Nick DenBoer on being the Colonel Sanders of rabid VFX – and his fears for deepfake

The VFX remixer reveals his chicken and cheese roots, and how he doesn't watch much of anything at all.

The Lonely Island baseball Netflix special, Flying Lotus cult horror Kuso, KFC's recent excursions in surrealist branding; you may not know it, but Canadian Nick DenBoer has had his hand in all these things and more, usually under his own name or the more cheeky moniker of Smearballs.

His comedy is rooted in that very American post-Tim and Eric tradition, and yet there are surprising European caveats to the man. When we meet for this interview, we're in his motherland of the Netherlands, backstage at Playgrounds The Art Department 2019 in Eindhoven where he's just finished one of his hilarious presentations (and for whom he made the festival's amazing titles, below).

I discover also that before he made his name with the poultry-infused Kubrick remix The Chickening, DenBoer cut his teeth on weird and whimsical British website B3TA, and there's a clear Monty Python shout-out in the climax to his characteristically giddy Playgrounds titles.

"I love Terry Gilliam’s work," Nick tells me from the other side of a police interrogation style desk, the Joker to my Batman. "Just imagine how he was doing that back in the day. We cut out stuff and film real time visuals with software and stuff, but that guy was doing it by hand. That’s pretty wild."


That same unsettling feeling one gets from Gilliam's work is all over Nick's rabid, hyperactive work; you laugh, but at the same time, you don't want any of his odd figures turning up in your living room.

Nick's own living room is Smearballs HQ, based out of his home in Toronto which he describes as a "crazy PeeWee’s Playhouse, nutty spot."

"We have like a little green screen setup, and I got all the workstations;  I bring in some pros, and we just go knock a project off. It’s not formal, but it’s client friendly."

Those clients include some pretty big names, ranging from Deadmau5 to Old Spice. It's Nick's collabs with KFC though which get my mouth watering, with the Colonel getting that Smearballs magic across quite a few campaigns. But thinking about how Nick made his name with The Chickening, I'm wondering if the man has a poultry fetish I should know about.

"I grew up on a chicken farm, and then my dad started a poultry butcher shop that I worked at until university. Then I made The Chickening, which got big, and that led me to work with Wieden+Kennedy;  I’m on my fifth or sixth KFC job right now through them. I can’t shake the chicken, man. It’s part of me now."

I ask if he ever had a beloved pet chicken back on the farm.

"We would have pet chickens who would mysteriously disappear, and then we’d have chicken dinners. Didn’t put two and two together till much later," he laughs.

This upbringing with its continual reminders of life and death perhaps explains the in-your-face grotesque things we see in his shorts; what with The Chickening having been a hijacking  of The Shining, and Nick contributing gory effects to disgusting Flying Lotus horror Kuso, it's not too hard to label his work as horror in the Bad Taste vein.

With Jordan Peele now being Twilight Zone master, Tim Heidecker popping up in Peele's Us while going for creep in Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories, heck, even Chris Rock rebooting Saw(!), it seems comedy and horror are now natural bedfellows.

While Nick sees a connection between the two, he doesn't see horror as an influence on his own work. "I don't watch horror movies. Not that I'm scared of them, but I’m just not attracted to it.

"I also don’t really take in a lot of content," he reveals. "I didn’t watch almost any movies for the whole of my twenties; I’m like a Luddite in a lot of ways. I don’t sit and watch movies. I just make stuff all the time."

"But there’s some really cool VFX shit going on in horror stuff," he continues. "And I really think VFX comedy in general is a big thing. Most of it’s springing from meme culture; as soon as anyone does something stupid on the internet, it’s like barfed back up with these hilarious memes.

"Look at Steamed Hams, that Simpsons thing. It’s been done to death a million times over, to the point where it’s comical that it’s been used so much. It's been remixed every single way, every iteration humanly possible, and I love it for that as it’s very creative and people are transforming it into other stuff."

 

Nick is arguably a godfather of the remix scene, doing face swaps for Conan O'Brien monologue gags years before Bill Hader deepfakes became a thing.

"I keep on the curve, man," he explains. "I’m learning new shit all the time. Picking up new software, keeping up with the render engines.

"I’m finding cool ways to make funny stuff with all this new technology. Like Spark AR platform; I’ve been fucking with that and it’s pretty fun, just making dumb stuff stick to your face.

"All that automation is super exciting to me. The more it gets automated, the more free you are to do the creative stuff, and not worry about match moving some object for half a day. Match moving shouldn’t even be a thing; we’ve got the technology to have it in the camera, to track and have the 3D data in your phone."

But the automation promised by deepfakes is a cause of concern for the funnyman.

"The deepfakes thing is really concerning, because people are like, 'Oh you know, we’re not going to know what’s true or not.' And I think there’s going to be a big crack down on this kind of shit, even if it’s comedy and that's hugely problematic.

"I hope that there’s not too much of a legal crackdown on the actual physical techniques of it, because I think that would be stifling on the creative side of things for what could be an amazing creative tool. 

"Remember, lawyers will always err on the side of caution, because there’s a lot of grey area stuff that hasn't been litigated yet," he says, looking back on his time at Conan.

"Like look at music. I can’t use a fucking piece of any music in anything ever, because there’s been so much litigation. But on Conan I found I could take clips of anything and as long as you were making some kind of social commentary on the States, it was fair game. So as long as there was a joke leading up to the clip , I  could use anything I wanted.

"On the internet, it seems like you can just do whatever the hell you want, as long as you’re not monetising it. If you’re not making a dime, free speech seems to cover up any of that stuff."

Before he leaves the room, I ask Nick what his plans are for the rest of his stay in the Netherlands.

"I have a lot of family here. Like, I have an aunt and uncle who live in a windmill. And I come from a long line of cheese makers. I have several aunts and uncles that have cheese farms, making Gouda.

"If you go to the Gouda Cheese Museum, there’s a video on how to make Gouda cheese. My aunt, she’s in the video and my opa, my grandpa, was on the postcards."

Would he ever consider remixing auntie's video tutorial?

"I don’t know if that’d be a very cool remix, but I could try," he laughs. 

Nick DenBoer, everyone; a chicken and cheese man for sure.

Read next:  Shinichiro Watanabe and Takashi Murakami get in on the music video game for Flying Lotus and Billie Eilish

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