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“Over the Edge with MTV”
It’s funny, but for all the influence the MTV graphics have had, not much has been written about them. Probably because we were all media people, rather than directly from the graphic design community, we never really worked the press on behalf of ourselves.
But the Oscar winning animator Jon Canemaker is also a dedicated historian. He wrote his thoroughly researched story in the September/October 1992 Print Magazine about the logo and its animation ten years after the channel’s debut.
You can read the original article (complete with illustrations) above. Here’s the entire text:
Over the Edge with MTV
By John Canemaker
The decade-old video music channel has profoundly influenced pop culture, in part through its dealing, innovative animation.
The broadcast phenomenon known as MTV was launched in 1981 by Warner Communications and American Express with a certain amount of skepticism and worry about its potential fur success. Robert Pittman, then Warner/Amex’s 27-year-old director of 24-hour cable service programming (now president and CEO of Quantum Media), had sold his corporate bosses on a concept for a video music channel “with no programs, no beginning, no middle, no end.”
After a decade, there is no doubting MTV’s enormous success and impact on popular culture. It has influenced fashion. graphic design, music, and movies, as weil as our attitudes about television and advertising, and even our concept of time. The idea for a TV music service was not new, hut Pittman’s vision and its execution were. “We realized that almost all TV was narrative in form,” wrote Pittman in the Los Angeles Times last year. “The appeal of music, however, has nothing to do with that structure. Music is about emotion and attitude—it makes you feel. It moves you. Within the creation of MTV. we changed the form of TV to fit the form of music, as opposed to trying to fit music into a narrative structure.
In opposition to the practice of the big three television networks, which broadcast a variety of fare to attract the widest possible general audience, MTV would “narrowcast,” targeting an audience between the ages of 12 and 35—that is. baby boomers and the generation that came after them. The music would be their music: rock-‘n’- roll, and all that that implies.
“It was meant to drive a 55-year-old person crazy,” MTV Chairman/CEO [Tom Freston] told the Washington Post in 1989. Conceived as a free-form, open-ended visual showcase of rock-‘n’- roll. MTV needed a graphic image that bespoke youth and anti-authority/anti-establishment attitudes, something forever-changing, ever-evolving, and totally cool—on-the-edge and in-your-face. The famous MTV logo—numerous 10-second animated station identification spots seen throughout each day for over a decade—conveys all of the above.
Constantly layered and manipulated, the basic blocky M overlapped by a thin, spray-painted TV remains the same, a logo that is now among an exclusive pantheon of instantly recognizable symbols, such as Coca-Cola bottles, Mickey Mouse, and the CBS eye.
The development of the logo and other MTV graphics, and the extensive use ol animation on MTV, was both organic and pragmatic, according to Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman, partners in the advertising agency Fred/Alan, Inc., which produces on- air promos, sales films, and network identifications for MTV, Nickelodeon, and VH-1, among other clients. Seven years ago, Seibert and Goodman were the team that defined, as Seibert recently explained, “the voice, the sound, the content, the ideas behind MTV the reasons it was important.
Both men come from recording and radio backgrounds: Seibert produced jazz records before Robert Pittman hired him in 1980 to create promotions and programming for the 24-hour Movie Channel, the Warner/Amex cable service that preceded MTV. When Seibert volunteered lo work simultaneously on the proposed music video channel, he brought on Goodman, who had run the copy department for five years at CBS Records’ in-house agency, which made album covers, advertisements for radio, and “promotional films that became known as music videos.”
“We grew up in a time when rock-‘n’-roll was characterized by album covers, as was the culture of out generation,” says Seibert. “These rovers defined what we liked to look at, as well as what we believed in. We milted to create little animated album covers for the new generation.”
“The MTV logo and animation,” says Goodman, “had so much to do with accidents, with ratings. and the limits of technology at the lime, rather than any artistic vision we had.” For example, the 10-second running lime of the ID logos resulted from the inability, of the old 2” videotape carts (custom-altered to play in stereo) to cycle cassettes faster. Ten seconds was “interminable” to Seibert and Goodman, who originally wanted three- to four-second IDs, as short as those heard on radio.
