Sweet Swede Animation

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Transforming Madonna's image, yet again, is no mean feat, but that's just what Filmtecknarna was able to do in the recent music video for "Music." No, Filmtecknarna is not a stylist or a personal trainer. The quirky moniker simply means "animators" in Swedish, and it represents the animation house that created the fab cartoon sequence in the Jonas Akerlund-directed video.

In it, Madonna's live action "Muff Daddy" persona becomes an animated superdiva who floats through a funkadelic universe, fly-kicking villains, swimming with giant sea creatures and spinning the ones and twos on the dance floor. Unlike the modern look of CGI in music videos like The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication," the animation here has a distinctly retro feel. But the step back is a move forward for the pop queen. Her cartoon incarnation resembles to that of the Jackson 5 or the Beatles, who in their own heyday appeared in similarly groovy cartoons on TV and film.

Jonas Odell, an owner and one of the company's original founders, directed the Madonna project as well as the promos and show graphics for the European MTV Music Awards, to be held this November in Stockholm. The sequences envision a retro-futuristic Swedish capital, via a '60s sensibility. The animated interludes harken back to Kubrick's 2001 or Ken Adams' James Bond sets, employing a combination of 3-D backgrounds rendered to look like architectural drawings, as well as rotoscoped actors in a palette of orange, turquoise and purple.

Filmtecknarna opened in Sweden in 1981 and is now repped in the U.S. by Curious Pictures. Director Odell is joined by co-owners/directors Jonas Dahlbeck and Stig Bergqvis. The shop has been heavy on the music tip, but about 70 percent of its efforts go to advertising. Like the music-related work, what is apparent in the ad projects is a keen attention to design.

In the animated Boddingtons spot, "Cream of Playboys," for Bartle Bogle Hegarty/London, Graham the Cow makes his way across the grounds of his hip chick-studded mansion, where he's seduced by the stunning Claudia. Stark lines on the human characters give them a slick Patrick Nagel-esque look, but Graham retains a looser appearance. "It was hard to do because they wanted it to be warm and cold at the same time," says Dahlbeck, who directed the spot with Bergqvis. "The cow's the only cartoony guy, but the rule was he's animated in a very natural way because he's cool."

Aside from keeping the design consistent with the concept, the spot posed other creative challenges, even in the U.K. "There was a constant battle with the censor board because it was a beer commercial," says Dahlbeck. "They had some really weird rules. The girlfriend is crawling like a predator cat on the bed, but her eyes couldn't be on the same level with the udders. We were lucky that they got to be on the bed at the same time. They don't want to show sex or violence."

In its nearly two decades of experience, Filmtecknarna has figured out that it's a good sense of design that keeps their work so solid, no matter what techniques are used. "In animation you tend to get lost in the details," explains Odell. "You spend a lot of time on production, and in a way that's a problem in animation, you lose perspective. Now we try to take a step back and remember what the original vision was. Also, we've learned to become freer, to make things work that, at first glance, might look completely different."

The Boddingtons spot seamlessly combines CG and cel in a unified, SoCal Pop-art look. Filmtecknarna also deftly blends techniques in a more consciously overt way. Last year the company crafted a series of shorts for the Cartoon Network, modernizing old Hanna-Barbera favorites with a blend of cut-out, 3-D and stop-motion. Josie and the Pussycats become ravers, punk rockers and a chick version of Kiss, and a CG'd Wally Gator meanders through cut-paper swamplands. The company won a BDA Jury Award in 1999 for a radical reworking of the Atom Ant intro, where a gritty version of the title bug zooms around an earthy universe of collaged animation styles to a techno soundtrack.

The project was a blast for Odell, who cites Hanna-Barbera, along with Disney and the Fleischer brothers, as a major influence. The 29-year-old Jonas Dahlbeck also took his cues from the classics. Peyo's Smurfs were his first muses. He then eventually got into big-time film animators like Richard Who Framed Roger Rabbit Williams and Disney's Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Advertising, in large part, has helped Filmtecknarna establish its strong design foundation, but as with many creatives, it's the independent projects that excite the animators most. One of Odell's favorites is Revolver, a 1993 experimental film the company created that builds on themes rather than narrative, in the same way a piece of music is created, he says. Currently, Jonas Dahlbeck is working on a full-length film, tentatively titled Smoking Mummies. It combines noirish themes of movies like The Usual Suspects and The Secret of Nimh.

"Of course, the independent stuff has a special place in your heart, more so than advertising," says Odell. "You can't really judge advertising films as you would judge independent films. Whether it's Madonna or if you're selling food, there's always a purpose."

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