At first glance, there's nothing iconic or remarkable about the Los Angeles created by production designer K.K. Barrett. And it's by his own design. However, look again, and the complex environments the award-winning world builder has created for commercials and feature films crackle and pop with smart visual clues.
"I tend to be a minimalist," explains Barrett, when asked to describe his personal style. "Less decor, more impact. Whether it be in music, movies or art, ideas should have an emotional impact. Of course my house is a mad man's lair. Piles of books, musical instruments, props from movies. You know what they say, to get to know a person, look in their closet or their medicine cabinet."
A perfect example of his subtle mastery is filmmaker Spike Jonze's movie "Her," where Barrett's futuristic L.A. habitat borrows heavily from Shanghai's elevated walkways. Here, no one wears jeans or sneakers, no ad graphics infiltrate, and cars are absent. By pairing design-like panels of colored Plexiglas with a skylight, instead of shooting against traditionally painted walls, the warm glow of the office scenes change with the position of the sun. In Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," the iconic children's story is depicted sans jungle, opting for stark, burned forests and sweeping sand dunes, so the Wild Things would have proper dimension. "Simple shapes, complex ideas" is Barrett's mantra. Yet, this is the same man behind the lush, over the top, candy-colored vignettes of Sophia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette."
While the good-natured Barrett likes to say he's only been taking the art of production design seriously for the last 15 years, he steps into the director's role for his current project, "Nufonia Must Fall," Canadian DJ/producer Kid Koala's live-action graphic novel. The intricate, high tech theater piece plays UCLA's Royce Hall on January 29. It's a sprawling, black-and-white love story between a girl and a robot, played out in front of three cameras featuring a cast of tiny puppets and 12 revolving, dramatically pre-lit sets. The miniature protagonists are deliberately expressionless, so that the audience can project their own emotions into the story, helped by the fact there is no dialogue, only music and sound effects performed by Kid Koala and the Afiara Quartet. The audience experiences the "live film" via a large screen, or can take a quick look down to peek in on the puppeteers.
"I always like a new adventure, to do what's unexpected of me," demurs Barrett recently via phone. "It was an opportunity to develop some filmic ideas over a number of performances. As for live stage direction, it's something as a musician you inadvertently do every night."
However, this wasn't the first time Barrett has dabbled in live theater. He collaborated with Karen O on the visual depiction of her then-secret album, "Stop the Virgens" in 2011. The resulting eight performances included a cast of 40 dancing girls and other behind-the-scenes music makers, Money Mark and Nick Zinner.
A career in the film industry was a natural progression for him, as Barrett, part of L.A.'s punk rock royalty, got his start as drummer for the Screamers, the only Masque club band that set out to make videos instead of records.
"I'm kind of getting back to music with 'Nufonia Must Fall.' Although, everything I've done in my life has been related. To entertain and to be mysterious, is exactly what the Screamers were about," says Barrett when pressed for punk anecdotes. "Although we were very much part of the punk scene, we were much more of an arty band. We settled our angst with pretension and were contrary in that we only wanted to make videos, but way before MTV. We were enough ahead of our time that now people can catch up via YouTube."
Between all his fantastically elaborate projects, Barrett continues to paint, play music and write. He still finds inspiration locally despite traveling the world.
"Los Angeles is still the Wild West. The American dream is still possible here. I came here in 1977 as an artist from Oklahoma," continues Barrett. "Just like the Masque scene, you could reinvent yourself and decide what you were by just doing it -- that's the spirit of L.A."
Furthermore, Barrett explains that his dream project is anything that has creative purpose, one that includes the right people for the right reasons. It may include exploring other film genres or even social structures on TV.
"I try not to repeat myself in anything that I do," Barrett offers. "I believe in 'dare to fail'. I want to get to the point where I can use everything I've learned."
Top Image: "Nufonia Must Fall." | Photo: A.J. Korkidakis.