How to stitch a music video

Tharsis Sleeps director Nicos Livesey tells us what it takes to sew your own music video – all 45 million stitches of it

Frames with ruler cu

Director Nicos Livesey sings and plays guitar in heavy metal band Throne, and is also a pretty dab hand at sewing. But when he decided to combine his two loves for Tharsis Sleeps, he had no idea what he was getting into.

Dubbed as the first frame-by-frame stitched music video, Tharsis Sleeps follows his band as they journey to Mars on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into a volcano, thereby making it habitable for human life. Don’t argue; it’s science.

Initially aired as part of Channel 4’s Random Acts strand and premiered here in its full-length incarnation, it’s simultaneously face-meltingly metal and charmingly lo-fi – all 45 million estimated stitches of it.

“I completely ruined any kind of social life,” Livesey says of the creation process. “I haven’t spoken to anyone in the past few months. This is the most ridiculously stupid idea.” You say 'stupid', we say ‘amazing’: here, Livesey takes us through the animating process he embarked on with co-creator Tom Bunker.

Get some heavy metal inspiration

The original inspiration was metal band patches. I was making band patches on a sewing machine that could embroider with one needle. I remembered from when I was seven or eight years old, I’d seen an embroidery machine at a boat show and that always stuck in my mind. It mesmerised me and looked crazy, how it could embroider anything. When I was doing the band patches, I realised it was totally animate-able – I could embroider it frame by frame and it would look mental.

Sort an appropriate score

The video is soundtracked by my band, Throne. I’ve always been around a lot of people who wear band patches on their jackets, so it seemed fitting. The whole idea of the song is about terraforming a planet, which is about making a planet habitable for humans to live on. There’s a lot of metal bands singing about space and leaving Earth; a lot of slow psych and stoner bands are based around travelling to Mars and stuff. 

Look to the future through the past 

We wanted to play with the fact that travelling through space is meant to look really high-tech, but we tried to merge really low-tech stuff in there like the computers they use. Based on old 50s NASA exhibitions. The satellite is based on the Mariner 9 mission. It’s all based on really old space travel, around this theory that is based on the future.

Bench overview

Don’t be afraid to go big

Originally it was going to be in black and white and only 90 seconds long, and it was going to be a completely abstract psychedelic visual piece. When I started looking for a more advanced machine, I spoke to Brother Machinery which lent us three fully industrial embroidery machines which can do up to ten colours. It was once they gave us those, I was like, ‘Well it would be silly not to utilise these incredible machines. Let’s get colour in there.’ Once we had the power to make so many so quickly – well, reasonably – we decided to make it a full video with a narrative and we just went for it. We basically got way too ambitious!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

We started our Kickstarter halfway through the animation. We’d animated half the film and were like, ‘Oh god. We need some help.’ Then we started printing and animating at the same time.  We’ve been working stupid hours in a studio with no windows, so we didn’t know when the sun would set or rise. Towards the end of the deadline for Channel 4, we’d be working from 8.30 in the morning to four in the morning.

Never give up

The easiest way to explain it is the embroidery machine is like a printer, and you’re printing out each animation frame. Which are about A5-sized. There were over three thousand frames. Production took about seven, nearly eight months. 

In the beginning, nothing was going right. I was like, ‘This is impossible.’ You’ve got to use this software to digitise the images into embroidery so the machinese can read the image, but you’d convert it to stitch format and parts of the image would disappear randomly. I couldn’t really give up though, I was too far into it! You just have to fight through.  

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