Kelly’s Eye

Johnny Kelly’s Back To The Start film for Chipotle is enjoying success at awards all over the world, bringing deserved recognition for the director

Cometh the early summer, cometh the advertising award ceremonies. An opportunity for a bit of backslapping and jollity, the awards serve to highlight the outstanding creative work that’s appeared each year, as well as the increasingly unusual formats that this work appears in. A case in point this year is a film that is in the process of sweeping the board at all the major international awards, already picking up top advertising gongs at D&AD, the Andys, Clios and CR’s Annual. Yet the Back To The Start film for Chipotle began life as a kind of music video.

The film is directed by Johnny Kelly, who first came to the industry’s attention back in 2007 with his graduation film from the Royal College of Art, where he was on the animation MA course. Titled Procrastination, the film is a witty tale of timewasting told using a charming mix of animation and live action, and showed off Kelly’s skills perfectly.

Kelly’s career had already followed a somewhat unusual path by the time he arrived at the RCA. He had his first taste of success while still at school, when he and his brother Mickey created a series of comic books about a ‘crimefighting leprechaun’ (Johnny provided the drawings, while Mickey wrote the text). They casually put the stories up on the internet, and were surprised when they were contacted by a writer in Beverly Hills who wanted to make a feature film out of them. “We thought ‘whatever’,” remembers Kelly, “but then she sent us a contract in the post from William Morris Agency.” While nothing came of it in the end, the brothers received a bit of money from the venture, and Kelly also learnt the potential power of sharing work online.

On leaving school he went to study graphic design in Dublin, and moved away from the comic books, and in fact any character-based drawings. “Once I started learning about graphic design, about what’s good and what’s bad and the rules, I stopped drawing like this, because it doesn’t really marry very well with Josef Müller-Brockmann and the stuff you come to end up loving in design college.” Even Kelly’s time at college was unusual, however. Instead of studying straight through, he completed the four-year course over six years, alternating his final four years between study and work at Dublin-based design studio Image Now. It was an invaluable experience.

“I couldn’t recommend it enough,” he says. “It gave a relevance to everything I was learning at college. Image Now were quite good at throwing me into scary situations – at one point I came over to London, my first time there, for a meeting with MTV to do idents. And then back to college three months later.”

Move to animation

He was inspired to switch from graphics to animation after seeing the work of Shynola and Michel Gondry. “I liked graphic design a lot but didn’t ever think I was very good at it,” he says. “I felt that I wasn’t making work that I’d like to see, even in my personal stuff.” (Despite this, Kelly’s graphics work wasn’t without success – some posters he entered into the CR Annual awards around this time made it into the book.) His first application to the RCA was unsuccessful, however. So he continued in graphics, moving to London with his girlfriend (who was studying at the RCA), and working first as a runner and then as a junior designer at NB: Studio. Still the animation course continued to pull at him though, and on his second application, he made it in.

By the time he graduated, Kelly had firmly learned the lesson of self-promotion, and so sent Procrastination off to CR, among other places. We were inspired enough by the film to write a piece on Kelly, in our then One to Watch column, and also to put an image by him on the cover of the mag. This helped him get signed at Nexus Productions. “I remember coming back into Nexus and meeting Chris O’Reilly and whipping out Creative Review with me on the cover, and that, for me, felt like it sealed the deal,” he says.

“Nexus felt like a really good fit,” he continues, “because there’s such an eclectism to the directors’ reels, particularly someone like Woof Wan-Bau, or Smith & Foulkes, there’s a chameleon-like nature to them. They’re not repeating themselves. That’s what I still find at Nexus, any time a project comes in, the first question is ‘how do you think this will add to what you’re doing?’. They want you to grow. It’s not just benefitting you as an artist, it’s also benefitting them as a company.”
His first two commercial projects with Nexus, an ad for BMW and a film for the United Nations starring George Clooney, were something of a baptism of fire. In particular, he struggled with managing a team of people for the first time. “I feel in hindsight, not that there was anything wrong with the people I worked with, but I feel I probably over-delegated a little bit on the first couple of projects, and that’s why I think they weren’t as strong as I’d hoped they’d be.”

The Clooney-UN gig was particularly rushed. “We found out at two days notice,” he remembers. “Do you want to go to New York on Saturday and shoot George Clooney in his hotel? We have 45 minutes with him in front of a green screen and it’s an ad for the United Nations. Afterwards we’ll cobble together a film with archive footage from the UN. It was a really crazy two weeks, with zero control. One of the reasons I love animation, and a lot of people are drawn to animation, is control. I think a lot of us are control freaks.”

Things got back on track with The Seed, a beautiful short film created for Adobe to showcase its Creative Suite 4 software. The film uses elaborate but elegant animation to tell the story of the life cycle of a seed.

