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Disney XD Sets Channel’s First-Ever Student Short Broadcast

Network to premiere director Yonatan Tal’s diva-inspired animated ‘Nightmare in the Morning.’ 

For the first time ever, Disney XD will broadcast a student short film with the premiere of Yonatan Tal’s animated music video, Nightmare in the Morning, this Saturday, March 24th at 9:00pm ET/PT. Featuring an original song by Abby Lyons and sung by Natalie Perez, Nightmare in the Morning captures, in bold diva-esque splendor, how the director feels every morning when he wakes up.

Tal, born and raised in Israel, started the film in his third year of Character Animation program studies at CalArts – he completed the short as an exchange student that same year at the acclaimed Gobelins l'école de l'image animation school in Paris. The film was named a Vimeo Staff Pick when it first premiered online in 2016 and has played in several major festivals around the world.

AWN recently caught up with the director to talk about his film’s Disney XD debut.

AWN: You started work on this project at CalArts and completed it at Gobelins. What took you from Los Angeles to Paris?  What was that journey like for you?

Yonatan Tal: CalArts and Gobelins have an exchange program that has been successfully running for almost a decade. Through that partnership, I was chosen to be one of the two students that were sent to Paris to spend the second semester at Gobelins and collaborate with the local students on an animated opening for the world’s biggest animation festival, Annecy.

I started working on Nightmare in the Morning during my first semester at CalArts. It quickly became a passion project I felt very strongly about. So, when I went to Paris, I kept working on it during every spare moment. Technically, I didn’t have to make a personal film that year, because I worked on the Annecy opening. But, something about Nightmare didn’t let me leave it undone.

AWN: This is the first time a student film will be broadcast on Disney XD. What has that been like for you? Did you ever imagine that your 3rd year short would have access to this level of distribution and exposure?

YT: I created the film with no expectations. Then again, since I technically didn’t have to make it, there was much less pressure and a lot more creative freedom in the process. Not many people saw it while it was in progress. Most of it was made by me locked up alone with my Cintiq, in the little apartment I had in Paris. I had no idea what the reactions to it will be like.

Now I can say it turned out to be one of the projects I’m most proud of. The reactions to it were extraordinary. Nothing I could have predicted. Having Disney XD air it is beyond my wildest dreams.

AWN: What were some of the visual influences for your character designs?

YT: I was really inspired by aliens. What I like about the idea of aliens is that they can look like anything. While developing the project, I couldn’t think of any famous alien characters that I found appealing. So, I came up with a simple design language that was animation-friendly and inspired by a visual library I created. The main character’s costumes were inspired by Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Avant Garde fashion. The backup dancers’ designs were somewhat more functional. For example, the ones in the bath-house scene have bath caps for heads, swimming fins for feet and towel-jackets.

AWN: The video has a stripped down 2D sensibility while maintaining a certain lushness. What are some of the elements you developed to help strike that balance?

YT: By choosing a simple design language with strong shapes and contrasting colors, I felt it gave the film a crisp and clean look, which is very popular by modern design standards right now. There is a lushness in simplicity that is currently associated with prosperity and wealth. All of this helped to elevate my characters and still stick with my personal sensibilities.

AWN: The video has an infectious pop diva, Lady Gaga-esque kind of feel. What about pop music and dance culture inspires you?

YT: I’m a huge fan of music videos. With this project, I wanted to celebrate the artistry that goes into music videos, which is often undervalued. I’m a huge Lady Gaga fan. In my opinion, her music videos have taken the art form to whole new levels. I was intrigued by the idea of making a film that behaves as a "diva" driven music video, but in animation. How would that woman move? How can she still demand the stage?

AWN: Chicken or egg -- did the song come first, or the idea for the film? How was this project hatched?

YT: The first thing I knew about the project was that it was a musical. Then came the idea of “the way I feel in the morning,” as I wanted it to be a very simple idea that is relatable but becomes blown up dramatically in a musical number. The idea of the film was to convey the way I feel in the morning -- some would say I can be a diva before I drink my first coffee. The way I saw it, the song and visuals both served the big idea. They were created simultaneously. The music inspired the visuals and vice versa, all the way to the very end.

I wanted to make sure that the track sounded like a hit pop song you might hear on the radio. However, I had no idea what it would take to actually create a song from scratch. Fortunately, I was extremely lucky to have collaborated with major talents who made my vision come to life. Abby Lyons was a student in the music school at CalArts and wrote the brilliant song. Natalie Perez, a student from the opera program, was the incredible voice behind the character. Daniel Markovich, who I knew from back in Israel, created the amazing high-end sound production.

AWN: Which software tools were employed to create the film, and why were they selected?

YT: By my third year at school, I already had an established pipeline that worked well for me. I animate in TVPaint, paint backgrounds in Photoshop, composite in After Effects and edit in Premiere. I found this the most efficient pipeline for my style. I’ve always been more comfortable with digital methods but many of my friends would rather work more traditionally.

AWN: The lighting looks very theatrical. How was that achieved.

YT: Music videos usually embrace the artificial sense of a stage the singer is performing on. To capture the theatrical vibes, I looked at burlesque and Bob Fosse performances for lighting inspiration. I loved how in a dance spotlight, lights push the dramatic effect, put the focus on the main character and direct the audience where to look. I liked the use of the spotlight in my video -- it helped create a shape language with the contrast of the light and dark as well as played a storytelling role in the film. Because it’s set in the first hour of the day, it starts from almost complete darkness, and gets brighter with time.

AWN: Has your approach to design in general changed at all since Nightmare in the Morning was completed?

YT: I want to believe that my approach to design is evolving constantly. I definitely have a certain sensibility and taste, but I do try to keep my mind open and change ways I go about things. Working in the industry, you have to be versatile and adapt to different styles. I personally love to capture the essence of different design sensibilities that are not necessarily up my alley.

AWN: Describe your work as a story artist at Disney TV Animation. What’s a typical day like?

YT: I most recently worked as a story artist on Tangled: The Series. I am currently working as a story artist on a new series that hasn't launched yet called Amphibia. Disney Television Animation studio is an extremely dynamic environment, so there is no “typical day.” It’s fun to work on this project in its early stages. I'm excited for audiences to see it next year.

Dan Sarto's picture

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