Daniel Sousa Talks ‘Feral’

A wild child, raised by wolves, is forced to reconnect with humanity and conform to a society he can barely comprehend.

Daniel Sousa's Feral is available to rent or purchase on Vimeo - click here for more information.

In Daniel Sousa’s Oscar-nominated short Feral, a child raised by wolves is returned to civilization by a hunter, whose attempts to integrate the boy into society meet with unfortunate consequences. With a haunting, hand-painted visual style, the film’s gentle storytelling style, done without dialogue, contrasts beautifully with the rather harsh concepts of the story – what really makes us “human” and separates us from animals?

I recently had a chance to talk to Daniel about his reaction to the nomination, his unique production technique and what underlying issues he tried to address with this film.

Dan Sarto: Congratulations. Where were you and how did you respond when you first heard you’d been nominated?

Daniel Sousa: Thanks so much. It’s been a little surreal so far…I was actually in the car and a friend of mine called me. I didn’t answer him right away because I don’t like to talk while I am driving. So I pulled over and listened to the message. That’s when I realized there were 3 or 4 other messages. I didn’t get an official email from the Academy until several days later.

It felt a little bit like it was happening to someone else. Of course I was expecting some kind of news, good or bad. The biggest news actually was when I was shortlisted. That’s a much bigger field that gets narrowed down to 10 films. That was huge bit of news. I was a bit more prepared for the field narrowing down from 10 to 5. I knew I had a 50:50 chance. But just because I was a bit more prepared, the feeling of getting nominated was still amazing.

DSarto: Why make this particular short film? What made you choose this subject? Is this a story you’ve been meaning to make for some time? What’s the genesis of the films?

DSousa: I like the format of short film. You can say a lot of things in shorts you may not be able to say in a feature. Unusual stories, stories that are a little bit more internal, more poetic, maybe a little bit more abstract. With features you really need to have a story that has a bit more plot to it. There is something about animation that after the first 10 minutes or so, that magic, that alchemy, to me it starts to wear off a little bit. If you don’t have a strong story, then it doesn’t matter what medium it’s made in. So I wanted to make sure my film stayed short.

As far as the film’s themes, these are ideas that I have been developing for a while in my other films as well. They all pertain to similar issues, which basically come down to examining the difference between animals and humans. What separates us from the animal world, the duality between our intellects and our animal urges. I explored that with Minotaur, a half-man, half-beast creature. I explored it a little bit with Fable, but both those films were based on fairy tales and myths. 

Feral was based on actual accounts. Though it’s still a fictional story, it’s an amalgam of research I did. It didn’t start out as the current story. I started out wanting to explore this idea of what a human being becomes inside a vacuum without the context of civilization, language and memory.  If you are stripped of everything, are you still a human being?

So as I started exploring and researching that idea.  I found the perfect vehicle…the phenomenon of the wild child. You put a baby in a context that is completely alien. What happens to that child? It also got me interested in exploring childhood memories, even the “myth” of childhood. We tend to see childhood as one of two “states.” One is this idyllic state of purity where you haven’t been contaminated by evil thoughts. You are kind of an angel, essentially. But at the same time, there is also the opposite notion of childhood…of the demon child, unrestrained and driven by urges, not really caring about who he or she is hurting, just being driven by those desires and instincts.

It’s really fascinating we have these completely opposite ideas of childhood. Both are a little bit artificial. Making an animated film takes so long that you end up thinking about a lot of different ideas during the production. I tried to put as much as I could into this film. Even if it’s a very hidden, buried layer, it’s in there. You know it took about 5 years to make, which is a ridiculously long time [laughs].

DSarto: Five years, yikes! Did you come up with a story first, then storyboard and animate? Did you create an animatic? Tell me a bit about your process.

DSousa:  Well, first-of-all I didn’t work on it full time. I teach and do a lot of commercial work to pay the bills. Whenever I had a little gap of time I would work on it. There were a lot of dead ends. I didn’t have a complete idea before starting. I did a lot of animation testing, a lot of paintings and a lot of different treatments. I don’t really like to write a script, then do a storyboard and then make the film. That process is absolutely necessary when you’re working with a client or working with other people, to ensure everyone is on board with what you are doing. But I was working by myself and had the luxury of jumping right in and starting on shots, even if I didn’t know how it was going to be connected with other shots. Often, that’s how a film starts. It’s some image I’m obsessed with. I will render it and then start using it together with other images. The film kind of grows organically from the inside out. Because it’s sometimes a jigsaw puzzle, that also means there can be a lot of waste. There are a lot of shots that don’t get used, a lot of tangents that I go off on. Shots that when all is said and done, just don’t make sense in the context of the film anymore.

So there is a lot of detritus created along the way. But, that makes for a richer film in the end because your creative process is a little more intuitive, not quite as formulaic like it can be when you’re just writing and then executing. I also made a couple of other shorter films while I was working on this film. They were rehearsals, little tests.  One was the Windmill and the other was Drift. Those helped me work out the visual language for Feral. Did I want to hand paint the whole thing or use some other kind of technique? What kind of story I wanted to tell? Did I want something a little more abstract or something a little bit more literal? So it helped to make those other films along the way.

