Director and animatronic specialist John Nolan on his ‘80s inspired short film for the former Stone Roses frontman
John Nolan had wanted to work with Ian Brown for years. Back in 2007 he even began sculpting the head of the musician and former Stone Roses frontman, with great intentions of his clay masterpiece being the centrepiece of his film. Alas, the project never happened and John ended up beating his sculpted head to death.
Fast forward 12 years and John and Ian have finally launched a film together. It's an eight-minute, '80s-inspired short film-promo for Ian's new track 'From Chaos To Harmony' that sees him recreated as a giant Zoltar robot in a fortune telling machine which grants a wish to a boy played by Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, Wonder, Suburbicon). Shot in a fairground and arcade in the neon-tinged British seaside town of Southend, the film also stars Daniel Peacock (Quadrophenia, Gandhi, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves) as the fairground owner.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with director John, whose background is in animatronics, creatures and practical effects for features and commercials, to find out more.
LBB> How did this project with Ian Brown initially come about? Did they approach you or vice versa?
John> I approached Ian through his agent. I've always loved his music, both solo stuff and Stone Roses, and have wanted to work with him for years. I had a similar idea for a film back in 2007 - I started sculpting his head, which I hoped was going to feature as the centrepiece like in FCTH. I blocked it out in wet clay and it was looking OK, you could see it was him but my sculpting ability was limited so there were obvious mistakes. I even took the wet clay sculpt to a local hairdresser, put a wig on it and asked them to cut it like Ian's! I originally trained as a makeup artist and then an engineer so sculpting a likeness of a head was tough and I lost all patience, resulting in punching his clay face flat! I told Ian this when we met too, ha!
12 years has passed, I run the studio, technology has moved on - so I felt it was the right time to approach Ian with a new idea.
LBB> What was your starting point when developing the concept? What inspired the fortune telling machine angle?
John> I pitched an idea that's based on my love for practical and in-camera effects. Born in the very late ‘70s I grew up watching the ‘80s classics like ET, Goonies, Robocop, Blade Runner… And with a lot of recent productions like Stranger Things or Kung Fury tapping into that nostalgia and charm, and animatronics and puppetry having an obvious resurgence with the new Star Wars films and Dark Crystal prequel, it felt like the perfect time to make an ‘80s style film. After writing a short email and sending a bunch of stuff that I've worked on before, Ian's management called me saying, "So you're going to make a full walking robot version of Ian then?!"
I had to manage expectations and contain the idea somehow and that's how the 'BIG' idea came about. I always wanted to work with Ian's image, he looks amazing on camera, often presenting himself lit from above, accentuating his cheekbones, like the Unfinished Monkey Business or The World Is Yours album covers. And after failing back in 2007 this idea would have to involve his head. I didn't want to make a head on a stick and a full walking robot wasn't affordable so I came up with the idea of Ian's upper body in a box - a fortune teller.
LBB> How was the process of creating an animatronic creature of one of your favourite musicians? What was involved in the process?
John> In all honesty it blew my mind! Ian visited my studio in Stoke Newington so we could scan his head, a process that made this entire job possible, since getting a likeness clay head sculpted would've taken too long and cost way too much. Artist 'Schoony' scanned Ian's head and I found an insanely good digital sculptor in Madrid, called Rafa Zabala, for the clean up and detailing. He works for ILM and other big VFX companies, but coming from a model-making background he also completely understood what we were trying to do with the practical and physical build.
Animatronics have their limitations so I knew it wouldn't make sense to try to create a carbon copy of Ian as he looks now, the machine in BIG was abandoned and broken down, so it made sense to create a younger version of Ian as the fortune teller. Having two different ages of Ian in the film would also give us two different characters. So Zabala digitally de-aged Ian and produced a head about 15 years younger. For me this head was 12 years in the waiting but with this I could finally make my film!
