While some musicians have reinvented themselves as cartoon characters – Michael Jackson and the Beatles included – it took the launch of Gorillaz in 1999 to challenge expectations of what an animated band could accomplish.
Through a wealth of printed and onscreen presentations, Jamie Hewlett, cult comic artist and co-creator of Gorillaz, produced a fiction-as-fact illusion of the band. His detailed storyboards and character profiles have brought to near-life the group’s four members – Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle – and made the virtual group Gorillaz a real entity in the international music industry.
On leaving Northbrook College, West Sussex in the late 1980s, Hewlett developed the anti-heroine comic character Tankgirl for the music and culture magazine Deadline. The popular strip quickly became the focal point of the magazine introducing Hewlett to other creative projects, including more mainstream comics, advertising campaigns and record sleeve design. The extraordinary Gorillaz project grew out of a shared interest – and apartment – with Blur’s lead singer Damon Albarn. The debut self-titled album sold an impressive six million copies worldwide, making Gorillaz the most successful album ever by a virtual group.
For the 2005 launch of the second studio album, Demon Days, Hewlett took the visualisation and personification of the band to a new level. Working with long-time collaborators Passion Pictures, the group’s ‘live’ performances were upgraded from 2D projections to complex quasi-holographic performances in which the band were fully rendered onstage in 3D for the MTV European Music Awards and the Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards. Jamie Hewlett works from his design company Zombie Flesh Eaters, based in West London.
Q. How long have you been a professional artist?
A. Professional? I still don't class myself as 'professional'. I only learnt to do Photoshop about a year-and-a-half-ago. Tim Watkins (a Zombie Flesh Eater) actually showed me Photoshop. I used to get him to sit with me and help - I was at this point where I thought, I can't learn this. There are too many 'things', too many buttons. And then he showed me the basics and now I love it. But it just takes me a while. I like drawing on bits of paper, having a physical drawing in front of me. So 'professional' I wouldn't say but I am an artist definitely.
When I started on comics I lived in a little flat. I used to live in Worthing, near Brighton, on the seafront, which is not a very expensive place to live. Comic books don't pay very much money at all. In my opinion, one page of comic is a work of art. Eight panels of drawings that can be quite wonderful - depending on who's drawn them - and you'd get ￡150 for that, which is not really very much.
So, comic artists have to generate ten pages a week in order to live a decent life. That's when I was working from 11am to 12pm smoking lots, listening to music and just churning it out. And that's why I stopped doing it.
Q. Tank girl was a massive success. Would you go back to comics?
A. Maybe. I would like to write and draw my own comic but I don't think I could work in the comic industry again; I'm out of the loop with that scene. There are far too many very talented comic artists who still have the energy to sit and draw ten pages of comic art every week. I've been on that conveyer belt and I don't want to do it again.
Q. What or who inspires you?
A. Jack Davis, Ronald Searle, Liberatore, Moebius, Tony Hart.
I stopped reading comics a long time ago, because I am the sort of person who, if I see something I really like, I'll probably copy it. Both my kids are really good at drawing and they've got a weird sense of humour so the things they draw are really odd. I have copied some of their drawings. So I have actually ripped my kids off.
I like the way when you're young your control of a pen is so rubbish and yet you can get these great shapes out of things.
Q. What would appear on your CV if you had a CV?
A. I've never had a CV. Aren't CV's by nature very hard things to write? I think I've been very lucky because I've always been able to do my own thing. There have been times where I worked for other people, times when I did a lot of advertising work, which I hated. I'd get the job because of my name and be told 'yeah, we love your shit'. And then they'd give me the brief and I'd do it and they'd change it.
As soon as I get told what to do, I can't do it. But I've always been able to do what I want. Doing comics for years, I did all my own character and we wrote all our own comic strips and we were never told what to do. So that's how I started and that's how I shall continue.
Q. Is working on Gorillaz becoming a chore?
A. No, not a chore. I’ve never done anything where I've had to generate so many ideas everyday. When we started doing this with Damon, we said everything had to be checked by us, which meant we had to okay everything. That’s a good thing because it meant we were able to control everything that happens to the Gorillaz but it's also a bit of a curse because dozens of things a day have to be checked.
