Carrying the next generation of UK indie rock on their shoulders, black midi has released their long-awaited second album, Cavalcade. While live shows by artists from abroad have been canceled one after the other due to the pandemic, the band’s Japan tour in September was confirmed when their album came out. They’ve already started selling tickets too.
When black midi made their debut, they became the subject of discussion because of their young 19, 20-year-old members. They’ve also been garnering attention because they’re an alumnus of The BRIT School, home to the likes of Adele and King Krule, and are the enfant terrible of Rough Trade Records. Their musicality and prowess as a band exceed the aforementioned descriptors, however. Thanks to that, black midi has continued to gain immense support from all over the world.
Following the release of Cavalcade and its lead single, they put out “Slow.” Regarding the lyrics, one member sent us an explanation:“They tell the story of a young and idealistic revolutionary dreaming of a better world who ends up being shot in the national stadium after a coup d’état.” The music video for the song made waves too.
The person behind the music video is Gustaf Holtenäs, a Swedish animator and film director who also works as an illustrator and painter.
The chaotic visuals, a mix of anime and live-action, are impactful. But what got people talking was that he made it with AI. We asked Gustaf Holtenäs about his true intentions with this music video, which embodies contemporary “geeky” qualities.
Anime is a part of everyday life in Sweden and Japan
ーーCould you talk about how you got into Japanese anime as a Swedish person?
Gustaf Holtenäs (Hereinafter Gustaf): Both of my parents are architects, and so I’ve had an interest in illustration and animation since I was a kid. I would draw a lot. I was born in the 90s, and when I was a kid, there were many anime shows on TV in Sweden. I used to watch more anime shows than domestic shows. At first, I would watch Sailor Moon and Pokémon, and then I started watching masterpieces like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. I also love classics like One Piece and Dragon Ball.
ーーIs there anything that personally impacted you?
Gustaf: This isn’t anime, but the thing that influenced me the most is Final Fantasy, the game series. I like the earlier works the best. I didn’t really like western [comics] like Marvel and DC Comics. Maybe it’s because they’re too realistic and muscular, in a way? I feel drawn to Japanese anime, games, and manga because most have vivid, intricate worldbuilding.
ーーAre there any Japanese creators that influenced you?
Gustaf: I especially like Mamoru Oshii. Aside from Ghost in the Shell, he’s made some brilliant films. The emotional elements of his work are fascinating. Of course, I’ve also been influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki. He passed away, but I also like Satoshi Kon, who made Paprika, Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and so on. It’s not as if I like anything as long as it’s anime or manga, though. There are some shallow works out there.
ーーWhat sort of characteristics and allures does Japanese anime have?
Gustaf: That’s a difficult question because Japanese anime is a part of our everyday lives. However, I think Japanese anime is richer in imagination and ingenuity compared to western ones. There’s no limit; there are extraordinary, wild settings and stories. Plus, the way the drawings are drawn is very skillful. It’s like the craft of a diligent craftsman.
ーーWhich Japanese animator or creator do you want to work with?
Gustaf: A lot. I was planning on going to Japan two years ago, but I couldn’t because of the pandemic. I was doing some research because I wanted to work in Japan. Hayao Miyazaki’s production team for a new film was hiring, but one condition was to be able to speak Japanese. So, I gave up. But I have enough savings; I’ll go to Japan for sure. If I could work with the masters I mentioned before, one day, then that’d be amazing.
ーーCould you talk about how you became a professional animator?
Gustaf: In terms of animation, it started with a relatively unknown band asking me to make a music video around five or six years ago. Then, well-known artists started to approach me.
Gustaf: I used to play music in a band a long time ago. When I was a kid, my dream was to become a rockstar (laughs). I gave up on that dream, but now, I feel inspired working with artists I love. When black midi contacted me, I was so happy.
Being contacted by black midi out of the blue
ーーHow did you come to make the music video for “Slow”?
Gustaf: Their manager contacted me. I still don’t know how they found out about me, a Swedish animator.
ーーYou didn’t know each other before, then.
Gustaf: Not at all. We might have a mutual friend, but I’m unsure about that. Perhaps they saw my past work. I emailed them about this, but I haven’t received an answer.
ーーDid you know their music beforehand?
Gustaf: Yeah. I listened to their music a few years ago, when they were getting big. I remember thinking, “This band might become an amazing band in the future.”
A diverse world and style—making a music video using hand-drawn and 3D media
ーーWhat idea was the music video for “Slow” built on?
Gustaf: At first, I listened to the song and thought about what sort of visuals would match. The band specified that they only wanted animation and for the video to be complete in two months. I thought it was impossible, as the quality of the work would go down.
ーーWhat sort of plan did you have to fulfill their request?
Gustaf: I came up with the idea to combine diverse worlds and styles. The visuals are composed of three worlds, and they’re chaotic and dynamic with turbulent ups and downs. But there are some gorgeous scenes; heavenly and slow.
