There’s no gut check like a worldwide film premier at the Annecy International Animation Festival. Audiences are passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about animation. They are quick to embrace filmmakers and their work no matter the circumstances – if they like the film. They are equally quick to dismiss films, often vehemently, no matter the pedigree, that for whatever reason, they don’t like. You just never know.
Following last year’s Annecy world premiere of Get A Horse, Disney once again treated the Annecy crowd to the world’s first official glance at a brand new studio short. This time, the gem was Patrick Osborne’s Feast, a love story told through a beautifully illustrated succession of meals being fed a stray Boston terrier.
The screening and behind-the-scenes production presentation, led by the film’s producer, Kristina Reed (producer on the Oscar-winning Paperman), along with Patrick and production designer Jeff Turley, elicited several loud ovations from the packed Les Haras theatre. If that wasn’t enough, the program finished with a presentation of never-before-seen clips from the upcoming Disney feature, Big Hero 6.
Later that evening, I got a chance to speak with Patrick and Jeff, who talked with me at length about the making of their short.
Dan Sarto: The response you got here in Annecy at the screening was tremendous. They’re a knowledgeable crowd. You’ll know if they don’t love something.
Patrick Osborne: It’s the best crowd. They’re all animators. On day one, when you get the call to make your short, you think, “Oh God, I can’t wait to show this in Annecy.”
DS: Walk me through the genesis of the story and how you first pitched it at the studio.
PO: I had written down an idea in a sketchbook in 2006 about the fact that there was something to the ritual of having dinner. You can take meaning out of each meal. If you just showed meals, you could tell a story of a person looking for a date, finding one, having the “impress” dinner, the “we didn’t need to eat, we just went to the bedroom” dinner, the “we’re fighting and food is everywhere” dinner. There are lots of things you can do story-wise just with hands and food. To me, it wasn’t necessarily an animated idea. It was just something story-wise that connected with me. And I figured, I’m not that weird of a person that if this connected with me, it might connect with other people as well. I think that’s the basis of most art. If there is something you do that you just observe naturally and react to it, other people will connect to it as well. That was the start of the idea.
So when the studio asked for pitches, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do? Maybe there’s something there with that thing. And two other that things.” [Note – the studio’s pitch program requires each person to submit three pitches]. You hope you have enough in these ideas that something sticks. If you just pulled something out of the air and contrived a story, it would somehow feel dishonest. My goal was, I’m going to pitch, I’m going to love each of my ideas, and if any one of them gets picked I will love making it into a film. Luckily that happened. It’s a privilege you just can’t imagine.
When you submit pitches, in the back of your head, you’re thinking, “I don’t want to make this anyway.” So, if it doesn’t happen here, maybe we’ll find a way to do it somewhere else later somehow.
DS: 75 pitches, your film gets chosen. When you got the call, what went through your mind?
PO: Well, I have it recorded, though I’ll never show anybody. I went for a run and sat at the top of the hill behind the studio and talked out loud on video. It was a little bit of disbelief. It was also a little bit of, “Oh man, we promised a lot of stuff to John [Lasseter].” Now I started worrying about delivering on all of that. In your pitch, you’re promising all this stuff. You’re selling it. To have to deliver on that now is daunting. I knew visually we could make it great. But to deliver on the story so it would make sense to people, you’re never really sure you can do until you show it to someone.
We had a couple internal screenings of layout versions but with no animation. But we figured we’d be OK because even without animation, people were crying. And laughing. So maybe there’s something there that the animation will make better.
DS: You and Jeff have known each other for some time and worked together in the past. You’ve each taken on new, more senior roles on this film. What have been the biggest challenges for each of you on the production?
PO: For me, everything is new. I’ve been an animator. I’ve been head of animation. But I’ve never done story. I’ve never had real significant input into design. So to jump into storyboarding and writing, to develop along with John Lasseter’s and Jim Reardon’s help was entirely an education. It was a very intimidating and amazing learning experience for them to help me through that process. And the faith that they bring is amazing too. “We liked the pitch. Do it!” Once you get into production, I’m very comfortable there. I understand how typical pipelines work and how we wanted to break in a new one, kind of mess with it. The tricky part for me was getting the story together enough to be competent.
DS: Directors seem to either come from story or from animation. Were you more prepared to write and direct this short coming from an animation background?
PO: Maybe. I was definitely less prepared to get the story right. I’m into breaking tools. I really love taking what exists and not using it on what it’s designed for. I was very in tune and prepared for that aspect…the animation side. Working with all the tools in the production pipeline, understanding how the images are really banging, how to make them work differently, when they’re causing a major problem or you just need to ask someone to work a little harder or do something a little differently. There’s a big difference between production and story. But pretty quickly you get a sense of how much room you have with every group, how much you can push, whether you’re agitating them or not, how to inspire them. You also get a sense of where people want to push themselves. You can lean on that a little bit to get people to rise to the occasion.
DS: Jeff, what about challenges for you in a new role on this short?
Jeff Turley: Well for me, I don’t production design for features, so that was a big change on this film. Staffing on a short is very different. You use what you can get. On a feature, you pretty much get what you want. On a short, you have to work scrappy. You have to do a bit of homework to understand what the artists are interested in, what they work well with. Then you have to pickup the rest. You don’t have a lot of time. On a feature, you have a bit more time to develop ideas. On a short, you have to be really on point and communicate really well. Our meetings were very tight. We’d have everyone in the room. On a feature, you’d piece that out into separate areas because you’re working with a lot more people. I’ve never communicated so tightly with a group where everyone was on board. Everyone knew what we were going for. It just made it that much smoother.
