Raman Djafari on making Ashnikko's Worms: “I really wasn’t sure if it would work.”
David Knight - 13th Apr 2023
There really could only be one outcome when Raman Djafari got together with Ashton Nicole Casey - aka Ashnikko. Sheer creative mayhem.
He is the director of very cool and weird animated videos. And she is the artist behind some very cool and weird videos - mainly non-animated - who is about to release her long-awaited debut album WEEDKILLER.
And so it came to pass: the explosion of visual imagination that is the music video for Worms. In the clip, Ashnikko is the pilot of a futuristic monster truck, hurtling Mad Max-style through a post-Apocalyptic world accompanied by a posse of fantastical creatures drawn from ancient legends, to eventually do battle with a rival truck-beast - known as a Weedkiller.
This visually intense scenario also integrates the real life Ashnikko into a richly complex fully animated environment, in a bold development of the textural and tactile form of CGI - which resembles stop motion animation - for which German director Djafari has become known as a result of his work with Squid, Elton John & Dua Lipa and others.
The video is also a crucial element in delivering the conceptual themes of the album, where the American artist's concerns about environmental destruction are expressed through the idiom of the fantasy literature she loves. As she has explained:
“This fae is grappling with the tragedy of their world being destroyed by weedkillers. They’re kind of roaming this desert with a giant weapon on the back of their tank-like monster truck, and fighting off these weedkillers in this great battle.
"They’re trying to convince themselves that everything is OK, and that this heartbreak is something they can deal with, but it’s definitely something they’re destroyed by. It sets up the story really nicely for the other songs that I have that are deeper in the concept.”
So we spoke to Raman Djafari to find out about the making of the video from his perspective - from building on the world that Ashnikko has created for the album, to the challenges of adding live action directing to his skillset.
Above: Raman Djafari (right) watching Ashnikko perform on set of the Worms video.
Worms is a banger... it also brings such powerful imagery and metaphors to the audience's imagination.
How did the project start for you? Was Ashnikko familiar with (and a fan of) your previous work?
RD: One of the great things about working with BlinkInk is that I get the opportunity to pitch on really amazing projects. This was one of them. Ashnikko and their creative director Vasso [Vu] really liked my treatment. They told me they had already been following my work for a while and were super happy to work with me. This made me blush and then almost faint, I played it cool though and pretended I ate a spicy pepper.
What did you find most inspiring about Ashnikko, and the track Worms?
I feel like Ashnikko is an amazing worldbuilder, and captures our generation's feelings and thoughts so well. They’re a queer icon that represents many people's experiences and brings voice to those in a magical way. I love the blend of rap, hyper-pop and electronic music and how fucking hard their music videos always go.
Worms is a banger - I think that’s obvious. But it also brings such powerful imagery and metaphors to the audience's imagination. It sets the tone for both darkness as well as joy. I love how Ash manages to weave contemporary themes into large concepts - like the lore they wrote about the Weedkillers.
Above: the fantasy art-influenced main artwork of Ashnikko's debut album WEEDKILLER
You’ve said that it was a creative collaboration with Ashnikko and Vasso, her creative director. What was the starting point of that collaboration?
In the beginning both of them just told me about this world they developed for the album. They explained the juxtaposition between the Weedkillers and the organic life, the origins of the state this world is in. We sent each other references and explored different directions to pursue with this video. Throughout there was a feeling of curiosity and mutual trust.
What ideas did they have (in the written brief, or from conversations) that helped you with your treatment?
There were some reference images that came with the first brief. A medieval etching of a lion type creature (or maybe it was a Venetian lion, I'm not sure anymore), a hellmouth painting, an Alexander McQueen piece, a hyper-femme magical anime girl... all of these combined really already painted a picture in my head.
The first synopsis I read about WEEDKILLER really enriched this mood with context. The allegory to the current climate crisis that this story portrays, felt urgent and real yet imaginative and fun to engage with.
Above: Stages in creative development from inspiration (Breugel's Fall of The Rebel Angels) to early drawings and full creation of Ashnikko's monster truck.
I suggested intertwining references to medieval art and Baroque paintings with sci-fi visuals and dystopian narratives.
What really appealed to them about your ideas for the video?
I think what made them connect to my take on this video was how I suggested to intertwine references to medieval art and Baroque paintings with sci-fi visuals and dystopian narratives. I felt there was the opportunity to bring a different angle to these topics and visuals we are exposed to on a frequent basis.
What were the biggest influences and inspiration on the production design and character design?
First and foremost, the painting The Fall of The Rebel Angels [by Pieter Breugel], which really was the starting point and a continuous reference point throughout the production. A lot of medieval depictions of beasts and demons, next to 90s mecha anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, 80s Kaiju movies and Jim Henson puppets. But also sculptures by Marguerite Humeau and my always-beloved Hieronymus Bosch.
So much for character design. Our cockpit was very inspired by Mad Max (obviously) but also Star Wars and the Army Of Me music video by Björk.
Above: On set of the Worms video shoot: Ashnikko in her monster truck cabin
How much time did you have to create all of the many weird and wonderful creatures in the video? And how long did you have to complete the animation?
I probably spent two months on and off working on the character designs. I even finished the last ones when we already started the animation production. Design is such an iterative and playful process for me that I like to explore as many options as possible before settling. Mostly I really need a while to find the language for a project. The animation production took about two and half months.
You have combined animation with live action - is that the first time you’ve done that? How did that affect the way you made the video? Was it less storyboarded than a fully animated video?
Yes, this was my first time. Super exciting! I was a bit scared to be honest. I really wasn’t sure if it would work.
The video was fully storyboarded, just like a regular animated music video. But I knew we would get a lot of exciting material on set, so I didn’t try to be too specific about what I wanted from the live action bits. There were some crucial shots of course, but also still quite a bit of wiggle room to fit in whatever nice moments we would capture on the day of the shoot.
Above: Ashnikko with her creative director Vasso Vu, on set of the Worms video
Your background is in illustration, and 2D animation. So how did you develop your three dimensional animation technique? What’s your secret for making CGI look like stop motion animation?
I was always curious about 3D but a bit scared of the software. At some point I just started experimenting and then integrating it into my music videos. Now I do both 2D and 3D as well as a mix between the two.
To me working in 3D is actually really close to painting, which I did before I even started illustration. It’s so much about texture, light, colours, composition - and it is so flexible. You can always change and adapt a scene, like in painting.
I always felt a bit distant from most 3D animation I would encounter because it felt a bit cold and overly perfect. I wanted something that felt warmer. What I like about stop motion is that everything looks so tangible, so imperfect and vulnerable. It is so much easier to connect to a stop-mo puppet than with a highly perfected 3D character, at least for me. That's why I am trying to emulate aspects of that look.
I always direct my animators to try to keep a certain amount of roughness or jankiness.
The way I achieve it has different aspects. For one I pay a lot of attention to textures and materials, trying to give everything a decisively heavy textural feel. Then it is a lot about shape design and detail distribution, being very conscious about how I place details in the composition of a design and how small I am allowed to get.
And then obviously the animation itself. I always direct my animators to try to keep a certain amount of roughness or jankiness, so the animation curves don’t make everything look too smooth. Moreover we animate on 2s, meaning 12fps, compared to 24 or 30fps, which is way more common in 3D.
Light also plays a big role. I put a lot of work into lighting my scenes in a very painterly way, accentuating specific shapes very consciously and emphasizing the materiality of the characters and sets. It is an interplay of all these aspects and probably some more. I made a tutorial about this once, I think it should be online somewhere.
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David Knight - 13th Apr 2023