The internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.
The fan: As vocalist for TV On The Radio, Tunde Adebimpe has spent the last 15 years since the group’s formation establishing himself as one of indie/art rock’s most distinctive musicians. With five full-lengths, a substantial fan base, and no shortage of critical acclaim, the trajectory of TVOTR’s success has been, at least to Adebimpe, an inadvertent one. That’s not to say the 40-year-old doesn’t value his success as a musician, but rather that the role is one of many for him (including actor and director) that will always take a backseat to his first love as an animator. With the upcoming self-titled debut from his latest project, Nevermen with Mike Patton and Adam “Doseone” Drucker, it’s more than likely that his background as a musician has been well-covered. For that reason, Adebimpe talked to us about being asked to leave NYU, killing celebrities for MTV, and a few of his favorite animated films.
The A.V. Club: Looking back at your beginnings in art school, did that transition from visual artist to musician seem fairly natural?
Tunde Adebimpe: It’s weird because I sometimes look at music not exactly as an off-ramp to what I was doing before, but 13 years ago when I was working steadily as a stop-motion animator, illustrator, and cartoonist, I definitely didn’t think I would be this involved with making music. It’s funny. I was taking an Uber yesterday, and they were asking me what I did, and I said, “I’m an animator,” because on the off chance that somebody knows the band, I don’t want to be stuck in a car with them having to talk about it. [Laughs.] But when I said that I was an animator, they said, “Oh! What made you want to go into animation?” I thought about it for a second and just said, “Well, I really like drawing and being alone, so it seemed like the perfect thing to keep myself away from the world.” [Laughs.]
But yeah, I ended up going to NYU for film school, and in my last year decided I wanted to work on something longform by myself. I ended up going into a stop-motion animation program and was really, really bad at it until I stopped focusing on anything else at school and focused on making this four-minute movie for the end of the year. Two things happened then. I was asked to leave school because I wasn’t doing any other shit. [Laughs.] But the movie ended up winning a best film animation award, and I ended up getting a job working at MTV for the show, Celebrity Deathmatch, which is just this terrible document of the violence and celebrity of the American psyche. [Laughs.] It was fun, though. Of course that was like 1998 or something when the idea of celebrity was just getting to the point where anybody could do anything, so we hadn’t really fully launched into the Paris Hilton floodgate yet.
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I can’t imagine what the fuck that would look like now. But I worked on that, and after I quit doing that I started getting more involved with music as a way to balance things. There’s a real meditative quality to doing animation for me, but when you’re doing it as a job, it turns into tedium where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve been making George Clooney punch someone in the guts for two weeks now, and it’s just not working for me anymore.” [Laughs.] So music was a way for me to get something done immediately, get it back, and see if it was working. After that I ended up directing a stop-motion animation music video for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a song called “Pin,” and they opened up a small animation studio to do that, and that was back when someone gave you an actual budget to do something for a video. After that, the band took over, and I haven’t really been that involved directly with making anything like that. But animation is my first love. I love making these things. I love watching things where a good deal of work and thought has gone into it. Especially with animation, I really like the things that really aren’t commercially viable or at least haven’t been. I love when these people just go for it in a really specific and beautiful way.
AVC: Just considering the history of stop-motion animation itself is fascinating, especially with the work of people like Will Vinton or Sally Cruikshank.
TA: You mentioning Will Vinton, I remember seeing his The Adventures Of Mark Twain feature, and it’s not one of my favorite movies, but I remember being really impressed by clay animation at that time and seeing that you could do something that wasn’t just Gumby. And Gumby’s totally fine, but it’s basically a lump of clay turning into other lumps of clay. [Laughs.] But I was just mesmerized by the fact that you could tell this really elaborate story and make this entire world. It’s uncanny because it’s plastics and miniatures, but it’s still mesmerizing because you see that someone can make that full of a world. When I think about that now, older stop motion is kind of crazy. I’m sure by Will Vinton’s time they had a lot more to help them along, but even then you basically just shot and then waited to see what you had when the film came back. You’re basically flying blind and hoping that you’re completely awesome in what you do.
