ACHOF’s Mike Goldstein interviews artist Juan Betancourt about his impressive collection of original album cover art animations
By Mike Goldstein, Curator/Editor, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
All of us, from time to time, are inspired by great art and design. Whether it is while we’re attending an exhibition in a gallery or museum, visiting the home of a friend, strolling in a public garden or walking through a retail showroom, seeing something that stops us long enough to admire it is an event that occurs with striking regularity. Sometimes, we’ll see something that makes us think “I could do that” (either in a good way or in a “my kid could do that” way) and, if the response is strong enough, some of us will take photos, doodle in our sketchpads or enroll in a pottery class, hoping to use or enhance our existing skill sets in efforts to make great art ourselves.
Here in “AlbumCoverLand”, great talent has produced many, many examples of images that have ingrained themselves in our minds and memories, helping us recall both the music we most appreciate and, quite often, the circumstances we found ourselves in when we first heard it. Fans of this art have honored these images (and the designers and bands that produced it) by purchasing posters, t-shirts, fine art prints, bumper stickers and other such merchandise for their own collections, while smaller numbers have memorialized the designs by re-creating them on their basement/bedroom walls and tattooing them on to their limbs. Musical acts have borrowed memorable album images and modified them for use on their own records, with the resulting “homages” or “parodies” in many cases as memorable as the originals (think Zappa’s “Were Only In It For The Money” cover, a parody of “Sgt. Pepper’s” by The Beatles).
From time to time, album cover visuals have inspired other artists to re-imagine the main image in full motion, whether in brief animations or in longer-format movies. Back in 2006, there was a popular web video that a team of talented animators at a company called Ugly Pictures created titled “Album Cover Wars” which pitted many famous record covers against each other in a rather bloody battle, with Billy Joel (on the cover of 52nd Street) firing a machine-gun at Rick James (on the cover of Street Songs), with Eminem finally shooting James in the head, spilling blood on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp shoes (and that’s just the beginning). More recently, several individuals have worked to bring a number of our favorite covers to life either as “animated .gifs” or more fully-fleshed-out video creations. In early October, I located one animator – Juan Betancourt – who has received a lot of attention lately for his Tumblr site featuring an ever-growing collection of classic and up-to-the-minute animated covers and asked him to give us a look behind the scenes into his efforts to add new abstractions to already-familiar cover images…
Interview with Juan Betancourt, animator – “JBETCOM’s” Tumblr site – (interviewed early November, 2014)
Mike Goldstein, Curator/Editor, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Juan – thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions today. There was a LOT of buzz about your work on the Web, and I wasn’t quite sure exactly who I was writing to – or where – but, now that I’ve found you, I’m eager to learn more about you and your work, so let’s begin. First off, can you tell me how you choose the album covers you’re going to animate? Was there something about the album art visuals that stuck in your brain and motivated you to create animated versions?
Juan Betancourt, animator – At first, it was a mix of the covers of albums from bands that I listened to while growing up and of the popular or iconic album covers that I could remember. After a while, that changed to selecting covers that I thought could look good animated and, of course, the first place to look for those was the discography of the bands I was already aware of. Later on, I just spent time looking through covers from random bands that I wasn’t familiar with but who had covers that I felt were pretty suitable to animate. This part of my preparation was pretty great because I end up learning about new bands and new music but, in every case, I have to like the artwork, for sure, and had to be convinced that it could be turned into a GIF animation that I’d like.
Mike G – I took a look into your archives and noted the first 10 GIFs you started out with last October. Was one of those the first one you actually did – that is, was it the first cover you animated?
(Original animation by Juan Betancourt)
Juan B – My first animation was for Coldplay’s “Parachutes” – not for any particular reason – I don’t really listen to them, even though I like some of their songs. I don’t remember what I was doing but I stumbled over it on the web and decided to try and make the globe look like it’s spinning… There’s this GIF artist who is also on Tumblr – he calls himself ABVH and I still don’t know if those are the initials of his name or what – his work is just amazing. I started doing all of this stuff after I’d seen his work and was motivated to do something myself.
MG – Can you tell me what the inspirations were for your creative approach to animating the various album images you’ve produced? Did the artists’/bands’ music or performing styles provide you with some inspiration about how to develop the animations’ visual styles?