They needed an ID that would be memorable to viewers who, in pre-electronic ratings days, wrote down what they watched on TV in a diary. “We were competing against 10, 20 channels and knew We were going to compete against 50, although they didn’t exist yet,” says Seibert. “We knew we had to create an MTV not for 1980, but for 1990 We had to reach out of the TV set, shake every viewer, and say ‘Watch us!”
In developing the image, they considered the nature of rock-‘n’-roll—always in a slate of evolution—and its audience, which is always growing up with it and out of it. A certain anti-establishment attitude was apparent among the young turks who created MTV, must of whom, like Pittman, Seibert, and Goodman, were in their twenties. “We didn’t want in follow,” explains Seibert. “The hell with that. We wanted to lead with our generation. Why hire some designer or art director who graphically defined the last generation? Let’s create our own look.”
A kinetic, out-sized symbol glimmered undefined in their imaginations, but because neither idea man could draw, Seibert and Goodman sought a graphic design studio. There was only one such place, they felt, that could make their ideas visible: Manhattan Design, a small office run by friend (Frank Olinsky and Pat Gorman) behind a Ti Chi workshop in Greenwich Village. “Their studio was as big as this table. You tell Warner Brothers and American Express that this is who is going to define their logo—they had a cow!” Seibert exclaims.
Manhattan Design produced about 500 logo designs. “They kept coming back with more.” recalls Goodman. “The closest to being accepted was a squeezable musical note grabbed in the ass by a Mickey Mouse-style hand and the notes came out of the fingers. We liked it mainly because it was active. The notes were secondary. Our logo, we thought, should have action, unlike the CBS eye.” Goodman had, in fact, contacted the “CBS logo policeman,” who lead him a list of rules pertaining to the CBS symbol, e.g., it never moves; it never changes: and it can never be put on gym bags or hats, only on pens (or salesmen and top clients. Goodman went down the menu and said, ‘We’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to do this.”
The big M design was on the bottom of a pile of the last 10 sketches submitted, with the TV originally graftitied in, punk- like. “We said that one’s it. Go and develop it more, Frank came back with lots of color treatments. ‘Here’s one.’ he’d say, ‘that looks as if the M hadn’t shaved and the TV was shaving cream: here’s one where it’s a taxi with yellow stripes; here’s one with the bottom like linoleum; here’s one all spattered.’ We liked each one better than the last,” says Goodman.
“It filled the screen and was dimensionalized from the first. It reminds us of Superman comics and the 20th Century-Fox logo. It’s grand, big. The spray-painted TV implied action. There was the M and something was done to it. The shadow implied dimension and 3D image. It was more than a 2-D image. It was a logo that willingly accepted juvenile delinquency!”
At the same lime the logo was being developed, Seibert and Goodman were creating short snippets of sound to match the as-yet-undefined IDs. “For the most visually stunning network ever lo launch, we decided to make it sound-based. Build the pictures on top of it, like cartoons,” relates Goodman. With no idea how the music would be used, they kept working with musicians until they liked what they heard for 10 seconds and added it to a master reel.
“Again, it was pragmatic.” Goodman explains. “We’re sound guys, We started in radio and we know music. TV is a talking toaster, if it doesn’t sound right, who cares what it looks like.” Seibert concurs: “II we put brilliant sound together with medium-to-good pictures, we’d have something great. If we put great sound with great pictures, everyone would salute.”
Seibert and Goodman pinned the different versions of the MTV logo on the wall for days and thought about them. Minutes before their big presentation meeting with the powers-that-be at Warner/Amex, “we decided to use them all at once, all the time.” Seibert recalls. One of the marketing heads (an older man) balked (“I hate this! It’s a piece of junkl”), but he was overruled. “Running on pure adrenaline and instinct.” the creative team had six weeks before launch date to come up with nine videos versions of the logo.
They chose animation as a medium for yet another practical reason. Explains Seibert, “Virtually all the videos at that time were in live-action. We knew our M had to be different to stand out.” The pre-packaged sound biles were to be handed out to selected animation studios. The only problem was that Seibert and his colleagues didn’t know any animators. “We knew Disney’s name, that was all,” he recalls. They tailed in 100 sample reels from trade paper ads and “hated one more than the other.”
