A brief history of MTV IDs and the impact they’ve had on the creative world
Celebrating 40 years of IDs, the iconic channel has commissioned several international directors to add their own dynamic visuals to the archive.
Most – if not all – will know of the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The landing influenced the world over, and it even inspired the first images to ever be shown on MTV, a television network launched in 1981 with the aim of airing music videos. This very ID, or “ident”, featuring MTV’s own theme song composed by Elias Arts, LLC, is constructed from moon landing footage and features a psychedelic (and typically 80s) MTV logo set over the American flag. Creative and extremely out-there for the time, a shortened version of the ID ran every hour on the MTV channel until it was pulled in 1986. This would prove to be the dawn of many idents to come over the years; including one from the iconic landscape painter Bob Ross, an MTV sandwich and a squiggly, cartoonish contribution from British children’s programme Art Attack to name just a few further additions.
The legacy of the MTV ident is massive, meaning that those who are onboarded to provide their very own dynamic addition to the expanding archive are instantaneously stamped with approval. MTV has gone from being an “omnipresent” addition to the household, as explained by Thomas Berger, SVP of brand design for MTV Entertainment Group, to a cultural icon. The moon landing ident was the start of it all, says Thomas, “and that was the impetus of giving the brand over to these creators and having them create something that didn’t have a brief.” Now, four decades later, the channel is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a new set of IDs from several directors across the globe, including Shane Griffin, Connor Campbell, Charles Desmarais, Double Up Studio (AKA Lina Reidarsdotter Källström and Louise Silfversparre) and Julia Farkas.
So what is it that makes MTV so memorable, let alone an iconic station that’s remained fresh, upbeat and reigned supreme since the 80s? “I think the MTV DNA is weird, it’s irreverent,” adds Thomas. “It shouldn’t try to preach, it’s about pure joy. Overall, we try to keep [the IDs] optimistic, fun, funky and weird.” But it’s not just the IDs that have marked the company as emblematic, for it also made mugs, DVDs, T-shirts, logos, books, reality TV and, of course, music videos; “there were so many things that MTV could touch,” he adds. Thomas first joined the team after its “biggest” VMAs in 1999, it was a “huge” turning point for the company “and the brand was so ambiguous that it felt like this job could never get stale.” To such lengths that even the arrival of social media couldn’t stop the company in its tracks – it learned how to cut through the “visual noise” of the media and endless entertainment available at the press of a finger. “MTV had a different problem back when it first started, which was how to fill the air. Now, the problem is, we don’t really have the air time,” explains Thomas, pointing out a current “global refresh” for the company. “At a time when there’s so much out there, and a lot of our Instagram feeds feel like MTV idents, how do we carve a space that will show the expression of the artist, but it still feels like it has the MTV DNA in it?”
First things first, an ID needs to be short, sweet and indelible; it has to feel consistently MTV and be a place where the artists can let a little loose. Take Shane’s contribution as the first example. A multidisciplinary visual artist, director and founder of Grif Studio, Shane, originally from Dublin, centres his work on surrealism and abstraction, conceived through the mediums of print, sculpture, animation and live-action film. Delighted to accept the commission from MTV, Shane’s ID follows the typical tropes found in skateboarding films – a fish-eye effect made using a spherical camera lens, for instance – as it follows the protagonist moving about, performing tricks and spreading flowers. “I created this ‘blooming effect’ that can definitely be put on anything, so once that was made, I could create the effect in various different patterns,” he explains of the process, which uses Redshift 3D for the rendering. “The ‘sticky’ flowers that stick to our character react to his animation by wobbling around, which creates an additional feeling of surrealism.”
“They encapsulate where design and animation thinking is at that moment in time; they’re incredible snapshots of design culture and artistic expression, they are like history lessons!”Shane, Grif Studio
For Shane, the MTV IDs are iconic, “even the ones from the 90s still get referenced to this day,” he says, “they've had such a huge impact on the culture of broadcast design and motion graphics.” So to have added his own contribution to the archive is more than thrilling, especially since he gets to bestow his unique artistic flair with the energy of a skateboarder “doing what he loves.” On the impact of the IDs, he says: “They encapsulate where design and animation thinking is at that moment in time; they’re incredible snapshots of design culture and artistic expression, they are like history lessons!”
