Gorillaz: Reality check

May 25, 2017 - Artist Stories

It’s no coincidence that Gorillaz chose 2017 to emerge from a seven-year hiatus. “It was a perfect time for cartoons to come back,” laughs artist and Gorillaz cofounder Jamie Hewlett, referencing last year’s political tumult. “We’re in a place now where people can take them seriously.”

Birthed in 1998, the virtual band — a collaboration between Hewlett and Britpop legend Damon Albarn — has never been explicitly political, but their music has consistently “held a mirror up the world,” as Hewlett puts it, serving as an excuse to bring together a rainbow coalition of incredible musicians from both sides of the pond in a show of creative peace and unity.

The group’s latest, “Humanz,” is another celebration of musical multiculturalism, with assists from 1970s pop legend Carly Simon, soul icon Mavis Staples, R&B crooner Anthony Hamilton, electronic soul singer Kelela, and rappers Pusha T, Danny Brown, and Vince Staples. “We’ve got the power to be loving each other,” Albarn sings on “We Got the Power,” which — speaking of spreading peace — features backing vocals from none other than Albarn’s sworn 1990s-era Britpop rival, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.

It’s a grand statement — perhaps the band’s biggest ever — yet even for a project like Gorillaz, prepping for a return after a long layoff requires a big, well-rounded splash to remind people why they love you. Naturally, the first salvo in that comeback blowout was an ambitious VR video for the track “Saturnz Barz (Spirit House).” Produced in collaboration with YouTube and Google Spotlight Stories, the groundbreaking clip received more than 3 million views in its first 24 hours — a new record for the biggest debut for a VR video in YouTube’s history — and recently took home the Silver Cannes Lions for Excellence in Interactive Music Video.

“It was absolutely a great way to reintroduce the band because we like a challenge and doing something that’s never been done before,” says Hewlett.

The Gorillaz team — Eleven Management and Parlophone Records — started by approaching YouTube, alongside the band's longtime production partner Passion Pictures. Together, the group teamed up with Google's in-house 360 creative specialists, Google Spotlight Stories, who had previously worked with Passion Pictures on the Academy Award-nominated short, "Pearl."

“Everything starts with the creative,” explains Passion Pictures executive producer Cara Speller of the process for Hewlett, who jumped into the project feet first by drawing a series of elaborate storyboards. “Pre-production discussions were about going back to the hand-drawn characters — after all these years, Jamie was missing the look of them pencil-drawn.”

Gorillaz managers Niamh Byrne and Regine Moylett note the team didn’t want to use the 360 VR technology simply because they could. Instead, they were determined to find new ways in for a band that technically doesn’t exist to deeply engage with their fans using technology that would, literally, put them dead in the middle of the Gorillaz’s post-apocalyptic dreams. 

To accomplish this, Passion Pictures and Spotlight gathered Hewlett’s linear storyboards — packed with 2,000 movie-like cuts and close-ups that aren’t possible to render in VR — and turned them into a mind-bending adventure that gives the user free will to look around and experience the environment on their own.

“Cutting edge technology isn’t really what I’m about, but the guys at Spotlight were amazing and inspiring in how they took the challenge of making my storyboards into a VR video,” proud luddite Hewlett says. “And Passion are good at taking my ideas and saying, ‘you can’t actually do this,’ and then ‘but we’re going to find a way to make it happen for you.’”

What Hewlett wanted was to illustrate a night in Spirit House, so the team turned his idea into a continuous, linear adventure, adding in flashing lights or musical cues to guide the viewer’s eyes at key moments. “We were able to create an entire world that you can explore,” says Hewlett.

“The idea of making a movie without a frame sounds simple, but is hard to wrap your head around,” says Google Spotlight Stories executive producer Karen Dufilho. “It’s taking 2D flip books and making them into a 3D environment that will fool you into thinking it’s all one environment.” The trick, she notes, is constantly reminding yourself that most people will interact with the video on a mobile device, and then optimizing it for that experience.

With a 65-member team at Passion working full-time — pulling lots of all-nighters — in addition to 10-15 at GSS headquarters in San Francisco, it was an all-hands-on-deck rush to finish the project. “During the three months we worked on it, we began with one Spotlight guy over here at Passion to be a mediator and by the end there were 30 people here,” Hewlett recalls. “They kept bringing in more people because what we were trying to do was crashing the program, which they had to keep making bigger and better. It definitely pushed the software and the results were really, really good.”

The video earned universal raves for immersing users in the trippy “Spirit House” universe. It’s a future shock vision that echoes themes from the record, and a logical step for a band whose stage show has long incorporated cutting-edge technology aimed at giving concertgoers a one-of-a-kind visual and musical feast. "Gorillaz is one of the most exciting and creative bands on the planet – musically and visually,”  explains Parlophone Records Chairman Miles Leonard.  “Our aim, throughout all aspects of the launch campaign for ‘Humanz’, has been to develop bold, immersive experiences that invite fans into the band’s post-apocalyptic universe and bring 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel to life. The popularity of the VR video shows how passionately engaged the fans are, in all aspects of Gorillaz.”

The marriage of VR and Gorillaz character-based storytelling, combined with YouTube’s reach and VR know-how pushed the envelope while logically advancing Hewlett and Albarn’s vision of a boundaryless hybrid whose presentation is as important as its sound.

“I think it’s early days,” says Dufilho of the longest experience that her team has produced to date. “But you look at the audience and views on this, and it did tremendously better than anything else we’ve done so far.”

Hewlett and team were thrilled with the results, which gave every user access to all aspects of the story. Says manager Byrne, “That’s what’s so great about YouTube: you have a platform that does democratize access. Other platforms are too exclusive and you need the expensive kit. Not everybody has that. It’s always been about everybody being able to access everything — we needed a global platform that had an entry point at every level.”