Interview with DJ Kid Koala on His Live Film Project ‘Nufonia Must Fall’

Famous DJ, Kid Koala discusses his collaborations with visionary Production Designer, K.K. Barrett on their new multi-disciplinary live project, Nufonia Must Fall.

Directed by Oscar-nominated production designer, K.K. Barrett and created by Eric San aka DJ Kid Koala, Nufonia Must Fall, a multi-disciplinary live cinema event, stands to give audiences something they’ve never seen before. This live adaptation of Kid Koala’s graphic novel will unfold via real-time filming of more than a dozen miniature sets and a cast of puppets- not to mention live accompaniment by Kid Koala himself and the Afiara String Quartet. Nufonia Must Fall will premiere at the Luminato Festival this weekend and then continue on to London among many other cities.

I had the great fortune of speaking to Eric (Kid Koala) during rehearsals of Nufonia Must Fall and I was blown away by what he had to tell me about the project.

Q&A of Kid Koala about Nufonia Must Fall

Eric San, aka Kid Koala

ROSE: What inspired you to create Nufonia Must Fall, the graphic novel? How did this all start?

KID KOALA: Well, (laughs) I’d say it’s a thinly veiled autobiography. It’s the story of a robot that’s trying to write love songs but can’t sing, so he has to sort of live a little life before he realises how to access that part of him I guess.

I wrote the book originally because a publisher approached me to do a book but for the book they actually asked me to do 100 pages, 10,000 word minimum on any topic and what I ended up delivering was a 350 page graphic novel with no words but they still loved it and decided to put it out and you know, fast forward 10-11 years and here we are doing a live stage cinema version of it.

ROSE: How did this live film experience come about?

KID KOALA: Well about a year ago I’d met K.K. Barrett who’s sort of a hero of mine who was a production designer for films like Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich, Marie Antoinette, and Her, which he was recently nominated for an Oscar for, but we met last year. He came to a show in Los Angeles and enjoyed it and we started speaking after the show about a possible collaboration but I didn’t know what that would be.  I just sort of said wow, he’s actually interested in doing a project and what could this be? At the time he was still finishing up work on the film Her but he said right after that’s done he’d have some time and we should do something. So I was just kind of cycling through my head- how do I bring these two worlds together? He’s obviously from cinema and I’m from music but then I thought about this graphic novel that I had written and thought, okay, let me send it to him because I always thought of it as a paperback silent film in a way. It reads like a screenplay over the 350 pages of an old Charlie Chaplin movie or something so I sent him a copy of the book and I asked him, “Do you think we can do a live version of this?” because he was telling me about a project he had done with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s which was kind of a multi-disciplinary psycho-opera but it was in the live realm and he was interested in doing more of that. So I said, what about doing a live version of this robot story and building miniature sets for every scene and having puppeteers act out all the scenes, meanwhile have it scored live and also filmed live by a cinematographer and projected in real time on a big movie screen?

Which if you see any of K.K.’s work, he’s just amazing at creating these beautiful dreamy visuals on a movie screen so I sent him a copy of the book and he actually really, really loved it and said, yeah we should totally do this so it was really the meeting of two people in their worlds of expertise and trying to figure out how we could collaborate on something without forcing it. It’s been a very fun, natural culmination of what everyone’s bringing. Even the crew that we brought together- the puppet builders and the set designers. It’s just been an amazing team to work with.

K.K. Barrett and Kid Koala with their creation during rehearsals of Nufonia Must Fall at the Banff Centre for the Arts last week | Photo by Rita Taylor

ROSE: So when did you guys start working on this?

KID KOALA: Probably about eight months ago. The puppet builders and set designers have been building it in Montreal for the last several months. Now we’re here at the Banff Centre for the Arts where we’re doing our rehearsals and preview show and then we’ll have our World premiere at Luminato.

ROSE: How much involvement are you having over the creative aspects of the project?

KID KOALA: Well, I knew I didn’t want to direct it and in a way I needed to find someone who could handle doing something like that and would have a really clear vision of how this would work and K.K. is somebody I absolutely trusted to do it. Lucky for me I actually just get to come in and work on the music side of it. They’ll come and ask me to chime in on things like, “What do you think of the robot?”, but for the most part I just stay out of their way and focus more on composing music for the score. The original Nufonia book had a score with it but it was only about 16 minutes of music and now that we’re doing a full show I’ve had to write another 40 minutes of underscore for it. So I’ve been helping with that and collaborating with Vid Cousins whose arranging a lot of the string parts for the Afiara Quartet. So it’s really taking that initial story to a whole other level.

ROSE: So how did the Afiara Quartet become involved?

KID KOALA: It’s just been a serendipitous year in terms of meeting people and meeting people interested in working on something. When Nufonia as an idea was put on the table it just seemed like the most natural collaboration. I had met Adrian from the Afiara Quartet and we were talking about a possible collaboration, him being from a very classical scene with the string quartet obviously and me being from a more electronic and animation score scene- but figuring out how we would work together. With Nufonia, it’s just so cinematic on this show, I thought it’d be great to have strings.

