A lot of studios that work on network shows send their creatives packing during the season breaks, but animation studio Awesome Incorporated likes to keep its staff working while on hiatus.
Fortunately, one of its biggest clients, Adult Swim, has just the thing to keep a team full of talented animators, illustrators, designers and compositors busy during the slow times: an ongoing open ID project that encourages its vendors “to run free with their imaginations and do whatever they want,” said Ashley Kohler, executive producer for Awesome.
While on hiatus from Adult Swim’s Squidbillies series last year, Awesome answered the ID Project call. They pitched several concepts, and the network accepted three of them, then just… sent the studio on its way, to create the proposed work with virtually no meddling from the higher-ups whatsoever. One of those IDs, “Evolving Thoughts,” emerged in December, a beautiful piece that resembles nothing else on Adult Swim, or on any network for that matter.
With a concept by Awesome animator Mark McDonald, “Evolving Thoughts” feels like an almost literal journey through the artist’s own brain, as a man’s head pops open and the contents therein spill forth in a lovely and elegant stream. But the spot was entirely a team effort, passing through a carousel of staffers in cel animation, design, compositing and production, each of whom left their distinctive mark. Only near the end did it land with Bluetube owner Michael Kohler, the sound designer and composer who created the soundtrack for the spot.
“A lot of times when people ask me to do music on spots or shows, they’ll want to edit to something rhythmically,” Michael said, “to edit and create something around a sound.”
But by the time “Evolving Thoughts” passed through the gauntlet of Awesome’s creative team and reached the Bluetube studio, “the animation was almost completely done. It can be hard to score something really well to a piece of animation that’s already done because you can’t always be rhythmic about it.”
In a sense, Michael was working in the reverse direction from his normal approach. Fortunately, from the moment he saw the spot, he could tell what it needed sonically.
“It doesn’t always happen like this, but I was already hearing the tempo,” he said, “because of the way the movement was so flowy, and the things that happened like the arrow hitting heart… It set the tempo for me.”
As Michael started creating downbeats to measure the evolution of the on-screen images, he “Kept finding other sounds that were not rhythmic but just more ambient things,” he said. “I started to cut them and bend them and filter them in ways so that they hit and they happen on movements.. which is the really cool part about doing the layer after the fact… Watching the fish, the hand movement, whether the finger comes up in the end and pops open – it’s not really the sound of a bone break or an open or steam or something like that, it’s just a musical sound that I put on there and it becomes believable as what that would sound like.”
A whispery snare-snap accompanies the top of the man’s head popping off, arrows puncturing a heart, a light bulb bursting into a brain. Each snap is probably six layers of audio in and of itself, Michael explained. A slide sound that almost sounds like polyester fabric swaths rubbing together overlays a fish melting into a hamburger. The sounds are definitely music as opposed to sound effects – part of a song that doesn’t need the animation to be listenable. But they feel like the sound effects this dream world would have, and that gives the spot a surreal dream logic all to its own.
The gently swooning music that accompanies the percussion was influenced by both the languid motion of the spot and its cool color scheme, concocted by Awesome’s design director Craig Sheldon.
“This dark blue and the simple lines in it,” Michael said, “there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff inundating your eyes, flashing and all that kind of stuff, which would dictate a whole different sound. This was just blue, dark, simple lines and constrained movement.”
Scoring that look and feel involved a “very, very dreamy piano” as the main melody instrument, Michael said, a “heavily effected piano sound” that goes “in and out of pitch… It’s not stiff and structured like perfect notes. It bends and warbles… There’s a drone that goes through the whole thing and several layers of that that come in and out, and they change from beginning to end… There are clicks and claps and snares, so many layers to give it that kind of tone. Things reversed.”
On the visual side of things, “an editor always wants to cut to a rhythm and an animator always wants to have something to visually inspire him,” said Ashley Kohler. “But you never think about a musician – Michael’s an artist too and it’s nice to be inspired by beautiful visuals when you’re creating music.”
Awesome’s two other contributions to the Adult Swim ID Project are entirely different in tone and texture. One “involves a mustaches and is more comedic,” said Ashley, “and another involves nesting dolls.”
“Evolving Thoughts” Credits:
Network: Adult Swim
Directed by: Awesome Inc
Executive Producer: Ashley Kohler
Producer: Brandon Betts
Design Director: Craig Sheldon
Concept Art & Design: Mark McDonald
Lead 2D Animator: Mark McDonald
2D Animators: Aaron Miller, Jeff DiMaggio, Sketch MacQuinor
Lead Compositor: Craig Sheldon
Compositor: Yujin Kim
Original Music & Sound Design: Bluetube
Composer/Sound Designer/Mixer: Michael Kohler