I AM THE EGBERT.
A new animated series of short films written and directed by Sean Ono Lennon premieres on Spotify Canvas for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - The Ultimate Mixes.
Sean Ono Lennon, in collaboration with ‘I Met The Walrus‘ filmmakers Jerry Levitan, James Braithwaite and Josh Raskin, have created a series of short animations, ‘I Am The Egbert‘ to visually accompany the eleven album tracks and three singles of the Enhanced Spotify release of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – The Ultimate Mixes.
The short looping films play fullscreen on your phone on a new ‘Canvas’ that flips up from the bottom of the Spotify Phone App‘s screen, when clicking on the track information at the bottom of the screen.
Instead of just creating disparate digital wallpapers for each track, Sean felt that within the music and lyrics of the album lay an opportunity to tell a short yet meaningful biographical life story. And to do so, he reached out to an animation team whose work he greatly admired…
Jerry Levitan met John Lennon & Yoko Ono at the tender age of fourteen, when, armed only with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Super 8 camera, he snuck into their room at the King Edward Sheraton Hotel in Toronto on 26 May 1969 and persuaded them to do an interview just before they left for their famous Bed-In For Peace in Montreal.
In forty minutes, they ran the gamut, with John & Yoko talking candidly about war, politics, life and music.
Nearly forty years later in 2007, Jerry teamed up with illustrator James Braithwaite and director/animator Josh Raskin to create a short animated film using a segment of that interview that was so brimming with truth, ideas and originality that ‘I Met The Walrus‘ won (amongst many other awards) an Emmy, an AFI Best Animated Short and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Sean Ono Lennon has always been a big fan of the film, but had never met the makers until February 2021 – and after they met, the combination of Sean, Jerry, James and Josh soon proved to be electric. After a series of enthusiastic and creative Zoom calls and email exchanges, it wasn’t long before Egbert was conceived and his narrative began to unfold.
Sean told Animation World Network: “When you’re working on a project with a subject like my dad, it’s hard, because so much of the footage, and the photos, has been seen so much, and so much has been told about him, animation is a really good solution for creating visual content that’s fresh.”
With regards to the animation style, he adds, “On the one hand, you might have an instinct to just try to copy a psychedelic style, for example, so that you’re doing a tribute to John Lennon. Or you might try something completely original, with your own style, and sort of reject anything you’ve seen before. But I feel like what they [Jerry, James and Josh] did was much more nuanced and interesting. They drew within the vocabulary of what you understand to be something that made sense for my dad, the Beatles, and that whole period of time, without being derivative. I thought that was really interesting. There were references to things in my dad’s career, but none of it was copied. It was beautifully done.”
I AM THE EGBERT.
JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND
The story of Egbert’s life plays out on the canvasses in the following order, with descriptions from Sean:
Egbert is born into a world that is not so much cruel but rather indifferent to his existence.
Egbert finds respite from reality in the bosom of a blossom.
|I Found Out|
Egbert finds further alienation from his interactions with the other boys at school.
|Working Class Hero|
The adults in Egbert’s life seem to want him to be something or someone he is not.
Egbert feels utterly alone.
Loneliness leads Egbert to creativity.
Creativity leads Egbert to meet the girl.
|Well Well Well|
The girl leads Egbert to become a man.
|Look At Me|
Little Egbert Jr. is born.
As Egbert and his wife grow old together, they realize that everything they need they have in each other.
|My Mummy’s Dead|
Egbert remembers his mother. Now that he himself is a parent, he regrets having judged her so harshly.
I AM THE EGBERT.
|Give Peace A Chance|
Former adversaries resolve their differences and come together in dance and song.
Despite finding love, Egbert remains troubled by events in his childhood that cause him to act irrationally at times. Here he can be seen trying to escape these behaviours unsuccessfully.
We are all of us, Egbert included, just a blink in the eye of Brahma.
