Alasdair & Jock Peel Back the Glass Onion for The White Album’s 50th Anniversary
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
London-based Animator and Director team Alasdair Brotherston and Jock Mooney have created a lively, nostalgic, and reference-packed music video for “Glass Onion” by The Beatles, timed with the 50th anniversary of The White Album. In our interview below, Alasdair and Jock share how they brought Richard Hamilton’s White Album collage to life, what it was like collaborating with Apple and Universal, and who their respective favorite Beatle is. “Glass Onion” was John Lennon’s send-up of the people looking for hidden meanings in the band’s transparent lyrics. Alasdair and Jock perfectly nail Lennon’s tone by delivering transparence through historical footage, yet playfully subverting it with their animation chops. At the end of the day, everybody wins.
How did you come to create the “Glass Onion” music video as part of The White Album’s 50th Anniversary?
Alasdair: I’m still not entirely sure, to be honest. I still have to pinch myself. I think we got asked to pitch on this project due to our previous work with Coldplay and David Gilmour, both of which were based on artworks.
Jock: The record company wanted to do something with the poster, by Richard Hamilton, that accompanied the album. I think that they had in mind some sort of means of bringing it to life, which is essentially what we did with the Ghost Stories album cover by Coldplay. So, we had proved our ability to create a ‘universe’ of sorts!
Were their certain past projects in your portfolio either referenced by the client or considered by you as a potential creative direction?
Alasdair: Not really. I don’t think this piece looks much like anything that we have done before. I think it was more that we were trusted to take an existing artwork - in this case Richard Hamilton’s White Album Collage and explore and interpret it in a creative way. It’s nice when a client comes to you and doesn’t just ask you to recreate a previous job.
Jock: Purely from the photographic and collage aspect it could be compared slightly to our Landrover project, only in the sense that both feature photographs though!
What were some of the general creative considerations that went into how you approached this project?
Alasdair: When we were first researching how Paul McCartney and Richard Hamilton went about creating the collage, we heard an interview where Paul said how important it was that the collage was created in its actual size. It wasn’t photographed and then shrunk down to fit in the record sleeve and no elements were re-sized within the collage. When we heard that we resolved that we would approach the animation in the same way - everything would be animated at the size it was.
Jock: After working on the Coldplay project we knew how important it was to study every minute detail of the artwork. There are thousands of permutations and possible narratives that you can explore. We wrote up long lists of descriptive actions and we essentially ‘cherry picked’ what we felt worked together in the most fluid way. We had to do some tweaks and re-writes based on picture rights and things like that. Luckily no one thing had a ‘jumper unravelling’ effect’! The wonderful thing about doing something like this collaboratively is there’s less chance of writer’s block. Ideas feel quite organic and flowing when you hit your stride.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs involved in this undertaking?
Alasdair: That led to several creative decisions and outcomes. For example we animated a scratch film sequence at 35mm format; mark making has a particular feel at that scale and animation is necessarily simplified.
Jock: For this project, far more so than any other before, we had a lot of technical meetings. The nature of the filming was very complex in parts and there were some very late nights working out such specifics. This is where I am incredibly grateful to work with Alasdair as he has a very mathematical and methodical approach to working out technical problems. He can work out things that would literally make my brain melt.
Were you given a lot of freedom to create and execute your own vision?
Alasdair: I think whenever you work with a band on this scale - they are institution almost - there are a set of parameters that you are working within. But within those boundaries I was pleasantly surprised that everyone at Apple was really supportive and in general responded really positively to what we wanted to achieve.
Jock: We quickly found out certain things, like their name order being important and of course you have to listen to what the record companies say. There’s very subtle little nuances and hints that certain images can imply, and they are incredibly respectful and protective towards the integrity of The Beatles. They are like guardians in that sense, so when they were very complimentary about the work it really meant a lot.
Did you build your own team? What was the collaborative vibe like on this project?
Alasdair: We managed to get together an incredible team for this project, from the art department and animators, through to the shoot and studio crew at Clapham Road Studios. I think in general in this industry we are incredibly lucky to work with positive and creative problem solvers. Stop Motion shoots are necessarily really collaborative; I really enjoy that.
Jock: Richard, the producer at Trunk, had certain people in mind from the offset. You construct this dream team. We’ve been very lucky to work with some absolutely amazing people, so when it comes to something like this you know “who you’re gonna call.”
Your music video is riddled with Easter Eggs and Beatles history. Did this project entail a ton of research?
Alasdair: Yes! I have to say that we were massively aided by Apple Corps archivist Aaron Bremner who was able to help us decipher the origin of and stories behind each image in the collage.
Jock: Growing up, my brother was a HUGE Beatles fan, and he still is. I am too - but the level of detail that he knows is astounding / slightly concerning. I do have a fairly sponge-like brain when it comes to stuff like “who was the technician on this?” as I’ve always loved reading liner notes on records, as well as listening to them. In any project we do, we really like to think about repeated views. It is far more rewarding if there’s almost too much to take in on one solitary viewing. People really seem to be enjoying all the references, and we’ve been thrilled to see some people taking HOURS to write up long lists of everything that is crammed in their, it’s source, date, and more!
Is there something in particular that you’re proudest of incorporating?
Alasdair: I like all the little nods to the censorship of the collage in the U.S when it was first released in 1968: Paul McCartney’s pixelated pubes and the U.S pencil trying to rub out John & Yoko’s genitals. I remember thinking “there’s no way they’ll let us do that”. Luckily everyone at Apple retains that Beatles sense of humour!
Jock: I think my favourite moment is the photographer’s loupe towards the end. It just fits in so beautifully with the title of the song.
What were some of the creative influences that informed the aesthetic, be it inspiration from graphic design or other music videos?
Alasdair: I’m not sure we looked at any music videos in particular (other than Beatles ones). We hoovered up a load of Norman McLaren films when looking at the scratch film sequence though.
Jock: I love the scratch film technique as it has a wonderful energy to it, and - for animation - a fairly quick result. I read online someone saying it looked like “a five-year-old had done it” which I take as a compliment! Getting that kind of ‘honest energy’ across isn’t actually very easy.
Any advice or lessons learned from this project that you can share with fellow creatives?
Alasdair: Doing five 30-second-long motion control shots is really, really difficult and probably a bad idea.
Jock: I think given the scale of the project, it went pretty smoothly. That’s not to say that there weren’t late nights. Keep stuff tidy! Write lists and write more lists. Communicate well with people, and ultimately, try not be an arsehole.
Who’s your favorite Beatle?
Alasdair: Well, John Lennon paid a police fine my Dad got for protesting apartheid in the 1970s. That was pretty cool, and £100 was a lot of money back then, so maybe John.
Jock: I have always had a fondness for George the most I think. There’s a calmness to George that is very interesting, and my favourite Beatles song would have to be either ‘Something’ or ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’ I think.