Saturday Morning Cartoon: The Woozy Animated Music Videos of Belle and Sebastian

By  · Published on September 6th, 2014

Belle and Sebastian/Lesley Barnes animation/Rough Trade Records

Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter of Belle and Sebastian, has directed a movie. It is called God Help the Girl, it stars Emily Browning, and it opens this weekend. It’s obliquely autobiographical in a sense, its protagonist a spiritual stand-in for the musician. It is also not animated. In fact, there isn’t all that much animation tied to the work of Belle and Sebastian in general. The Scottish indie pop group has mostly stuck with narrative-minded live-action videos over the course of their career. There isn’t even a French cartoon based on the children’s book from which the band took their name, “Belle et Sébastien,” though there is a Japanese anime series from the early 1980s. All 52 episodes are on YouTube.

However, that sort of tenuous excuse to watch a cartoon won’t be necessary this week. Belle and Sebastian have actually made two animated music videos, both of them sitting along the edge of their discography. “I Didn’t See It Coming” was released in the summer of 2011, “Crash” in the spring of 2012. Yet while these are rare, and also rather late examples of their work attached to video (the group’s first studio album, for context, was released in 1996), there’s an odd sort of continuity. Many of their singles over the years have been accompanied by videos with a very fluid yet contained sensibility, from the Richard Lester homage of 2001’s “Jonathan David” to the bizarre office space of 2003’s “Step Into My Office Baby.” These two more recent adventures are no different.

The video for “I Didn’t See It Coming” doesn’t use the audio of the original song, part of the 2010 album “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love.” Rather, this is a video for the remix by Richard X that was included in the 2011 EP Come on Sister. It was directed and animated by Lesley Barnes, who has also produced work for The Economist and Little White Lies. Her colorful, intricate and geometric style lends an air of pop mythology to this charming little narrative.

The plot, to the extent that it can be called such a thing, is that of two star-crossed lovers. Barnes opens on a city of medieval proportions, meaning that it is full of castles willfully ignoring the laws of perspective. The couple is introduced by the windows of their towers, one reading “B” and the other “S.” She is presumably Belle, he Sebastian. A wicked planet above tries to break up their union, forcing them into a long-term chase that will cross through forests and oceans, eventually into the stars themselves. Movement never ceases, as Barnes morphs one landscape into the other, privileging complex patterns of primary colors. Creatures and landscapes of increasingly stunning size and complexity swallow up our lovers, filling a moving canvass of romantic delirium.

Second is “Crash,” a cover of a song by The Primitives that Belle and Sebastian recorded as their contribution to “Late Night Tales: Belle and Sebastian Vol. II,” the second in the compilation series edited and mixed by the band. Originally recorded in 1988, “Crash” has had an interesting history. This video is certainly a whole universe better than its prior motion-picture appearance in 2004’s Surviving Christmas. Animated by New Zealand-based designer and director Stephen Tolfrey, this odd little film positions Belle and Sebastian as miniature troubadours, just trying to get the world to stop for a moment and calm down.

The band is animated, taking the form of little box-people performing in the corners of subway stations and on sidewalks around London. The world around them, however, is live-action. Tolfrey uses sped-up footage of the metropolis in motion, people appearing more as a mass of rushed objects than human figures. The idea, matching the lyrics of the song, is that everyone is hurtling through space without paying much attention. Murdoch et al float through it, charismatic outsiders stuck in a world that doesn’t entirely make sense.

In that way it isn’t all that different from their live-action videos of the past, though without the suspect alcoholism of “The White Collar Boy” or the twee panoply of “The Blues Are Still Blue.” Tolfrey’s work, along with that of Barnes above, is a testament to the power of animation to represent these soundscapes, the movement and color of music. Yet at the same time, they show that with the right set of eyes, a band’s whimsical aesthetic can come across quite clearly in any number of forms.

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