To the electronic-music production community, LA-based artist Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, is The One. In addition to his critically acclaimed albums and collaborations, he is also known by digital natives as the man behind much of the music on the Cartoon Network. But like any true renaissance artist, he isn’t content to just leave things in the audio realm.
His latest endeavor — and directorial debut — represents a return to his first love, film, credited to him solely as “Steve.” Kuso is also quite disgusting — intentionally so. “They say this is the grossest movie ever made,” says Ellison. “I can be grosser.” We caught up with the multitalented artist in New York to talk about that challenge, the ghost of Alice Coltrane, After Effects, and, most importantly, obsession.
Exploring the Ugly Side of Humanity
Kuso takes place in Los Angeles, after a devastating earthquake has left the city almost unrecognizable. Those who have survived have been transformed into hideous versions of themselves, covered in boils and open wounds. They live in a reality in which they watch TV with puppets, get visits from their lovers through the toilet seat, and have bizarre, almost unrecognizable intercourse, because after all, they’re still human. Their homes are decorated with photographs of those who didn’t make it — the people they miss. It’s comprised of eight mini music videos that weave into each other and develop into a full-fledged social commentary over the 90-minute film.
“I felt I had to be the guy,” says Ellison, “because no one else was going to show the ugly. No one else was going to write black characters that we haven’t seen before. I had to be the guy.” As such, the film goes far beyond pure shock and addresses the basic nature of humanity. It inflates the human condition to the extreme, magnifying the everyday horrors of society and directly (albeit unconventionally) addressing racism and sexism. Side by side, we see deep physical and emotional sickness, so commonplace in society that they have become a new normal.
Moving From Music to Animation and Beyond
“Having worked on so much music, I carved out a little bit of time to work on After Effects and animation,” explains Ellison. “David Firth showed me everything I know. There were two months where I hadn’t left the house at all, getting delivery every day and working on animation. And after that, I only had like three minutes of animation.”
At that point Steve called in actors and experienced VFX producers Cool 3D World to help with the process. When they came on board, he had vignettes ready to show them, created in After Effects. “Thankfully, I was able to convey a lot of the feeling. I’d even make music and put in tones and ambience to illustrate a mood. To me, that was the most fun, to dream up the monsters and prosthetic things.”
Still, Kuso was only 50 percent storyboarded when they started. “We tried to do as much as we could beforehand, but my collaborator Eddie Alcazar made me realize we could just dive in and start finding people. I ended up doing a lot of it on my own in post-production. If I wasn’t able to do it, I had my friends to help.”
The Launch of Brainfeeder Films
Flying Lotus’ music label Brainfeeder was founded in 2008 and focuses on experimental electronic, jazz,and hip-hop. The new film division is comprised of Eddie Alcazar, David Firth, Jimmy ScreamerClauz, Winston Hacking, and Dominic Hailstone. Each member of the roster has street cred in the underground animation, VFX and compositing world. “I didn’t even know I was going to make a film company,” says Ellison. “I just had to because I needed insurance for Kuso. You can’t get insurance without a production company. Now all we need is 2 million bucks,” he laughs.
Author Dani DiCiaccio aka KYOSi and Flying Lotus aka Steve, Edits: James Wright
A Call to the Next Generation
“Kuso is for the young crowd,” says Ellison, “the 16 year old freaky-movie fans. I want them to get into it.” As the grandson of Marilyn McLeod and grand nephew of Alice Coltrane, the 34-year-old had no shortage of artists to look up to in his own younger years. “There were so many people who helped me and opened doors for me,” he recalls. “In film school, I had Terrence Malick telling me how to do things and bringing me to his shoots.”
It’s clear that his collage style of making art translates into digital collaboration, too. He takes bits and pieces of sound, photo, and video and gives them new life with dream-inspired effects. And now he wants the next generation to do the same. “Maybe some kid wants to challenge me and push it even further,” he says. “I hope that people cut this movie up and make something new.”
With that invitation/challenge also come some strong words of advice: be obsessed. “If you have excuses for why you can’t do something, then just give up. Someone else is obsessed and someone else will do it. It’s not about the big cameras. It’s about stories — we see the kids online and what they’re able to do with their iPhone and ideas. I know a lot of times this industry is about being in the right place at the right time, but regardless, you have to be obsessed.”
Kuso is available to watch online now exclusively through new streaming platform Shudder.