Radiohead/Aniboom Contest Interview with Gabe and Jon

After challenging the conventional album distribution system last Fall, Radiohead has turned its attention to how animated music videos are produced. On March 17th, the band announced that it had teamed up with Aniboom and Adult Swim for a groundbreaking music video contest. The concept of a user or listener-generated music video contest goes back to Madonna and MTV’s 1986 Make My Video competition, but when a band of Radiohead’s size is paired with the connective possibilities of the internet, we’re likely to see uncommon results.

Those results will arrive in 4 stages, starting with the April 27th deadline for the storyboard submission round. In this initial phase, animators, writers and other artists can submit a clip displaying their concept for a music video – using any song from Radiohead’s #1 album In Rainbows. The field will be subsequently whittled down to 10 semifinalists, who will each be awarded $1,000 to make a 1-minute music video. These 10 are culled to 5 finalists, whose work is then presented to the band.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke

Finally, on June 30th, the winner will receive $10,000 to make a full version of their video (complete schedule and rules)

The 4-step process is a clever approach to the ever popular world of user-generated content, or UGC. It lowers the bar for entry, allowing artists to dip a toe into the contest without committing a month of their life to a submission that may not even make the finals. It’s actually an analog of the traditional method employed at major animation studios: concepts are presented, a rough pass is produced and then the final work is revealed to scrutinizing executives. Only here, the “executives” are one of the coolest bands in the world.

And while we know Radiohead for their progressive approach to the music industry and their unique blend of sonic experimentalism and alternative rock power, they know a thing or two about music videos. Jamie Thraves’ music video for Radiohead’s 1995 track Just is often listed amongst the best music videos of all time, and another three, Fake Plastic Trees, Karma Police and Street Spirit (Fade Out), have received similar acclaim. Their music videos are simply legendary. It’s enough pressure to make an animator freeze up in fear.

So to help get the ball rolling, Aniboom partnered with the dynamic animation duo comprised of Jon M. Gibson and Gabe Swarr. The two were tapped to create a promotional and inspirational animated short (below) which would accompany the contest announcement.

You may know Gibson from i am 8-bit, the video game themed art exhibit that has now spawned a popular book, but he’s also a sought-after screenwriter for studios like Disney and Nickelodeon.

Jon, Karla & Gabe
Jon talks with Gabe and his wife Karla
at the i am 8 bit show
(photo credit Andrew Speers)

Swarr’s resume goes back to Spumco, where he helped pioneer the online Flash animation movement, but he has since made a name for himself as a director and storyboard artist on animated TV series like El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. The two have been collaborating for years now, but this is by far their biggest experiment. Over a million online views later, the two have to be pleased with how their promo short turned out, but let’s take a look at how that all came together.

Both Gabe and Jon joined CHF in an interview – the first in a lengthy series of Aniboom/Radiohead pieces we’ll be revealing over the next few months.

AARON SIMPSON: Gabe, you mentioned on your blog that this piece deviates from your natural style. Did you draw from any sources to discover this new look?

GABE SWARR: Actually, when we were first talking to Aniboom, they mentioned “realistic” and “photographs” and I immediately didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t interest me at all. I thought this thing was going to be bad and really couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

So after Jon convinced me “we should at least try it,” I put it out of my mind, and tried not to think about it for a while. I try to do this as much as possible, and then let the idea come to me naturally. My friend Ricky calls it “unloading.” The idea actually came to me in a dream a couple days later. I woke up early in the morning and jotted down the concept.

Information Graphics
Information Graphics
by Peter Wildbur & Michael Burke

As far as the look is concerned, I really like anything incredibly graphic, be it sprites from videogames, ads, maps, or even graffiti. A couple of years ago I bought this book called Information Graphics filled with diagrams and maps and instructions. In there was a really cool looking medical diagram of how to use an ICU. That mixed with some subway maps, and some cool textures I came across and the look was born.

AARON: So much of your work is in the comedic direction, was it refreshing to “play it straight” on this one?

GABE: This one was like a giant experiment. I always like to try new things, but a lot of times, they are just too crazy. I remember I sat down with Matt Gadbois (our expert After Effects compositor), and explained what I wanted to do and he just couldn’t figure it out. Maybe I just didn’t explain it too well.

The whole thing was a big gamble. We were on a VERY compressed schedule and to try this many new things at once was a formula for disaster… but we did it. If we had more time, I would have done a lot more in 3D. But I had to restrict it for the time allowed.

AARON: The video seems like a heavily stylized metaphor for the contest – idea, creation and distribution. Was that your vision?

