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August 10
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ANIMATED ‘WRITING ON THE WALL’ MUSIC VIDEO CELEBRATES THE VISUAL HISTORY OF IRON MAIDEN

By CHRISTOPHER McKITTRICK

The mysterious four motorcyclists from Iron Maiden’s “The Writing on the Wall” music video.

Very few music groups are open to discovering new ways to innovate as they approach their 50th anniversary, but English heavy metal band Iron Maiden has always been at the forefront of incorporating new technologies and concepts in the presentation of the band’s music. That tradition continues with Iron Maiden’s latest music video for the song “The Writing on the Wall,” which precedes the release of the group’s 17th studio album, Senjutsu, later this year. Owing to Iron Maiden’s global popularity, “The Writing on the Wall” music video has been viewed over nine million times on YouTube since it premiered on July 15.

Iron Maiden has had a long history of incorporating visual effects in their music videos and concerts. Since the band’s first major tour in 1980, Iron Maiden’s live performances have featured a plethora of practical effects work to bring to life the band’s songs on stage. As the band’s fortunes grew from underground sensation to worldwide phenomenon, Iron Maiden’s media representations have become more sophisticated.

With a story created by the band’s multi-hyphenate lead singer Bruce Dickinson (who previously co-wrote the screenplay for the 2008 science-fantasy horror film Chemical Wedding, which featured visual effects by VES Award winner Clare Cheetham), “The Writing on the Wall” is an animated music video that depicts a post-apocalyptic wasteland reminiscent of the Mad Max films and the cult 1981 animated anthology film Heavy Metal. The video’s spectacular climax debuts the latest iteration of Eddie, the band’s longtime monstrous mascot who has appeared (in various states of decomposition and decay) on album covers, t-shirts, posters and other merchandise, as well as a three-meter-tall walking character on stage during concerts and a CG character in music videos. In the “The Writing on the Wall” music video Eddie, rendered in 3D in full samurai garb and aided by four mysterious hooded motorcyclists, becomes the force that frees a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve from the clutches of evil.

“The Writing on the Wall” music video project originated with two Pixar veterans and Iron Maiden fans who had approached the band about finding a project to do in the animated genre: creative director Mark Andrews, who won an Academy Award and a VES Award for directing Brave, and executive producer Andrew Gordon, who won a VES Award for Outstanding Character Animation for Finding Nemo. Gordon, who co-produced the video with his Lucky 7 Productions, contacted Andrews, who is directing the upcoming Netflix animated series Super Giant Robot Brothers, with an idea about working on a project relating to Iron Maiden.

Samurai Eddie, the latest incarnation of Iron Maiden’s longtime mascot, emerges in the climax of the music video. The 3D model of Eddie required modification to work with the animation style of the music video.

“I had thought [Executive Producer Andrew Gordon] had already approached Maiden and that this was a done deal. He hadn’t! He was asking me first. But he went to Maiden and started talking with them about potentially doing something with them in the animated field. They came back and said, ‘We have this new album coming out, and [Iron Maiden’s] Bruce [Dickinson] has envisioned a whole story for one of the tracks. How about an animated music video?’”

—Mark Andrews, Creative Director

The music video’s Adam and Eve story would not be complete without an apple, handed to the pair by Eddie himself. The 3D model of Eddie was combined with the video’s animation style that is reminiscent of the cult 1981 animated anthology film Heavy Metal.

“The Writing on the Wall” video contains numerous “Easter egg” references to Iron Maiden’s visual history.

Eddie and the motorcyclists flee across the desolate landscape with Adam and Eve.

“I drew 12 beat boards to cover the key moments of what I envisioned the music video of being. Bruce loved it. As soon as he saw it he said, ‘That’s exactly what’s in my mind!’ Which was fantastic! I boarded the whole thing and cut it to the music. When they saw that, they said, ‘Done! Who’s going to make it?’”

—Mark Andrews, Creative Director

“I was working in London and I had a bit of downtime between projects,” Gordon explains. “I said, ‘Mark, what if we pitch a sort of Eddie-centric show to Iron Maiden?’” Adds Andrews, “I had thought he had already approached Maiden and that this was a done deal. He hadn’t! He was asking me first. But he went to Maiden and started talking with them about potentially doing something with them in the animated field. They came back and said, ‘We have this new album coming out, and Bruce has envisioned a whole story for one of the tracks. How about an animated music video?’”

After learning about Dickinson’s vision, Andrews refined the initial pitch. He explains, “I drew 12 beat boards to cover the key moments of what I envisioned the music video of being. Bruce loved it. As soon as he saw it he said, ‘That’s exactly what’s in my mind!’ Which was fantastic!” The next step in the process was expanding on those initial dozen boards. “I boarded the whole thing and cut it to the music,” Andrews continues. “When they saw that, they said, ‘Done! Who’s going to make it?’”

