Interview: Dave Hughes “When I Was Done Dying”
Dave Hughes, creator of Adult Swim’s 4 a.m. experimental cult hit Off the Air, talks to Stash about his latest collaboration with Baltimore composer/musician Dan Deacon called “When I Was Done Dying,” gathering nine exceptional animators for a surreal and unrelenting visual assault.
Stash: Tell us how “When I Was Done Dying” came about.
Dave Hughes: “Dan reached out while he was mastering [his album] Gliss Riffer, and wanted to do an exquisite corpse style animated video. I recommended some animators I thought would be suitable and told him what I thought an appropriate budget would be for something of this scope.
“The label seemed a little spooked by the budget, but the timing coincided with us discovering we came in under budget for season four of Off The Air and I offered that up as a way to get this made. So this video is technically a special episode of Off The Air, but hopefully much much more than that.
“The lyrics were really rich and evocative, so I just let them lead me creatively and then assembled an incredible team of animators I knew would go to incredible and unpredictable places with them.
How did you chose the animators?
“These were all animators whose work had previously appeared on Off The Air, whether as a new commission, or in licensed work. To use a hackneyed term, it was kind of a ‘dream team’ for us and anyone who has watched Off The Air will recognize at least one of the animators.
“Dan and I went back and forth a bit initially as to whether the video should be strictly 2D animation, or if it should include as many styles as possible to reflect the churning nature of the song. Ultimately, we settled on using the two choruses as departures from the 2D style into 3D worlds (Taras and KOKOFREAKBEAN).
“I always knew I wanted Jake Fried to open and close the piece because his style is so stark and kind of grabs you right away. He also tends to build out of blackness which seemed to fit well thematically. The rest (Chad VanGaalen, Dimitri Stankowicz, Colin White, Anthony Schepperd, Masanobu Hiraoka, and Caleb Wood) either picked their own sections, or were given sections where I thought their style might apply to the lyrics and mood of the song best.”
How did the animators connect their sequences?
“I kind of chickened out of making this a traditional exquisite corpse where the animators are given beginning and end images. I cheated by suggesting they get to full frames of specific colors for the transitions, and figured I could cheat the transitions to overlap in After Effects later if I needed to.
“As it turned out, many of the animators just started talking to their neighbors in the piece, and they figured out their own transitions. I did a little bit of work in the final stages and I think you don’t quite feel the cheat in it.”
Let us in on the biggest creative challenge the team encountered.
“The creative challenge was much more for the animators than for me. When I first started outlining the piece, I was getting very detailed, and even had frame specific suggestions for the animation, but it felt wrong to have assembled such a talented team of animators and not let them go crazy, so I beat back the anal editor in myself and just gave them a loose outline, the frames they would be responsible for, and sync points.
“My challenges became mostly logistical after that, and as my producer Cody DeMatteis could tell you, it was actually very challenging from that standpoint.”
Any great production stories Stash readers should know?
“Well, I’ll tell you one funny moment and one sad one:
“First, pretty early in the project, I was bugging the animators for style frames, storyboards or animatics for their sections. I was a little stressed because it was such a big undertaking, and with Off The Air I’m used to knowing what the show will look like before we start it because I run it through pre-edit so much.
“But this was going to be different, and Anthony Schepperd sent me an email nicely saying that I had probably picked the wrong bunch of animators if I wanted storyboards and animatics. I knew he was right, and I knew all of their work so well that I realized I could just step back and relax a bit and let it happen. And it did.
“The sad one is that throughout the process I was so amazed at how easy the internet had made the project. These guys are from all over the place (Paris, Tokyo, Calgary, NYC, Boston, San Antonio, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta). I didn’t speak a single word to any of them, and yet we were in constant contact and it all felt really seamless.
“But when it was all over I felt like I’d been through this massive thing with these guys and we’d brought something truly beautiful into the world but we couldn’t even go out for drinks or screen it or celebrate together. The internet just fails miserably at that. But I hope to meet them all some day and raise a glass to a project that’s very special to me.”
Broadcaster: Cartoon Network
Creative director: Dave Hughes
Producer: Cody DeMatteis
Animators (in order of appearance): Jake Fried, Chad Vangaalen, Dimitri Stankowicz, Colin White, Taras Hrabowsky, Anthony Schepperd, Masanobu Hiraoka, Caleb Wood, KOKOFREAKBEAN