A few rock- ‘n’ -roll spots using Xerography (Xeroxed photos manipulated under the camera frame-by-frame) appeared on a reel from a small company in San Francisco called Colossal Pictures. “All of a sudden.” says Seibert, “everything else was Doc Severinson and this was Little Richard. These guys had the beat! They got it! We jumped up and down. ‘It can be done!’” They sought reels from other little-known independent animators, instead of large established cartoon shops, who wanted a package of spots for big bucks.
“Anything else that anyone was doing, we weren’t going to do,” says Seibert. Indeed, this idea became a kind of rallying cry. They surveyed the standard cel techniques used in the studios and went in the other direction- finding animators who specialized in alternative frame-by frame designs using clay, cut-out, puppets, and pastels, crayon, or watercolors on paper. “We wanted to do what everybody else was absolutely ignoring.” Budgets were small and schedules tight, but the independents eagerly undertook the work, for MTV offered a rare national showcase for personal, quirky, non-traditional animation.
Colossal Pictures filtered a group of West Coast animators through their company to MTV, to join a growing number of colleagues from the East and points north, including Eli Noyes, Broadcast Arts, George Griffin, Jerry Lieberman, and Joey Album in New York, Olive Jar in Boston, and International Rocketship in Vancouver, “We wanted on-the-fringe people, like us, People we felt comfortable with,” says Seibert. “To this day, we have our closest relationships with the animation community.”
Ironically. “Man on the Moon,” one of the most famous of the earliest animated logos, with a now-familiar electric guitar riff, was animated by Buzzco, a commercial animation studio. “At the time.” says Seibert, “we shared space with Buzz Potemkin, head of Buzzco, and we liked him. We said to him we felt MTV was as big a TV event as ever happened; it was going to change TV that much. We had this idea of copying the biggest TV event in world history—the man walking on the moon—usurp it to ourselves, the juvenile delinquents of MTV,” Potemkin agreed to produce the spot, which used public domain NASA footage of a rocket blasting off, cross-dissolving into stills of the 1969 landing on the moon. The American flag was cut out and various types of MTVs were substituted. The original piece, intercut with coming attractions, was 10 seconds, so Seibert and Goodman looped one of their prepackaged, free-form music pieces (a guitar solo) three times.
Over the last 10 years, the popularity of animation on MTV has been enhanced by top rock performers using the medium creatively in videos. The increased number of videos using animation, and using non-traditional frame-by-frame graphics, is a direct result of the audiovisual impact of the off-the-wall I0-second logos.
Among the more memorable videos in terms of imagery and an impressive variety of unusual animation techniques are “Sledgehammer,” in which Peter Gabriel’s face and body and other three-dimensional objects are pixilated; “Opposites Attract,” which features Paula Abdul’s tap adagio with a cartoon alley cat (modeled nostalgically on Gene Kelly’s workout with Jerry the Mouse); “Harlem Shuffle.” which intercuts Mick Jagger with Bob Clampett-like cartoon cats: “Hard Woman,” in which Jagger appears with a computer-generated female; and “Leave Me Alone,” in which Michael Jackson combines photo animation and Xerography of himself and Elizabeth Taylor in a surreal Jacksonland amusement park.
MTV’s decade of continuous showcasing of all kinds of animation has been an important component in its public acceptance, which is at an all-time high. Always on the lookout lor things other people are ignoring. MTV itself continues lo compete with its own brand of on-the-edge animation.
John Payson, director of creative, and Abby Terkuhle, VP-creative, are currently responsible for all MTV on-air promotions, as well as the overall look and packaging of ongoing and new programs, contests, and image productions, including network IDs and an breaks. Their commitment to animation on MTV is strong.
