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Radiohead 'Burn the Witch' Animator on the Sleepless Nights Behind New Video

Courtesy Photo
A still from the video for "Burn the Witch" by Radiohead.

The opinions expressed in this article about "Burn the Witch" do not necessarily reflect those of the band, the video's director or any of the band's representatives. 

When Radiohead call to say they want you to animate their hush-hush new video, you don't ask a lot of questions. And when they say it would be lovely if you could complete it in what seems like an impossible timeframe, you just resign yourself to not sleeping for a few weeks.

That's the beautiful dilemma veteran Yorkshire, England, animator Virpi Kettu told Billboard she was in recently when director Chris Hopewell reached out to ask if she was up for re-teaming with him for another Radiohead project. "We had to rehearse [a lot] because there's a specific walk the puppets have and a specific kind jerkiness of the thing," Kettu said by way of explaining the jerky movements of the characters in the clip for the band's new single, "Burn the Witch."

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Kettu and Hopewell -- who also worked together on the 2013 video for Radiohead's "There There" -- basically got the entire band back together for the disturbingly cute stop-motion "Witch" clip, using the same camera person, editors and director of photography to create the four-minute mini-drama that unexpectedly dropped on Tuesday.

Kettu believes the "Witch" video was intended to be happier than the song and the album, which, from what she's heard, is very dark. "They wanted the video to contrast with what they're playing and to wake people up a bit." That might explain the somewhat cheery demeanor of masked characters who appear close to beheading and then hanging one of the women in town, and who then nearly burn a man alive inside of a giant wooden effigy.

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Based on Kettu's understanding of what the band was after, she opines they may have wanted "Witch" to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Europe and the "blaming of different people... the blaming of Muslims and the negativity" that could lead to sentiments such as "burn the witch." She alluded to the mysterious postcard some Radiohead fans received recently that read, "we know where you live," a suggestion, she thought, of the current insecurity and blame game spawned by anti-immigration politicians. 

Kettu -- who, along with another of the clip's animators, Oli Putland, is a veteran of Aardman Animations, creators of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep -- said Hopewell's "beautiful head of ideas" was the driving force behind visual cues in the video and the characters. He also drew on iconic imagery from the 1973 British cult classic horror movie The Wicker Man, which, like the video, includes characters in animals masks and the burning of an effigy.

 

When asked how long the shoot took, Kettu had to laugh, seemingly still shocked that the team was able to build the sets, shoot and edit the entire thing in 14 days. "That's physically impossible. I had not slept for two weeks," she said of the exhausting shoot that took place just a few weeks ago.

The entire team for the project was only a dozen people or so and Kettu still seemed a bit stunned that they managed to crank out up to 30 seconds of footage a day. "It does go slowly usually, we usually make about 12 seconds or less at studios like Aardman where I used to work on Wallace & Grommit, where we did about four seconds a day," she said, noting that handful of finished daily footage is typically achieved with a much bigger support team.

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"That was quite heavy lifting," she said, crediting the speedy work to two factors: "the power of pizza. [Also] I really love Radiohead and I really love animation, so you put those two together and I'd do anything. It was one of the most demanding things I've ever done in my life, physically and mentally. "

In keeping with the band's veil of secrecy, Kettu said she had "just little snippets of information" on how the clip would be rolled out, only learning that the finished product was in the world when she woke up to an inbox flooded with emails on Tuesday. 

As for whether there might be any future collaborations, Kettu was cagey. "I'm not sure if I can say." And, given what a huge fan she is, did she get to meet singer Thom Yorke and the rest of the band and get their reaction?

"I wish. I wish they came by," she said. "We sent them a few snippets back and forth and they always kind of loved it. Their pre-plan was quite clear and straightforward of what they wanted to say. Thom Yorke is very decisive when it comes to things like this."