JB – The artwork has to tell me something, like, “if you move this that way and make this look like this, you’ll have something pretty amazing”. In some cases, the inspiration to create is given by the artwork itself, and I like to stay true to that initial influence. I don’t want to force an animation that wouldn’t make sense along with the rest of the scheme – it won’t look as organic as it possibly might.
Sometimes I get that inspiration from a cover at first sight, but other times I just stare at the artwork for a while, thinking for possible ways to bring it to life and, if I don’t think it can be a good one, I just look for another one. That is why I have declined some of the special requests that I get on my blog. I don’t think the style of music had much of impact on my decisions – may be you can find some sense in that, because I think some bands try to make sure that their style is transferred to their albums covers and so that’s already there when I get to it.
MG – O.K. then, let’s talk a bit about your process. When I recall my own art/animation training, my teacher wanted her students to think about a project in three phases – 1) what is my initial concept or inspiration?; 2) what I would like or need to do in order to create my art or, in my case, what my plan was to create the comic storyboards that’d direct how my film would look and, finally, what would I do in this project that would make it MINE – that is, how would I innovate, or would I follow a scheme that I’d used before? Do you follow a similar approach and, if so, can you tell me how you applied this process to this project? If you don’t work this way, would you please explain how you typically go from concept to finished project?
JB – Well, as I said earlier, first I look for covers that have artwork that I think would look good animated. When I’ve found something, I imagine how everything would move in my head and, for most complex covers – like when there’s a lot of things that should move or something I want to have a higher level of detail, I write it all down. I guess that storyboards would be better if the running times were longer, but since these are 2 or 3 second animations, I think storyboards would be more work than needed. Sometimes, I just enjoy starting out with nothing – I just start editing and see what it comes up of it, always staying true to the artwork.
MG – Can you tell me how long it takes you to develop and produce finished animations? Were any special processes, equipment or other aids used to produce the final versions of your work?
(Original animation by Juan Betancourt)
JB – It can take me from two days to maybe a week on and off working on it – it really depends of the details and complexity and if I’m in the mood to work on it (laughs). The process is really simple, I think. I first set everything up in Photoshop, then animate with After Effects and then go back to Photoshop to make a GIF out of it. I’m always looking for ways to bring what’s in my head into the animation, and if I don’t know how to do it from the start – for example, if I want something to be in flames but, but I’m not really sure how to do it – I’ll just Google a tutorial or a tip and try it out on what I’m working on. For some covers, I took clips from videos done by XO Blackwater* and incorporated them into the GIFs – that was the case with Daft Punk’s helmets and also on the wolf on Sonata Arctica’s “Pariah’s Child” (see above), among others.
MG – Were there any album animations you’ve completed that you would like to do again…perhaps do a second, somewhat different version?
(Original animation by Juan Betancourt)
JB – Yes! I think of that every now and then – doing a “remastered” version of a previously-posted cover. Dark Side of the Moon, the first one from Helloween (see above), Modern Is Rubbish from blur, Hammerfall’s No Sacrifice, No Victory and maybe some others come to mind…
MG – Are there any other genres of music you’d like to work on animations for? Country, jazz, classical, music from South American bands, etc.?
JB – Definitely, particularly now that I have already done a lot of the bands and genres I like, I am interested in discovering new covers and artwork suitable to this kind of animation, without discriminating any genre or origin of the music.
MG – Now, it’s time to move into the “what does Juan think about this?” portion of the interview, so let me ask you – what are your views regarding the future of graphic and visual design in the music industry as it moves on to the many new distribution platforms? Do you think that animated album art bring fans closer to the music?
JB – I think that with people buying fewer and fewer CDs every day and music moving onto digital platforms, there has to be a change in some way. I mean, at least for me, I don’t have the same feeling for a digital copy than I have for a physical copy of a CD I like, so giving buyers something more than a file to click on and play is a good idea, I think. I think that the album art animations are appreciated by fans – I have received many messages saying “now I want to listen to this album” after looking at one of the GIFs, so what’s better proof than that?
MG – What are your feelings about the quality of the album artwork and design you see these days? Are there any designers or musical acts that either/both influenced your work during your career and/or you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art matters anymore?
