Johnny Kelly on Animation and Conquering Creative Block

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Johnny Kelly is a London based animator who recently managed to successfully merge Willie Nelson, Coldplay, 72 pigs and an astonishing 874 trees into a beautiful animation about sustainable farming for Chipotle, entitled Back To The Start. Johnny studied at The Royal College of Art and has since produced work for clients including Adobe, UN, BMW and Google. We thought we’d pick his brains about making the Chipotle animation, creating music videos, his thoughts on formal training and his advice for RedBubble artists and designers on overcoming creative block.

RB: Tell us a little about the Chipotle animation. Who realised the aesthetic choices, the little details, like the roundness of the farmer’s belly or the shape of the pigs?

JK: Ordinarily the client would have quite an involvement in those choices, but in this case they gave us quite a free rein. I was able to design everything myself. I try and design as much of it as I can myself which can be a good and a bad thing, because it can end up being slightly micro-managy, going down to picking the Pantone colour of t-shirts and trousers! We weren’t really sure if these two aesthetics would marry. This model train set environment and then graphic characters. We couldn’t tell until we were actually on set, because nothing was ready until the first day of shooting – and then we just put the characters down on the fake grass and it didn’t look totally wrong!

One of the reasons Chipotle approached Nexus and myself was they’d seen a film I’d worked on for Adobe called The Seed which was the story of the life cycle of an apple seed. It was like a visual infographic and that was why they thought I’d be able to tell a story about something so technical. A lot of my influences are from graphic design and infographics which is why I took control of the design. It felt like it needed to be arranged quite carefully.


Image credit: Stills from The Seed

As far as the aesthetic and the design, that would have come from me. The placement and composition would have come from the 3D animators. There’s certain things you can’t control at all – that’s when it’s really exciting – like the acting of the farmer, which never in a million years I’d be able to do myself. It takes so long and then you end up with movement that can’t look overworked. It’s amazing what a good character animator can do to bring this weird little object to life.


Image credit: Still from Back To The Start

How many people did you have working on the animation? Did you get to pick your team?

I think on set there was roughly about 20 of us. And it’s in a little stop motion animation studio in Clapham where they make pretty much most of the stop motion advertisements in the United Kingdom. With stop motion animation in particular, you have to be very careful about the crew that you hire. It’s so intense and as you’re going to be side by side, in this case it was four weeks, you have to be really careful about what sort of personalities you’re bringing on board.

Because I’d never done any character animation we were looking for a really good character animator to act out the farmer’s emotions. We found Gary Cureton through a friend and he had worked on lots and lots of stuff for Aardman, and had worked on Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. He’s incredibly experienced and I think it was really good to have him working on the character animation. The producer, Liz Chan was also a producer on fantastic Mr.Fox, so she’s very experienced with the work flow, working with animators and that sort of thing.


Image credit: Still from Back To The Start

How do you describe what you do? Do you think of yourself as an animator? You also have a background in design, so how do you introduce yourself to people?

That’s a good question! I’m not ashamed to say I’m a commercial animator or a commercial animation director. My background is graphic design, which is very commercial, but I did study at the Royal College of Art and all the other animation students around me were from fine art backgrounds. I really enjoy the process of working to a brief, problem solving, wrestling something into a shape that makes sense. There’s a function to it. I think even when I was a designer, anything that was self expression was out the window. That’s how it was in my head, but I don’t think it came across in my work.


Image credit: Still from Back To The Start

I like trying to make sure there’s a message, or idea behind it too. My favourite sort of people when I started animation ten years ago were people like Michel GondryShynola or Geoff McFetridge. Now it seems there’s not many people even making music videos because the budget’s not there and the industry is in upheaval.

