Back to the Start with Nexus

Director Johnny Kelly of Nexus Productions shows us how he made his incredible stop motion piece, Back to the Start, for Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle

The latest commercial for the US-based Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle has a real touch of beauty to it. The sound is one thing - it's country singer Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's The Scientist in a way that some think is more moving than the original. The visuals that go with it, are astounding too. You'll see a stop motion world of farms and green fields turn into a complex urban situation that's almost inhuman. Then it begins reverting back to simpler rural world once again - back to the start, as the lyrics say. It was directed by Johnny Kelly of Nexus Productions in London. We asked him how he made it...

Who was your client and what was the brief?
I didn't know much about Chipotle to begin with but when you hear 'Mexican fast food restaurant' you immediately expect certain things in a promotional film. It was a pretty surprising brief: for a start they didn't want to showcase their food, so there was no slow-mo lettuce being chopped mid-air or things being grilled over fire. Instead, they wanted a film about where their meat comes from and the dark side of commercial livestock farming. Pretty heavy stuff.

Their idea was that it would be a music video featuring a farmer who runs a small eco-driven farm, contrasted against a giant industrial 'factory farm' next door. Chipotle wanted stop motion animation and approached me because they thought I could make it in paper. As things progressed we drifted away from using paper and - in an interesting narrative twist - had our hero farmer himself end up running the factory farm. We thought it would be a more engaging film if he had to make a choice.

Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the aesthetic and the character design?
I love character design, but I hadn't done a huge amount of it since drawing comics during my misspent youth. Doing character work is a very common route into animation, so it was something I was very keen to try.

After lots of initial sketches I worked up the characters in Illustrator. These were handed over to Artem, a model making company in west London who built them for real. It's so nice to draw something with a few basic shapes and then see it realised in physical form. So many ideas come out of the process too, for instance when we were making the farmer's tractor Joe James - who was building it at Artem - had the idea of rigging the wheels in a way that allowed it to appear as though it was puttering up and down as it animated. The long timescale necessitated by stop motion gives you time to include lots of brainwaves you have along the way, and sometimes in fact the trick can be to resist overloading it.

What inspired its look and feel?
Probably because of my background as a graphic designer I am a sucker for trying to add some sort of visual order to things, and this film offered the perfect opportunity for some OCD mayhem. When I was briefing the 3D animators that were making the pre-visualisation, I sent them a link to Things Organized Neatly which was a useful reference for layout. You can see the result in the placement of the barns and pig pens. It was important that you didn't feel like you were being visually bombarded with too many things, so I thought it would be nice if the film felt a little like a flow chart, you are introduced to elements one by one, rather than all at once.

There's a nice 70s stop motion feel to it, like those old children's shows. Or even like a model railway.
Yes, 1970s and 80s stop motion is also a laser engraved influence on my psyche - I will admit to having shown Trumpton and Camberwick Green to Chipotle as animation references. The nicest thing about some of those older programmes is that the limitations were a virtue: the fact that the characters couldn't do cartoony expressions actually helps you empathise with them even more.

How was the physical part of the process done and how arduous was the handmade side stop motion to get right? What kind of camera and rig did you have too?
Animation - be it stop motion or most other kinds - takes ruddy forever, so as an animator you are always looking for systems or automation to try speed up the process. Things like Photoshop Actions or having a 3D animatic help free up time, so you can focus on other things like how a farmer should act when he takes his hat off, or whether one of the pigs on a conveyor belt could be backwards.