My London studio spent three months designing and engineering the animatronic which had over 40 servo motors, three silicone skins, six rigged exploding heads and a fibreglass Zoltar style head with red eyes. I worked alongside concept artist David Darby on the storyboards and sketching out different ideas for Ian's fortune teller look for the puppet, some with split lines, some more robotic, but it was obvious that we should stick to what everyone knows - BIG's Zoltar.
LBB> Why did you shoot the film in Southend?
John> For those lights! The arcade looks so good on film, with an anamorphic lense, a bit of flair, I knew we had to shoot it there. The track is genius, it's such a good song and grows on you the more you listen to it. One thing that made it difficult at first was that the track starts with Ian singing, so it wouldn't give me enough time to tell my story before the boy's wish, so I decided to tell the story and delay the track. Growing up watching Michael Jackson promos I felt that making an eight-minute short film-promo would add to the ‘80s feel. Southend was perfect for all scenes in the film, the track driving each one through the fairground until the middle-eight where the track completely changes. It felt like the best place for an explosion taking us to the arcade, where we finish on what every Ian Brown fans wants to see - Ian walking with attitude towards camera!
LBB> How did Daniel Peacock end up starring in the film?
John> I worked with Dan 10 years ago on a feature film called The Nutcracker. He's an absolute legend and perfect for an ‘80s inspired film. His son Charlie is also in the film, seen chasing my nephew Charly riding Ian's lowrider...
LBB> And what was the casting process like for Noah Jupe? His dancing is pretty spectacular.
John> Ha! Yeah, Noah is the biggest dude ever! The film needed an 'Elliot' and Noah was perfect. I'd seen him in Suburbicon, he was next-level good, scarily good for his age. I read that both his parents were actors and he was from Islington so I sent my treatment to his agent and asked if he'd be interested in visiting the studio to look at all the robots and creatures we have on the walls. Noah has absolutely smashed it and I hear he's booked up for the next three years on massive film projects so I knew it was a long shot. His management got back and naturally the budget for our music video couldn't afford him or anywhere close. I continued to look for other young actors but really wanted Noah and after a bit more research I noticed that both of his parents are from Manchester and within 10 years of my age - they had to be into Ian's music! I begged Noah's management to share my treatment with his parents and later that day I had an email saying he was IN and their office was playing Ian's music out loud the rest of the day.
I dragged Noah and his mum down to Southend on a freezing cold night in January and shot until I was told to put the camera down at 5am. In all honesty he made it easy for me, he's brilliant and even gave it the 'shoulder shuffle'.
LBB> How was the shoot as a whole? What are your most memorable moments?
John> The shoot was a lot of fun but hugely ambitious so we didn't get to shoot some of the animatronic stuff or the explosion on location - we needed to shoot a pick-up day in a studio. We shot over at Sugar Studios who were brilliant. Production designer Bobbie Cousins helped us recreate the fairground indoors, The Mill worked their magic in compositing everything together, building rides in the background, creating festoon lights and pulling the entire film together.
We shot the arcade first so my most memorable and personal moment on the shoot was directing Ian and the first take - seeing him walk towards us singing his tune, it blows my mind.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
John> One of the obvious and most complex challenges was the build of the robot and making sure it looked like Ian. We had an excellent starting point with the scan and detailed sculpting, which helped create the skins, but the robot inside had to manipulate the skin into expressions - any miscalculation or error would result in it not looking like Ian. We programmed the head so it could look around with live control but the mouth was pre-programmed using a timeline based music program by my brother Danny. He sits for days moving each lip expression into words in sync with the track.
There were so many things to deal with but just pulling everything together after the shoot and getting it over the line was probably the hardest. We had incredible performances by Ian and the actors, the cinematography was stunning thanks to our DOP Stu Bentley… all the components were there but it needed a top edit and some amazing post. Richard Graham cut it beautifully, my brother Danny did all the additional music and sound and The Mill glued it all together. It was a huge effort from everyone involved.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
John> "If you can't dance, don't be shy to shrug the shoulder!!" - What a legend! x