Oscar-winning producer of ‘Feast’ discusses the world’s most adorable Boston terrier, new technologies, and the animated shorts program at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Disney’s Marvel-inspired Big Hero 6 rocketed into theaters on November 7, accompanied by the studio’s latest short film, Feast.
The story of one man’s love life as seen through the eyes of his best friend and dog, Winston, Feast is revealed bite by bite through the meals they share. Helmed by first-time director Patrick Osborne, who previously served as the head of animation on 2012’s Oscar-winning short Paperman, Feast is produced by Kristina Reed.
Reed became a household name in 2012 when she received her very own security escort at the Academy Awards after sailing a paper airplane from the balcony to celebrate the Oscar win for Paperman, which she produced alongside director John Kahrs.
AWN caught up with Reed during a visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios, where the producer discussed dogs and food, new technologies, and the animated shorts program at WDAS. Check out the Q&A, below:
So, do you have a dog?
I had worked on Big Hero 6 for quite a while, and had sort of promised myself that when we wrapped I would get a dog. And then wrapping Big Hero 6 and coming on to Feast, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t get a dog, I already have one.’
Did you feel that the film’s limited dialog tied your hands somewhat, or did that give you a better perspective from which to tell the story?
The first time we put a cut together with storyboards, it looked like a typical film, where you were cutting around and telling your story, and something was lost in it. It lost the magic somewhere between the original pitch and the first cut. And when Patrick and I looked at it, we realized that some of the magic was in the idea of locking the camera and making the food center screen, as it was in much of the film. And then we also had a writer come on to write lines of dialog, cast professional actors, have them come in and record, put it all in the cut, and realized, it doesn’t matter. The dog doesn’t care. So all that dialog just went to the back. So, it looks limiting, but it was actually a conscious choice. We tried it the other way, on both the counter-moves and the dialog, and it felt ordinary; it felt like another short.
What’s special is then, when we do unlock the camera, it’s also the first moment when Winston looks up from the food and sees the owner’s face. And we want you to believe that for years they have had this very close relationship but he had never looked in the owner’s face deeply because it was all about the food. And suddenly to look and see what his owner is feeling and to care; we wanted that to feel different. So, we did that by: you see the face, we unlock the camera; the dog makes a choice -- for the first time -- to walk away from food and to go do something for his owner -- we want you to feel that cinematically. It’s a big shift.
When did you decide to partner with -- I think it’s the Adopt-a-Pet Foundation?
We haven’t partnered with a specific group. We take our responsibility as Disney very seriously, and we wanted to find out what the veterinary community thought about showing the dog eating a lot of human food. What’s interesting is that all the vets we talked to commented on the fact that Winston is adopted from off the street -- they loved that. When we said we would be happy to put something at the end of the credits encouraging people to adopt a pet, they were ecstatic. So, we didn’t partner with anyone in particular because we think that adopting from anywhere is pretty good.
I didn’t see any chocolate. Was there any concern about the dog eating spaghetti, meatballs and pizza?
No chocolate, no onions; we did our research. Anything that you should not feed a dog we did not have in the short.
How did the vets react to all the food?
It’s interesting, but their attitude was ‘We know people do this.’ It’s a huge sign of love in all human cultures to share food, if you think about it: Thanksgiving and Christmas…you know, there’s that moment when you’re dating someone that you feel comfortable reaching over and eating off their plate. There’s just something symbolic about sharing food with something or someone you love, so vets acknowledged that it’s going on, and one vet in particular said, ‘I try to tell people to keep it under 10 percent of their dog’s diet.’
We feel like, the short covers 12 years of a man’s life. We have six minutes to show a relationship, and those are the moments that we chose to tell the story about. But we were very conscientious; you notice Winston doesn’t gain weight, whereas James and his spaghetti-eating self gains weight the whole time; we believe that James and the dog are having a physically active relationship, running on beaches, etcetera, but we just don’t have time in six minutes to show all those moments.
Was the short always intended to be a companion to Big Hero 6?
It was greenlit knowing that that was where it would go, but it wasn’t about looking to pair a short with Big Hero 6 thematically or anything like that. That was never a concern; it was really about finding the best idea. Out of about 75 ideas, Patrick’s idea about Feast was the one that got greenlit last year.
What were some of the other ideas?
You know, I don’t know because I wasn’t involved in the short selection process, but we just went through it another time to pick a short for Zootopia, so that one’s going into production, and they’re just firing up the shorts selection process again to decide for Moana.
One of the coolest tenants of our shorts program is that it doesn’t matter where you’re employed -- if you’re employed at Disney Animation you can pitch an idea. You don’t have to be a story artist or an animator; you can be a PA or a security guard. And what I love about that is there’s something that’s really changed in the DNA of Disney Animation -- I think you can see it in our work over the last few years -- and one of the core tenants is that good ideas come from everyone, and we’re all tellers of stories, and we’re all interested in other stories, so a really great idea can come from anyone.
What were some of the new technologies used for the short?
