Sideshow Podcast: How Animation Helps Us Appreciate Good Audio

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Patrick Smith’s animation for “Philip Seymour Hoffman on Happiness”

The greatest interview ever recorded won’t get as many hits on YouTube as a cat giving a high five. The people behind Blank on Blank want to make audio go viral. They take audio gems that fell on the cutting-room floor, or low-fi cassette tapes that were never aired, and create original animations of two to five minutes. Producer David Gerlach selects the audio (everyone from Fidel Castro to Meryl Streep to 2Pac), and gives it to animator Patrick Smith, who visualizes the words in charming lo-fi videos. Blank on Blank is now drawing millions of views, and Sean Rameswaram talked with Smith talk about tricking people into watching audio.

 

“Me and David are a packaging element,” Smith says. “We take something that someone may not have noticed before and put some eye candy on there that really lifts it up.” The animation isn’t terribly flashy. Each video is comprised of 40 or so compositions. You see David Bowie pensively reflecting on his career, his animated words bouncing around the frame, and scarecrow-like shadows of his previous personas surrounding him. Smith says he most often tries to steer away from literal interpretations, using as much symbolism and “weird” imagery as possible. “It’s very fulfilling to have these wonderful pieces of audio from these brilliant people and actually get a chance to define their words visually.”

Blank on Blank’s most popular videos have featured dead artists: Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, and Janis Joplin, to name a few. It’s a daunting challenge for an animator. “You know [Hoffman] is dead. You know he’s brilliant. And you’re in charge of visualizing these words. It’s scary.” He finds that the hardest recordings to animate often yield the best results, forcing him to think past the obvious. Smith’s animations – sketchy, vibrant, and witty, like the best New Yorker cartoons come to life – are unquestionably the secret to Blank on Blank’s success, but he defers to the strength of his creative partnership with Gerlach. “I’m an animator who needs a producer who can push me,” he says. “All artists are lazy. Left to our own devices, we make the worst decisions.”