MIAMI — The makings of cinematic magic — all the maneuvering, framing, and editing it takes to create a moving image — are obscured until the image is seamless, the inner workings hidden. Seeing the whole process in action, though, might not strip the film of its charm or its wonder, both of which are intrinsic to the art itself. Nufonia Must Fall, which is part video, part puppet theater, and part musical performance, is a kind of multimedia “making of,” the film projected live as it’s being created in real time. The show, which has toured over the past two years, was presented at Miami’s Olympia Theater on April 8 as part of Miami-Dade College’s Live Arts programming (where it was preceded by a round of “Nufonia” bingo).
Nufonia Must Fall was originally a gray scale graphic novel published in 2003 by turntablist, composer, DJ, and producer Kid Koala (real name Eric San). It tells the story — mostly without dialogue — of a small, T4-model robot down on his luck and in love with a roboticist named Malorie. Directed by K.K. Barrett, the longtime production designer for Spike Jonze, the live production is assembled through 17 small diorama sets and a few plastic puppets, managed by puppeteers who dash across a stage from set to set, cameras switching between scenes throughout and projecting the action onto a screen that hangs above it all. The Afiara Quartet and Kid Koala himself create a soundtrack that’s at once silly and somber, indicating, by turns, the little T4’s loneliness, fear, and excitement. You can choose to view Nufonia like a film, watching a point-of-view shot of the robot protagonist constructing a sandwich — or you can pan down to the puppeteer donning robot gloves, building the sandwich herself.
For Nufonia Must Fall —a multimedia whirlwind that produces a rather straightforward, sweet story — San took inspiration from his childhood. “Some of my first memories of entertainment are of storybook records,” he told Hyperallergic (which is appropriate — he made a score to accompany the graphic novel version of Nufonia). “It became a multidimensional experience, because there was more than just the book and pictures — you had the audio, voice actors. When I was about eight, I was introduced to Charlie Chaplin movies, and that was the first time I realized there was a creativity to the process of creating certain effects on the screen. When I saw Modern Times, it changed the way I watched movies. I’d watch the film for what it is, but part of my brain would be thinking, ‘How did they do that?’”
Watching Nufonia Must Fall come to fruition before your eyes doesn’t make the result any less magical — the added, multitudinous depth lends a quietly frenetic and totally delightful layer. “This film can actually change, because it’s filmed and projected live,” San said. “There’s that danger aspect, which makes it a lot more fun for the performers and for the audience.” Rotating cylindrical lights cast a glow here and there; San sings a Vocoded love song when the T4 robot finally professes his feelings; puppeteers kneel to hold the characters, cameras panning from one set to another.
The live music is the piece’s heart: the Afiara Quartet’s strings swell in tandem with the robot’s own feelings, and more dopey moments are scored with enough awkwardly-paced sounds to induce laughter by themselves. “Nowadays, you can edit something to perfection; a movie might’ve been edited for weeks or months, and we have to do it in one take,” San added. “Though we have five cameras and fifteen people running around onstage, there’s an urgency. We all have to be very present.”
For all its technical complexity, the story is simple at its core, a reflection on self-confidence, anxiety, and love. The T4 robot looks like a stack of marshmallows, with a tape deck belly, a set of soft headphones, and a Chauncey Gardiner charm — emphasized by both his gentle pace and the houseplant he holds dear. He’s sensitive to sound, it seems, an interesting ailment for a robot whose primary job is recording noisy phone complaints at a nameless business. He moves slowly, and looks like he’d be mushy to the touch. T4 is intrigued by Malorie, the swoopy-haired roboticist at the office, but his crush is initially cut short: he’s unexpectedly fired and replaced with his perceived archenemy, the T5 robot, whose head resembles a Makit Wood Builder wheel and to whom T4’s former boss refers as “so awesome.”
The T4 gets another job, this time at a diner, where he makes meals slowly and lovingly, especially for Malorie — who, we learn, is planning to go on vacation very soon. His new gig is short-lived as he’s once again usurped by the T5 (a running gag: the boss at the diner job is identical to the previous boss, as if to imply that The Man is always firm-lipped and disgruntled). He seems to be luckier in love: a particularly adorable scene finds Malorie carefully removing the T4 robot’s headphones, allowing him to listen to city sounds both harsh and beautiful. It’s part of a montage that Nufonia’s crew adapts to each city on their tour. In Miami, the puppets went on a date to see Bad Boys II and took a stroll past Churchill’s Pub and Laser Wolf, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale bars, respectively.
When the T4 learns of Malorie’s connection to the T5 model — withheld here for the sake of narrative intrigue — he becomes plagued by nightmares and a heartache that’s ultimately misplaced and eventually resolved. He is, after all, Malorie’s preferred travel buddy.
“A lot of the ominous music represents what the protagonist robot hears in his head whenever he sees the T5, as opposed to reality,” said San. “That’s what ‘nufonia’ means. It’s backwards for ‘no fun,’ meaning the place where you don’t have any fun. That place could actually be in your head, because you’re too worried or too stressed to enjoy your time while you’re here. The robot has to deal with his version of ‘nufonia’ before he’s able to realize that maybe things aren’t always what they seem, nor what you worry them to be.”
Nufonia Must Fall continues to tour through August 13. For upcoming dates and tickets, click here.