Following this, Kelly created a flurry of beautiful work, including an interactive website for Barcelona design college Elisava (with Matthew Cooper) and a series of idents for Dutch science show Het Klokhuis (with sculptor Jethro Haynes). But it was The Seed that eventually led to Kelly being approached to create the Chipotle film, after Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at the company, saw it.

The project was unusual from the off. “I’d never heard of Chipotle before they approached us,” admits Kelly. “They wanted a music video, all about a farmer character that resists factory farming.” Chipotle, and the ad agency on the project, CAA, approached Kelly to create the film, and, surprisingly, didn’t even ask for a pitch. “Crumpacker was a graphic designer, and I think that was something to do with it,” says Kelly. “Firstly, for the reason they approached me, but also the fact that they never put stuff out to tender, and they never ask people to pitch for free. So they were basically asking us to make a proposal.”

The project marked Kelly’s first return to character design since his days as a teenager comic book writer. “I’d always been afraid of that,” he says. “A lot of people, particularly at Nexus, come to animation from different routes, but the most common route is through character-based stuff. You go to animation college and you do character animation, but I’d never done that…. It didn’t feel like a natural thing. But it’s weird with the Chipotle film, the power of having a character. Once you have that character, then everyone is drawn to it, and puts themselves into it in a way that you don’t get with regular motion graphics.”

The story went through various rewrites during its making, with Nexus and Kelly heavily involved. The central question was how to illustrate the farmer’s turn to sustainable farming over factory farming. Initially, the story had two farmers, one good, one bad, with the good farm eventually outliving the bad. But Nexus felt this was too passive. “Chris O’Reilly came up with the idea that the farmer was embracing the technology, that he started automating everything and then realised the error of his ways,” says Kelly. “Then he becomes much more of an active character, someone you can root for.”

Careful handling

Chipotle were wary of appearing too holier-than-thou, however, or to be seen to be criticising farmers. “They wanted people to learn as they watched it, but none of us wanted it to be something you felt was too preachy. It’s so easy with this sort of subject matter to scare people and to put them off. We felt that after you watch it you should feel motivated rather than distraught.”

Kelly was also conscious that food production, especially by big business, is a subject that is open to criticism from consumers (and the film has in fact drawn some negative comments in this area for Chipotle, along with all the praise). “When I went to meet them first I thought, ‘oh, this seems like another greenwashing thing’, but then the first meeting wasn’t with the ad agency, it was with the founder, who happened to be in London, and he’s this charismatic, evangelical type character, you realise why he’s running a successful company. He’s very convincing.

“I would never have made a film about food production, but what I like about working commercially or for a client, is it does prompt you to explore these weird, interesting areas that you never would have thought about,” he continues. “Chipotle do have the endorsement of people I respect, people like Michael Pollan, who’s a food writer, and Jonathan Safran Foer who wrote a book called Eating Animals, which is an amazing thing, and he talks about Chipotle in that. So I think they have good intentions. I can’t really speak for the company, but I feel like having met them, that they’re on the level, and they realise that people will pay more for food that comes from good provenance.”

Kelly created the film using models, rather than CG. Along with the charming characters and design, the music plays a key part in the film’s success. The soundtrack, a cover of Coldplay’s The Scientist, was recorded by Willie Nelson, and it both emphasises the message of the film and enhances its emotional resonance.

Back To The Start was initially launched online last summer, where it was an instant hit, receiving millions of views. Things then took a surprising twist seven months after its first release, when Chipotle decided to air the film in full on television during the Grammys, bringing a whole new audience to the short, and sealing its mainstream success. “Bette Midler tweeted it!” says Kelly.

The impact of the film proves, once again, that the best ad work results from clients and agencies taking risks. For Kelly, the fact that the film began ‘only’ as a web film, contributed to it making its way through the advertising system unscathed. “The weird things about web films is it used to be that the TV ad was the holy grail, but that’s become less and less important, because in something like Chipotle, you’re operating under the radar,” he says. “If from the start it was said ‘right, we’re going to air this during the Grammys’, or make it a TV ad, then everyone would have been a lot more hands-on, and it probably wouldn’t have been the film it ended up being. There would have been a lot of marketing teams within the ad agency, and within Chipotle, scrutinising it. Whereas with something that’s a web film you can get away with it a little bit.”

Kelly hopes to do more of such projects in the future, as well as other more eclectic work: right now, for example, he is working on designing a stamp for the Irish Government. “I’ve been really lucky that things have come along as they have, I’ve never really had a plan,” he says. “I’m just happy to keep going. I like learning something new on every project I do…. I guess the goal is to keep scaring myself and challenging myself.”

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