Jerry Levitan picks up the story:
In February of this year, amidst the political turmoil strangling the world and the hardship and worry of the pandemic, Sean Lennon reached out to me. It was surreal. He told me he loved my animated short film I Met The Walrus that utilized a segment of my taped conversation with his Dad, and wanted to explore collaborating with him and assembling the same team to create animated visuals to not only be a companion to the Plastic Ono Band re issue, but a bold, respectful and unique stand alone adaptation of his Dad’s masterpiece.
What was amazing and so touching to me, is that he began his conversations by wanting to know more about me, who I was and what my life was like. He was just like his Dad in that way. Generous, engaging, curious and so kind. He was fiercely creative, quick and witty like his Dad but had a studied intelligence and valiant artistry all his own. And that was what it was like getting to know Sean and working with him.
James Braithwaite the brilliant illustrator and Josh Raskin the wonderful director and animator of Walrus quickly came on board for the journey that Sean took us on to create an unprecedented and unique animated story to enhance the Plastic Ono Band album.
Sean was always thoughtful, pensive, reflective, open and meticulous about each idea, each depiction and the micro and macro meaning of the canvasses that were created for the songs. To have listened to the son of John Lennon express his thoughts about those songs, their meaning and how they should be respected and reflected is a gift of great magnitude. No life is easy and the good moments need to be cherished. As a young teenager my hero transformed my life and more than 50 years later, by sharing the experience of listing to the Plastic Ono Band songs and participating in the creation of these remarkable canvasses, Sean made it happen again.
Illustrator James Braithwaite (left) and Director of Animation Josh Raskin (right).
Q&A WITH JAMES BRAITHWAITE & JOSH RASKIN
Q: How did you all approach creating these Canvases?
Josh: They asked if we could make something in the spirit of our short film, I Met The Walrus. Since the album is so raw and stripped down, I thought it would be cool if we took a similar approach with the animation, like stripped down loops from I Met The Walrus the way we would’ve made them in 1970 when the album came out. Lo-fi 8mm tabletop stuff just felt right. The next step was walking in circles, listening to the songs a thousand times, trying to come up with ideas and then bouncing them off James to turn into terrifying ink wizardry.
James: I always start off by just drawing and drawing and drawing. I then photograph everything and throw it one awful lump at Josh. From there we try to distill the drawings that represent the feeling of the project the best. For this, it was a thrown away ink sketch I had done of a flower. There was something in the filthy little sketch that just encapsulated the rawness, and beauty of this record. From there we build out the whole film, but that little flower remains the visual touchstone.
Q: What was it like working with Sean? What kind of direction did you receive?
Josh: Sean is amazing. I started by pitching him a bunch of ideas that were basically Walrus-ish loops for each song that we thought were pretty cool. Then he went for a quick bathroom break and literally came back with an entire story arc for the album. It was perfect. So we rewrote all the ideas to fit that story and it’s honestly way better. Sean’s also the sweetest dude of all time. And he has really good Werner Herzog stories.
James: Working with Sean was an absolute thrill. Right from the first meeting, we were frantically tossing references at each other, and it was clear that we were on the same page. He pushed us at the right moments, and really helped us find the essence of what makes these stories emotionally powerful.
Q: Can you describe the process of how the project came together – what each person in the team contributed, and what your strengths are in collaboration with one another?
Josh: Jerry connected us to Sean and really made the whole thing happen. Sean came up with the big picture direction and then I would come up with individual scenes and direct the process of making them into animations with James’ artwork. James is an insane genius so anything you throw at him comes out way better than you could have possibly imagined. He has a spontaneous chaos to the way he works, so my role is usually to throw ideas at him and then follow him around with a jar trying to catch the best bits as they fly off him. His rough sketches are the best things I’ve ever seen. When we work together I spend most of the time trying to convince him to throw out the refined versions of things and go back to the quick, dirty ones. I think the style of this stuff really needed to feel super raw, so my job was mostly convincing him to make his drawings worse.
