Why wouldn’t you buy 60 dolls and remake a Nirvana video?

Denver artists John Johnston and Scott Wallace remade Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a cast of dolls, and it’s really something.
5 min. read
John Johnston’s miniature and finely detailed version of Nirvana. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; denverite; colorado; art; nirvana; kurt cobain; music;

John Johnston's miniature and finely detailed version of Nirvana. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The second step to making a miniature recreation of Nirvana's video for Smells Like Teen Spirit is to buy a miniature recreation of Kurt Cobain's head for $25 on eBay.

The first step is to follow your dreams.

"I'm 44 years old," says John Johnston, the Denver commercial artist who directed the video in collaboration with Scott Wallace at their ART HACK studio on Champa Street, a few blocks from Coors Field.

"I've been an artist and shown in arts festivals," he continues," and there’s so many times that you talk yourself out of doing something, and you just get tired of doing that."

Not this time. Their meticulous collaboration was featured recently on Nirvana's official Facebook page, which has to be the ultimate victory for anything starring a tiny Kurt Cobain.

John Johnston reaches to adjust a miniature Kurt Cobain at his studio in Denver. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
But why?

Well, it's best not to look too deeply into the abyss, what with the threat of the abyss looking back, but the Nirvana video is rooted in an earlier project: Wallace and Johnston's doll-based version of the reality show Alaskan Bush People.

"At the time, I was so intrigued by their story, and I really believed it, I thought that they were real," Johnston says of the Alaskan bush persons.

"And then I found out they weren’t real. The more research I did, it turns out they’re fake, just like everybody else! But they’re awesome characters."

So he and Wallace started experimenting with dolls in their warehouse-style space, as a kind of artistic comment on it all, and the results were mildly popular on YouTube.

This all came to a head when New Belgium's film festival offered the artists $1,000 to make a short film.

They realized that it was the 25th anniversary of Nirvana's breakthrough album, and they remembered that they had a ton of lifeless little figures just sitting around, and then Johnston ordered the tiny Kurt Cobain head.

John Johnston's miniature and finely detailed version of Nirvana. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
But how?

The whole Nirvana project took close to a week of full-day shoots, plus a few days of prep and editing, and countless hours more for Wallace to build tiny guitars and a bass, including one that could be broken for maximum rock effect.

"We just had to do it as close as you can to the original," Johnston says. "We knew from experience that the fans, the super-fans of Nirvana, they’d pick that shit apart."

They rebuilt Nirvana's grungy high-school gymnasium on a plywood base, complete with red basketball court lines on a dark floor, and they started modifying their minions.

John Johnston's arm, inscribed with his personal motto, "here and now." (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Cobain's head sits on a woman doll's body, to get his skinny frame right, while bassist Krist Novoselic had to have half his skull transplanted in order to get the right hairdo.

Dave Grohl, meanwhile – poor, poor Dave Grohl – got screws in his shoulders "so he could rock harder."

Sticks, wires and string made the band members move. The scenes with the 50-plus other dolls were a little more primitive.

"We ended up, with those moshing scenes and the crowd scenes, just holding them like this – three or four of them in our hands," Johnston says, "like you would as a kid."

Johnston watched the original a few hundred times as they worked, picking up all these new details that he just had to add – a word on Grohl's shirt, a piece of duct tape, any little thing.

The whole thing is admittedly pretty janky. The dolls' lips don't move, and it's not hard to see their strings – yet the video moved into a uncanny valley when its makers added lighting and a smoke machine.

It's funny, especially one when of the dolls does a backflip into the crowd, but Johnston found something deeper. All that time with Little Kurt reminded him of the real Cobain's late genius.

John Johnston presides over his workshop. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"I'm surprised. There was a point when we were filming that I felt really sad ... I missed him after doing it, and spending that much time listening and watching the music video," he says.

"That's why we were so lucky to do this video. I don’t think there’s many bands or videos that do what (the original) did. That killed every hair band for a long time. It killed metal. It was just so different – it wasn’t about this big rockstar look anymore. It was like thrift store stuff. It's like, 'Let's just go out and play.'"

OK, so what's next?

"I wanna recreate Whip It in miniature."

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