When we saw the head of celebrity-actor Huang Bo in a stop motion animation for WWF, it caught our eyes. It’s Stink‘s latest commercial, directed by Nieto, a Colombia-born Paris-based artist who works as a painter, musician, performer, filmmaker, and a stage visual director for operas. His work can be disturbing and surreal, often involving experiments with animals, dead or alive.
As a film director, Nieto was responsible for some of the most daring and artistically absurd commercials that we have seen in China. Fluorescent singing beans flying around a stage, half-naked athletic men with silly white cone-shaped hats against fine-painted landscapes, and the talking head of a major celebrity in a puppet body riding a shopping cart are just a few examples of his fantastical oeuvre.
With Stink Films, Nieto first came to China to shoot a commercial series for BMW featuring Olympic athletes in surreal stages talking about their lives. It was an instant attraction. “I felt very comfortable straight away because everything was so random,” Nieto says. “Even though communication was difficult, my production team was always willing to try new things, and in a very rough way. For me, that was perfect because that’s how I like to work.”
When Nieto compares the Chinese working style to what’s usual in the United States and Europe, he finds that the latter is more squared and unexciting. Nieto is inspired by the Chinese chaos, as he puts it, and he believes it often yields more artistic results. He also thinks it could be a natural inclination from his side, given his Latin American background. “Maybe it’s because I’m Colombian, and things are also very random there, similar to China. I feel it’s the same world. When I talk to someone from Denmark or Germany, that’s another world,” he says. “Desmond, my executive producer from Stink, says that I may have been Chinese in a past life. It’s possible. Who knows?” He laughs.
As far as inspiration goes, Nieto tends to disregard the contemporary world. He muses on the ancient, citing Petronius’ Satyricon, a Roman satire, and Greek mythology and tragedies. He believes that by borrowing elements from these rich cultures from the past and applying them to a contemporary background, one can create the unexpected. “In a way, I’m trying to get away from the trends and from whatever happens today. I’m never in search of it. I still use an old Nokia phone,” he laughs. “I get inspiration from the past. I think that the future is in the past, not in the present.” Nieto also bets on multidisciplinarity, blending different media to achieve something original.
It’s with the galloping rhythm of The March of the Swiss Soldiers, from Rossini’s opera William Tell, that Nieto sets the pace for To Bean or Not to Bean, a snack commercial for Gan Yuan Foods featuring Huang Xiaoming. Huang enters a stage for what seems to be an audition, and when told to do whatever he wants, he sings Rossini’s overture finale but saying the word “bean,” or “豆” in Chinese, to the unmistakable beat of the song. As Huang sings, different colors and shapes of beans fly into the room, circling, dancing around him, and even crashing him at some point with a giant green pea. “Because he is so handsome, I asked him to put his best cool attitude while looking at the camera. Simultaneously, the whole situation is so silly that it creates a fun contrast,” said Nieto. The film also exemplifies his tendency to juxtapose the old and the new in ingenious ways.
Gan Yuan Foods｜《甘源豆: 好吃的节奏》
Nieto chose to pay homage to the traditional zongzi, or sticky rice, for the time-honored brand Wu Fang Zhai with a more dazzling look and a tragicomic style. For most of the three-minute-long story, the viewer is oblivious to the meaning of it all; the explanation only comes at the end. Actors that represent grains of rice have to endure the hazards of weather as if being harvested. Only the strongest make it to the end when they finally get wrapped in a green reed leaf to be served and devoured. “When I saw the script, I thought it was exactly the kind of film I wanted to have in my reel. Any producer or director would think the same. But it was also ambitious, so I had to imagine a way to make it happen,” he says. Nieto then decided to shoot everything against a blue screen and used landscape paintings by a Parisian artist as a background, creating an immersive and whimsical feel.
Wu Fang Zhai 五芳斋
Recently released, WWF‘s spot was made in times of Covid-19. It was initially conceived as a simple in-camera talking celebrity film with an underwhelming budget. When Sally Shi from Stinky films sent the script proposal to Nieto, he was surprised by its simplicity. She explained that he was the right director to develop new ideas that would make it more interesting.
而最近才开始放送的世界自然基金会WWF的宣传片，则是在新冠时期拍摄完成的。这部短片最初的设想比较简单，以名人对着镜头讲话的形式拍摄，预算也比较有限。当Stink Film的Sally Shi将剧本简报发给Nieto看时，他觉得很意外，这样也太普通了。她随即解释，正因如此才找到Nieto，希望他能为这部影片带来新的想法，使它变得更有趣。
Coming up with new ideas is Nieto’s cup of tea. He quickly devised an alternative to the concept: to shoot most of it in stop motion in Paris and integrate Huang Bo’s head into it afterward. It was not easy to persuade the client and the celebrity team involved as to what the final result would be. Hence, Nieto made almost a perfect previsualization of what it would look like. It didn’t just eliminate the smallest hint of doubt that anyone may have had about his vision, but it also got the multiple teams involved even more excited about the film.
But his solution presented yet another challenge since, not surprisingly, stop motion is an incredibly tricky and lengthy process. A four-second video usually takes an entire day of shooting, making it particularly challenging in commercial filmmaking. Once more, Nieto had to come up with a solution. “We had to imagine it with 12 frames per second, instead of the usual 24. It cut the time in half and added a nice texture to the film, working well with the integration of Huang Bo’s head,” he explains.
It turned out that most of the movie was made in Paris, except for a couple of hours of studio shooting with Huang Bo in China. Since it was a low budget production, Nieto had to bring in help from friends he has in the art community. Ironically, the pandemic scenario helped. “I invited a few artist friends to work on it with me, and, because of the pandemic, everybody was available, with not much to do, so they were happy to get involved even if the budget was super low.”
The challenges of the production were also a catalyst. “With scripts like this one, I always think of an idea that’s interesting for everybody involved, something challenging in terms of production, direction, and creative vision. I’m always trying to do things that I didn’t do before,” Nieto says. Nieto knows his work principles well; he trusts his long time producers almost blindly to hand him the right projects. That makes it very rare for him to refuse anything proposed, even if it’s not an exact match initially. “In a similar way to what happened with WWF, my producers are always competent in seeing the potential these projects have in my hands.”
The truth is that Nieto indulges in the necessity of creative exchange with people from different spheres such as film, advertising, and art, to always come up with something cutting-edge and original. He admits that he doesn’t have extravagant goals; he’s happy to pursue the fine little points in life, bouncing from one challenge to the other, and seizing every opportunity to create something new. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and, when asked how he would like to be known in China, Nieto gently says, “The Clown Director.” Clowns are enigmatic figures, creepy and funny at the same time. Indeed, in his commercials as in his art, Nieto’s output is often similarly ambiguous; you don’t understand if it’s a joke or not, or if it’s fake or real. But you feel their long-lasting effect powered precisely by his eccentric and deliciously irreverent humor.