From CalArts writing exercise to Oscar® Nomination, the director shares his filmmaking journey.
In many circles of society, public gestures of faith, such as giving thanks to God, are as commonplace as thanking one’s parents or spouse. God is thanked for everything from wins at the ballot box to wins at the Super Bowl. The recent journey of Tim Tebow into the frenzied spotlight of media hysteria shows that different segments of the public either gravitate towards, shower ridicule on, or are offended by overt acts of religious faith. It’s safe to say that within the entertainment business, any project deemed to promote an organized religious agenda, however simple or subtle, is apt to be ridiculed, marginalized, ignored or otherwise catch some flak.
In the U.S., a country founded on religious faith, we like stories about righteous characters with well-defined moral values operating within clearly delineated paths of good versus evil, of right and wrong. Enter Minkyu Lee and his Oscar nominated film, Adam and Dog, a film about the first days of creation in the Garden of Eden and how Dog befriended and became inseparable from Adam. A beautiful, traditionally animated 2D film, Adam and Dog delves into the most fundamental Biblical themes in subtle, gentle tones. I recently had a chance to talk to Minkyu about the making of his film, the challenges of both directing and producing at the same time and his thoughts on how people will view the religious foundation of the story.
Dan Sarto: First off, congratulations on the nomination.
Minkyu Lee: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I appreciate that, thanks.
DS: So tell me a little bit about the genesis of the film, no pun intended…how the story came about. What led you to make this film?
ML: Well, it’s kind of a long story. But it all started with me reading this article in National Geographic about the origin of dogs. The article talked about how scientists guess that dogs came from wolves because dogs are a sub species of wolves. They were guessing that a phenomenon happened where within a pack of wolves, sometimes a more docile, friendlier wolf wandered off from the pack to a human village and then the humans would feed that wolf, who would then just stick around living in that village. That more gentle or docile wolf would then mate with another gentler, docile wolf that also happened to be in the village. The article talked about the idea that gentleness, a docile kind of nature was then encoded into wolf genes and when those wolves gave birth their offspring would be even gentler than the parents.
ML: It seems like dogs exist within every culture. If you go to Europe, they have dogs. If you go to China, they have dogs. In ancient Egypt they had dogs. Even somewhere way up in the mountains of Tibet they have their own Tibetan dogs. That made me think that if the National Geographic article is accurate then this must have happened all over the world and not just in one place. It was kind of encoded or written in dog genes that they would act that way because other animals don’t seem to have taken the same evolutionary path.
It seemed like a real beautiful idea, almost like a gift to mankind. That was just an idea that was floating around in my head. At that time, I was in the film directing program at Cal Arts. During a writing workshop, while doing some writing exercises, that article came to mind. It made me think about the origin of dogs and because of my faith, I immediately thought of the story of Genesis. That led to me to write the story.
I thought it was a neat story that had some potential. One day I had a vision for making a film based on that idea. At that time I was really being influenced by filmmakers like [Andrei] Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, Sofia Coppola and [Jean-Luc] Godard, who all had a slightly different attitude towards narrative. I always wanted to do an animated film like that for something that had a more traditional Hollywood snappy entertainment driven narrative. With that backdrop, the story in the back of my head then came together.
DS: So, after that idea came together, what came next? Did you write a script or did you go straight to storyboarding? Tell me about your process.
ML: Well, I definitely wrote the script first but because there is no dialogue in the film, it was more like just a prose treatment of what the story was. Then I just took it to storyboarding. I went through a few iterations. I never changed what the story was, what the diegetic story was. I changed what the key moments would be or what the shots would be. I played around with that until I locked it down and then started animating.
DS: And how long did it take you to make the film?
ML: Altogether almost three years. At that time, I was working at Disney too, first as an animator on Winnie the Pooh and then as a character designer on Wreck-It Ralph. With a day job, I could only really work on it either on the weekends or if I wasn’t too tired after work.
ML: That went on for around two years, just me working in my spare time. It’s really easy for animation filmmakers to spend a lot of time on their short films. They can drag it out forever and I didn’t want that to happen. I really wanted to see this project done. I committed to finishing it and then move on to some other ideas that I wanted to work on. So I took about four months off from Disney. During those four months, I really focused and got the bulk of the film done.
