Johnny Kelly Talks Animation

Johnny Kelly Talks Animation

One of our Showcased directors, the Nexus wunderkind talks us through his animation heroes, charismatic character creation and Chipotle glory.


You have to be a pretty cold slice to not get pleasure from the magic of animation. If the lovability of Disney, majesty of Ghibli or charm of Aardman do nothing for you, well, you ain’t no pal of ours. Because of this, it was a wonderful treat to put together our Animation Showcase this month, highlighting six of the cleverest bods in the commercial cartoon scene. It also gave us a great excuse to sit down with NexusJohnny Kelly – a master director and all round lovely fella whose work we’ve enjoyed for years.

From his student short ‘Procrastination’, through his Cannes Grand Prix winning work for Chipotle to his most recent collaboration with Facebook, Kelly’s trademark charm and enchanting character creation has resulted in some well-loved work for massive brands like Apple, Dropbox and YouTube.

In the aftermath of his latest live-action short ‘Fern’s premiere, we caught up with Johnny to chat animation heroes, bringing tactile charisma to tech companies and the effect winning a Cannes Grand Prix has on your career.

Congrats on being one of the directors featured in our Animation Showcase! Who are your animation heroes?

Thank you! It is lovely to be here. As far as heroes, Wallace and Gromit (by Nick Park) first made me aware of the existence of animation. Then Shynola’s music videos made me think I could use my graphics degree to make stuff move. These days, as outrageously corny as it might sound, my heroes are the animators I get to work with at Nexus Studios, freelance and full-time motion wizards from around the world who can take scrawled storyboards and turn them into something magical. I never properly studied animation, so I learn a huge amount each time I work with them.

Your latest work is a lovely short for Facebook. How did you get involved with that?

Our own Nicolas Ménard had directed a brace of lovely animations for Facebook last year, so Nexus Studios was on their radar. I then pitched something that is now unrecognisable next to the final result. It changed a lot along the way, for the better. The project was a close collaboration between the superbrains at Menlo Park and us, making a personalised animation that used tagged photos of you and your friends to tell a story about the whopping 2 billion monthly active users that are now on Facebook.

The film is one of those ‘personalised’ pieces Facebook are so good at putting out. How does it feel creating a film that has so many different outcomes when viewed? Does it alter the production process at all?

Telling a story to 2 billion people certainly comes with it’s own potential pitfalls. We started by creating a bunch of characters of every shape, size and colour so they would feel equally local/exotic to someone watching in Japan, Sudan or USA. There were a few technical challenges. For instance, we wanted there to be as many possible versions of the film as possible so we split it up into chapters and have multiple versions of each that would be randomly selected as each film is assembled. This meant LOTS of animation.

You’ve also created a lot of work for Apple, YouTube and Dropbox, amongst others. What is it about your style that appeals to big tech companies?!

It’s a good question! Something about my work that maybe appeals to technology companies, is that a lot of it is pretty lo-fi. Big tech likes low tech. They look at something like the Chipotle film and see how a complicated story can be told in a relatively simple way.

They have all been great fun to work with for various reasons. Someone like Google or Apple treat their marketing material like a product build – iterative development, rigorous testing, a lot of collaboration. They like to experiment, try out new things. Us directors like this.

We’d be remiss not to ask you about your multi-award-winning film for Chipotle. Are you still feeling the shockwaves now? How does winning a Cannes Grand Prix change the kind of jobs you get to work on?

Ha! I did get quite a few ad scripts about factory farming. Apart from that, not much changed really. You are judged on your latest project rather than one from five years ago.

What do you think it was about that film that inspired all of the plaudits (aside from it being magnificent, obviously)? Did you have any inclination at the time that it would be received so warmly?

We had no idea anyone would watch it, never mind give it an award. It was made for a microsite, an intro to a little flash game using the same farming characters. When Chipotle and (their agency) CAA saw how the film turned out they changed the release plan, putting it on YouTube, screening it in cinemas, eventually broadcasting it during the Grammys.

It’s not false modesty but I think the most powerful thing about the film is the music, Willie Nelson’s dulcet tones. Cute piggies help too though.

The first film that brought you to our attention, back in the day, was your Royal College of Art, graduation short ‘Procrastination’. Do you still procrastinate? How would you say, aside from learning new ways to avoid work, you’ve evolved as a filmmaker since then?

Ten years later I still procrastinate, dammit. I like to delude myself into thinking it’s a symptom of an active, hungry mind, but in reality I probably watched too much TV growing up. I get ideas the same way today as I did then: switch the internet off on my laptop and sit somewhere comfy with a sketchbook. Inevitably with age I’m a little more sure of myself, and I've got a wider sphere of influences. Having two kids has taught me, amongst other things, how to multitask.

One of the films in the showcase is the trailer for your new short ‘Fern’, which is live action. How was that experience for you? Is it something that you’d like to do more of in the future?

It wasn’t a deliberate step into live action, I just had a story I couldn’t shake — a jealous houseplant obsessed with a grieving widow — and a puppeteered fern seemed like the only way to do this justice. It was really really fun. I was incredibly lucky to have Monica Dolan (from W1A, Wolf Hall, Alpha Papa and lots of others) in the lead role, she gave a very silly film some emotional depth. I like to scare myself on each project and filming 55 shots in 3 days is clearly one way to do this.

Aside from directing, what other projects get your creative juices flowing? Are there any projects you’d particularly like to work on?

I read, watch films, see exhibitions, draw. It would be lovely to make something physical – for example a heartbreaker that got away a few years ago was a playground design I came up with for Kew Gardens. There is a ton of things I would love to make and do, but I don’t want to bore you with them until they are finished.

What’s up next for you?

I’ve just finished writing another short film, if anyone reading this has a pile of money gathering dust? Right now I’m working on an illustration for a group exhibition in Dublin next month, ‘60x60’. I’m also speaking at a conference there in November called The Future. There’s an intimidatingly-stellar line up of people like Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher and Scott Dadich. Another welcome excuse to terrify myself.


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