How Nexus drives home Chipotle's sustainable ideals

Fresh from landing two Grands Prix at Cannes, the director of Chipotle's 'back to the start' ad, Johnny Kelly, explains how the film came to life.

Chipotle's "back to the start" ad, created by Creative Artists Agency, bagged two Grands Prix at Cannes this year. The spot was directed by Johnny Kelly through the London-based Nexus Productions. Campaign asked him to talk us through the creation of the ad.

Introduction

The film has had an incredible run of luck, culminating in a hot, boozy, celebratory weekend in Cannes. It's quite a surprise to see something that started life as a lowly web film winning the Film Grand Prix, but I think it's probably as a result of its humble beginnings that it turned out the way it did. Working in commercial animation, it's very exciting to have the relative freedom to make a project like this.

The Brief

The project initially came to us as one part of the "cultivate" campaign CAA was developing - this included a book, T-shirt designs and an interactive game. We consulted on some of these a little bit but, ultimately, the film became our main - rather mammoth - task. We weren't pitching against other production companies and, in fact, our very first meeting was with the founder of Chipotle, Steve Ells, so from the very start it felt like there was trust, which is nice.

The goal with the film was to try to include many heavyweight topics in a way that didn't come across as preachy. With the message coming from a successful restaurant chain, guilt was never going to be a tactic that would go down well with viewers. Instead, the hope was to pique people's interest in the subject matter. They might not learn about everything that's crammed into the film - crop rotation is an example of one that might not be so apparent - but they might want to find out more.

The Creative Idea

I have read quite a few scripts from fast-food companies, but never a script where there was no product shot of some description. When this script first came to us, it was clear that it was going to be different. There were no smiling staff, taco-dipping or burritos being rolled - they simply wanted to contrast factory and family farming.

At one point, there were two farms - good versus evil, effectively - which meant that our hero farmer stayed the good guy and the factory farm dies out. This made it easy to understand, but I had struggled with finding a way of making it work from a film-making point of view. It was messy to always have the two farms on screen throughout. After discussion with Chris O'Reilly (a co-founder and executive producer at Nexus), we decided that following one farmer, with a story that encompasses the ups and downs of both types of farming, would make for a much simpler and more compelling film. Crucially, this also reflected Chipotle's own journey, having sourced its livestock from the "wrong" type of farms until a turnaround in 2001.

The Film

The Nexus co-founders and executive producers O'Reilly and Charlotte Bavasso are quite good at pushing you towards creating some sort of narrative. Even if it's a 30-second ad, how can you introduce some sort of conflict or arc to make it a more compelling thing to watch? Ultimately, a strong story or idea will engage people more than a clever technique. That said, animation (and in particular stop-frame) is such a technically led medium that it's never quite possible to divorce the two. Having relative freedom over both sides at Nexus meant that one could feed into the other, back and forth.

Stop-frame is wonderful but, once the footage is shot, it's unchangeable. This can be daunting to a client, but we were able to counter this by having our 3D technical lead, Mark Davis, produce an incredibly detailed animatic so there were no surprises for anyone. Again, the physical limitations of the medium - how high the camera could swing over the factory, how much camera track we had - dictated the scale of the set and the characters, and this was reflected in the previsualisation.

Sometimes, the limitations can be a healthy thing, even though they can be frustrating at the time. For example, we didn't have time for facial animation but, in hindsight, the characters' reduced features are what makes them so easy to empathise with. My initial attempts at character designs were quite rightly rebuffed by Ells as being too corny: The Dukes of Hazzard-style cowboys. We were told that many of the farmers they worked with had MBAs, degrees in agriculture etc - so out went the ten-gallon hats and spurs, and in came the ball caps and shirts.

The Sound

Although CAA mentioned Willie Nelson's name very early on in discussions, I never thought it could actually be a possibility. Although he is the president of Farm Aid, we were unsure whether he would approve of the film or the song chosen. We finished the animation and post-production of the film a few months before Coldplay's track The Scientist was selected but, luckily, they work together so well that you might presume that we had it from the very start.

Soon after the ad was shown at the Grammys, the song went to number one in the country charts, which is astounding, with all proceeds (except Apple's share) going to a foundation set up by Chipotle. It's also included on Nelson's new cover album, Heroes.

The most startling outcome is perhaps McDonald's announcement, the day after the ad was broadcast, that it would cease sourcing pigs from confinement operations in the US.

ABOUT JOHNNY KELLY

- What is your background?

I studied and worked in graphic design in Dublin before turning to the dark side of animation. I think this background has been really helpful in informing how I work on each project today, and many of my interests and influences still lie in that area rather than animation. Like any red-blooded nerdy designer, I tend to swoon over information graphics and so, with the Chipotle film, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a sort of animated flowchart.

- How did you get into animation?

I was studying and working in graphic design around 2001, and it was the start of a kind of golden age of bedroom animation - with people such as Shynola making incredible music videos for Radiohead on affordable computer hardware. I did little bits and pieces, but didn't properly make my first film until I moved to London and started studying at the Royal College of Art.

- What are the trends in animation?

I think there's a perception in advertising that stop-motion or lo-fi animation equates to honesty, which is why you see quite a lot of it these days. And, in fact, I think using simple hand-made raw materials to make something a little more sophisticated corresponded with how Chipotle approaches things. What I like is the blurring between boundaries, both in how you make it and the perception of the end result. For example, it's easier than ever to borrow the best aspects and attributes from CG, stop-frame and 2D and mix them together in a seamless animation mix, and I love the outcome of these, where you can't quite tell what's what. We are very fortunate in London to have such specialised stop-frame artists littered around us. Our producer Liz Chan corralled crew she'd worked with on various feature-film projects - some of them had worked on Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit and Fantastic Mr Fox.

Topics