posted on their DeviantArt page in 2004?

Mike> Hahaha! DeviantArt rules. 

I don’t know why I Janus’d out Ash - structurally, I liked the idea of different faces rapping different lines, and visually I wanted to make her a monster but keep her beautiful. My deck had refs from Junji Ito and I leaned pretty hard into those Jack and Dinos Chapman mannequins from the ‘90s. For the body I was thinking of those Willem de Kooning sculptures. I had a couple of Henry Moore images in the deck. 

Ash helped tons on the wardrobe. Grimes had some great ideas for her look - it was her suggestion to make her a bunch of clones, which was a great call, it reminded me of Darger girls. I was into that character literally wearing her tears: a liquid that pours from her eyes and then hardens into the wardrobe. I thought it’d be a great red herring to begin her as this cute woods fairy, but have her be the source of this evil bodily distortion that happens to Ash.

LBB> I'm getting big JRPG and mecha-based anime vibes and I have a feeling there are dozens of references in there I don't get, but people will find them. Was that the plan? What were you drawing from culturally?

Mike> Oh yeah, a ton of that. I love the freedom of JRPG narratives, they have license to just go bonkers - you just give them a massive suspension of disbelief. Same with anime. That was part of the pitch, and the draw for me. I was like, hey, if we do this in anime, we can get away with anything. There’s a lot of gaming in it, too. I don’t really play a ton of video games, but I follow them obsessively, I love their look and feel. 

As far as refs, I’m not a real Easter egg kinda guy. I figure there’s two ways to make stuff, you know, you got the smoothie or the salad: the salad is like a collage, where every ingredient is still recognisable and the puzzle of the refs are part of the piece. Me, I tend towards the smoothie, where all these refs get dumped into my head and blended up, and when you pour it out it’s just a unified mess. I don’t really care or even know what’s in there. I love Evangelion and de Kooning and Carpenter’s The Thing, they’re in this video - but at the end of the day, I like to look at my work and have it feel like my voice, rather than a collection of voices I like. 

LBB> How did the plot come together? It's only a two-minute track but a lot happens!

Mike> Ha! Yeah it’s nuts. That thing is jam packed. I wanted to go as far as we could, narratively: flashbacks, origin story, non-linear storytelling. It’s so fun and challenging to take a full story and get it down the absolute minimal beats you need. I think there’s only a couple shots in this that you could cut, maybe, without the whole thing falling apart. That’s the way it oughta be, I think. I really wanted it to feel like it was a story urgently told. Grab them by the lapels and just yell it out as fast as you can. My genius collaborator Ryan Dickie, who DP’d this, is also a master editor. 

LBB> Technically, how did you animate it?

Mike> Custom motion capture - we had a great performer, Sarina Premi, and Deep Sky helped out with the mocap and face animation. We blended that with stock motion capture augmented with keyframe animation for the face performances. We used as much stock as possible, because the turnaround was very fast. I come from a live action background and so I like to move quickly.

LBB> Why did you choose to build it all in Unreal Engine?

Mike> Unreal Engine rules, I’ve switched my whole animation workflow into it. It’s real time. I’ve got a live action background, so it makes more sense to me. I hate compositing. With Unreal, because you’re always looking at the final render, you’re freed up to iterate to your heart’s content. Video games are created quite differently than films, and it’s a better workflow: I could have an international team working on the same project file simultaneously. With everything moving faster, I could get approvals quicker in the process from the client, and then that allowed Ryan and I to really dive into the storytelling.

LBB> What were the biggest challenges?

Mike> Time and budget, as always. There was an extra layer of creating a brand new pipeline for creating traditional videos using a game engine - there’s quite a learning curve, it’s pretty cutting edge. I was learning Maya and Unreal simultaneously: that did something to my brain, I think I broke something in there. 

I keep my hands pretty dirty making these: I rough out and/or polish every aspect of the video, so it’s real tricky to not become a bottleneck for someone. I gotta juggle a lot, it takes a lot of hours.

LBB> The final scene with the Ash/Grimes hybrid monster looming over her victim is totally iconic. What were the key decisions in getting that bit right?

Mike> Oh man, you spend weeks designing and sculpting and building and texturing and rigging and animating one character, that’s on-screen for a couple seconds, in a few shots - you better get it right. I’m happy you say it feels iconic. It was pretty difficult to make it feel like it should be there - that the whole video culminates to that moment, and it’s not a joke, it’s not cartoony or silly - it felt like that on a lot of passes, until we got it right. 

The lighting shift was important. The shots preceding the reveal: those were tough, we were very limited budget and time-wise for the animation. The whole scene is essentially there to put the viewer in the POV of the girl on the ground watching Ash change. If we could get you to experience that scene through the eyes of the girl, then it’d work. It’s a bookend, you know. You open with the girl, reveal Ash through her eyes, and then end with the girl, same deal. I think it makes the story feel bigger, it gives the viewer a vantage point to the events.

LBB> Is there any single moment or aspect of the finished video that you're most happy with?

Mike> You know, to my eye, watching it, the video just reads to me like a two-minute barrage of flaws and missed opportunities. It usually takes about a year or two before I can settle back and the perfectionism quiets and I can check it out. But that’s just the nature of the game. 

The thing I’m most happy with is that it works. There’s so many components flashing by in such a short time, but the video seems to work. I’m a believer that it’s the story that matters more than anything. I think we got a crazy little story across, and it feels urgent. I’m happy about that. I hope people enjoy it, I’m so curious about what they think.

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