Rick DeMott talks to veteran animator Mike Nguyen about his personal quest and his able band of artists as they strive to make his film, My Little World.
Animator Mike Nguyen has traversed a tour of duty at almost all of the major animation studios in the U.S. He's seen firsthand how wasteful overhead, enormous development costs and the conveyor belt technique have drained the life out of animated features for the artists who draw them. After finishing up work on the turbulent ride to finish Osmosis Jones at Warner Bros., Nguyen set out to make a personal short film of his own. Now, three years later, that short has grown into a nearly completed feature entitled My Little World.
Getting to this point took Nguyen a decade, starting with a degree in Character Animation from CalArts. He lists early Disney and animation legend Richard Williams as some of his major influences. In 1989, he started his professional feature animation career as an effects assistant animator on Disney's The Little Mermaid. After working on Disney's The Rescuers Down Under, he served as an animator on the Oscar-nominated classic Beauty and the Beast.
He next went over to Hanna-Barbera to work on Once Upon a Forest, then moved over to Turner Feature Animation for The Pagemaster and Cats Don't Dance. After contributing to Space Jam, he became lead animator on Quest for Camelot and finally assumed the role as supervising animator on The Iron Giant. In the meantime, Nguyen began teaching Character Animation at his alma mater. In 1999, he took freelance jobs on Disney's The Tigger Movie and DreamWorks' The Road to El Dorado.
In 2000, Nguyen decided to make a film based around the dance-like motion of soccer. He felt inspired by his childhood love of the game and the announcement that the 2002 World Cup Soccer Championships would be held for the first time in Asia, split between Korea and Japan. Wondering if the film could be part of the festivities, Nguyen contacted his acquaintances in Korea, who told him that there wasn't much theatrical interest in a 20-minute film. As the story started to develop in his mind, Nguyen discovered a much longer tale, about friendship and the charting of life's simple pleasures, germinating. Before too long, this idea was strong enough to secure funding for a feature from Korean producer Anhee Choi. Hence, Nguyen formed July Films to produce his personal opus.
The film follows youngster Blue as he is consumed by sadness and sent to live with his aunt for the summer. Through his encounters with the local children and the bonds forged by their mutual love of soccer, he learns to open up his heart. The film is completely hand-drawn 2D animation. Computers were only used to scan the images for ink-and-paint, using USAnimation software. The look and feel of the characters and environment is a cross between Hayao Miyazaki and the painterly feel of early Walt Disney features. However, the characters do have an innocent originality with their Barney Rubble eyes and franticly flowing movement that is completely fresh.
Nguyen has seven animators working on the project and admits that for all involved, it's more about the project than the money. Everyone on the staff must, from time to time, take freelance work to supplement his time working on My Little World. Instead of assigned to particular characters, the animators are given sequences to work on. One thing Nguyen points out as a problem at the studios is that individual animator's artistic wishes or experiments have a hard time scaling the chain of command. Inspiration often comes while one is working on an assigned piece, or comes regarding a character or segment someone else is working on, but the animator's pencil is usually locked into what has been approved, with no room to alter it with an improvement or new direction. With the same nit group at July Films, the animators are free to experiment, allowing the animation to grow in a more organic way. Nguyen says there's a script for the film but its used more for investor purposes than anything else.
July Films is seeking seed money to finish clean-up and post-production on the film. All the rights for the film are still available. With the sharp drop of support for 2D productions, Nguyen hopes that his film will show that there is an art and passion to traditional animation that has been lacking in the major studio releases for years. He said, "This isn't about getting mansions for ourselves. We live only so long, and we only have so much time, so we want to leave something behind for future generations to enjoy. We move so fast and I want to remind people of the simple beauty of life like sunlight on your face on a cold day."
Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Magazine. He most recently was the production coordinator for sound company BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation house Perky Pickle Studios. Previously, he served as associate editor for this very site.
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