James: Jerry and Simon Hilton (Producer for Lenono) are the whole reason this project got made. They put us all together, and guided us along our merry way. The project started with long, wonderful chats with Sean, where we would get the narrative just right. Then we would take his notes and direction, and we would lock ourselves away in the animation caves.
Josh and I have been friends and collaborators since the tenth grade. Our collaborations have always been hilarious and wonderful. Josh comes up with the brilliant ideas, I run away and draw them, and then he tells me he likes the original sketch better. Rinse and repeat until the film is finished!
Q: What are the challenges and/or advantages of creating these types of micro animations?
Josh: I feel like the advantage is they’re short, so there’s no room for bullshit. There’s just one idea and you go as hard as possible on that one thing for eight seconds. I usually try to distill things down to the nugget of what it’s trying to say and build up from there, and this format just kinda forces that process without giving you the chance to water it down again. I guess the challenge is that anything with a progression needs to happen super fast. So it works best with stuff that just goes forever or wiggles a bit.
James: With such a short animation loop (8 seconds) it’s a challenge to tell a short story that emotionally connects with the song, is weird and fun, and yet still loops perfectly. Each one was a complicated little puzzle we had to work at until the perfect balance was found. But once that balance is found, I think this micro format can be extremely powerful. Like a little visual poem that you can read extra meaning into as you repeatedly watch.
Q: What do you think makes the narrative work so well?
Josh: The album really does have a natural arc to it that’s super simple and relatable. That was Sean’s revelation. It’s about birth, growing up, loneliness, love, death, moms… pretty much the things we all go through. So basing the story around a character going through that stuff just made sense. It works because it’s stuff we all understand. Everyone dies and everyone has a mom.
James: When Sean discovered the hero’s journey hidden within this record, it completely blew my mind. It’s one of those things that’s hard to see at first, but once you see it, it’s impossible to ignore.
Q: Out of all of the canvasses/scenes, which three are your favourite animations and why?
Josh: I like ‘Cold Turkey’ because it’s iconic but leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s actually based on the first thing we made as an animation test before pitching the project. We were trying to do a cycle of John walking and James hated the head that he drew so he scribbled over it, and it was perfect. Well Well Well is great for its simple idea and weird sexiness. And I have a soft spot for Love. It’s just so simple. It’s also one of the best songs ever made.
James: I like ‘Isolation’ best for the emotional connection, but ‘Remember’ has an exciting, frantic energy that really blows my skirt up. ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ just leaves me in a puddle.
Q: What do you find most profound/moving from the music and lyrics of this album?
Josh: I can’t really listen to ‘Mother’, ‘Love’, or ‘Look At Me’ without losing my shit a bit in the best possible way. “Mother, you had me, but I never had you,” is a pretty insane way to kick off an album. It’s got everything in it. It’s clever and a bit cheeky, but also makes you want to cry forever.
James: The line from ‘Isolation’, “People say we’ve got it made / Don’t they know we’re so afraid,” went through me like a sharpened knitting needle. Making a project like this is so special, and not getting to have a celebratory drink with your collaborators is pretty gutting.
Q: What were your inspirations in creating the visuals for I Met The Walrus? How would you compare the two?
Josh: I basically grew up on a steady diet of The Beatles and Terry Gilliam. James and I met in high school and he became my best friend and favourite artist pretty much immediately. His art always reminded me of John’s drawings but taken in a whole other direction with his own dark, hilarious magic, so when Jerry approached me to make the film, James was the only pen wizard for the job. Alex Kurina, who I met in university, is the genius designer who made all the photo collage computer bits and was the other only wizard for the job.
For this project, the idea was really to make animated loops in a similar style but with all the fanciness stripped out, the way we would have made them in 1970. Less computers, more moms.
James: I think there is a lovely overlap with my artwork and the drawings of John Lennon. Both John and I have a scrabbly energy to our drawings, and I wanted that feeling to come through in these animations. Neither of us are what you would consider polished artists, and I think the magic lies in the scribbles, the ink blots, and the perfect accidents.