“I had this huge callus,” says Fran Healy. “You can still see a dent in my finger where the pencil rested.”
The Travis frontman is proudly showing us the battle scars he sustained on his latest project – hand-drawing and animating a music video from scratch.
It was an “act of desperation”, he admits, after the coronavirus lockdown meant the band could no longer film a video for their new single, A Ghost.
After some back-of-the-envelope calculations, he figured out he could draw 10 seconds of footage every 16 hours and produce a full video in 30 days.
In the end, he produced 2,500 drawings on his iPad by tracing over footage he’d filmed at home or sourced on the internet – a technique known as rotoscoping, which pop fans will recognise from A-ha’s Take On Me video.
Unlike that clip, Travis’s video isn’t interrupted by thugs wielding clawhammers. Instead, it’s a whimsical fantasy in which Healy tours an abandoned city with a troupe of friendly ghosts.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” admits the singer, “and I didn’t know if it was going to turn out good, bad, or whatever.
“But making it was almost like a self-preservation during the quarantine, because when you’re not doing anything else, you’re watching the news and you’re reading Twitter and that was stressing me out massively.”
The finished video premiered last week, and Healy has shared with the BBC some of the sketches, storyboards and concept art that resulted in his first ever animated short.
A ghostly concept
Recorded at London’s RAK studios in February, A Ghost addresses Healy’s decision to return to music full-time after 14 years raising his son, Clay.
“Travis has always been around, but my main job has been being a dad – specifically the dad I never had,” says the singer, whose parents divorced when he was young.
In the song, Healy is confronted by the ghost of his future self, who sings: “It’s easier to be alive than hide under your pillow while your life is passing you by”. The image immediately suggested an idea for the video.
“I started doodling on my iPad while we were recording,” says Healy, “And I thought, ‘What kind of ghost would I like to have in a video?’
“I’d seen the classic sheet ghost they used in the Casey Affleck film A Ghost Story and it really looked spooky – so I got some pictures from that, and I cut out a picture of me jumping with my guitar, and I made a collage.
“The rest of the video was back-engineered from there. I asked myself, ‘How do I get to that point, where I’m in an alleyway, playing with a band of ghosts?'”
Back to the drawing board
At this stage, Healy was still planning to film the video on location with the rest of the band.
The initial treatment saw him singing into a bathroom mirror, where his reflection was a ghost; while another sequence was based on the famous shot from Raising Arizona, where the camera zooms out of a car, up a ladder, through a window and into the screaming mouth of a parent.
“Then, when I started drawing I realised, ‘this is going to take ages,'” laughs Healy. “So I just had to make it up as I went along.”
It doesn’t sound like an approach that Pixar would endorse, but Healy thrived on this semi-improvisational style.
“Animation is a glacial process,” he explains. “All you’re doing is drawing 80 pictures that pretty much look exactly the same, so there’s a lot of time to think – and if I had a good idea, I’d stop what I was doing and draw a little storyboard to come back to later.”
Painting the sunset
This shot, which appears at the end of the first chorus, encapsulates the song’s core message, as Fran and his ghost watch the sun set, and the video transitions to night-time.
“He’s talking to me and he’s saying, ‘Come on mate, you know, pull your finger out. You’ve got about 40 years left. So you can either sit in your house and not do anything, or you can pull your finger out and go for it again.'”
The second verse sees Healy sitting at the bar from Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks (cheekily renamed “Frannies”) as he reflects on life’s most pivotal moments – birth, death, love and marriage.
Each of them is illustrated by a “polaroid” snapshot which, as the storyboard notes “saves time and looks cool”.
“That sequence was empty for almost the entire video,” the singer admits, “so the quality of the drawing jumps up at that point, because, by the end, I’d gotten much better at drawing.”
Fun fact: The ghosts populating the snapshots were played by Healy’s son.
Beware The Crow
Aside from Healy, the only other character with a speaking role in the video is a black crow who provides backing vocals in the second verse.
It’s a nod to the raven that appears throughout Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life – one of Healy’s favourite films – and the drawing was based on “a plastic crow I bought in a DIY store” that’s been positioned in his recording studio since 2011 (it even cameos in an earlier Travis video, Another Guy).
Initially, it wasn’t supposed to speak, but Healy worried about leaving a static shot on screen for two full seconds, so he animated the beak.
“That’s why this is such a nice process: You have an idea, you draw for seven hours, and then you see it and it’s like, ‘Wow it’s exactly what I thought.'”
Capturing the stunt car
Spooked by his visions of the future, Healy jumps into a car and speeds into the night, making a transformative journey through New York’s Second Street Tunnel (another filmic reference – this time to Blade Runner).
To get the speed and movement right, “I rotoscoped some footage of a 1970s commercial for my actual car – which is a Mercedes 300D – and I copied it frame for frame,” Healy says.
But the sequence also required a stunt, which called for some creative Googling.
“I needed a car jump, so I went on YouTube and I searched for ages until I thought, ‘Wait a minute,’ and I typed in ‘Dukes Of Hazzard car jumps’.
“And there’s this video that has about an hour and 15 minutes of stunts from Dukes Of Hazzard, so I went through every single car jump until I found the perfect one, about three-quarters of the way through.”
Everything suddenly gets real
For the final chorus, the video cuts to a real-life performance, with Healy accompanied by a band of (socially-distanced) spectres.
“This was a good moment because it saved me a week of drawing,” laughs the singer. But like much of the video, the sequence was a happy accident.
“Earlier on the process, I was drawing a scene where I was walking along next to a wall – and as I was tracing over the top of a real scene, there’s a moment where it flashes and it transitions to the live footage. And I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s really cool. Maybe I can shoot the idea that the whole idea started with, of me and the ghosts in an alleyway.”
The filming also brought the story of A Ghost to a touching conclusion.
Healy’s decision to “put the foot down” and re-commit to Travis was prompted by his son telling him, “Papa, I’m good – I know you haven’t been pushing as hard as you could but I really want you to do the band now”.
But instead of pushing them apart, making the video actually strengthened their bond.
Not only was Clay the stand-in ghost for most of the shots, but he filmed the live action sequence on his drone camera, which meant he could use the footage in a school video project.
“He handed it in and he got a good mark!” says Healy.
Whoever said you couldn’t combine being in a band with being an attentive dad?
A Ghost is out now. Travis’s new album, 10 Songs, will be released in October.
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