“Animation is a direct line from the director’s brain to the screen.” says Payson. “It’s become a viable adult entertainment medium. There’s no limn to what the imagination ran do.” adds Terkuhle, who keeps abreast of current animation designs and artists by attending international animation festivals around the world. The team produces a dozen or more logos annually, though now says Terkuhle. “we have global talents to lap into, including MTV Europe. MTV Asia. MTV Brazil, and soon,” international affiliates that have been established with MTV’s growing success.
Three years ago, Payson and Terkuhle look steps to develop and expand MTV’s animation offerings in a number of imaginative ways. They commissioned “short form” pieces (films longer than 10 seconds) to play between videos, such as the serialized “Stevie and Zorn” by Joe Zorn, “Brute” from Britain’s Mike Smith and Malcolm Bennett, and “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions.” from Henry Selick on the West Coast.
With MTV U.S. and MTV Europe, they sponsored an international competition for IDs, and, more recently, animated public service announcements addressing world problems and solutions. Over 600 entries were received, 10 of which will be aired on MTV affiliates throughout the world.
Showcased on late-night weekends is a series originally produced for Nickelodeon. ”The Ren & Stimpy Show.” an anarchic throwback to the wild, stretchy squashy old-Style Warners/Bob Clampett animation beloved by boomers, who have made the show an instant cult favorite.
Most provocative of the current animation projects, however, is MTV’s “Liquid Television,” a half hour animated variety series combining “underground animation, over-the-edge graphics, and stories from beyond the fringe.” Colossal Pictures (the original MTV animation supplier, now a large and diversified animation/live action producer) shopped a proposal for an animated magazine first to HA! and then to MTV. With changes, “it was perfect for us,” says Terkuhle. “sort of a melting pot of different animators showcasing what we were doing in short forms and IDs in a half-hour show.”
Now in its second season, “Liquid Television.” with both self-contained and serialized segments, pushes the edge in animation looks, content, and format. Techniques are dazzlingly eclectic, ranging from traditional cel, 3-D puppets, and clay, to computer paintbox. Fifty-seven different segments composed the first “Liquid TV” shows, with nine Colossal Pictures directors creating segments and 13 other directors providing more. According to the trade journal R.E.R, “All of these pieces had to be woven into a continuous tapestry of animation and sound by Colossal/Music Amex Audio Post-Production,” which is based in San Francisco.
The programming is varied; there are the violent “Dangerous Puppets,” who beats the Stuffing out of one another: and “Aeon flux,” an action/intrigue, slick-looking cel animation serial, described as “non-stop death” by Advertising Age. “Stick Figure Theatre” presents reductions of scenes from famous movies, plays, newsreels, and music videos, performed by a forgotten troop of line drawings from “the other side of the inkwell.” “Invisible Hand’s” is a multi-plane animation by underground comix artist Richard Sala. “Art School Girls of Doom” uses live-action against collaged backgrounds. Clay animator David Daniels’s “Buzz Box” uses the so-called “stratocut” technique, which involves slicing through a lump of clay that has sequential images inside of it. “Ms. Lydia’s Makeover,” by director/writer Gordon Clark, employs Macintosh Photo Shop and Quantel Paintbox to present “Eastern European expert” Ms. Lydia, who weekly enhances the physical features of well-known celebrities with a “beauty computer,” and whose personal credo is “the better you look, the more you see.”
“We’re more into animation than special effects,” Payson told Advertising Age recently. “We’re more interested in animation per se—that direct line to the unconscious. We think simple, which is something I always strive for. Effects for effects sake are not what we’re looking for.”
“Liquid Television’ is the greatest,” comments Alan Goodman. “Payson is brilliant,” says Fred Seibert, “and we could never produce what Abby [Terkuhle] produces. ‘Liquid’ is never going to get big ratings on MTV because for the general audience it’s just a little too out there. But it’ll do well enough, and it maintains the image MTV has to have. Even if they don’l watch it, they have to know its there, they have to know MTV is pushing the boundaries.”
John Payson concurs: “One of ihe things we’ve had to overcome in ibis country it the perception thai animation is for kids, light and fluffy .mil Saturday morning. I like to think MTV is helping to overcome that misconception. We’re able to show the potential lor this kind of storytelling. We’re a small part of a renaissance, something really exciting in the industry-at-large.”