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‘A Call Towards A Different Way Of Existing’ Artist Em Cooper On Bringing The Beatles To Life Through Brushstrokes

Oil paint animator and director Em Cooper details how she made the Grammy-nominated visual for ‘I’m Only Sleeping.’

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The Beatles I'm Only Sleeping Painting
Painting by Em Cooper, Courtesy of Jelly UK

The musical legacy of The Beatles still towers over popular music, but what about their visual one? From the countercultural collage of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the surrealistic odyssey of Yellow Submarine, the band has influenced everything from film, animation, and graphic design. So when it came to creating a new visual to accompany the Revolver track, “I’m Only Sleeping,” the stakes were high.

“It was daunting,” shares Em Cooper, the British filmmaker and animator behind The Beatles’ music video for “I’m Only Sleeping,” which is up for Best Music Video at the 2024 Grammys.

“Their legacy is monumental, and they also have such a strong history of working with animation,” she adds.

Cooper has carved out space for herself in the art world with a distinctive hand-painted oil-paint animation style that caught the eye of Sophie Hilton at Universal Music Recordings and Jonathan Clyde from Apple Corps, who reached out with an intriguing offer.

“I immediately listened to the song, and childhood memories of ‘Revolver’ came flooding back. In the following 10 minutes, an almost complete vision of the whole film came to me as I listened again over and over. The paint just seemed to cascade and morph and re-shape itself in my mind to the song. The following morning, I painted an oil painting of John Lennon sleeping on a piece of scrap paper. That painting ended up forming the start of my pitch, and so it began.”

The result is a stunning and evocative visual that captures the space between dreaming and wakefulness. Cooper spent months hand-painting every frame, which resulted in over 1,600 oil paintings that now live in The Beatles’ archive.

The Beatles - I'm Only Sleeping

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Cooper worked closely with Beatles’ archivist, Adrian Winter, who helped source footage as a reference for her paintings, including footage from the famous Cavern Club to the band’s 1965 performance at Shea Stadium.

Outside of the sheer scope of painting that animation requires, the biggest challenge facing Cooper was capturing John Lennon as he turned over in bed, a pivotal shot that opened the video.

“I didn’t have any reference footage for that shot, so it took me, I think, five attempts at that shot. When you think that each second of that shot is eight oil paintings, that’s quite a lot when you do that five times over [laughs.]”

When asked if she intimately knows the details of John Lennon’s face now, she replies:

“I know his face very, very well indeed. There is a weird kind of sensation you get when you paint somebody’s face over and over again. You get to know them very well, and you feel this strange sort of intimacy with their face, and then you have to remind yourself, I don’t know this person at all.”

Looking at the natural fluidity of her paintings, it’s evident that Cooper understands movement in film. Before she started painting, she was on the path to becoming a live-action film director.

“It was only quite a lot later, when I was at the Royal College of Art, when I realized that there were many limitations in just using the film camera in terms of its tendency towards depicting the outward appearance of things. I then began to experiment with oil-painted animation as a way for me to get to a more truthful inner expression of life.”

Every song by The Beatles has been dissected and discussed and takes on a different meaning to fans, but Cooper was immediately attracted to the more philosophical nature of “I’m Only Sleeping.”

“I think the meaning of the song can be appreciated on many different levels, but I personally love its resistance towards “running everywhere at such a speed.” For me, the song is asking us to question the way the modern world commodifies our time, slicing up our hours and selling them for money. Making us think that doing things quicker is somehow better: more bang for your buck. But time is not a commodity – it is our experience of being alive. Allowing the mind free time to wander and float upstream is a call towards a completely different way of existing.

Em Cooper

Cooper in her studio – Courtesy of Jelly UK

While Cooper’s chosen medium requires a lot of physical and creative labor, she’s still beholden to deadlines at the end of the day.

“Working against the clock does make you keep the energy going,” she replies. “My paint strokes are a bit faster, and sometimes they’re a bit freer. It also helps me get rid of my perfectionism because if you start getting too precious about each frame, you’ve got to remember it’s only on-screen for one-eighth of a second [laughs].

Getting this ambitious visual over the line was very much a collaborative effort led by a producing team of Jonathan Clyde from Apple Corps, Sue Loughlin and Laura Thomas from Jelly production company, and Sophie Hilton, a Creative Studio Director at Universal Music Recordings, all of whom are up for a Grammy nomination for their involvement.

When asked about the importance of creating a new visual for a song that is almost 60 years old, Hilton had this to say:

“In our modern age, versus when the Beatles first arrived on the scene, we consume music as much with our eyes as we do with our ears.

Being given the honor to explore a visual accompaniment to a band as big as The Beatles means that a new generation, who will consume music and media through their phones – YouTube and TikTok – will discover songs and artists they may not otherwise be introduced to.

Visual accompaniments for these globally resonant, fabric-of-society artists are more important now than ever before, as is choosing an artist like Em, whose work fits the remit and caliber of an artist as revered as The Beatles.”

“‘I’m Only Sleeping’ feels timeless to me,” Cooper adds. “I think it is as relevant now as it was in 1966. The call towards rest, towards spontaneous creative drifting rather than continuous output and self-judgement, seems to me a resonant message. And perhaps more importantly, the song has an underlying message of peace.”

Buy or stream The Beatles Revolver: Special Edition.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Pamela R McGee

    December 23, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    Absolutely beautiful what she’s done!!!

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