Work / Animation

“All I could see was puppets”: Johnny Kelly on his series of sweet shorts for Cheerios

Johnny Kelly has created a series of short films for Cheerios. With the overarching title of Right on Tracks, the films encourage children to be kinder to each other through a silly, funny and touching cast of puppets which play out the stories being told in four original songs. Detailing everything from learning about the different types of family structures that exist to simply sitting with someone new at lunchtime, Jonny’s work is both engaging and informative. We caught up with the Nexus Studios director to find out more about the project, below.

It’s Nice That: How did the project come about?

Johnny Kelly: We had a couple of very early conversations with 72andSunny about the project. Devon (creative director) had this idea that Cheerios could make a series of songs to help parents spark conversations with their children about tricky subject matters. For example, a kid in their class might look different, another one might speak a different language, or come from a different type of family, and these songs would encourage empathy and celebrate these differences. I was IN.

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INT: Talk us through the brief that was set to you, and how the project developed from there

JK: We were given finished, perfectly-formed songs to work with, completely open to visual interpretation, which is a lovely brief. They referenced Schoolhouse Rock – a 1970s kids show and big touch point for a lot of Americans. I grew up with Sesame Street which had a similarly casual educational ethos. It felt like our challenge was to make a public information film, but fun.

Until I heard the first song I’d been presuming we’d use an illustrative style with 2D animation. Once I heard Walter’s demo, all I could see was puppets. In the wrong hands, the subject matter could have felt like a lesson or even a lecture, but his lyrics and music had a loose, spontaneous feel that clearly could only be matched by an army of extremely silly puppets.

INT: Was the process for creating these puppets like?

JK: I came up with various scenarios in storyboard form (e.g. a bully slamming someone against a locker, a lonely kid in a canteen, an entire family sitting in a hot tub). I gave the boards to illustration collective Nous Vous, who designed literally hundreds of characters. Working with 72andSunny we made some refinements and worked out who would go where, and then their designs were then handed over to expert puppet maker Andy Gent and his team in Hackney Wick.

Given we were making nearly 100 puppets, there wasn’t enough time to micromanage the execution of every single one, so Andy and his team had relatively free rein as to how each would be interpreted. For example, they’d just finished making Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and had some hair left over. Andy said, “how do you feel about some of these characters having hair?” He did not have to ask twice.

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INT: What qualities and characteristics were you trying to draw out in the puppets?

JK: We wanted to show diversity. Nous Vous’ characters are so otherworldly and abstract that they could be anyone and everyone. It was important that people empathise with them too. With such simple designs, you can read a little more into their expressions, project your own loneliness onto a lonely character or warmth onto a happy character.

That said, I also knew it could be overload if the environments had a similar level of stylisation. I wanted to ground it in reality by using more textural trees, foliage and lighting for example, and basing the homes and schools on authentic photo reference. Awkward Family Photos was also a crucial inspiration. When is it not?

INT: Do you have a favourite moment from any of the shorts? Or a favourite character?

JK: Larry is a clear highlight for me. In one of the songs, there was a story-telling challenge: Walter sings about how someone called Larry rescued him from a bully when he was a kid and is now, in fact, his keyboard player. So I had this notion of having “Larry” kick down a toilet stall when Walter’s getting his head dunked, then we slide in a 80s-style arrangement of multi-tiered keyboards around Larry for his solo. These things are easy to storyboard but a different proposition to make and puppeteer. Thankfully everyone on this job enjoyed a challenge.