Nexus’ Johnny Kelly tells us what it took to win the big prize at Cannes.
It’s seven years since the animation wizards at Nexus Productions won the Film Grand Prix at Cannes Lions. Their Grrr commercial for Honda enchanted the judges, creating a colourful, childlike wonderland to advertise a diesel engine.
Since then, animation has suffered a low profile in the Film category. But this year the honour came back to animation and to Nexus for their Chipotle ad, Back To The Start. We caught up with the film’s director Johnny Kelly to find out how he created one of the most highly acclaimed films of the year.
Agency: CAA and Chipotle
Title: Back To The Start
Production Company: Nexus
Nexus Director: Johnny Kelly
Nexus Exec Producer: Cedric Gairard , Chris O’Reilly Charlotte Bavasso
Nexus Producer: Liz Chan
Nexus Production Managers: Claire Thompson, Alistair Pratten
Director of Photography: Matt Day
Camera Assistant: Max Halstead
Model Assistant: Joe James
Electrician: Aldo Camileri
Model Rigger: Gary Faulkner
Character Animator: Gary Cureton
Set Animator: Matthew Cooper
Compositors: Alasdair Brotherston, John Taylor
Production Designer: Graham Staughton
Art Department: Gordon Allen, Ben Côté, Joe Kirton
Studio Manager: Elizabeth Day
Models: Bob @ Artem
Music Supervision: David Leinhart at Duotone Audio
Music Producers: Justin Stanley and Doyle Bramhall
Content Manager: Liz Graves
Artist: Willie Nelson
Sound Design: Barnaby Templer @ Fonic
Congratulations on your big win. Have you recovered from Cannes yet?
Just about. It’s the first time I’ve ever been. It’s quite full on, isn’t it? It was really nice to meet people from all over the world. I had lots of interesting discussions. I think my perception of it had been one big party, but a lot of good does seem to come out of it.
How does winning at Cannes compare to other awards the film has won?
It’s amazing. It’s kind of interesting because we’ve been really fortunate to win, but almost all of the awards have been in the US. It’s such an American brand (I didn’t know Chipotle before I started the project) so we just presumed that we didn’t have a chance at Cannes.
I’m not a massive party person and when you have the award in your hand people flock to you. But it’s kind of a magnet. So the first thing I did was hand it over to someone from the ad agency – they’re much better equipped to be able to deal with people.
There are quite a lot of charming films out there with a similar aesthetic and atmosphere to yours. What made it stand out?
I think it’s exactly that. You start watching the film and you think: “this is a little bit like something I’ve seen before.” But then as it evolves, not only do you have Willie Nelson unexpectedly coming in, but you’ve also got the story, which you thought was going to be a happy little farmer story, [but] ends up getting progressively darker and darker until it’s quite frightening. And I think that catches people off guard when they watch it.
But also, having worked in advertising, usually you’re trying to dream up some message for a client to package it, whereas with this Chipotle job it wasn’t even about dressing up Chipotle as these saviours. It was purely about telling people about the hazards of industrial farms. They had a really strong message. We didn’t have to make anything up.
When you first got the brief, how did you feel about that message?
You get a lot of films that are companies pushing their environmental credentials, so initially I was by default sceptical – especially because I wasn’t familiar with Chipotle. But before we ever met the agency or anyone lower down in Chipotle, our very first meeting was with this guy [Steve Ells], who founded it 15 years ago. Any scepticism was swept away.
He’s this evangelical, charismatic figure and compassionately tells all of these stories, anecdotes and statistics, in an engaging way, about what’s happening. He is a businessman as well – and a successful one – but it seemed like he believed in what he was trying to say. He seemed genuine. And I am a very cynical person.
How did that idea then evolve throughout the different stages of the project?
Initially, the agency had the idea of a music video about a farmer. I think it was going to be a comedic sort of thing like Lonely Island or Flight of the Conchords. But as we dug deeper into all the messages that they wanted to get across about things like pollution, animal welfare and use of antibiotics we just felt that we couldn’t risk trivialising it. You could make a film about this that would seem to be making fun of the situation. I didn’t know a huge amount about it but decided to try and read as much as I could and watched one or two documentaries about it.
Going into the project with so much research and so many complex facets to the client’s message, how did you integrate them into such an elegant film?
There seem to be knock-on effects. For example, farmers would use fertiliser and then the fertiliser would run off the field into rivers, which it would pollute. But not only would it pollute it; it would evaporate off the surface water and turn to dust, which then affects the lungs of the farmers. There were all these stories. It almost felt like a narrative already – a domino effect.
I treated it like a flow chart, where you’re starting from the left and moving to the right and one variable arrives after another and you drip feed the information. And it’s the same way as making a film because we have a very linear structure. You could add three or four things at the same time and you would suddenly get disorientated. So it was all about trying to make a narrative art out of information.
Getting ideological often turns a lot of people off. How did you manage to overcome that?
I think one of the biggest things on our side was the fact that it was animated. If you were to make something like that live action it would be easy to scaremonger. But we felt if people watched a two-minute film on the horrors of factory farming they wouldn’t feel that motivated to do something afterwards.
We also felt from a filmmaking point of view that the worse it gets, the better it will feel at the end of the film. That moment in the middle when [the farmer] has this epiphany – you need to feel that he’s hit rock bottom and everything is lost. But [Chipotle] were quite keen to make sure it wasn’t a happy-clappy ending – more a work-in-progress.
Production Company: Across The Pond Productions
Executive Producer: Rachna Suri
Executive Producer: Julie Cohen
Production Manager: Beki Gard
Offline Edit: Will Brown
Camera: James Hughes
Motion Graphics: Mike Brookes
Online Edit: Will Brown & Robert Waddilove
Production Secretary: Mikal Habteab
Your method was oddly high-tech, using 3D printing and CGI, but also shot like a traditional stop-motion film. Why not just do it all digitally?
Chipotle were always keen to make it hand-made. Arguably you can do anything in CG and make it look hand-made. And I’m sure, now, if we set about reproducing that film in CG it would probably be quite easy because everything’s there. But if you were to rewind back to when we were storyboarding it and start making it CG then you’d probably end up with a very different film, just because there are so many things that came out of the process as we went along that informed the aesthetic, the characters, how the story was told, where we could go with the camera. All these things – the fact it was so simple, the fact that the character design is super simple – were purely out of the limitations of budget and time. So in some ways limitations can be a good thing.
So what was the back-to-front pig about?
We wanted to hide a few little funny things in there and I just thought the idea of a pig going backwards on a conveyer belt was funny. Even at a sad moment it’s nice to see a lighter touch. It was also because weirdly the growth-hormone-filled pigs ended up cuter than the healthy ones, so we wanted to make sure that we saw their little faces before they went in. We were told not to make the pigs cute and I tried, but it’s hard to make a pig that isn’t cute.