That was one of the first ones, though, and I’d also have to say that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was a big one as well. It was huge for me because I was a real sci-fi, Star Wars kind of kid, and seeing that and the scope of it and the story in 1988 when I was like 13 or something—I just couldn’t get my head around it. I just kept thinking, “Oh wow. This is like a real adult movie. I’m watching this serious heavy thing that’s scaring the shit out of me, and it’s animated.” And that movie is still so beautiful and still one of my favorites. It’s really not the best paced movie in the world, and it’s easy to get kind of a little bored, especially around the middle toward the end where you’re thinking, “Okay, I really wish something would blow up or someone would attack something else.” But it’s still beautiful. I was watching it recently, and thinking that at the time they still didn’t really have computer animation. It was like the beginning of that where it was very basic and maybe was used on very tiny parts of that movie, but again you look at it and the amount of work that went into making this world is super impressive.
AVC: Animation’s historical context and its limitations make it that much more impressive. Even one of the earliest examples of stop-motion animation like J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel is still awe-inspiring given the small amount of resources he had.
TA: Absolutely, and as far as that goes, I’d say there are two of the older stop-motion animation films that really gave me a big respect for the form. One is from this Russian animator Ladislas Starevich, and the movie’s called The Mascot. I’m sure he was a big influence on Tim Burton. This movie was made in 1933, and it’s just incredible. It’s about this little toy dog whose master is this bedridden little girl who’s crying over losing an orange, and one of her tears drops into this toy dog who’s kind of ripped open, and so he comes to life. The dog basically goes on this journey to find the orange and through whatever sequence of events, he ends up in this really bizarre underworld with devils, skeletons, and really macabre kind of stuff. It’s great, and you watch it thinking it’s really kind of quaint, but if you look at what this person was doing in 1933 and how elaborate this thing is—like, you’ve got puppets who are running and they’re actually motion-blurred, and that’s the kind of thing you can only do if you know exactly how to make that shot, which is basically you having to bump the puppet for every single frame so it blurs. That’s just a crazy thing to have to do and to even hit it every time is amazing.
There’s also this movie called The Hand done by this Czech animator named Jiři Trnka. It was his last movie, and it’s basically about this sculptor who’s being forced by this gigantic hand to only make sculptures of a hand, whereas the sculptor just wants to make these ceramic pots for his flowers. The Hand basically threatens him and manipulates him and imprisons him. You watch it, and it’s basically about a state trying to force an artist to make propaganda and threatening them for making some expression of self. Trnka died shortly after making the film, and it got banned, so he was basically cut off until like 1993 when those movies were made available again, which by that time he was dead and gone. To me, of course it’s a beautifully made film, but it’s also the idea of making something like that that’s blatantly political at a time when someone’s probably knocking on your door and asking, “What are you doing in there?” And you had to be like, “Oh nothing. I won’t do anything because you’re probably going to kill me.” [Laughs.] You know?
AVC: It’s interesting because the instinct with animated films is usually the assumption that they’re precious or cute. They aren’t generally aligned with other art forms known for being able to effect change or elicit a reaction on that level.
TA: Right, and it can be one of those things where you cover it in metaphors or dress it up somehow. But I really think part of the power, like you were saying, is that no one is expecting that half the time, so you can slip it under the door basically. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” and that can be applied to a lot of things and be very effective. Oh yeah, there’s another stop-motion film called Madame Tutli-Putli. If you go to the National Film Board Of Canada site and just click on animation, I don’t know what they’re setting people up with there, but they make the best, highest quality animation and short films, and they have all of that stuff for free there on the website.
