Work / Animation

Joren Cull talks through his animated history of Radiohead for Pitchfork

Every month or so, music aficionados Pitchfork choose a topic, band or genre to inform their audience about in a series of animated shorts titled A Brief History Of… We love it when these windows into music history open, whether it be A Brief History of Emo, or A Brief History of Dad Rock.

The most recent, A Brief History of Radiohead, made our ears prick up with its narrative silliness, playing upon the obsessiveness of the band’s fans by portraying them as kids doing a presentation to their class, whose reaction, let’s just say is the equivalent of your mum shouting, ‘turn that racket off!’

The short is illustrated, co-written and directed by Joren Cull, a mammoth task for one person to undertake. But don’t worry, his last short A Brief History of Goth, has over five million views and won the Webby Award for Best Animation and first place in the People’s Choice award — so the tale of five of the most famous guys from Oxford was in safe hands.

Working alongside writer Miles Raymer and Pitchfork’s executive producer and co-creator RJ Bentler, Joren is usually given an essay on the subject cooked up by the pair to interpret. The way the videos have turned out however was not the intention: “For our first collaboration I was just hired to animate their essay in the style of a previous video A Brief History of Dad Rock, more of a like TedEd format I guess,” Joren explains. For the Radiohead project, RJ watched a few of the animator’s previous films and asked Joren to try adding a voice over. A basic narration where Joren was using his normal voice morphed into “poking fun at the idea that I was back in elementary school doing a presentation and remembering how awkward it felt,” he says. “I sort of leaned into it and started doing these voices pretending I was actually a bunch of kids doing shitty presentations. I sent RJ both takes, he liked the idea too so we just rolled with it. It was pretty organic I guess!”

Once the idea was approved, Joren began the process by researching the subject and “cutting out lines and dialogue, storyboarding really rough ideas I’ve had,” he explains. From there, Joren went on lots of “thinking walks” to imagine how he would portray the research undertaken. “I guess I just think really hard for a really long time until I get somewhere,” he says of his process. An animatic storyboard was then drawn, Pitchfork signed off, and the animator and his cousin AJ (“we’ve been working on projects together since we were little kids,”) book in studio time to get started on the voices.

Rather than adding another job to his already long list of to-dos, Joren tried to do “most of the voices myself as to not over stress myself with organising/booking/auditioning voice actors, and relying on other people who might not show up, not be prepared or do a bad job,” he says. After that, he got to work on illustrating the scenes, of which there were 82 for the Radiohead short, animating each as he goes along. “This part is pretty labour intensive as well, it’s sort of a blur of sitting in front of the computer for days and nights working myself to exhaustion. One positive of this part is that I’m really given the luxury to focus on each and every part of the animatic.” This process lends itself to simplification, and allows Joren to watch the video as a viewer, “to tighten things up and see what’s not working and what is”.

The fact that the short mimics the fanatic tendency of Radiohead’s audience was again an organic move, using a character from a previous video that the animator just felt would be a Radiohead fan. One character featured, a child dressed up as the band’s mascot, was also purposefully done to slightly miff the band’s fans, “I thought having the voice muffled would sort of annoy Radiohead fans a bit and I liked that about it too, like to sort of tease them I guess or be difficult,” Joren explains. “I guess I was just trying to communicate that a lot of Radiohead fans can be sort of senseless in their fandom.” Joren does this with little sarcastic details, for instance saying that every Radiohead release, “is the greatest album of all time”.

Poking fun at Radiohead fans Joren insists is “more of an observation than a criticism…I am probably more like that about some stuff I really like too, but personally not being a die-hard Radiohead fan I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with this sort of talk for years so it was coming from experience I think also.”

In turn, Joren’s short is enjoyable for both fans and newcomers alike, a result of hours of research and character consideration. “One of the best compliments I got about the video was a die-hard Radiohead fan who said it felt like it “came right from the heart”… I think it’s because of all the reaearch and little inside jokes and details. It did come from the heart, but in a way of wanting to make really good video that fans will appreciate and nerd out over,” says Joren. “I think the video is entertaining enough that even if you don’t like them you’ll have a fun time watching it, you’ll learn something new, and you’ll hopefully laugh, smile or something, be engaged and entertained.”

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Joren Cull: A Brief History of Radiohead

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Joren Cull: A Brief History of Radiohead

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Joren Cull: A Brief History of Radiohead

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Joren Cull: A Brief History of Radiohead

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Joren Cull: A Brief History of Radiohead