Designs on MTV

Look beyond the girl-band gloss and MTV is revealed as one of the most powerful forces for animation and graphic design. We celebrate 25 years of extreme visual stimulation.

When the image of a moonman planting an MTV-adorned flag and a pop video featuring The Buggles heralded the arrival of MTV in August of 1981, it was not only the music and television industries that were irrevocably changed. Although often overlooked, MTV's impact on the world of design is near incalculable.

It's ironic that a television channel dedicated to the simple pleasures of music could be lambasted for its role in the dumbing down of Hollywood yet simultaneously heaped with endless praise for its role as a supporter, nurturer and creative force in the world of animation and design. But then MTV, both corporate success story and eye candy for a disaffected youth, has always been something of a contradiction.

Cutting-edge animation
Its curious role as patron and promoter of the arts originally sprang from a simple need to keep viewers stimulated. With an audience bombarded by an ever-changing roster of music videos, MTV's creatives had their work cut out providing something just as fast-moving, dynamic and 'rock 'n' roll' to fill the spaces in-between. The problems facing the channel's creatives back then were that the television animation industry had all but disappeared, and that there were few points of reference for programming featuring highly graphic forms of animation.

Inspiration came from three unlikely sources: children's cartoons, 1970s album covers and Sesame Street. Ex-MTV creative Buzz Potamkin has credited the Children's Television Workshop, home of Henson's show, with priming audiences to accept a fast-moving combination of live-action and animation. Although keen to create the moving equivalent of the album cover, the team at MTV had no idea about the animation industry or how to set up its own animation studio. Its strategy was simply to buy a copy of Millimeter magazine and cold-call everybody listed. Perpetual Motion Pictures was one of the first key studios to provide content, and soon the station was gaining a reputation amongst animators for its willingness to push the boundaries with a range of interstitials created by such talents as Steve Fiorilla and Ken Brown.

One of those animators taking notice was Henry Selick, now renowned for his work on James And The Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He eventually secured a contact at the company in the late 80s, and began creating a series of classic stop-motion idents that remain some of the network's best loved today.

Now, of course, MTV is a global phenomenon. Broadcast in 28 different languages on more than 50 channels in over 160 countries, it's a staple in almost half a billion households. Crucially it's also a global corporation, with a graphical output that's anything but homogenous. Instead, MTV has championed local trends and cultures by tailoring content for each individual territory, with each division commissioning local talent in a way that a centralised American television channel never would or could.

That MTV has changed the way animation and design is utilised elsewhere on TV is indisputable. It's all too easy to forget that short, sharp stings and interludes were unknown before 1981. As were mainstream shows featuring stop-motion, cut-andpaste and other wayward animation methods. Even the acceptance of highly stylised movie output from the likes of Tim Burton and Aardman Animations can in part be attributed to the groundwork laid by MTV. And, of course, MTV's own animated shows, including Beavis and Butthead and Aeon Flux have pushed more acceptable animation styles into edgier areas.

Just as significant is the more conscious influence MTV has exerted, not least in the way that it has actively solicited content from independent animators rather than the bigger studios. Even now a glance at the line-up of a typical animation festival - last year's Pictoplasma event - reveals around 10 per cent of submissions to have been sponsored by MTV.

It's also shown itself to be remarkably open to outside ideas. Rather than handing out tightly defined briefs, it tends to commission artists for the very purpose of encouraging them to do their own thing. The station benefits by getting more original, edgy content, and the artists commissioned benefit by effectively receiving funding to create their own showpiece, one that's then repeatedly broadcast to an audience in the millions. From the Brothers Quay to Psyop, Jan Svankmajer to Nima Nourizadeh, and Airside to Rocketship, MTV has consistently sought out and backed the brightest talents.

MTV has also fostered talent through the time-honoured practice of event sponsorship, stumping up money for a diverse range of projects - from a Paris exhibition by artist Len Lye through to the Tribeca Film Festival Student Visionary Award. It's a strategy that has clearly got the MTV name out there.

Experimental music videos
And then there are the music videos. The channel may not have had any control of the content of the promos, but from the off it has given innovative, daring, and downright strange offerings on heavy rotation, long since pushing the music video form away from live performance, and latterly into a new era where art school collages and graphic design motifs are as popular as slick CG and Hollywood-esque direction.

From the early days of Godley & Creme and Janks & Morton, on through an era of David Fincher and Anton Corbin, and then to Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romanek, Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, MTV has provided the ultimate playground for visual experimentation, giving these and many other directors and art designers invaluable experience and exposure. Even now the likes of Shynola, Jamie Hewlett and Pete Candeland, Airside, Jonas Odell, Johan Renck and Jonas Ackerlund continue to push the medium forward, while in turn inspiring new filmmakers, animators and designers. Music video didn't kill the radio star. Instead it gave birth to a new era of design-conscious television. And no amount of Girls Aloud can ever change that.