But Madame Tutli-Putli is a stop-motion film from 2007 that’s easy to look up. It’s basically a film about a woman, Tutli-Putli, and she’s alone on a train with all her possessions. As far as I remember, she’s on this train, and she doesn’t know where the train is headed, and she’s involved with some threatening situations on the train as well as some kind of endearing shows of affection, and it goes very abstract. You get the feeling that it’s really about her passage from life to death. I still think that’s what it is, but it’s not ever laid out in a blatant way. It’s really impressive for its technique, which is a very realistic type of stop motion and character renderings. They did something crazy with her eyes, too, which I love when people who use CGI do it in a subtle way. But the actress that they modeled the puppet after, they scanned her eyes and shot her eyes on video while tracking them with the head, so you’re basically seeing the eyes of the actress inside this puppet’s head the entire time, and it’s really effective and beautiful and strange.
Another one is from Norman McLaren who’s this sort of legendary Canadian filmmaker, and it’s called Begone Dull Care. It’s got the Oscar Peterson trio performing a piece of music, and all of the images and visuals used for the film are drawn directly onto the film, just scratched or painted in. It’s just one of those things where, again, you realize someone is listening to a piece of music and then going in a frame at a time and just going for it. When you think of that and just watch it, it’s just great. I love abstract animation like that, because it’s universal immediately. You don’t have to understand the language. You don’t have to know anything about where the guy’s coming from. It’s just this truly audial and visual experience in a way where now you’ve got a screensaver to do that. [Laughs.]
As far as non stop-motion animated films, Spirited Away is such a great movie. I feel like that was kind of the saturation point for how brilliant [Hayao] Miyazaki was at making a story that really involved you and kept you tied to it emotionally. Just the range of creature design and characters in that movie—it’s one of those things where I walk out of the movie thinking: Who the fuck is this guy creating all these things? Of course you do some research on the internet, and you find out that there are actual insects and sea creatures that he was basing a lot of that on. He’s just an absolute genius. I mean, you’ve got the story of this 10-year-old who’s being a real brat and wanders away from her parents who end up getting turned into pigs and then leaving, and that’s at the beginnings of the movie. [Laughs.] Whoever or whatever kid came to that movie thinking they were going to get a Disney film, you’re like: No, no, no. This kid’s parents got turned into pigs and maybe even killed, and she’s gotta figure her way out of this mushroom acid nightmare. [Laughs.] It’s appropriately weird.
This one’s a total aside because I only just saw it last night, but Anomalisa, the new movie from Charlie Kaufman. Have you seen it yet?
AVC: I haven’t yet. Will this be an official endorsement?
TA: Well… they definitely did something new, which was great to see. It’s really impressive. I would say I’m going to marinate on it, but it’s probably going to end up being one of my favorites. It’s one of those things where it’s so realistic that you start thinking: Why did they even need to make a stop-motion film of this? Why did they take four years instead of three months of shooting? But when it clicks, it’s just this really great and surreal piece of cinema.
The last one is a French film from 1988 called Kirikou And The Sorceress. This movie was one I’d come across personally a couple of times and just like a month ago I decided to check it out, and it’s great. It’s a story about this kid who basically gives birth to himself, and he’s born with this incredible intellect and powers. The story is based on a lot of West African folktales, and with this one it’s this little boy who has to save his village from an evil sorceress. I really love to see an animated film based on folktales set in Africa because as far as I know, there are maybe two or three other things that are this lavish and well done where it’s just beautiful to watch. The other thing that occurred to me while watching it was this movie came out in 1998 and was shown in a lot of festivals and won several awards, and the characters are dressed as they would’ve been at the time that these folktales originated or when they would’ve been originally told, which means a lot of women are wearing wraps from the waste down and are topless otherwise.
A lot of the kids, including Kirikou, are completely naked for basically the entire movie, and it just occurred to me that there’s no way, absolutely no way that Disney would ever do that. But it’s just a natural thing. I mean, if you look at pictures of people from certain towns or villages in Africa up until the mid or late-1800s or even into the 1900s, yeah, that’s the traditional garb. They did that. It just made me a little bummed about the puritanical nature of animation but of course concerning a lot of other things, too, where you just want to say: You’ve got to get a bit of a grip. I don’t know if it ever screened in America for those reasons, but it’s a beautiful film either way.