Running an animation studio can turn up interesting jobs, but nothing could prepare Gina Niespodziani and Mark Szumski for a commission from the underworld. Animating the Prince of Darkness is not a task to take lightly, but the New York-based studio HeyBeautifulJerk proved up to the task. Longtime fans of Ozzy Osbourne, Gina and Mark jumped at the opportunity when contacted by the star’s label, Sony Music, to create an animated music video for the 30-year anniversary of the classic track, Hellraiser.
Mark Szumski dreamt up an ambitious sci-fi horror adventure featuring Ozzy alongside his friend, the late rocker Lemmy; also featured on the 1991 single. Drawing from a broad range of animation contemporary to the era of the song’s release — titles like Fist of The North Star and Berzerk — the team were able to capture a visually striking style that gave nostalgia without feeling like too much of a throwback.
We had a chat with Mark, and artists on the project, to learn more about how they executed this vision. They offer a revealing glimpse into their working process, using what they refer to as hybrid production techniques. Read on to discover how they merge traditional 2D animation with stunning dynamic VFX to create this unique style. HeyBeautifulJerk offers valuable tips and techniques on animating with Toon Boom Harmony. They also share the extensive list of references behind Hellraiser’s aesthetic, as well as advice for artists looking to find their rhythm for animated music videos!
What’s the story behind the Hellraiser AMV?
Mark: Sony Music reached out to us about a mysterious animation project for a major artist in mid-July. Our minds were racing WHO it could possibly be. Based on their roster, we narrowed it down to Pink Floyd, Lil Nas X or Ozzy. Turned out it was Ozzy, which was my first choice.
What has the reception been to the video so far?
Mark: Hellraiser has almost 8 million views across Facebook, Instagram and YouTube in three weeks. We cannot believe how positive the reception has been. The comments from fans have been so encouraging, endearing and really heartfelt. We are reading their comments daily. Everyday there is a comment that cracks us up or makes us feel really good that we put so much effort into the project.
How did you collectively decide the concept for the video?
Mark: Ever hear the story of how Slyvester Stallone wrote the script for Rocky? He wrote it in three days. I had something comparable where I just sat down one Saturday afternoon and wrote the whole basic narrative beginning to end in three hours.
Sony wanted a buddy adventure of these two legends. I wanted to build a whole sci-fi/horror adventure that worked well with the song and also paid tribute to the legacy and mythos of both artists. Gina and I then worked together to build and refine the story, so it was as concise and funny as possible, while still being animatable and producible.
Talk us through the process of putting it together. Who was responsible for which part?
Mark: Gina and I directed and produced the video start to finish, and were both active hands-on artists on the project as well. We had a design ‘bake off’ of three different styles for the video, because we had really ambitious ideas. Since the song was originally released in 1991, we had some insane ideas to lean very hard into animation and design of that era.
Specifically, Fist of the North Star, Berzerk, X-Men The Animated Series and TMNT. We had a lot of characters with Rob Liefield pouches and pink mohawks. Ozzy’s team was a little taken back by the retro approach, so we had to dial it all back a bit. But some of that initial design DNA is apparent in the final.
The amazing Glenn Urieta was our concept artist, with Gina Niespodziani editing and structuring the narrative. Matt Carr Jr. contributed to the concept design and also took on the role of lead animator once we got into production. HBJ specializes in hybrid animation, so this is a combination of traditional 2D animation, puppeted and After Effects animation paired with high end VFX, color grade and finishing by Mark Szumski. It takes a big team of artists all with different talents and skill sets. And we are happy with the hybrid look of the video.
What are some techniques in Harmony we can see used on the AMV?
Gregg Azzopardi [Animator on Hellraiser]: Toon Boom Harmony’s tools help animators create an efficient traditional digital animation pipeline. Tools such as Flip and Mark Drawing‘ make it easier for an animator to organize their process when creating keys and breakdowns, and provide a well-organized workflow that is easier to follow when cleaning up a scene.
The use of the 3D tools in Toon Boom Harmony allows for the use of imported models from Maya, to use as a drawing guide for artists. You never know when you have to animate a shot of whiskey turning in space in an animated character’s hand.
Can you talk us through some influences behind this art style?
Mark: Late 80’s and 90’s anime, like Fist of the North Star, Berserk, Otomo, Ralph Bakshi and of course Rick and Morty. It’s a real cosmic gumbo of styles. For example, the first scene of Lemmy losing his mind and stomping on zombie brains was a direct homage to Vincent Locke and his Dead World comicbook work. The space scenes are a tribute to Galaxy Rangers and Starblazers. Also as far as VFX, color grade and atmosphere, Fury Road and Mandy were our main inspirations. At HBJ, our creative guiding light is always: “what would we want to watch, as fans?” Often those influences are seemingly random. But we make it work in the end.
The demon characters are really impressive, and look like something from an action anime. What was the process of the character design?
Mark: Abaddon, the main bad guy, is inspired by real demonic grimoire. You see his sigil on the ‘Castleships’ and his armor. I thought that he would be a good foil to Ozzy, the real Prince of Darkness, by being challenged by a poser demon of sorts. His design was inspired by Gary Oldman’s old Dracula appearance and General Grievous from the animated Clone Wars series. Part sorcerer, part scientist, part jealous weirdo. The Cyborg-Succubus, aka the Cy-Sucks, are inspired by 90s X-Men comics, The Road Warrior and one of our favorite horror films, Martyrs.
We knew we wanted the ALPHA demon character to be inspired by Vernon Well’s character in Road Warrior. If you look at the Alpha demon there is a mix of every X-Men character. Cyclops’ visor, Nightcrawler’s tail and feet, Storm’s mohawk. This is a deep cut Marvel reference but she is basically an X-Men Super Skrull. The Beta Cy-Sucks are more inspired by the film Martyrs, where they are in constant pain and poorly-constructed by Abaddon, but still hell-bent on getting Lemmy’s bass.
Hellraiser was originally released just after the 1980s ended. How did you capture some of this period’s recognizable elements in your animation?
Mark: We wanted a video ‘of the era’ for the song. So many scenes are animated in a primitive manner, intentionally, to give the video a retro look. But key moments are not at all retro. HBJ has always adopted hybrid production techniques and approaches to our creations. So this was no different than any other project that we have produced. This might be our most successful at blending all of these ideas seamlessly together.
What are some of the key elements you think about when animating to a music track?
Mark: For us, the musicality of the edit is the main driver. We plan big moments in the animation around big moments in the song. This may seem obvious, but when it is executed correctly, it really captures people in a way that is hard to do these days. We spend a lot of time refining the edit and the animation action; getting it very tightly in the earliest animatics. Establishing that gives the animators great guardrails when it comes to executing the animation, to make sure it works with the music and within the animation sequence. Especially when so many artists are working in different styles, simultaneously and remotely.
Why did you choose to use Toon Boom Harmony on this project?
Mark: We had so many talented artists that we wanted to work with on this project. We did not want to be limited to a single piece of software, so we really let each artist dictate their own personal workflow. And many of them prefer Toon Boom.
Samantha Céilí Duckworth [animator and EFX on Hellraiser]: Honestly, I always think Harmony is the best software for 2D projects; both for hand drawn and for puppeting. It’s an extremely user-friendly program that allows for a ton of customization and detail, very easily and streamlined. The [node] network view really helps keep everything organized, and there are so many rigging tools, particle effects, shadow and lighting modules, and other really great compositing tools, right in the program.