DSarto: I’m used to filmmakers with a more linear production trajectory. I would imagine towards the end of that five year period your ideas had coalesced to the point where you moved in a pretty straight line and produced the bulk of the film?

DSousa: Yes. There was a period towards the last year when I knew exactly what kind of film it needed to be. I kind of had an animatic…I had most of the pieces already in place. At that point, it was just a matter of putting it all together. Working with some of the local schools, I was able to get assistance from some interns. RISD, Harvard, the Museum School, Montserrat.  I had a bunch of students over a couple of summers that came into the studio and helped me trace and scan. They even animated a couple of shots and did some compositing. That really started to speed things up. Just to put things into perspective, after that summer, all I had to do basically was the third act. I had a residency where I was able to do all of that in five weeks.  So it wasn’t a matter of how long it took to make the film, but it was more a matter of how long it took to get it right, to think about it and make the right film.  So the actual physical process of animating didn’t take that long.

DSarto: Describe your animation technique. Feral is a beautiful film with an interesting hand-painted look.

DSousa: Well, my background is in painting. I studied painting and illustration in school. I have always wanted to get this painted look in animation. My stepping into animation was actually a desire to bring paintings to life. I wasn’t coming from a literary background of trying to tell stories.  I was coming from the opposite direction where I was trying to make paintings come to life in some way. But of course it takes ridiculously long to paint those individual frames.  So I tried to find shortcuts and different ways to approach it, where I could get the essence of a painting, but in a more reasonable way so you could make a film in less than five years.  So I did a lot of testing.  

Eventually I came up with this way of doing all the rough animation in Flash. I like the intuitive way you can work with Flash. You can work with sound, you can work within the context of the complete edit of the film and can you get this kind of instant gratification with your movements, without having to do pencil tests. So I like working in Flash. But I don’t like the way it looks.

So, what I ended up doing was printing each one of the frames on paper and then tracing by hand to get a handmade gesture. I created masks essentially. Because all the characters are kind of like silhouettes, there is not a lot of information inside. They basically have a silhouette and a shadow.  So there are two passes. I created the silhouettes by hands.  I created the outline of the character and the shadow pass.  I scanned each image back into the computer, and then in After Effects, filled each one of those masks with painted textures that I had scanned separately.

DSartoSo you draw in Flash, print, trace by hand, then rescan into After Effects where you do your animation, textures and compositing?

DSousa:  That’s right, in a nutshell.  It didn’t really take any longer than doing the animation by hand in the first place, because in the traditional process I would still have to do roughs and then do the cleanup. In this case I was doing the roughs in Flash and then doing the cleanup on paper.  The only additional step was printing the sheets of paper which is automated anyway.

DSarto: How did you handle your final edit?

DSousa: I didn’t need to do much editing. It’s the nature of animation that every frame is accounted for in a way. So a lot of editing was actually just done in Flash in the first place. I kept plugging different shots into the animatic as I went. But, ultimately I used Premiere to assemble the film. I would trim a frame here and there. But I didn’t need to do much of that.

DSarto: Looking back on this production what would you say were the biggest challenges that you faced?

DSousa:  I touched on this a bit before, but I think the biggest challenge was the story. The technical part was a challenge, but it was something that could be overcome.  It was just a matter of testing and testing until I got the right look. But story is very subjective. It’s something I hadn’t really tackled in my previous work to this extent.  I had played around with the idea of story, but I was borrowing from established myths or stories that people were already familiar with. Or, I was subverting the idea of what a story is, which is what I did in Fable, with this kind of cyclical narrative, where the end and the beginning are the same and there isn’t really any kind of dramatic journey.

So with Feral, I really wanted the audience to feel for the character and to feel for the journey the character takes. There is no language in the film. How do you tell this story without words, without facial expressions? It was very hard.  I had put a lot of limitations on myself in a way because the characters were are all silhouettes that didn’t really emote very much.  So coming up with the right story, coming up with the right kind of structure and pacing for it was probably the hardest thing.

I like that the film is getting some notoriety because there are a lot of really amazing animated films out there, that share the same kind of sensibilities, that don’t see the light of day. One of the things that I try to express through my work is this idea that animated films don’t need to be for children.  They don’t need to be funny.  You can explore complex ideas with them.  You can explore sophisticated ideas about humanity and the human condition, just like you can with longer formats or with live action. There is not enough exposure to those kinds of artists. I’d love to see more of that type of work in the mainstream.

DSarto: What was your main takeaway from making this film? What did you learn that will make you a better filmmaker on your next film?

DSousa:  Well, there were lots of little things. But, the main thing I learned it to try not to be so precious about everything.  I really slaved over this film. It got to a point where I was just trying to be faithful to the person that I was when I started making the film five years before. Because it took so long to make, I evolved as a human being. But, I still had to finish this idea. So, you have to keep reminding yourself, “Okay, what was it that really sparked my imagination when I started this thing?” It’s important to act on things in a timely way, and try not to be such a perfectionist about making things. I want to try to make things faster and maybe not quite as long.  I have a lot of bad films to get out of my way [laughs].

DSarto: There are some bad ideas you need to get out of your system before you can get to the next good one?

DSousa:  Yeah, before I make another good one I have to rid myself of lot of the bad ones.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.