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The Charming, Lyrical Sweetness of ‘The Day I Became a Bird’

Oscar-winning ‘The Lost Thing’ director Andrew Ruhemann and producer David Park talk about their soulful animated short, in which a young boy finds an unusual way to win the heart of his crush.

“In 2019, I went to the Bologna Book Fair looking for inspiration,” writes Andrew Ruhemann about his new animated short film, The Day I Became a Bird. There, “amidst the madness of over 1,000 book stalls,” he saw an image and a title on the front cover of a children’s book by Ingrid Chabbert and Raúl Nieto Guridi that immediately caught his attention. Delving into the thin volume, he found an enchanted world that he somehow knew would make a great short film. As the father of a 10-year-old boy, he was also strongly motivated to create something “charming, humorous, soulful and lyrical” to compete with the hyperkinetic imagery with which he and his son (among billions of others) are constantly bombarded.

As the founder of the British production company Passion Pictures, as well as an Annecy Cristal and Oscar winner for his 2010 animated short The Lost Thing (co-directed with Shaun Tan), Ruhemann wasn’t exactly starting from zero. Nonetheless, like most independent filmmakers, he and producer David Park had to scramble to get the short made.

We spoke with Ruhemann and Park about the making of The Day I Became a Bird, including Ruhemann’s atypical collaboration with the book’s author, and what drove the filmmakers to use Unreal Engine for the production.

AWN: Andrew, in explaining how you came to make the film, you talk about being at a book fair, where somehow, amid the millions of books, this book caught your eye. Can you say a little more about what appealed to you and what made you think that it would make a good short?

Andrew Ruhemann: Good question. The first thing I always go for is a title. The Lost Thing had a drama inherent in it – if something's lost, it needs to be found, or we're going to want it to be found. And what kind of thing is it? With The Day I Became a Bird, there was something very lyrical about the title and, again, it piqued my interest right off the bat. I thought, okay, it's about transformation, and animation is brilliant with transformation.

And then, like The Lost Thing, it had really beautiful imagery. And when you looked at the picture, you were like, well, is that a cute drawing of a bird or is it actually somebody inside a bird costume? And if you looked more closely, you could see it was somebody inside a bird costume. And when I'd realized that, I thought, okay, now I want to know more. The book is only eight or nine pages long, but the drawings were so engaging. There was one drawing in particular where the boy is in his costume sitting with all his classmates, who are just in their normal everyday clothes. And I just thought, wow, that is so brave to do that, and then I was off.

AWN: So what were the biggest challenges of adapting a book into a film, especially such a short book that’s mostly pictures?

AR: I first realized with The Lost Thing that I prefer to start with a few structures in place. I'm not a director who likes to write, create from scratch, not yet anyway. I find it much easier working with a template that speaks to me and gives me a few boundaries to work with that I know I can always break through later if I need to. Bird had some beautiful starting points, a few great foundations that I could build on. What I would have found difficult is if I didn't feel a connection to the originators of the story. If we saw things differently, that would be difficult. But I organized a meeting with [author] Ingrid Chabbert and we just talked about the story for three days and discussed how we might expand it, and we were completely on the same page.

AWN: It sounds like that was definitely to your advantage. In a lot of adaptations, there's minimal, if any, communication or collaboration with the originators of the material.

AR: That is something in the industry that puzzles me slightly, including on live-action films I've worked on. People are so reluctant to get the original author involved, but this story has originated from them. The beauty, the poetry of this originated from them. Why would I not want to start there and hope I can get them to see me as a visual interpreter, a film interpreter of their story?

AWN: How did you decide to use Unreal Engine for the project?

AR: For me, it had to do with wanting a particular look. A few people said, it looks 2D, why don't you just do it in 2D? But I was very keen to make sure it had a cinematic quality to it. I don't come from animation – I mean I've been in animation for a long time, but it's not where I started – and I think more like a live-action director. So I wanted the flexibility and the scale that I thought 3D could give us.

David Park: We had a couple of really good Unreal artists at Passion at the time, including Hannah Wallers, who ended up being a very big part of Bird. And there were a couple of other folks who had finished an Unreal project recently, and we thought that experience was interesting and the look was really interesting. So when we were considering what Bird would look like, we talked about it internally with the team and it was, like, we think we could probably get that with Unreal, but it might be tricky.

Andrew wanted to go for a unique super-stylized 3D watercolor look with dynamic cameras and I thought, well, maybe Unreal wants to support this because no one else is doing anything quite like this. Unreal had the MegaGrant program going in full force at the time, and I contacted Karen Dufilho at Epic Games. We showed her some tests we did and Andrew described what his vision was and she was like, “Oh yeah, I'm in. I think we would love to support this.” So out of the gate they joined in and we got a MegaGrant and they were very supportive throughout the production.

AWN: The film is obviously 3D, but there's a distinct 2D feel to it. Some of the design elements are transparent, which I think gives it a really beautiful look. What was the process that led you to his style?

