Years of hard work pay off for Pixar’s Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj as their indie short ‘Borrowed Time’ earns an Academy Award nomination.
Borrowed Time, the Oscar-nominated animated short directed by Pixar animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, is a passion project five years in the making. The seven-minute film tells the story of a weathered Sheriff who returns to the remains of an accident he has spent a lifetime trying to forget. Faced with a tragic mistake made years ago, he must find the strength to carry on.
The film has played in over 50 festivals, won more than 15 awards, including SIGGRAPH's prestigious Best in Show, and received over 8 million views as a Vimeo “Staff Pick."
The directing duo originally met when they were studying film at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. They both worked on each other’s student shorts, and vowed to someday make a film together.
After graduation, Hamou-Lhadj joined Pixar as a character artist, working on such films as WALL•E, Toy Story 3, Partly Cloudy, Day & Night, Brave, Toy Story That Time Forgot and The Good Dinosaur. Meanwhile Coats was working for Blue Sky Studios on such films as Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Rio. In 2010, Coats moved to Pixar, where he has since worked as an animator on Cars 2, Brave, Toy Story OF TERROR!, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.
The directors worked on Borrowed Time in their spare time over the course of five years, while maintaining fulltime duties at Pixar. Their film was produced as part of Pixar's Co-op Program, which allows employees to use Pixar resources to produce independent films, but without full-fledged studio support.
“When we started out making this film, one of the goals was to do something different than what we do at work,” explains Coats. “We get to work on amazing films, but they're more exclusively for kids, and they tend to be family comedies, and we wanted to do something different.”
“For us, that also meant challenging the notion of animation being a genre in itself,” he adds. “We wanted to do something that showed animation could be anything. We wanted to do something more serious, more dramatic and challenge ourselves with a more emotional story so that we could become better storytellers.”
Hamou-Lhadj explains that the two directors had an equal stake in writing and developing the idea, and so they had to find common ground and common themes that resonated with both of them. “Often times if you're making a passion project, the storyline comes from a personal event that you want to explore for yourself in whatever art form you exercise,” he says. “One of the things that we explored in our conversations was the attachment that we give to physical objects and how we can view those with memories of people that we either have lost or fear losing. Both of us had been through similar [experiences] with that, and we had to weave those together in a way that led into the film that wasn't necessarily derived from a direct personal experience but was something we shared.”
He continues, “The idea of making a Western in particular happened to fit with that thematic choice of doing something that is a little bit more mature, a little darker, a little bit outside of what you would expect, and something that is already specifically recognized as a genre, where we can say, ‘This is irrefutably a Western,’ not just an animated film.”
Coats describes that originally, they thought it would take around two years to finish the film. “Initially we carved out a quick treatment and went straight to the storyboards,” he says. “It was a little naïve of us to do it this way, but we're decidedly more visual storytellers, and so…we leaned on techniques and shots and filmmaking as opposed to the writing and storytelling.”
He adds that after a couple of attempts they realized that they had a lot to learn. So, they enlisted the aid of writer Mark Harris and together the three of them started hashing out different versions of a script. “We kept leaning back on drawing and designing and modeling, as we built the characters. We were doing this in tandem with the writing,” says Coats. “That got us into trouble a couple times, because we had characters that we had already modeled and shaded which we ended up losing in our first draft. This was all part of our process of learning how to tell stories and keeping ourselves motivated at the same time.”
Coats notes that one of the good things that came out of this unconventional approach was the fact that along the way, they built an overall visual language as well as assets and animatics, and so, after a couple of years, they had a lot to show for their work. “We could show people that were interested in helping us, how serious we were about the film and what it was going to look like. It made us a lot more appealing, because people would ask every year, ‘Hey, are you still working on that short?’ We could say, ‘Yeah. You want to see some of it?’ We had something to show.”
“There are cheaper ways to pitch films to people and to get people excited, but this was moving the status of our film forward from the beginning,” he adds.
Hamou-Lhadj explains that, working with editor Kathy Toon, they developed seven or eight different versions of the film over a three-year period. “At one point, we had gone from the extreme of saying, ‘We're not going to have any dialog. We're going to have this very complicated, interwoven narrative with lots of characters and their relationships,’ which ultimately gave way to putting wall-to-wall dialog to explain everything that was happening because nobody understood it,” he notes. “That was probably our seventh version where we had exhausted everything that we could [think ok] to try to tell the story that we wanted to tell, and it wasn't working. We were honestly trying to tell a feature film story in a short form content. That doesn't really work.”
According to Hamou-Lhadj, this is where they hit their low point, but out of that came an epiphany. “We felt the need to walk away with something tangible,” he says. “We decided to cut the teaser. We took the 10-minute film and brought it down to around a minute. That would be the concept, something that we could shop around and hopefully get more support.”
That led to a moment of clarity for the directors. “It felt almost embarrassingly simple when we were done compared to what it was originally, but the simplicity can get you to a more compelling or emotional [story]. All of the work we did on the bigger story ended up helping inform the detail of this world,” he concluded.
Coats says that getting the Oscar nomination was an “overwhelming whirlwind experience” and that “our brains are still catching up, like they went to mush when we found out, and now they're starting to solidify again somewhat.”
He adds that “We were lucky that there were two of us. We kept each other in check and we had those moments where we had to step back and ask, ‘Have I gone too far?’ We could just be honest with each other.”
“Most friendships, I think, would not survive a five-year passion project in your off time that's taking away from your loved ones,” notes Hamou Lhadj. “I think we were very grateful for each other and for our producer, Amanda Deering, for shepherding us through all of this. I can't tell you how excited we are to finally be able to put the festival tour behind us, start being creative again and thinking about what's next.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.