Well, we were actually the first short -- the first production -- to use Hyperion, which was the rendering tool used on Big Hero 6. It was also the first time that Meander, the drawing tool from Paperman, was used in color.
What’s so fascinating to me -- what I love about working with Patrick is that he a tool user. He likes to take things and turn them on their head to see how they work differently. Hyperion in particular was being written to capture Global Illumination, and the idea of what we call “truth in materials” -- you know, wood looks like wood and reacts to light the way wood would; metal reacts to light the way metal would -- our short has a very hand handmade feel, and it’s the rough edges and sort of flat texture that we use but we’re still running through the same renderer. And I think, just, hats off to Patrick for making that work.
How did you decide to make Winston a Boston terrier?
Well, first of all I’ll say that somehow all dog lovers that I’ve spoken to recognize their relationship with their dog in our movie, which I love that it’s non-specific for them. We chose the dog for three reasons: number one, we wanted to pick a dog that had never been used in a Disney film before. And that’s not trivial. 85 years of animated history that we had to clear so we could have a unique dog. Also, we wanted a dog that was small because we wanted to show him getting promoted from the floor to the chair to the table and then back again.
Another very pragmatic reason is that it’s a very flat rendering style. You can’t always see the volumes of the dog as he’s turning so we needed a pattern on his face so that you would know as he looked around, you could see what he was doing. And somewhere along the way a Boston crossed Patrick’s path and he became the dog.
And then we found out that a couple of employees had Bostons. And we needed reference dogs for the animators and the rig builders so we brought the dogs in and had a couple of play dates. What’s really cool is you look up and realize, ‘wait, half the people in this room aren’t on the crew.’ They’re all there because they want to play with dogs! It’s true what they say about how dogs help relax people. Now I’m, like, kind of on a mission: ‘we should just have a dog in here every month just to de-stress people.’
Was there any discussion about the name?
Patrick picked that name out because -- it’s amazing, but he really gives everything a lot of careful thought. He knew that the word “Winston” would not be entirely visible on the screen, but he liked the idea of “Wins” and “ton.” Once he figured that out, that was the name.
What about the title of the short?
I think he had some title originally like “While We Were Eating,” and then over the early parts of development he started looking for other words that meant food and eating and “Feast” just lends itself. Much catchier than “Buffet.”
It’s great because it’s a noun and a verb.
And there’s something positive about it, too. No one has a negative feeling about “Feast.”
What’s the most exciting part of the process for you?
Probably the most exciting thing when you work on something is to get people to see it. And animated shorts sort of have a history of quietly fading away, and when you have the joy of going out with a major feature film -- you go to 30 other countries, the little dialog that there is will get translated, it will be seen by the world and that’s pretty cool.
Tell us more about the shorts program. Are there other shorts that we don’t get to see?
In recent years they’ve all been released. Nessie, Paperman, Get A Horse!, the ones getting greenlit are all being released. There’s something that happened in the last few years where shorts just got this creative energy around them. It ignited something in the studio. That’s why now we’ve formalized the shorts program, and made a decree they will all release if they can be finished in time.
Having done a couple of these now, the thing is that everybody gets to practice their storytelling. When you’re on a feature film with many, many people, there’s a little less access to the director and the cut and the choices, but when it’s a smaller crew you get to have conversations and bring ideas forward at the right moment, and you know when that moment is because you’re involved. The short’s sort of easier to keep track of; it’s a chance for people to try new roles, so not only is Patrick a brand-new director, but our animation supervisor had never done that role; the effects supe is trying it for the first time; my AP had never been an AP before -- we’re all just practicing things we hadn’t done before. And that also brings an enthusiasm and commitment to the shorts that’s really kind of a neat vibe.
How was it for you at Annecy when the film was introduced?
Overwhelming. I’ve got to be honest. That wasn’t my first time at Annecy. My first time had been with a ridiculously stunning short called Paperman that went on to just blow the world away, and so I honestly went to Annecy kind of thinking, ‘well, Paperman was Paperman; this will be different and potentially not as big, and it was every bit as big. Nothing prepares you for having, I don’t know, a huge theater, probably a couple thousand people, stomping --
Wait, not even the Oscar?
Well, you may know the Oscar was a slightly different experience for me in particular --
Oh, that’s right -- the paper airplane.
It wasn’t a thousand people stomping for me.
No, it was a security escort.
So you won’t bring a dog to the Oscars this year?
I’m thinking of smuggling some meatballs in.
You mentioned the shorts that fade away; are there any plans to lengthen the life cycle for Feast and Winston?
Well, obviously, it’ll go out with Big Hero 6 and go onto the DVDs with Big Hero 6; there’s a lot of talk now -- we’re making some really unique shorts. We’ve talked a lot about Paperman, but in my mind Get A Horse! is unbelievably brilliant, and Feast is now going to stand toe-to-toe with those two, and the next one I believe is also going to be incredible. So there’s now sort of talk in the air, ‘do we collect them all and release them?’ I don’t know where that will go; it’s an exciting time to be here and we just want to share that. So anything where we capture this and bring it out to the world.
Jennifer Wolfe is AWN’s Director of News & Content