Ashnikko – Worms

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This ambitious and imaginative music video was directed by artist and animator Raman Djafari through BLINKINK, for American music artist Ashnikko’s latest track, Worms

The film sees the blue-haired hero immersed in a dark, dystopian universe, heading into combat with an eccentric posse of demonic monsters to fight an army of villainous white robots. 

shots spoke with Djafari to find out how he combined live-action footage, cutting-edge CGI, and visual inspiration from Björk to Pieter Bruegel to create this fantastical feast for the eyes. 

Ashnikko’s fantastical aesthetic and your animation style seem like a match made in heaven! How did you two end up working together?

One of the many upsides of working with BlinkInk is that I get asked to pitch on very exciting projects. This was one of them. I've loved Ashnikko's work for a while already, so I felt super lucky to get this opportunity. 

They put so much trust into my vision and gave me all the freedom I needed to do my thing.

The track and brief directly sparked myriad ideas in my head and when I sent my treatment to Ash & Vasso (Ash's creative director) they seemed to really connect with it. They also told me that they already knew and liked my work before, which made me blush hard.

Can you tell us more about how the story for the music video evolved? How much creative freedom did you have with the project? What did Ashnikko think of the concept?

Ash and Vasso were a dream to work with. They put so much trust into my vision and gave me all the freedom I needed to do my thing. The concept is based on the lore of the Weedkillers, which is a world that Ash and Vasso wrote for this album. 

The video for Worms is my interpretation of that world, showcasing a pivotal moment in this narrative. Ash and their squad of demonic beasts ride towards the horizon charging into battle the Weedkillers. Apart from the general brief about the Weedkiller universe, Ash also told me that they wanted to ride a monster truck in this video. I did that and also added a transformer function on top.

Above: Monster characters to scale

Please tell us more about the world and its crazy characters! Who are they? What’s going on here? Is there a backstory to the battle?

There's this large backstory about the world of the Weedkillers. It is a story about a dystopian future, in which these angelic white robots, called Weedkillers, dominate the earth. The Weedkillers feed off of organic matter and all organic life has to retreat and find new ways to survive. I am sure Ash will reveal more about this universe soon. 

The juxtaposition of these two fractions is like this idea of the organic, earthy, bodily, physical, DIY, tangible hot mess VS. hyper tech-capitalist squeaky clean soulless evil perfection.

The monster characters that I have developed for this video are based heavily on medieval depictions of beasts and demons, as well as 80s Kaiju movies. I wanted them to feel spooky and alien, but come with a sense of goofiness as well. They needed to be weirdly lovable. A bit like how one feels about the Hyenas in the Lion King. Ugly-cute demonic beasts from hell... but in this case they're the good guys. You know? 

The Weedkillers on the other side are these angelic, holy, perfectly pristine, futuristic robot gods. They are cold, menacing, they seem untouchable, undefeatable. The way I designed them is based on Mecha anime from the 80s and 90s. Neon Genesis Evangelion comes to mind, Vasso also shared a great reference from Shaman King with me. I also looked a lot at the sculptures of Marguerite Humeau, who's work I have loved for a long time.  

I feel like there is something vulnerable and tangible in the tactility of the textures and the puppet-like movement.

So the juxtaposition of these two factions is like this idea of the organic, earthy, bodily, physical, DIY, tangible hot mess vs hyper tech-capitalist, squeaky clean, soulless, evil perfection.

Click image to enlarge
Above: Horsefish and Lizard Ghost  character designs 

Can you tell us more about the technical side of the faux-claymation and your decision to use this style?

I've been working in this style for a couple of years now. I feel like it brings a warmth and imperfection to 3D animation that I used to miss in my CG experiments from the time before. I wanted to bring this handmade feel that I had in my 2D animation work to 3D. I feel like there is something vulnerable and tangible in the tactility of the textures and the puppet-like movement.

This look is mostly achieved through a focus on heavily textured materials, rough and imperfect looking shape design and animation that mimics stop motion, for example by being animated on 12fps rather than 24fps. 

My core animation team on this project, Harry Bhalerao, Domo Lutz, Barney Abrahams and Nate Die, brought so much life to my character designs, each one of them bringing their unique sense of movement and personality to the table. This project benefited massively from having them be part of it.