GABE: Yes, exactly. Someone gets inspired by music, and creates something. The video is about the journey that the inspiration/music takes through your body. The actual path was from the headphones, to your ears, fills your brain with ideas, it goes to your heart for the meaning, you eyes for the vision, and finally your hands for the conduit to the world.

AARON: Do you personally find music artistically inspiring?

GABE: Of course! I love to listen to music with my eyes closed. I’ve done that since I was little. I think that every genre of music has really powerful imagery which usually has nothing to do with what they are actually singing about.

AARON: The lyrics to Bodysnatchers hint at being trapped inside one’s own body. Did you lean on any of the song’s lyrics for inspiration?

leaf graphic
Concept Sketch by Gabe

GABE: It kinda fell together actually. The concept came first and then I heard Bodysnatchers. It was a natural fit for the idea. The song drove everything from the look, the feel, and especially the timing. I broke down the lyrics, tempo, and the beats, and then tracked everything to that. In my opinion, all the best music videos are made that way.

I have to say, I love doing music videos. I would never pass up a chance to do one. They are so much fun to visually represent something completely non-visual. I had the same approach when I did the i am 8-bit opening (below) and Fuck Her Gently for Tenacious D.

AARON: Did you create an animatic before diving in?

GABE: Of course, they are deadly essential and I never work without them.

Gabe’s animatic

AARON: And what decisions are made during the animatic phase?

GABE: Usually there are very few changes from storyboard to animatic, but this time I got a good chunk done and started the animatic right away. After it started coming together, I went back and boarded the rest and then finished the animatic. The board and animatic were both done in a day. A very long day.

AARON: I’m guessing that wasn’t the only long day – it looks like some elaborate masking was employed in this video. Was that all produced in Flash?

Early video concept
Early video concept

GABE: Yes, some crazy tedious masking went into this one. I did all the animation in Flash. Every shot was then composited in After Effects, like the process used on El Tigre.

AARON: With so much directing lately at Nickelodeon, do you get to animate much anymore?

GABE: Well, I’ve been recruited to do a lot of the Flash animation fixes for El Tigre. I’m slowly getting back up to speed. I love to animate, I think it’s one of the most rewarding parts, but the setup and prep work in Flash takes so stinking long.

AARON: Is this tedious process something you see technology fixing down the road, or is it just the nature of building digital art?

IK in Flash
Parenting functionality promised
for next version of Flash

GABE: I think with the new parenting function of the new Flash might help, but I think it’s just the nature of the beast. If you want to keep everything really efficient and well organized, it takes some time to set it up right.

AARON: What’s it like collaborating with Jon?

GABE: I love working for Jon because he really trusts me. He leaves me alone to get stuff done, which is the best kind of Producer. I’ve had so many experiences where I spent more time explaining things than the actual time it took to finish those things. He’s really good at dealing with the client too. Jon does all the back and forth and I don’t have to deal with it.

Gabe's El Tigre designs
Gabe’s El Tigre design

I think it’s kinda the same working relationship that William Hanna and Joe Barbera had. Joe would go out and take meetings, pitch and sell, and Bill would sit at the studio and run it. It worked for them for decades.

One more amazing thing about Jon is that anyone that knows him, knows that when he comes up with an idea to do something, usually it’s happening within a week if its conception. There’s something not right about that boy. He must have made a deal with the devil. Well, at least that’s one client Jon can deal with by himself.

Jon M. Gibson
Jon M. Gibson
(photo credit Andrew Speers)

AARON: Speaking of Jon, let’s turn our attention to Mr. Gibson. I’m going to start with a non-question. This is a pretty incredible opportunity for an animator…

JON M. GIBSON: I’d like to start with the opposite of a non-question: How sick are you of people saying you got into animation because you have the last name Simpson?

AARON: It was either cartoons or pop songs, but Jessica won’t return my calls. Back to the question – opportunities like this don’t come along every day; can you put this one in perspective amidst all the other online UGC projects out there?

JON: The biggest difference — users don’t have to submit a final, polished, over-the-top, “wow”-a-second video. It’s merely a presentation piece. You create a storyboard, and then move onto the next step. Aniboom recognizes that making a music video isn’t easy — not one bit — so expecting one user to produce the holy grail of awesome vids without many resources… well, that’s just silly. What this contest allows for is a step-by-step process, as ANY other production would be run, starting with the most important element of all — the storyboard. That’s the road map for the entire storytelling process, and at least from our perspective, story and character are king, and both of those are made or broken in the storyboard process. If something isn’t working right, it’s much easier to tweak it on a storyboard than in an animatic or after animation has started. So with this contest, users can actually get feedback while still advancing to the next round. Maybe something worked amazingly well, while this other little element didn’t — the judges will have enough foresight to see that potential.

