Why Surreal Animation Is More Appealing Than Ever
Taylor Johnson, the Adult Swim designer behind Earl Sweatshirt’s “Off Top,” explains his love of dark cartoons.
Of all the animation that poured out of American film studios in the 1970s and ’80s, most cherished among cult cartoon fans is the work of Ralph Bakshi, whose woozy, drunken handstyle conjured up loose, vulgar characters that did drugs, had sex, and engaged with the politics of the day. A young Taylor Johnson took to Bakshi’s films—Heavy Traffic, Wizards, American Pop—as a San Diego high-schooler. Today, he’s a core visual designer at Adult Swim, the edgy prime-time block that’s carried Bakshi’s subversive influence to the mainstream. This year, Johnson dipped his pen into animation to produce “Off Top,” Earl Sweatshirt’s beautifully surreal music video that scans as Schoolhouse Rock meets a Hate comic, a video that felt special for its return-to-form aesthetic and political bent. Between upcoming treatments for bands he loves but can’t yet name, Johnson explained why cartoons matter and why they’re at their brightest when they’re dark.
TAYLOR JOHNSON: I have to wear many hats at Adult Swim, working on everything from the show campaigns to making packages [the logos that air between commercial breaks]. I’ve always been interested in art, as long as I can remember. My parents put me into art classes in, like, garages—whatever they could get their hands on. My mom paints in her free time, so I’ve always kind of been drawn to it. My friend Isaiah Toothtaker asked me to do a video for him, so I took a stab at it. Earl Sweatshirt saw that video, hit up Isaiah, and we got connected. We wanted to do this Ralph Bakshi homage video. That’s how I got my feet in the door.
For “Off Top,” I just drew a bunch of Earls for a week. I really pushed it, like, “I really want this to look as close to [Bakshi’s] era as possible.” That’s my favorite kind of animation in general—the ’70s and ’80s stuff. It just looks real great and authentic to me. I start off with hand-drawn sketches, then I’ll do frame-by-frame animation, so [the frames] wouldn’t be perfect, and you could see the mistakes in it. When I sent the reference frames to Alex Barrella, who was helping me animate, he kept the wonky lines. I’ve always liked loose art, like readymade sculptures or mistake pieces. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s fun to do it that way—it’s a little more loose and free.
The same kind of stuff that Ralph Bakshi was talking about in his films in that era is definitely relevant with what’s going on now—that feeling of frustration. Obviously, everybody is frustrated with reading the news. Me and Earl talked a little bit about that when we were [planning the video]. Animation lends its hand to cultural commentary so easily. You can be very vague and specific at the same time. There is a line at the end [of “Off Top”]: I hope the sheriff keep away from me. That stood out to me. The idea of the video was already in my brain, and I was like, I can really push this. That police dog is my favorite part of the video, where it’s barking. I couldn’t film that myself, or get a slow motion camera in that amount of time to film a dog doing that, so it was all digging through a bunch of stock footage.
I feel like everyone who loved animation as a kid, we’re still drawn to that sort of stuff. You can write interesting stuff to animation, and it can be an adult show without it feeling childish. Whenever I saw something [animated] that was out of my age range as a kid, I was totally enthralled with it. I was like, “This is it, this is amazing.” It’s this taboo as a kid, seeing something that you’re familiar with that’s also kind of bad. As people get older, animation’s just gonna become more popular, smarter, and more well done.