Connor, a London-based motion designer working across music videos, brand identity systems and kinetic typography, and founder of Connor Campbell Studio, also speaks fondly about his memories of MTV. “To me, they were always these loud, guitar amp-screeching clips that would send a shockwave to all senses and didn’t hold back on the surreal visuals – they would really take you to another place for that short amount of time between episodes of Cribs and Jackass,” he notes. Searching for Life is the title of his ID, which sees experimental animation techniques transport you to another world for ten seconds. The ident takes you to outer space, designed from the point of view of “M”, a character who’s searching for the alien life-form TV that’s sleeping in crypto-stasis. Inspired by the film Aliens but with a modern twist, everything has been modelled, textured and rendered in 3D with sound design by Marcel McKenzie.
Just like Connor and Shane – as well as every other animator to have come before them – Charles, AKA Gold Casanova, who’s based in Montreal, was given a “super minimalist” brief when creating his ID. It was after stumbling across a call-out on Instagram that Charles sent a DM to MTV’s senior creative James Green, to which he responded right away. “MTV is pretty iconic so I was stoked,” he says. “I couldn’t shut up about it for days.” Charles quickly began working on his animation and decided to base it on a slightly unusual question: “What would a cat, a flower and a broccoli be doing if they were all living together in a frat house?” Well, Charles answers this question in signature Charles and MTV style through a series of wacky characters, garish movements and a neon 3D world inspired by the channel’s logo. Having been given complete creative freedom, it was an utter joy for Charles to make. “MTV provides a great platform for artists who make unconventional art that’s a little out there to reach a larger audience,” he says. “Since MTV is a pretty big deal, I feel like it pushes artists to really give their best to make something punchy. It also allows artists who make static art to explore creative ways to animate their work.”
In Double Up Studio’s ident – the Stockholm-based 3D and animation studio founded by Lina and Louise – the team have put together a spellbinding short that sees a witch preparing a potion, but in the end, it “turns out that it was just an old lady preparing a cafe for a tea party,” says Lina. The brief was open but the studio was provided with a set of words starting with the letter “M” that were linked to the MTV brand, resulting in the words “Mischievous” and “Magic” as the focus point (plus a bouncy classic logo to close the ident). Built using 3D animation techniques, the studio’s contribution represents a shift in technology since the idents were launched in the 80s. “You can really see the different techniques and trends that were popular from different years when browsing through the idents – that was a big reason why we were so excited taking this on,” explains Louise, who confirms that herself and the team were more than excited to contribute to the ID timeline. “3D is a tool that has grown huge in the last couple of years and it is constantly changing and evolving.”
Swapping 3D for flatter 2D animation, Julia – an animation director based in Hungary – has centred her MTV ID on psychedelia and humour as she depicts a sweltering hot day filled with bizarre (and smiley) creatures cooling off by the water’s edge. She’s long been inspired by the IDs, in fact, she remembers falling in love with them during her childhood; they also influenced her decision to study animation. “They definitely helped form my taste and motivated me to go into animation,” she says. “I think the multitude of visual gags are very inspiring, and simply cause pleasure to everyone. The bohemian, free-flowing trains of thought in these IDs influence my work to this day.” So when MTV reached out about creating her own, it was a dream come true. “Finally the time had come to show my brain-poop to the people.”
By looking at the recent commissions from these artists, it’s plain to see that there’s no definitive guideline for how to build an MTV ident. The only baseline is that it needs to be punchy, weird, and in tune with the animator’s own style and current creative climate – taking onboard new software, techniques, moods and attitudes. And if you’re new to the field, then even better. “It's something that really excites me, commissioning people who haven't totally exploded yet,” explains Thomas about what they look out for at MTV. “We’re trying to connect with people who are still in that beginning part of their journey as artists.” Coupled with the fact that MTV is constantly striving to push itself creatively to keep up with the ever-expanding industry, the 40th-anniversary celebration couldn’t be more praised for its combination of hyperrealism and twisted graphics.
3D animation, humour, magic and oddities are central to these wonderful creations, so what exactly does this mean for wider society? Clearly, we’re all in need of some escapism. And MTV is here to support these desires – both now and for the next 40 years to come. “How can we continue to be part of the cultural conversation that is already taking place? How are we part of that cultural conversation? How are we supporting that, and keeping those things alive? What we want to do is make sure that they don’t feel disposable,” concludes Thomas, “our next challenge as a brand is to figure out how to put them on a pedestal that sticks.”
MTV Archive. Courtesy of MTV
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.