Can you tell us more about your visual inspirations for the project? 

There are many. As I mentioned, medieval depictions of beasts, demons, heaven and hell played a huge role from the start, and have always influenced how I approached creature design in the past. 

There were some painters who I referenced a lot, particularly with regards to the epic showdown at the end. When I imagined these battle scenes for the first time, the image that came to my mind was a painting by Pieter Bruegel called The Fall of the Rebel Angels

The dramatic battle depicted through visually overwhelming clusters of beast and angels crashing into each other, was my conceptual and aesthetic starting point for this project. For lighting I looked at Caravaggio amongst others and Hieronymous Bosch is basically an inspiration on all my projects.

Then there are some obvious references from movies and comics, like Mad Max, Tank Girl, maybe even a bit of classic Star Wars. Another huge inspiration was the legendary Björk music video for Army of Me, which is actually a reference that both Ash and I had in our minds from the beginning, without even talking about it.

Click image to enlarge
Above: Pieter Bruegel's The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Mad Max: Fury Road truck, Hieronymus Bosch's Christ in Limbo

The video is a combination of live action-footage and animation. Can you talk us through how you mixed these elements?

It's the first time I attempted a mix of live-action and CG animation. Honestly, I was a bit worried in the beginning, that we could make it work the way I imagined it.  I was lucky to work with the amazing DP Hunter Daly and the set designer Laura Little, who were incredible to work with. 

From lighting to set design, we wanted the two mediums to melt. For me it was particularly fun to see my designs get translated into wood carvings that became part of the cockpit. The VFX supervisor on this project, John Malcolm Moore, played an essential role in making this mix of mediums possible. He was incredibly diligent, a true pro, always making sure we have everything we need to make a shot work and translate to the CG environment. 

I indulged my love for creature design and developed an absurd abundance of characters.

After the keying, grading, editing and camera tracking of the live-action footage by John and the VFX crew, I would bring the live-action sequence as a flat card into my 3D Blender scene. That way the 3D camera and lights would affect both the live-action footage as well as the CG world. It's a pretty fun process as you can see everything interact in the same space even before the final render.

It feels like there’s so much left to learn about this universe - is this something you can see yourself coming back to and exploring further in the future?

I wanted to create a sense of a vast world that stretches way beyond the bounds of this one music video. My hope is the viewers will feel like before and after the 2:36 minutes there is an abundance of stories waiting to be told.

I indulged my love for creature design and developed an absurd abundance of characters, some of them only appearing on screen for brief seconds in the background. It was important to me to bring the world around this album to life, with a richness that reflects the depth of the music and lyrics. 

Looking back, I wish I could have spent more time in this world. I feel like this video barely scratches the surface of what I would love to create together with Ashnikko. Fingers crossed we'll get another chance to collaborate in the future.

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Above: Cockpit test images

What were the biggest challenges? What was your favourite part of the project? 

Honestly, there were some shots that almost killed me. The amount of characters were both challenging to manage in terms of composition and lighting (always having this amazing Pieter Bruegel painting as a reference in my head) but also just in terms of file size and computing power. 

The scenes got so huge that sometimes it became a real fight to work inside of the 3D file. 

Ash brought so much energy and force to the performance, I could see the character and the world we were creating so much clearer after having seen them embody it. 

Then just the sheer size of the project, bringing all the different peoples' contributions together. Managing this massive production endeavour wouldn't have been possible without the stellar producers Jake River Parker and Molly Turner, who solved every minor and major catastrophe with elegance and calmness.

My favourite part... so hard to say, there are so many. I really loved working on set with Ash. They brought so much energy and force to the performance, I could see the character and the world we were creating so much clearer after having seen Ash embody it. 

Also developing the set build with the genius Laura Little was so fun. As I said, seeing my sketches translated into wood carvings made me feel like a kid. So magical. Also working with my animation crew was so joyful, they brought so many surprising and fun ideas to the table, that really brought so much life to this world. 

The whole team, really, everyone that was part of it, was a blast to work with. I couldn't have felt more blessed.