Minkyu Lee Talks Adam and Dog
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.