I just want to get on with what I do, which is draw pictures. You know, I come into work in the morning and I want to sit down, put my earphones on and draw pictures, like I used to do and do that all day. But every five minutes there is an interruption and it takes me an hour to get back to where I was. So that's a bit annoying just because what I like is drawing. That's the fun bit for me. At the same time it's good because it's been an exercise in having to come up with so many ideas all the time.
Q. Do you do all the Gorillaz artwork?
A. Most of it. On the website, for instance, there's a lot of artwork which both Tim and I generate - building games or building rooms. But the characters, images for the videos, single covers, they're all my stuff.
Particularly when it comes to the videos and performances a lot more people are needed to generate the animation. I come up with the ideas for the videos and storyboard them very clearly and then we cut the storyboard to the song so that the animation team know where every single cut is, and they can get a total idea of the vision for the video. Then I supply lots of 'key drawings' for each scene, so a drawing for every ten animation stills.
Pete Candeland is the animation director at Passion Pictures, they produce all the videos and performances. I'm very involved in the process though and oversee everything. It's a good team-up and a happy collaboration process. They're the same team who've worked on Gorillaz from the beginning.
Q. How has the Gorillaz project changed since the first album?
A. It's going better for me this time, I feel more in control. The first time round it worked, and we were pleased with it. But everyone said it was a gimmick. It wasn't, but I think it left a bit of a taste in our mouths.
We'd been working on it for nearly two years before the album was released (May 2005). Some of that time was spent just getting back into the headspace and preparing everything ahead of time. We needed to do that because they are only six of us at Zombie Flesh Eaters, and we're doing everything - press, the website, illustrations and advertising - from the studio.
Back when we started Gorillaz it was a fresh idea but it's better now because it's running more smoothly. Now it looks like what it’s supposed to look like.
The relationship with Passion Pictures is getting easier in the sense that we have exactly the same team involved - maybe a few more people, in fact, to make it easier. And they really know how to draw the characters now - they've got it.
Q. What's your working relationship with Damon like?
A. Damon has an opinion about what I do, of course. And if I don't like a song I'll tell him - then he'll probably tell me to..!
Q. How have advances in technology affected you?
A. Technology has really helped. If a band is successful there are so many things to do and now we're equipped to do most of it here, in house. We have Maya, After Effects, you can do things in Flash animation and we have our own animators. If we need to do a five-second ident for MTV for instance, we can do it in the studio.
Q. What's you favourite thing to draw?
A. Eggs, bananas, half eaten apples and bow ties.
1985 While at Northbrook College, West Sussex, Hewlett creates Atomtan fanzine featuring Tankgirl character with Alan Martin.
1989 Hewlett and Martin are invited to expand Tankgirl in Deadline magazine. Tankgirl becomes a UK style icon and is recognized internationally.
1990 Works on strips for British Sci-Fi comic 2000 AD, including the eight part series Hewligan’s Haircut, scripted by Spike Milligan.
1992 Designs record sleeves for bands including the Senseless Things.
1995 Tank Girl film is released by MGM Sets up vintage clothes shop and designs interiors for the Factory nightclub in Worthing.
1996 Hewlett works on advertising campaigns and interior sets for children’s TV series SM:TV.
1999 Shares flat with Damon Albarn of Blur and initiates the Gorillaz project.
2001 Gorillaz’ self-titled debut album released to critical and public acclaim. Hewlett establishes his graphic design/animation company, Zombie Flesh Eaters; the band win Best Dance Act and Best Song for Clint Eastwood at MTV Europe Awards.
2002 Landmark animated performance at BRITS; Gorillaz Phase One: Celebrity Take Down DVD released; gorillaz.com wins yahoo.com website of the year.
2005 Demon Days, Gorillaz’ second album is released; Gorillaz: Demon Days Live at Manchester Opera House; Gorillaz win Best Group at MTV European Music Awards and unveil groundbreaking 3D animated performance with live appearance from De La Soul; the Jim Henson Awards give Gorillaz the Creativity Award for 'a new creative voice or unique expression of an idea'; Gorillaz nominated for five Grammys and two Brits.
2006 Gorillaz win Grammy - Best Pop Collaboration for Feel Good Inc with De La Soul, reprise 3D animated performance at Grammy ceremony with De La Soul and Madonna; Gorillaz perform Dirty Harry at Brits with Pharcyde's Bootie Brown and a choir of 130 children; sales of Demon Days hit 5million worldwide; awarded Designer of the Year 2006.