INTERVIEW: Production Designer K.K. Barrett Discusses Directing Kid Koala’s ‘Nufonia Must Fall’

Visionary Production Designer, K.K. Barrett discusses directing the multi-disciplinary live motion project, Nufonia Must Fall

Directed by Oscar-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett and created by Eric San aka DJ Kid KoalaNufonia Must Fall, looks like the most fun you can have in a cinema. 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 QuartetNufonia Must Fall will premiere at the Luminato Festival this weekend and then continue on to London among many other cities.

I was lucky enough to speak to production designer K.K. Barrett earlier this week, during their rehearsals in Banff and our discussion left me really excited to see the project tomorrow at the World Premiere.

Q&A with Production Designer K.K. Barrett 

Production Designer K.K. Barrett

K.K. Barrett | Photo by Tommy Lau

ROSE: How and when did you progress to making your own films? Was this an easy progression coming from painting, then music, then production design?

K.K. BARRETT: Painting was solitary fun but competitive in a peer support way.  We would critique each other and push forward.  Music was much more a collaboration and had an enthusiastic audience in real time. In film you have both the peer support of your team, a competitive spirit to elevate the ideas to the best for the film, but I miss the live highwire and response from an audience.  I don’t think of film as a progression because they are equally satisfying medias if you dive in deep enough.  Film is a bigger juggling act but it has it’s own highwire pleasure.  All the creative questions that come up making art or music are the same in film.  Is it true to itself?  Can it be better?  Is it a shallow imitation?  How can it be looked at from a fresh angle? Is it fun and funny like life’s best shading?

ROSE: How did your involvement in this project come about and what piqued your interest about Nufonia Must Fall when Eric (Kid Koala) presented the story to you?

K.K. BARRETT: I did a similar live project with Karen O, called “Stop the Virgens”.  The keyboard player on that was Money Mark.  We live near each other in LA and he invited me to see Kid Koala in Los Angeles, I was a fan of his and was blown away by his show.  He said we should do something together and 3 months later asked me to do Nufonia. I jumped at the chance.  He sent me his graphic novel and slowly we ping ponged ideas to narrow it to a stage show.   It was 300 some pages long with over 700 drawings!

A still from a rehearsal of Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: How would you describe the story, Nufonia Must Fall?

K.K. BARRETT: It is a film noir love story, a funny collision of two worlds, a silent film with an audio immersion that needs release. The story in the book has many more shaded flavors than we could achieve in an hour on stage but we’ve kept the main story of a headphone secluded sad sack, a little tramp for our times and the girl he pines for in a grey landscape.

ROSE: How did you guys decide to come up with this format to tell the story rather than a more traditional style film?

K.K. BARRETT: My original idea was to do it with actors but I liked this idea as well and he [Eric] had the talent lined up so it was fun to have a number of givens to progress quickly with. A traditional style film will likely come along eventually but we love our live version. It’s an infant and may grow up to be an adult film. That sounds funny. A real film shall we say. I love constraints because they make you concentrate on what you must do creatively rather than the sky is the limit. We have 2 cameras on tracks, so all the sets and angles must be reached by these and 3 puppeteers and 12 sets. There is a lot of running from station to station to get to the next shot on time, meanwhile the screen overhead shows the seamless results. Every night could be different.  We may have multiple endings.

Behind-the-scenes at a rehearsal for Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: How would you describe the experience of the live film to an audience yet to experience it? What should we expect?

K.K. BARRETT: It is a live film. It’s a silent film, The sets are acted in, filmed and projected in real time.  It is also a concert.  The score is performed to picture by Kid Koala and the Afiara Quartet. The music carries your emotions and those of the characters. Out of the corner of your eye you see the miniature sets and the puppeteers below them bringing their subtle movements to life. The musicians and the puppeteers contribute zings of character humour. After our first test showings there were multiple interpretations and that is the best compliment you could have. Kid Koala is known for keeping his audience entertained and surprised. I hope the audience comes in cold and  discovers it as it plays out.

ROSE: In particular, I’d love to hear more about the sets you guys have created for the film and if you could talk about the thought process or themes behind them.

K.K. BARRETT: It was fun to step outside being responsible purely for the design on this. All directors have an eye on the proceedings but hope the designer surprises and surpasses their own ideas. We had Londoner Ben Gerlis design the sets and he did an amazing job with tireless detail. He is also a good spirit to keep things light and moving forward. It was fun problem-solving with him, we always agreed and he always surprised. We tried to stay true to the book as much as possible. We didn’t replicate things exactly, as some of the backgrounds were shorthanded with beautiful expressionism, but for tone and skew and finish, if we were stuck we would open the book and go back for feel. Our feeling was if it works there, we must find a way to bring it forward to the actual sets. Each “full scale” set is approximately 40″ x 30″ and then there are scaled down “jewel box” sets that revolve and shape shift, with smaller puppets.

Nufonia Must Fall

Prepping the set pieces for the big build of the sets for Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: What has it been like collaborating with Kid Koala? Has he surprised you in any way or helped you in telling the story or seeing it from his perspective aside from what you saw in his drawings on the page?

K.K. BARRETT: Eric is very trusting and supportive. He curated a very like-minded and congenial team. I would always check with him on story points but he gave us cart blanche to change what was necessary to adapt the story for this setting. It’s funny how we all jumped in trusting but not knowing if it would work. I put an imagined timing on my script breakdown, speaking the actions out loud with a stopwatch and eyes closed and it came out very close. I hadn’t heard all the music until we got together to workshop it in Banff and everyone was so aligned it seemed natural. The biggest part of any creative collaboration is getting the right mix of people with the same temperament. This has been so much fun I’m already thinking of what to do with him next.

ROSE: Lastly, what’s been the biggest challenge bringing Nufonia Must Fall to life?

K.K. BARRETT: Simplifying the book to fit our stage world was the most complicated. I was happy that Eric and AJ Korkidakis took a first pass at it, because it broke the ice that elements could stay behind and a  new version for stage/film could rise from it. There are always logistical challenges and this had many, with the 2 cameras, 3 puppeteers, live to screen, us working in different countries and cities, getting together every few months to check progress and re-focus, but it was doing something new for all of us that made it exciting so I wouldn’t call it a challenge.

The Making Of Nufonia Must Fall

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.

Keep an eye out for Nufonia Must Fall in a city near you. It will be travelling extensively after its premiere here in Toronto. I can’t wait to see it!

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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