To answer that question, Gordon and Andrews enlisted Blinkink, a London-based animation studio that has created music videos for Gorillaz, The Weeknd, Dua Lipa and Moby and commercials for clients like the BBC, Adidas, Doordash, Nestle and Stella Artois. “We liked them right off the bat after seeing some of the commercials and music videos that they had done,” says Andrews. “They had done CG, stop motion, 2D animation.”

“It was insane to be approached for it,” explains Alex Halley, Lead Producer at Blinkink. “I’m a Maiden fan, Bart Yates [Executive Producer at Blinkink] is a huge heavy metal and Maiden fan, and Nicos Livesey, the video’s director, is the biggest Iron Maiden fan I’ve ever met in my life! All three of us said, ‘We have to make this work.’ It was really exciting, and we were keen to get started, hear the track, and hear Bruce and Mark’s thoughts so we could put our spin on it.”

For Livesey, working on the project was a dream come true. In fact, he happened to be wearing an appropriate shirt when he got the email asking if he was interested in directing the video. “I just sent back a photo of me wearing a Live After Death [Iron Maiden’s 1985 live album] shirt because I was wearing a Maiden shirt as I got the email to say ‘Yeah, I’m up for it!’”

“It just made it easier because the Blinkink team was all very excited about the project,” adds Andrews. “It was fast and we didn’t have a lot of budget, but we had set it up so well that once we got into the nitty-gritty it made even that stuff go easier.”

Even with the short timeline that was allotted for production, the Blinkink team first spent time concentrated on adapting Andrews’ boards to form a cohesive narrative. “The first several weeks of the project were focused on honing in on the story,” explains Halley. “We didn’t start any work until we had an animatic that we thought was super solid and readable so you could follow this thread of what was going on.”

“Bruce has thousands of amazing ideas at a time,” adds Livesey, “and if you show him something new he has another million ideas about that. And Mark is amazing. His storyboards were incredible.” Still, it was important to Blinkink to ensure the video’s story could be as impactful as possible in the song’s six-minute length. “We worked with Mark, Andrew and Bruce for two months to chip away at the story to streamline things before we even said ‘yes’ to the job.”

With the story in place, Blinkink moved on to design. “Once we had that, we got into the really fun part of setting the look and the style, which meant Nicos was gathering loads of references from artists he liked,” says Halley. “Being a huge Maiden fan, he dug through anything that Maiden had ever put out visually and started designing all the characters from that.”

When developing the design, Blinkink envisioned taking a part-practical, part-animated approach. “The original pitch was to do most it with miniature sets,” reveals Livesey. “We were going to build the entire desert scene and the palace as miniatures. I wanted to harness Maiden’s practical side, like their stage show with the walk-on Eddie and the backdrops, and bring it to real life with 2D animated characters, and composite them into the sets. But time and money prevailed. So I said, ‘Let’s take this and make a traditional, classic 2D 1980s-style animation.’ The approach was to bring it to current-day standards and modernize it. I just wanted it to feel very ‘Maiden’ in terms of artwork.”

Characters representing a post-apocalyptic version of Adam and Eve reflect the “modernized” take on the 1980s-style animation aesthetic.

“We were going to build the entire desert scene and the palace as miniatures. I wanted to harness Maiden’s practical side, like their stage show with the walk-on Eddie and the backdrops, and bring it to real life with 2D animated characters, and composite them into the sets. But time and money prevailed. So I said, ‘Let’s take this and make a traditional, classic 2D 1980s-style animation.’ The approach was to bring it to current-day standards and modernize it. I just wanted it to feel very ‘Maiden’ in terms of artwork.”

—Nicos Livesey, Director

The team behind the video faced challenges with the climax with the appearance of Eddie, a revered figure among fans of the band. The presentation of Samurai Eddie went through several different versions based on the album art for Senjutsu, which was created by illustrator Martin Wilkinson.

“We knew that Eddie had to stand out visually,” continues Halley. “Something Nicos really wanted was to do Eddie in stop motion and build an amazing puppet so it has a tactile nature to it. But for several reasons it just didn’t really make sense for us to do that.”

“We talked about if Eddie would be 2D,” Andrews adds. “Doing Eddie in 2D was just not cost-effective for the schedule that we had.” But Iron Maiden offered a valuable asset to the production. “Working with another artist, Iron Maiden had already created a full, totally tricked-out CG Eddie, and they said, ‘Can you just use our Eddie?’ Technically, there are a lot of headaches with using somebody else’s model – how was it rigged, is it going to break, and so on. Andrew tested it and said, ‘I think this is going to work.’”