DS: Well that speaks to the inherent collaborative nature of an animation production.
PO: On a short, there’s really no departments. The people are all there.
JT: Everyone has their phones out… “OK, I’ll email them right now.” You get so much done at every meeting. It feels like art school. Except the coffee is better.
DS: When you assess the visual development process of many animated projects, it seems that if you had stopped at any given interim iteration, you’d have ended up with great designs. Sometimes, you might argue the final designs were not as crisp or interesting as interim designs. When do you know it’s time to stop, that your designs are good and ready for production?
JT: You always want to make sure you have a fresh idea. If you work on it beyond that, it starts to feel stale. You get to a point where you feel it’s getting better, but really, it’s just getting different. It’s a director’s call to manage that, to see things from a big picture perspective. I rely on Patrick to tell me, “Listen, I think you’ve gone too far.” Because I do. I always go too far. You have to have people you trust around you to tell you that. That’s what makes a team work so well. You have to rely on other people to tell you when something is ready.
DS: Which begs the question, when do you know a scene is done? Who decides it’s good enough?
PO: I never felt I had to “move on.” It never seemed like a forced case. When you’re designing characters, it doesn’t seem like time is limiting you at that step. In your imagination, there is a feeling that each character has. And although what you have at any point may be a great design, it just doesn’t feel right yet. There is something that doesn’t hit. It’s completely arbitrary if you think about it. It’s your taste versus someone else’s taste.
JT: It’s also not linear. If you’re not sure it’s working, you have to test it on how it will affect the production at the end. The character goes through with this set. Then it goes through with another set. If it doesn’t work with both of them then it’s wrong. You can’t just judge it on its own. You have to see the whole picture in a non-linear way. If this character is not supporting the story at this point, why are we designing all this crap? Let’s not design everything in the room if we’re not going to even see it in the camera.
DS: In your presentation, you showed how you did draw overs on top of designs and models, made minor changes in the size of a jaw, or the length of the nose on the Boston terrier. What drives decisions like that?
PO: You hone in on it as a group. One person pitches an idea and everyone will say, “Oh, that’s almost there.” You’ll look through a couple shots and it becomes clear to the group that the proportions on a character’s model need to be changed. It’s a tricky thing to describe. You bring on a production designer because of their taste for that sort of thing. We already know what direction the character designer is headed. We just need to nudge it a bit.
JT: It’s based on what is needed. There are certain things the rigs won’t allow. So you have to compromise. Which appeal do you want based on which compromise we make? You want to try and stick with your original idea, your original image that sparked the character design. I feel that you should stick to that.
DS: You just finished the film. You’re just beginning to talk about it to the community. What are the main things you learned from this experience that you’ll take with you to your next production efforts?
PO: There’s so much stuff. The power behind inspiring and cheerleading a team to work towards a certain goal is pretty strong. If you are sure in your own mind about why you’re doing something, then what you need to do is actually very clear. That can translate into momentum very quickly. In high school, I played volleyball a lot. In volleyball, momentum is everything. A terrible team can roll over a good team just by riding momentum. When your production gets on a roll, you can generate a lot of inspirational momentum, even within a small short film environment.
Then there’s the whole support side of things. You’re making this little craft project. You’re sure about some parts of it. But all the parts you’re not sure about, you don’t have to worry about them because the studio is there to support you. You don’t have to worry about everything yourself. You don’t have to worry about the music. You know it will be great because you’ll find somebody. You always have a professional team to deal with the parts you don’t understand. So, you can be different and innovative in the parts you get. Everything else can be supported in really cool ways. It’s really nice not to have to worry about everything. At first, you think you have to worry about so much. It’s a very daunting thing. Then at a certain point, you see the support. And you learn to trust the support, to delegate, to collaborate. You trust people because they’re great. Everyone has worked really hard to get there. They’re all great professionals. You can rely on them.
JT: For me, we learned so much from the testing. We started testing really early and that’s something I’d like to do in the next stages of my development. It’s like John and Ed [Catmull] point out…if you’re going to be wrong, be wrong early. That applies not just to story. I think that should be with every department. Every department should do little pieces of testing as soon as possible. We learned so much that way, in unexpected ways, in ways you never thought you’d do something. It ends up being the way you finally do it.
A lot of the things we did on Paperman, if we hadn’t done any tests, we would never have come up with solutions that production could use. Testing keeps the ideas fresh, it keeps up the confidence of the team. Little pieces of discovery keep your spirits up.
DS: What comes out of a project like this that helps the organization?
PO: The inspiration and idea that this [the new shorts program] happens at the studio, that people now know shorts are being made at the studio, that anyone that works here at any job can pitch shorts, the energy that generated is amazing within a creative company like ours. We had three times as many people pitch this last year as pitched previously. You started seeing people’s pitches all over the studio. People started hanging up drawings. Every department had walls covered with people’s pitches of new shorts.
JT: It gives people a chance who want to take the lead. You can test them out. You let their passion drive their effort.
PO: I’d also like to think that the creative innovations we make on shorts will inspire the people making features, that they can see animation can be so many different things.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.