DS: Tell me about the film’s animation style? How did you produce the film?
ML: The film was done with traditional hand drawn animation. There wasn’t any CG involved. Some of the animators were more comfortable with animating on paper. In the case of me and one of my lead animators, Jennifer Hager, who is a 3D animator at Disney, we animated the majority of our shots on a program called TV Paint straight into the computer. That saved us a lot of time because you don’t have to do scanning or touch ups. We composited the film in After Effects and edited in Adobe Premiere.
DS: How long did it take to do your final editing?
ML: Well, that’s a tricky question. We were animating until the very last minute just because I wanted some shots fixed. The editing itself didn’t really take that much time because I had all the shots and cuts figured out in the storyboarding stage. Also, a big part of the film that I wanted to emphasize to the audience, that I emphasized a lot to the animators, is that I really wanted this to be a performance driven film, much like a character study. Part of the reason why is because we [all the animators on the film] felt like a lot of animated films these days are too plot driven, always trying to keep the energy up rather than letting the characters be who they are. We wanted to portray moments in life rather than trying to get a fast paced story moving forward. That’s precisely the reason that the animators wanted to work on this film.
ML: So even though I did figure out a lot of the shots in the animatic stage, I definitely let the animators perform. I told them if you really feel like the shot should be wider, or if you want the shot to have more breathing room so you can put in a performance that you believe in, then you should do it. I did edit out a little bit here and there. But I wanted to capture the animators’ performances. Too much editing will mess that up.
DS: Let’s talk about the subject matter for a moment. Obviously, your story is based on Biblical characters. But in watching the film, it didn’t seem to be overtly religious.
ML: It’s a very familiar story.
DS: Right. Tell me a little bit about the tone you wanted to take with the story. Were you trying to play down the potential “religious” aspect of the film?
ML: That’s a really good question. It’s really interesting you say that because I’ve been getting very different responses in context to and related to the religious themes of the film. Some people have said, “Wow, that was a very religious and spiritual film” while some people didn’t notice any religious theme at all. It’s delightful to me to hear such a wide variety of responses for one film.
I consider myself a man of faith. Because my faith is a huge part of who I am, I’m sure it leads into everything I create and every decision I make. It does color my world view and it does color my art. So inevitably, I’m sure whether I deliberately tried to put it [themes of faith] in there or not, it’s probably there.
I didn’t want this to be an overtly religious film by any means. I wanted this to be more of a character study, a film that takes an alternative approach to the narrative of an animated film. I worked with two film consultants on the film. One was Glen Keane and the other was Thomas Ethan Harris. I would think they have widely differing faiths. Both approached the film in a different way. I went to Glen a lot to talk about the film. One thing that Glen mentioned, which was a huge part of the film, was the idea of “Grace.” The idea of Grace is such a huge part of my faith. But I think Grace is also a universal element, an idea that is integral to human living. So in terms of the ending of the film, I didn’t want anything to be overt, even the idea of Grace. I didn’t want it to be overtly sentimental or emotionally punctuated. I wanted everything to have this subtle kind of nuance. Glen would use the word “Sprezzatura,” which means this kind of nonchalance. I wanted the film to have that. I wasn’t really trying to do anything overt. Amongst my animators, some of their approaches to the film were very overtly related to their faith and some not at all. Ideally, that’s what I want from this film. I want everyone to discover something different when they watch the film. I don’t want everyone to walk away thinking exactly the same thing, drawing exactly the same conclusion.
DS: I felt that the film was very subtle and that’s what I think is part of its charm. It shows confidence as an artist to allow the story to evolve, allow the characters to do their thing and let the audience make a connection on their own without having to force it on them.
Let’s change subjects. Dog is man's best friend. I think the people’s love for dogs is pretty ubiquitous in every culture. Wherever there are people there are dogs. The variety of dogs you find today is tremendous. You chose to use a fairly non-descript, simple dog…
ML: Right. It was a mutt.
DS: Indeed, a mutt. Why choose that dog?