“The reason we wanted to have Samurai Eddie in 3D was so that he stood out and had a different look,” Gordon continues. “We did not want the character to stand out in a bad way, but I think that ultimately we wanted more detail on Eddie. We choose 3D over 3D with animated effects on top, and looked to a team at Blinkink led by Balázs Simon [CG Lead] in Hungary to define a look that used AI to match a style. We were working with a model that was already created that we had to texture and also make sure was rigged properly.”

Andrews admits that there was no “magic trick” to making the 3D Eddie agree with the video’s 2D animation. “We had to find that treatment because the textures they had were photoreal, but we didn’t want that. We thought the photoreal and our Heavy Metal-esque 2D style, which was all the detail we could get for the money and the time, wasn’t going to mesh. We tried a lot of toon shaders on him to look for a painterly feel. Ultimately, it was about kicking out detail but having enough to make him really stand out. Finding that balance was just trial and error.”

“Nicos asked Balázs and his team, ‘If we get you this model, can we animate him and get all that 3D movement, depth and parallax? Is there a clever solution to keep him looking 2D?’” Halley reveals. “Balázs and his team bashed their heads together and put together this technique that was essentially paint-overs. They had all these crazy scripts to make up those in-between frames so it had this really nice textured look.”

Throughout the process, Iron Maiden and their representatives, including the group’s longtime co-manager Rod Smallwood (who also served as an executive producer of the video), were very supportive of the production. “Mark and I have been on so many films at Pixar, and we knew going in that we would have changes and ups and downs, but we trusted the process,” says Gordon. “Maiden were a delight to work with and gave us a lot of freedom.”

The positive feelings about working on this project were mutual with the crew at Blinkink. “We were up against it timing-wise,” admits Halley. “There was a lot to do. It’s a long video. A big part of us getting it done in time was the fact that the whole crew were Maiden fans in some form or another. It really helped us get the best people. Some people were torn between two jobs, and when I got their NDA signed and told them it was for Iron Maiden, they said ‘I know which job I’m taking!’”

The swirling skies in the exterior painted backgrounds are intended to evoke the artwork on the back cover of Iron Maiden’s 1982 album The Number of the Beast.

Over 70 different painted images were utilized for the interior shots alone, and the 2D animated characters were composited onto the painted backgrounds.

“Blinkink really plussed the work we started with and really made things that were not clear clearer and wanted that back and forth with us. I think it all came together in something we and Iron Maiden fans would be proud of.”

—Andrew Gordon, Executive Producer

“The reason we wanted to have Samurai Eddie in 3D was so that he stood out and had a different look. We did not want the character to stand out in a bad way, but I think that ultimately we wanted more detail on Eddie. We choose 3D over 3D with animated effects on top, and looked to a team at Blinkink led by Balázs Simon [CG Lead] in Hungary to define a look that used AI to match a style. We were working with a model that was already created that we had to texture and also make sure was rigged properly.”

—Andrew Gordon, Executive Producer

Gordon shares strong praise for the work done by the animation studio. “Blinkink really plussed the work we started with and really made things that were not clear clearer and wanted that back and forth with us. I think it all came together in something we and Iron Maiden fans would be proud of.”

As a bonus for their fellow longtime Iron Maiden fans, the team behind the video inserted many references to the band’s 40-plus years of heavy metal history into the music video. The desolate landscape in the video is littered with artifacts from the history of Iron Maiden, like the wreckage of the band’s “Ed Force One” touring aircraft and the crumbling facade of the Cart and Horses Pub (the East London pub where Iron Maiden performed many of their earliest gigs), resulting in several “Easter eggs” for longtime fans of the band to spot. “The real insane fans were Mark and Nicos,” remarks Gordon of the familiar references. “They made sure to get everything they wanted into the video for the fans. I listen to Maiden more than ever because I appreciate the underlying storytelling they do in their work.”

Halley gives credit to the background painters, including artist Tiago Calliari, for working so hard to add those references in the music video. He remarks, “I’ve been amazed by how quickly people have been spotting them, but there are definitely some in there that haven’t been spotted yet. We’ll see if they ever surface!”

Andrews is particularly excited to see how the band will utilize “The Writing on the Wall” music video when they perform the song live. “It’s going to be wild when they come out on tour and this video will be part of their show. Who knows what they’re going to do? Their shows are always fantastic. Is the video going to be playing when they perform the song? It’s going to be unreal!”

Watch Iron Maiden’s “The Writing on the Wall” music video.

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