AR: Christian Mills, one of our creative directors, did a brilliant test very early on that immediately showed us a route, a path to what this might look like. His goal was to try and keep the integrity of the original designs, which have a real charm and beauty in their simplicity, while bringing it into 3D. And the minute I saw that, I thought, right, we can make this. This is the way to go.

AWN: Your director's notes mentioned that you looked at this film as the antithesis of the fast, almost aggressive imagery we consume all day long. And it definitely has a very gentle, smooth, almost minimalist approach. Yet it keeps your attention – it keeps you looking in the right place and it keeps your attention through the whole film. Tell me a little bit about how you found that place.

AR: I think there's always a worry, especially now, that you're going to bore people with your style and pace. But there's a way in which this is like music for me, and I've almost got a tempo and a rhythm in the back of my mind as I’m making it. Yes, I'm a director, but I'm also conductor, so I'm almost conducting my way through it. Probably the most important stage for me is the previs stage when we lace up the track or temp track. I largely trust my instincts, but I also turn to my team and ask them what they think. And there were a few times when David and I butted heads, where he'd say, well, you could just cut to here and he doesn't have to walk all the way across the screen. And I would be, no, no, he does because I'm conducting and I want him to enter and exit.

DP: I was really impressed with the deliberate feel and pacing of the piece. I was really excited by it, but I did push him sometimes because it did feel like it was getting long. But Andy was very clear about what he wanted, and I'm glad he stuck to his guns because I personally love the pace of it. It washes over you and it's very peaceful. It's nice to have a break from all of the staccato, fast-cut stuff you see these days, and to see something really lovely and beautiful.

AWN: Speaking of music, the actual music in the film, and the use of sound – there's some laughter and some interaction between the characters – is very minimalist. It's all very nuanced. And I think what aids in the pacing, and what contributes to the sweetness of this film, is your use of music and sound. Tell me a little bit about your approach – how you dialed it up, or dialed it down – to arrive at what we have in the final film.

AR: It's interesting that you say dial it up and dial it down. What was really important to me was that the sound changes through the film, because it changes as the boy is changing. He is tuned into a different world at the beginning. He's tuned into his boy world. But as the film progresses, the bird songs, the sounds of nature change. So by the end of it, and the same is true visually, it’s much brighter. I don't expect people to notice it, but I'm hoping they feel it so that they actually experience the same thing that the boy is experiencing.

It's very interesting watching people at the end of the film. They sit very quietly and there's a big pause. It doesn't matter whether they're a big studio exec or somebody else. Nobody interrupts the credits, which actually are almost my favorite part of the whole thing. We just sit in silence, there’s this long pause, and then everybody wants to talk about it. I think it's because they're going through that same kind of experience of tuning in.

AWN: It's one thing to simply be entertained by a film and it's another thing to feel like you’re part of the story. It's much more intimate, and I think that's to your credit as filmmakers, to have created that type of experience.

AR: Thank you. There's two things I'd like to say about that. One is that my son, on whom the main character is based and to whom the movie is dedicated, doesn't recognize himself in this at all and teases me about it, like, “dad, this is not me.” And I'm like, well, at least we can agree that the bit with the computer in the bedroom is you. And he concedes that. And what I've said to him is that this is a hymn to you. This is what I wish for you. And it's actually what I wish for all of us, which is a glimmer of something other, a connection beyond. I know that may sound rather pretentious, but I think in this day and age it’s just so important. We're bombarded with conflict and noise and I do wish this for us all, a glimmer, a connection beyond, something metaphysical.

And then I'd just like to give a shout-out to Mara Carlyle and Max de Wardener, the two composers, because they were just genius with this. I was very concerned that this could have ended up looking a bit preschool. It's so simple. If it went too far, it would drop into that. And no offense to preschool, but that's not what this is. Some of the themes, I think, are quite layered and sophisticated. And I talked to the composers about that and they were like, we get it. And that's why I love the fact they've got these sounds. There are these whistles, bird whistles, that have been manipulated and run underneath the more instrumental stuff. So you've got these lovely light motifs and melodies, but there are also these electronic manipulated bird sounds that I think just give it a layer that elevates the whole thing.

AWN: Looking back, what would you say were the biggest challenges for you in making this film?

DP: I've always been a giant shorts fan, and Pixar had a huge tradition with short films, and I come from that world. And when I arrived and saw Andrew’s tests and the story he wanted to tell, I was really excited because I like shorts so much. For me, the best animated projects are very brave in the stories they're trying to tell and the styles they're trying to use. But sometimes certain styles and storylines won't hold up for 90 minutes, so I think shorts are really important. But shorts are hard to fund and it’s hard to find people who will support them. And so, for me, the trickiest thing was just finding the right support structure of people who were interested in making the short. So huge thanks to Epic and Karen Dufilho for believing in shorts and supporting quality.

AR: I think that really says it all. It is just how are you going to fund it and where is it going to end up. And the second thing is very hard to find these days. At the moment, this isn't sold. It's not on any platform. It's looking for a home.

Dan Sarto's picture

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