I also used a lot of different mediums. The first minute shows a hand-drawn world. That took the longest, so I decided to use 3DCG by using a software called Blender. That way, I could shorten the production process and bring out a different beauty from drawing by hand. Aside from that, I made the third world a weird digital one with lots of noise mixed in. I wanted to use another odd software program a lot.
ーーWhat kind of software program did you use?
Gustaf: It’s a technique called style transfer, where you use one image as the base and blend it with an image that you want to use as a texture. I also used Van Gogh’s painting. I used this technique a lot to produce an unusual mood.
ーーRight, the music video is distinctly off-kilter and is different from other animations.
Gustaf: Let’s say I were to draw a simple cube. I’d then transfer a beautiful anime background I found somewhere onto that. That cube would look like a building afterward. I just used this technique so much to shorten the time. And to bring out an artificial style, which was one of the concepts for the music video.
The possibility of AI being able to create a complete piece of work in the near future
ーーYou’ve also used AI technology, which people are talking about right now, in the music video, right?
Gustaf: Yep, mainly for the background. But most of it is based on my hand-drawn illustrations. I drew the overall composition of the background and used a texture that AI had randomly created.
ーーYou’re able to make AI randomly generate a background?
Gustaf: Yeah. It randomly makes one based on an image I choose. The first world is based on an image from a Japanese film called Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, a super high-budget anime made in the 80s. But not a lot of people might take notice because the traces are only in the details.
ーーIt might be interesting to compare it with Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, side by side!
Gustaf: A tower shows up in the middle, and I made that by blending an image of the Tower of Babel with the texture used in Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. I felt like I was cheating a bit, though (laughs).
ーーWhat an impressive skill. Why did you use AI in the first place? Did not having a lot of time play a significant role?
Gustaf: Uh-huh. If I drew everything, I could’ve made a pretty picture. But it’s a background drawing, and I doubted people would notice. So I questioned whether it was worth spending that much time on it.
ーーDid you discover something new by utilizing AI?
Gustaf: I feel like I’ve gotten more used to handling it. Other than that, I didn’t discover much else.
ーーDo you mean that your precision is still imprecise?
Gustaf: Yeah. I just made weird things at the start, but I ended up having to edit by hand. I had another way to buy some more time.
This might sound detailed and technical: there’s a scene in the third world that has floating elements with a glitchy, futuristic feel. I processed one frame of Neon Genesis Evangelion onto every frame in that scene. It has 800 frames, and I worked on each frame by hand. But it took an hour for one frame to upload. I sat in front of my computer every day and somehow finished it in one month.
ーーWhat sort of influence do you think AI will have on anime and films?
Gustaf: Only some parts of this music video were born from AI, but I think in the near future, it’d be possible to create some things, like an infinite loop of a fantasy world. If you don’t mind the precision, you could portray a pretty background in one second today.
black midi fans like to decode complex content
ーーIt was insightful listening to you talk about the visual and technical aspects. Could you also expand on the story itself? I presume it’s not an easy-to-understand video.
Gustaf: True. It’s puzzling and complicated. It was fun reading the YouTube comments. Some people understood the content, and some didn’t understand it at all.
I did have an original idea, but I didn’t want to express it too clearly. black midi’s music is very complex, and their fans enjoy deciphering obscure content, which is why I made the music video difficult.
ーーYou mentioned how there are three worlds, from the first world to the third one.
Gustaf: As a story, there are several worlds, and each world is built on top of one another. That’s the structure. In the human world, there’s a human woman who creates AI. The second world is the AI world, and that AI made the third anime world.
You know how in the beginning, an anime character smashes something with a hammer? He breaks a different world—a world above the human realm. Meaning, those worlds all coexist with one another. It’s a cyclical hierarchy, so when one is destroyed, a chain reaction is born.
I buried detailed references into that world. Like the existence of a god. In regards to this idea, I took inspiration from the actual song, “Slow,” (the lyrics are explained as: “The story’s about a young revolutionary, dreaming of a better world and burning with idealism, getting assassinated at a national stadium after a coup d’état”).
With that said, the overall concept is quite simple. You could think of it as the cycle of the world.
A serendipitous connection with black midi
ーーWhen you examine your work, what kind of traits or strengths do you see?
Gustaf: I believe my style isn’t outstandingly unique. At first, I liked fantasy and sci-fi and thought very wild and creative things were good. Recently, I feel attracted to simple beauty. Some people might think it’s boring, but maybe it’s because I’m growing older. I mean, in my 20s, I used to make music like black midi’s (laughs).
ーーAnd now, you made a music video for them! How great is that?
Gustaf: Yeah, I feel a fateful connection to them! This was my first time working with British musicians, so I hope to work with more people from overseas in the future.
I’m planning on making a full-length film on my own after this. I’ve decided on a concept, so I need to raise funds and ask a production company for support. I want to take on new challenges while continuing the work I do.