AARON: Were you a fan of Radiohead prior to landing this project?

Jorge Gutierrez
Jorge Gutierrez

JON: If you ask our pal Jorge Gutierrez, the ridiculously multi-talented co-creator of El Tigre, not nearly as “big a fan” as he is. We had to come to terms with this before accepting the project — because we knew if we disappointed Jorge with this particular video, our fate would feel something like drowning in a bathtub filled with tequila.

But, dude — of course. What’s the point of having your own studio if you can’t work of stuff you actually want to work on? Gabe and I vowed from the very beginning to only take on projects that we had a passion for. Sure, sometimes we don’t like something outright, but our gut says there’s something cool about it. Your gut’s usually always right. It’s like when you see a girl and there’s just that “thing” that attracts you to her, but you can’t… quite… put your finger on it.

I feel like I drifted from the question a bit. So, anyway… Karma Police was heard on many carpools to high school my sophomore year. My buddy Pat did dig the Radiohead quite a bit. Made those cold Michigan mornings a bit more tolerable, ‘cause he had holes rusted through almost every inch of his car. That sucked. But I gotta say — “Optimistic” from Kid A is my favorite Radiohead song. It’s one of those songs where I get so caught up in the music that I could never actually recite the lyrics for you — it’s got such a fucking fantastic mood.

AARON: Any word from Jorge? He must have seen the video by now.

JON: This is why I love Jorge — he deliberately issues “challenges” of sorts. He knows exactly how my brain works, as well as Gabe’s. He knows that if he prods us a little we will strive that much harder to impress the hell out of him. He did that to me in 2004 when I said I wanted to do an art show about 80’s videogames called i am 8-bit. He said I was biting off a lot more than I could chew. And everything he said was right — it was hard as hell — but because he said that, I wanted to do it more. Same thing with the Ralph Bakshi book. A lot of people said we (my co-author Chris McD) were crazy — that we’d probably start but never finish. No one else was stepping up to the plate, and we knew the book had to exist. To have the privilege of chronicling someone’s legacy — that’s motivation enough.

At the same time, I really like to see how close friends react to any project. Whether it’s writing a book or a script or showing off a finished video like this — whether the reaction is good or bad — your close friends are the only ones that are going to be totally honest. My mom is never going to tell me she hates something. I can’t speak for Gabe, but I think we both value our inner-circle screenings tremendously. This is where the rawest opinions are spoken, whether we agree with them or not. When doing ANYTHING in a creative field, it’s important to have that kind of feedback system. I never want to be insulated to the point where I’m not asking other people’s opinions about EVERYTHING I do. It’s like driving drunk.

AARON: Did you guys have the choice of any track from In Rainbows?

JON: Yeah, we had carte blanche of any track from the album, and Bodysnatchers was an instant standout. It has energy — a pulse. And if you listen closely to the lyrics, everything syncs amazingly well to the visuals. But that’s also the awesome thing about this Aniboom contest — anyone who enters is given the same choice of any track. That makes judging exponentially more difficult, but that’s the fun of it, right? — seeing how varied the results will be. It’s always cool to see how hundreds of different artists interpret something. No single idea is God.

AARON: What kind of turn-around time were you looking at for this kickoff piece?

JON: Well, we had a lot less time to complete our video than everyone else entering the contest will have. It was a rodeo of a schedule — about two weeks. That meant a lot of late nights, but the response we’ve gotten has made it so worth it. Though, none of us would ever recommend this tight a schedule for any production. It hurts. You sweat. It’s always nice to sit back, put something away, and get a chance to breathe. When you look at it again, it’s with fresh eyes — and a fresh perspective.

Breaking down the track
Breaking down the track

This is often times a luxury that just isn’t realistic in the production pipeline, but as an artist, you should always try to take that breath. And man, it’s all about having a killer crew. Gabe and I just work naturally well together, and special props must be given to the brilliant Matt Gadbois for headlining the heavy After Effects work.

AARON: Can you point out which elements in the video were built by Matt?

GABE: Every camera move and transition was recreated and perfected in After Effects by Matt. At one point, he didn’t like the way it was turning out so he gutted the whole setup and re-did the entire first half. He’s great! I love to work with perfectionists that aren’t crippled by their own obsessions.