JB – Well, being honest and continuing on from my answer to the last question, by moving music on to digital platforms, I’m presently seeing less album artwork, but I can tell you what I think of the “regular types” of covers you’re seeing out there now, like the ones featuring just a picture of the artist on the front posing or doing nothing at all…I think they could do better and I’d really prefer to see albums with nicer artwork than what’s there now. I think that album art is always going to matter and will always be there in some way… for me, that’s the first thing you think about when you hear the name of an album and I think that it is always going to be like that.
MG – I’d like to ask you a question about the relationship between album art and Pop Culture. I think that, early on, album covers reflected the styles of the day. For example, many early “psychedelic” albums – like those for groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, etc. – had “psychedelic” cover images, while other bands of the era stuck with the more-traditional approaches to cover designs. Later on, punk albums usually had photos on their covers until Jamie Reid came up with the “do it yourself”/photocopy-style graphics for the Sex Pistols. So, my question is whether you think the album cover artists of the day simply tried to reflect what was popular at the time, or did the unique efforts of people like Sir Peter Blake and Jamie Reid actually help set the styles and trends in art and fashion when they were released?
JB – Yes, definitely, I’m not sure about art, but I believe that fashion has always been tied in some way to music, and when you get an album that powerful with an artwork that really makes an impact it definitely has an effect on fashion trends, styles, etc
MG – How do you think album cover art images help us document human history? Personally, I believe that iconic album cover art in many ways has had a noticeable effect on Pop culture, so I’d like to get your take on this is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
JB – Well, I think that for a cover to have a lasting impact, it first has to be popular enough to earn the title of “iconic”, and I haven’t seen examples of that happening recently – or, maybe, I just haven’t noticed any. In any case, I think that it is the music and, maybe, the popularity of the artist, that makes an album more memorable. I mean, no one remembers an album of crappy music that has a nice cover – we just don’t remember that album, period.
MG – So, here’s my last question for you today…since you’ve been posting your work online, are you seeing new opportunities for your talents?
JB – Yes, maybe, even though I don’t do this with the sole purpose of making money. The first post I did on the blog was on October 22, 2013, so the blog has been up for just over a year. Now that you bring it up, the whole thing went crazy, with all of this coverage around the web, exactly one year later, on October 23, 2014. Pretty weird, don’t you think?
Since then, I have been contacted by bands and other people willing to pay me to animate their albums covers. I haven’t closed any deals yet, but I’m definitely up for it. I have been thinking on animating other type of art or things, without dropping the album covers because I love it, and posting those on a different blog, but honestly I don’t know where I am going to get the time to do that, we’ll see.
About the artist, Juan Betancourt –
Juan was born thirty years ago in Caracas, Venezuela, where he went to school and high school and went on to college to study architecture, quitting after two years “because I was horrible at designing stuff”. Deciding to take “the easy road”, Juan enrolled in some accounting and business administration courses which led to his full-time employment as an administrator today. Two years ago, he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina and, whenever his schedule allows for it, “I go back to my not-so-good creative roots and throw a GIF or two”.
His first big concert experience was attending a festival headlined by Korn and Papa Roach, something he says he’s not very proud of now 😉 His musical tastes have matured greatly, with the last show he went to being Metallica, a concert he really enjoyed.
There are over 25 examples up on “JBETCOM’s” Tumblr, which you can reach via the link – http://jbetcom.tumblr.com/
As was noted, Juan has received a lot of coverage for his work – here’s a link to a recent article by Ben Smith on the VH-1 site – “CLASSIC HEAVY METAL ALBUM COVERS COME TO LIFE IN 10 EYE POPPING GIFS” (http://m.vh1.com/music/tuner/2014-11-14/eye-popping-heavy-metal-album-cover-gifs/)
* Juan would like to also share this credit – “Since this has been one of my more-popular animated covers, I’d like to give credit to the guys that made the Daft Punk helmets, as shown in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4vv4OBN0wU from XO Blackwater.”
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
Except as noted, all animations featured in this story are the work product of the artist – Juan Betancourt – Copyright 2014, all rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission. “Photoshop” and “After Effects” are trademarked products of Adobe Corp. – All rights reserved.