So for me this is an ad, and at the end of the day it’s going to benefit a company, so I’m not fooling myself into thinking this is a short film or anything, but for me it’s the equivalent of making music videos, because I have the freedom. We were basically able to write the whole thing. They just gave us 8 topics and we had to include a farmer – which is amazing. Obviously when we came up with the story they were very keen to be involved and there was this element of creative control that you wouldn’t get in traditional animation advertisements. It falls between traditional tv advertising and a music video. You can absolutely see you’re pushing the boundaries of what people think a TV advertisement is.


Image credit: Still from Back To The Start

Do you get to work on a lot of music videos? Are they your passion?

Yeah, I love them. I actually haven’t had the opportunity to make one for about seven years. The first thing I did when I started animating was music videos. I did pitch one to Fat Boy Slim years ago that never happened! If I did do music videos I’d want to do it for a band I absolutely loved because it’s sort of like a script. The story, if you follow it literally or not at all, is still a huge part of it. I’m actually working on one at the moment for a Swedish band called Forest. It’s nice to do something different to what’s on my reel at the moment. This will all be hand drawn. That’s the advantage of doing it for the love – you can push things in a different direction.

How do you overcome artist’s block?

My mind – like most minds – tends to pinball between a trillion thoughts at any given moment, so the problem for me has been to try and slow it down to think methodically about one thing at a time. I think this is why you sometimes have the best ideas just before sleep. You’re tired and your mind is so slow that you can mull one idea over in your mind, pretty much in depth. It’s a struggle to then reach over and write this new idea down (or type it into your phone), but I’ve had some real brainwaves this way and wouldn’t have remembered them otherwise.

Another time that works best for me is morning. At the studio where I work at Nexus, I try to avoid doing idea or concept work in the afternoon or evening – the first few hours produce the best results, starting as early as possible with a coffee. Then the rest of the day is then spent executing these ideas (or at least trying to).

Lastly, as a general note I find writing things down can be helpful. I use a sketchbook at early stages of every project, and end up writing up lists for every aspect of the brief I’m working on (even if the brief is my own). The end results look a little odd – there are a lot of lists, some of which can be drawings – but it’s really helpful to sort of empty your brain onto the page, then you can look at it a little more objectively and choose which bits work best.

What advice would you give to other creatives? If you could tell yourself something ten years ago about working professionally what would you say?

The thing I found most useful was having a training in graphic design. There’s two reasons. Aesthetically it’s informed everything I do. There’s hundreds of years of rules, where with animation there isn’t. Animation is so open ended, you can create anything that’s in your brain. I find it’s really helpful when there are some rules, be it typography or colour or composition. The other great thing about graphic design was having the training of working with clients, illustrators and printers. It’s really helped me to deal with crews and clients and helped me direct.

Having a frame of reference of the sphere of influences from graphic design is very useful. If I wanted to be an animation director ten years ago, I would have gone to animation college, and I would have ended up doing very technical things like character animation. Things would have been completely different, so the best thing about doing animation is having this design angle. I’d say find your strengths and use them all a little bit.


Image Credit: Stills from the Procrastination video by Johnny Kelly

Do you think a formal education is crucial to be successful in animation and design?

Yes, I think education is good. The best thing I did though at college was drop out. I took a year off because I saw a poster in a design college that a design firm were looking for an intern. It was a paid position so I took a year off, my lecturers got really worried and spoke to my parents and said, ‘he won’t come back we’ve seen it before,’ but actually I did go back the following year, having worked in the real world for a year, it was amazing. It made what I was studying make sense. It made me want to spend the whole day in the library reading, and I did a year back and a year off at the same company. So it took me six years to do college!

Back in 2002, there was a distinct boundary between working in college and working in the real world, but nowadays you can put your stuff on portfolio websites and get your work out there before you graduate. It’s really good to try and get your work out there and produce before you leave college.


We’d like to thank Johnny for taking the time to share the processes behind his work, and his tips and insights into working as an animator and graphic designer. We’d like to sign off by posting this pretty impressive ‘making of’ video for Chipotle’s animation. We hope you find it just as inspiring as we did!

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