JON: Like Gabe mentioned, all the animation was done in Flash, but the rest of the video was assembled, composited, and pieced together like a really intricate puzzle in After Effects. The animated character layered over the live-action footage, plus the motion-control on the jostle of each step — that’s Matt. The color treatment on the rainbows flowing through the body — that’s Matt. So many integral aspects of the video — like the many layers of subtle but incredibly effective visual filters — were all Matt. And he did so much more than that. He was often the last guy in the office, because he had to do final outputs. Basically, Matt rocks. Matt fucking rocks! He’s an incredibly integral part of the team, and has been indispensable to our other friend’s productions as well, especially with Jorge’s projects like his pilot at Disney, Pepe the Bull, El Tigre, lots of great stuff with the awesome Dave Wasson, and so on.

AARON: Was the band involved in any of the creative details of your video?

JON: The band had total concept approval, but gave us complete freedom to explore that concept. Gabe came up with a really cool way to visualize the idea of how an artist might be inspired by music. It’s such an abstract concept that figuring out an idea to illustrate that “inspiration” wasn’t easy. In fact, there were a few failed concepts that we immediately flunked when we discussed amongst ourselves. After some debate, finally — it was fleshed out. Using the Bodysnatchers track, we used bits of the visual design of the album — stark blacks and whites with washes of rainbows. We pitched that to the band and they didn’t disagree with a single word. This is an amazing thing — artists trusting other artists to do what they do best is how some of the coolest projects come to fruition.

It’s something that Ralph Bakshi always did so well — hiring guys for their own personal style of art, then making that work within the context of the story he wanted to tell. Dudes like Barry Jackson, Peter Chung, Ira Turek, James Gurney, Thomas Kincade, and so many others were graduates of that technique. He trusted his guys to run wild. That’s why Gabe and I are such good friends — he’s not afraid to just roll with it, experiment, flex those creative muscles. It’s when you get totally comfortable as an artist that it’s probably time to retire. I want to learn something new every single day until I die.

Gabe with Mario collection
Gabe and his Mario collection

You know why I really like Gabe? He doesn’t exclusively watch Tex Avery cartoons and drool. He listens to Devo, electro-clash, and always has a new obscure song for me to listen to. He watches TV shows and movies while he works — Mr. Ed, the Coen brothers, anything Tezuka. He reads lots of graphic novels — American and Japanese. He scours the internet every day for… stuff. Just cool, interesting stuff. He plays lots of videogames, old and new. The dude has the biggest collection of Mario merchandise I’ve ever seen. That’s why we get along — we’re both incredible media whores, and know that inspiration ultimately doesn’t come from guys doing the very same thing as you (like animation), but from all that other wonderful stuff out there.


  1. The video is incredible!!! And so is my son, Gabe, and my “other” son, Jon!!! What can I say…they play well together!!! Two talented souls coming together to create one amazing masterpiece after another. That’s a beautiful gift to have!!
    Well done, guys!! Well done!!!

  2. Gabe and Jon do great work!

  3. Does anyone know if this contest is only for US residents? Ive looked around and couldnt find anything.

    I tried to buy a song from the aniboom contest page, which takes you to, but canadians cant buy songs from there.

    Can anyone help me out here,


  4. According to the aniboom website the deadline was April 7th not the 27th.

  5. Author

    I’m pretty sure you can still submit beyond the 7th. see the part about “submissions continue” in this bit from the site — “b. April 7, 2008 – April 27, 2008 Storyboard / Video clips are viewable on the site. Submissions continue. Viewing, rating and ranking commences.”

  6. oops, sorry.

  7. Steve, you may want to try Wal-Mart if you haven’t already. I’m not sure if there’s any in your area but, since there is at least one Wal-Mart store in Shinjuku, Japan I’m assuming there a few in Canada, as well.

    I have questions that should have been addressed on the Ani-boom website. Is there a standard video ratio template we should use for this contest? What should the ratio of the screen be? I’m using the Nick-toons standard of 720×486. Also, I’m animating in Flash 8 Pro at a frame rate of 30 fps. Also, what link do we upload the animations to? If anyone knows I’ll check back here soon to read your answer. Thank you very much in advance for your help.

  8. Author

    Eric – that ratio is fine, and 30 fps should also work. Here’s a good one in case you need it –

    This upload link won’t be viewable unless you’re logged in –

    After signing up, the upload page can also be reached by clicking SUBMIT on the competition page.

  9. Thank you so very much for helping me. Now, I can go forward with my concept. I already had a ratio guide but, I downloaded the one you suppled the link to just in case.

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