Interview: Johnny Kelly, Animator

by Joshua Goldfond

Johnny Kelly is an internationally-acclaimed Irish animator who has spent the last several years creating work for prominent brands like Bacardi, Google, BMW, and the International Olympic Committee. He studied graphic design at the Dublin Institute of Technology and later earned his MA in animation at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Art.

His graduation short film, Procrastination, displayed a wide array of techniques and styles, as well as a wry sense of wit. It earned a number of awards, including “Best Animation” at the 2008 NYC Shorts Festival. Kelly has since gone on to prolific career in commercial animation, winning awards and joining the “Nexus Productions” company. In early 2012, he appeared as a speaker at Dublin’s 2012 “Offset Festival”, which attracts noted artists and designers from all over the world.

In the United States, Kelly’s most-widely seen work to date  is the 2011 stop-motion commercial “Back to the Start”, commissioned by Chipotle Mexican Grill to emphasize the company’s stated commitment to organic farming. Set to a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, the two-minute piece tells the life’s story of a livestock farmer who turns to industrialized factory farming over the course of his career. Starting with the best of intentions, these tactics soon spiral out of his control and create a product that is abhorrent and poisonous. At the climax, the farmer makes the decision to revert back to the non-industrialized methods that began his career. Using cartoonish figurines and no of dialogue, Kelly’s meticulously detailed work demonstrates a truly impressive level emotional range and technical artistry.

“Back to the Start” has received widespread critical recognition since it first appeared on the internet, earned mention from Fast Company, Boingboing.net, The New York Times, and countless blogs. The short was recently aired in its entirety during the commercials of the March 2012 Grammy Awards.

 

 Your first short film, Procrastination, won a number of awards. How long did it take to create, and was the intention to demonstrate a wide range of styles? 

We had a year to make it (it was a graduation film at college) but i ended up making it in the final 5 months because i’d spent the first half of the year trying to making something else that was rubbish. Like the ninny I am. So it got to January and I dropped the previous project and started on this one. It was a little late in the day so I thought that instead of making one film, i would make a series of mini-films based around the theme of procrastination. It was nice and freeform – they were all individual so there wasn’t really any rules: they could be black and white or colour, 5 seconds long or 30 seconds long. Partly this came out of my frustration with animation – its such a process-heavy thing that sometimes it can be possible to forget to have fun with it. After I had made about ten or fifteen of these little films I stuck them together and ended up opting to make one frankensteinian film – and things progressed from there. In hindsight it looks like I was trying to make an animation showreel, but I promise that wasn’t the intention when i was making it…!

 


Your web bio indicates that you got your start in graphic design, and still work occasionally in this medium. Why did you decide to transition into animation, and who were some of your chief influences in the field?

I wasn’t a great graphic designer – for example I love typography but I am terrible at it, so instead I would end up trying to make illustrations for every poster or brochure I designed. I think a grounding in graphic design was incredibly useful for me though, and informs how I work now in a big way.

In terms of graphic design i was a fan of the usual suspects; Paul Rand, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Herb Lubalin, some London-based design studios like Graphic Thought Facility [ http://www.graphicthoughtfacility.com ], and Spin [ http://spin.co.uk ], and I still have a swelling collection of graphic design annuals from the 70s and 80s. I was also drawn to people with a design background that turned their hand to illustration, people like Milton Glaser [ http://www.miltonglaser.com ] and Geoff McFetridge [ http://championdontstop.com ]. As well as a trillion other influences.

What are some of the programs and tools that one needs to be proficient in, in order to work as a modern animation professional? Is it difficult to keep up with the changing technology, or is that simply a natural part of working in the industry?

By its nature animation is a technically-driven medium – whether you make stop motion films or computer generated 3D animation. The danger is that you can sometimes be tempted to let the technical side take over altogether. I try – not always successfully- to try and make sure the idea or story is the most important part in anything I work on.