ROSE: Do you write your music/soundtracks to the graphic novels automatically? Does this happen during or after your writing/drawing process?

KID KOALA: I did the music after on both of those books. The soundtrack for Space Cadet also came after. But when I’m drawing I’m usually listening to a certain kind of tempo or zone of music to just keep me in the proper head space to draw or write. When I’m drawing I always hear music in my head or I’m literally listening to music. Then on the flip side to that- when I’m making music (if that were the first thing I was in the studio doing) I always have a narrative or a character in my head that I’m trying to create or birth through the music and the sound design and through the way you play and the chords you pick or something like that. I always feel like I’m scoring some imaginary film anyway.

Most of my tracks to date, or at least on the first four albums, are more narrative than they are about creating radio songs; verses and pre-choruses, bridges and sing-along parts. It’s more about, or like, a Monty Python skit or something, or an episode of Flying Circus, or Muppet Show or something like that. I’m trying to find a way to just tell an adventurous story through sound and music. So the two worlds are kind of indistinguishable to me. If you told me I had to just quit drawing, or quit making music I’d be pretty sad. They’re kind of linked since before I can remember.

Nufonia Must Fall

“Sampler Shorthand” @realkidkoala | Photo by Eric San/ Kid Koala on Instagram

ROSE: What’s been the most surprising part of this process for you? Has it been new and different and frightening or…?

KID KOALA: Oh yeah, it’s absolutely scary and that’s what I love about it. I kind of like to keep it dangerous. There’s so many moving parts to this show. Normally if I were playing in a band I would have to react to the other members on the stage and synchronize with them. I’ve seen shows where people are scoring live music to a silent film that’s already made but there’s no way for that film to react to the music, it’s always one side. Whereas with this show I kind of wanted to make it sort of all organic, so it’s a giant Goldberg machine. So honestly if the music’s just feeling good and the puppeteers are having a technical problem the music can kind of extend another 8 bars or something just to cover for it and fluidly get to the next scene. So the show is highly choreographed but I wanted it to have enough space for it to breathe so that if one of the comedic scenes is really working and the audience is laughing and eating it up then maybe we need to extend and push it to see if we can make it even funnier. So I wanted that ability for the show to have that so it could live every night. That’s what I think is really exciting about this show for me… and scary obviously because not only do I have to synchronize with the string quartet, I have to keep my eyes glued to the monitors and the screen watching what the puppeteers are doing and trying to counterpoint what they’re doing meanwhile we have the cinematographer and the camera switcher and inserts coming in and out and we have to try to figure out how can we all come together to tell that story.

ROSE: What’s been the most surprising thing that came from your collaboration with K.K. Barrett? Maybe he saw the story differently or gave you a new idea or different appreciation of it?

KID KOALA: Yeah. We knew there were certain things that we couldn’t pull off with the crew that we had. There’s a scene in the book where he drops blueberries all over the place and we wanted to do a slow motion version of that but even if each puppeteer had ten blueberries (laughs) you know it just wouldn’t work. So K.K was able to kind of streamline the story into the pivotal beats that we would need to tell the same love story on stage within an hour. He’s great. He’s just got a really good grasp of story beats and timing and emotional arcs of each character and so there were things added to the stage version to raise the stakes faster because we needed to get to certain story points faster. Another thing was that we knew this was going to tour eventually so we had a finite restriction of how many sets that we could fit in our travelling cases so we have four huge cases filled with puppets and sets so it meant we couldn’t build absolutely every minute prop and detail that was in the book so it was more of what we needed to focus on to tell the story.

Nufonia Must Fall travelling cases

“The world’s silliest flight case #1” @realkidkoala | Photo by Eric San/ Kid Koala on Instagram

ROSE: So this is being filmed live while it’s being performed so will this be available to the public on dvd or digitally at some point?

KID KOALA: Maybe eventually but right now I think it needs to run and breathe as a live show as we kind of dial in and get comfortable with this process because everyone involved is adept at their own craft. It’s the ability of us all working together to see if we can synchronize fluidly. So we’re actually taking this to Toronto, London, Hamburg, Groningen in the Netherlands, Santiago, Chile and Adelaide, Australia. These are all the commissioning cities for this project and over that time, over the next few months when we’re playing these places we’re hoping to get more synchronized with the show and then after that we’re planning to tour it. For me, a film version would totally work it’s just the exciting thing about this though is that you get to see it happen right before your eyes so I think the legs on it right now are to be presented as a live show.

The Trailer

Nufonia Must Fall Live premieres June 7th at 7:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and runs until June 9th. For more information, tickets, and scheduled times please check out the Luminato Festival website.

Have you seen/read Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall or his other graphic novels before? I can’t wait to see the live film performance! He had me at K.K. Barrett directing.

Posted by Rose Lagacé

Rose Lagacé is a production designer for film & television by day and an emerging filmmaker by night. Rose is also the creator and editor of Art Departmental where she celebrates the art and craft of production design.

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