ML: That’s a really good a question as well. I tried different types of dogs in the beginning. I thought, maybe it’s a Great Dane, maybe it’s a German Shepherd or a Saint Bernard. But here’s the reason why I chose a black mutt, kind of a scrawny, in my mind, a dumpster dog. When I think of Eden, I think of Adam experiencing all the animals, like I show in the film, peacocks and butterflies, beautiful, magnificent, wondrous looking animals. Compared to the other animals, I wanted the dog to look like a bland creature. Nothing in terms of the color, nothing that wows in terms of the fur, nothing really majestic about it. I wanted to show what makes us close to dogs isn’t really the appearance of the dog, even though these days some dogs look really, really cool. I thought it would be interesting to show that all our beautiful dogs of today came from this scrawny mutt. This black dumpster dog if you will. It wasn’t about this dog being a beautiful creature itself, but what was inside the dog that created all these beautiful creatures.
DS: What were the biggest challenges you faced making this film?
ML: Do you have an hour?
ML: Just kidding. Oh, wow! The challenges definitely never stopped. I would pitch the story, some of the visual development designs along with some of the storyboards, to a bunch of different animators. I wasn’t expecting them to participate. I was just looking to hear their thoughts. What they felt about it. Give me some kind of feedback.
With many of the animators, their feedback was, “I like it and I would love to animate a scene for it.” I was so grateful and thankful for the entire crew. They animated for free for me! They all volunteered. Take someone like James Baxter, who is in my mind one of the greatest animators living today, who certainly has done some of the most iconic scenes in animation history. He is an animation giant to me and to a lot of people. He didn’t ask for anything. He said he would love to animate a handful of shots in it. It would be a challenge.
Because we had no budget, we didn’t have a producer. I acted as the producer. But on this film, I learned that the director and the producer really can’t be the same person. It requires different parts of the brain. You can’t have two right brains to get this done. I am definitely never going to do that again. The hard part was trying to take off my director hat, put on my producer hat and try to get this film done logistically while not paying people and not working with tight deadlines.
ML: I can’t force them to work more. It all depended on their free time and how much they felt like animating. So no budget, no producer, those were probably the biggest challenges. The light at the end of the tunnel was always very elusive.
DS: Last question. As we discussed, the film’s religious theme is certainly open to a lot of interpretation. In many circles, people’s religious faith is perceived as a weakness and religious-based themes in entertainment are frowned upon. Have you gotten any criticism regarding the film’s religious theme?
ML: In terms of direct, straight up criticism, someone telling me after watching this film that they didn’t like it because of its religious overtones being too strong, no, I haven’t. I mainly received those kinds of comments in the beginning of the making of the film. As you know, I wrote the story while I was at CalArts. CalArts is an incredibly liberal school. My film directing teachers are wonderful, awesome people. The film would not be at the level it is if it weren’t for the film directing teachers at CalArts. But I remember pitching it to them as a project and as a potential thesis and they raised concerns. Because of the religious theme, they wondered how many festivals would accept it and how it would be perceived in the film world where people might write it off simply as a religious film.
DS: I would have agreed with that concern.
ML: It wasn’t criticism. It was a concern they raised, wondering if that was going to happen and that I should think about that aspect. I certainly appreciated the feedback. It was definitely on my mind. But this is the film that I wanted to make and so I made it.
DS: One last question. How did you react when you heard you were nominated?
ML: It’s settling in little by little by little how my life is kind of different now. I’m getting all these meetings. I have a bunch of projects that I’m developing now that I really want to get off the ground. Meeting with people who could make that happen has been much easier because of the nomination.
But the moment I found out I was nominated, I was just really happy. What immediately came to my mind was everyone who helped to make the film…their faces popped into my head. I’m not joking. We had a slumber party at one of my crew members’ house and it was a little nerve wracking, checking the nomination list. Once I saw my film there, I was so thankful that my crew was there going through this entire process with me. The whole reason we had that slumber party was so that if we didn’t get nominated, we could all wallow together in sorrow and disappointment. It wouldn’t just be me alone. So I was just really thankful to my crew when we found out. It was a happy moment.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.