In terms of changing technology sometimes it can be difficult to adapt for sure, but I am a software geek at my heart and love learning new software and ways of working. For 3D animation – an area I only have a little experience in – most people seem to use either Maya, 3D Studio Max or Cinema 4D. For 2D animation there are lots more programmes such as Flash, or After Effects.

I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about the Chipotle commercial that you recently worked on. Did you initially pitch the story concept, or did they come to you with an idea in mind?

It was a dream brief – very open. Chipotle approached us asking for an animated film about a farmer who resists so-called ‘factory farming’ techniques (after meeting them and some research we found out that this is a term used to describe complicated industrial practises like keeping livestock indoors and use of antibiotics and growth hormones – not dinnertime conversation). So the challenge was to try and make a film including lots of heavy topics without making people feel like they had been lectured to.

So we worked on a film proposal here at Nexus, and had the idea of making it one continuous shot that would tell the entire story in a sort of flow-chart / domino effect style. Also, we thought it would be more interesting if the farmer actually took up some of these industrial practises rather than resisting them – it makes him a more fallible character, a bit more human. Or at least as human as a 10cm puppet can be. Chipotle were nice to work for, very trusting throughout – this is a necessary trait with stop motion because there isn’t really any going back after you have shot the animation. Not all clients understand this…

 


From conception to execution, how long did the commercial take to create? What sort of budget did you have? What was the thinking behind the character/creature design and colour palate?

We had about a month and a half leading up to the shoot, the shoot then lasted another month, and then we had one last month of post production (i.e. taking all the wires, rigs and mistakes out of the stop motion footage). The visual side was finished but after that the music took a long time – about eight months in fact – and although we weren’t involved in that side of things, I was really pleased with the end result.

In terms of the design we were given free reign. The initial brief was to make the film out of paper, but I thought it could be nice to mix a sort of train-set background aesthetic with graphic-looking characters and buildings. The hope was that this would create a fresh sort of look for the film but really we had no idea how well those two styles would sit together – if at all – until we first day of the shoot when we put a character onto the set. I built up a set of colours that sort of worked together and applied these to the designs of the character and buildings. It was incredibly satisfying to design a pig in 2D, and a few weeks later be presented with a physical interpretation by model-makers Artem [ http://www.artem.com ].

Many of your projects, the Chipotle commercial included, have been produced using stop-motion animation. What appeals to you about that technique, and what other styles do you have at your disposal?

Good question – stop motion works for me for a variety of reasons. Firstly I love the problem-solving aspect of it – e.g. ‘how do we make something that looks like bubbling antibiotic fluids?’ (Answer: KY jelly with plastic balls floating in it). It can be quite a slow process, and for people coming from a film / live action background it can almost seem like directing in slow motion. For me however, this is a positive – with a model build and shoot there are so many discoveries and happy accidents that happen along the way. Also, on each of my projects, I’ve lucky enough to be able to collaborate with some amazing brains like Matthew Cooper, [ http://matthewcooperfilm.com ], Graham Staughton [ http://wearetheartdept.com ], Alasdair Brotherston [ http://www.alasdairandjock.com ], Joe James [ http://www.animatedjoe.com ], amongst many others.

It’s possible to create the effect of stop motion animation digitally but – to use a creaky music analogy – equally you could argue that its possible to create the sound of an acoustic guitar, grand piano or drums on computer too, but you wouldn’t always want to. For various reasons, I think (and hope) there will always be room for making things in this way.

Overall this kind of animation is a tiny part of what Nexus do. Mostly they make 3D animation, which is something I’d love to try properly myself sometime. I have done bits (there is some ropey 3D in ‘Procrastination’) but never had the opportunity to make any longer-form stuff with it.

Do you have any projects coming up that you would like to mention?

There are a few things on the boil including a stamp design a music video, hopefully they will all make it out soonish rather than laterish.

 

Samples of Johnny Kelly’s work can be found at http://www.nexusproductions.com/directors/johnny-kelly

A behind-the-scenes featurette of Chipoltle’s “Back to the Start” video can be seen here.