Writer/director Natalie Nourigat and producer Ruth Strother talk about their all-new animated short screening with Disney’s animated musical, ‘Encanto,’ which opens today in theaters.
As any raccoon could tell you, parenting can be tough. This is especially true when your offspring has an insatiable curiosity and, even on an idyllic beach in the Pacific Northwest, danger lurks around every corner.
Such is the setup in Far From the Tree, the all-new Walt Disney Animation Studios animated short written and directed by Natalie Nourigat, director of the 2020 short film Exchange Student, which was made as part of Disney Animation’s Short Circuit experimental films program. Inspired by Cannon Beach, Oregon, where Nourigat’s family often visited throughout her childhood, Far From the Tree takes an honest look at parenting, replete with the anxiety, ambiguity, forgiveness, and healing that comes with the job of being a protector and nurturer. The short opens in theaters today, running in front of Disney’s all-new animated musical, Encanto.
AWN spoke with Nourigat and producer Ruth Strother about the trail that led them to the film, and their respective roles in the development and production of the Procyon-centric tale. It all began, Nourigat relates, in 2018, shortly after she completed work on Exchange Student.
“This amazing opportunity came up to pitch ideas for a theatrical short, and I jumped on it,” she recalls. “I was so excited. And I had three ideas that were just sitting in my sketchbooks, waiting for an opportunity. I dusted them off, got them ready to pitch. And at the last second I threw in this fourth idea that didn't really have a story yet. It was more of a feeling, a nostalgia for childhood in Oregon. And I just thought, what the heck, I'll pitch that one too.”
And guess which one Disney ended up picking? Unsurprisingly, given the rudimentary elements with which the creators started, the short changed a lot from first pitch to final product – revisions that extended even to the species of the protagonists.
“That happened about halfway through development and it was a major breakthrough,” Nourigat says. “Because we had human characters up until that point. But the more we realized we wanted to go into themes that include death and getting hurt and not wanting your kid to get hurt, it just seemed so morbid with human characters. As soon as we unlocked the idea of animal characters, and we realized that my favorite animals, raccoons, are native to this beach, it just felt so perfect. We know from nature documentaries that the stakes are very high for animals, life and death stakes, so we felt a lot more comfortable with animal characters.”
In describing her own role as producer during this transformative process, Strother explains that she sees herself primarily as an interlocutor whose responsibility is to help the director find her way.
“What I've learned from some of the great producers I've worked with is that the best way [to facilitate the process] is to ask the right questions,” she shares. “Like, what are you really saying with that? And do you really think that's true? And how did this feel when it happened to you? And so we went through a few cycles, with our development team as well, of just asking the right questions that helped her to discover exactly what the story was she wanted to tell.”
As for the film’s design, Nourigat confesses that, as someone who came from comics and grew up with 2D animation, she hadn’t been aware of the potentialities of CG. Exchange Student changed all that.
“I had such an amazing time,” she says of her first directorial experience. “It was really eye-opening for me to see all of the possibilities of a hybrid art style. I realized on Exchange Student that CG offers these really amazing tools, complex camera moves, characters that stay on model as you animate them, really subtle facial expressions. And we thought, let's see how far we can push this art style. But the influences also include Euro comics and watercolor and COPEC marker textures. They just feel right for that Pacific Northwest kind of spooky, kind of moody feeling.”
And, just in case you think animating animals is easy – especially finding the right balance between anthropomorphism and naturalism in a film that deals with serious themes – well, it’s not.
“We pushed it in both directions to try to find that balance,” Strother relates. “We had some storyboards in the beginning that were very cartoony and had the characters doing kind of wacky human things. And then we went into a more natural way of doing things. We had some of our 2D artists actually do some tests in 2D just to get an idea of how far we can push things.”
And then? “And then, most importantly, we brought a raccoon into the studio,” she continues. “We went and visited some baby raccoons. We spent time watching raccoons on YouTube. And it turns out they basically are like cartoon characters. So there was a way of making these animals into really appealing and entertaining characters, but still have them doing things that they would do in their natural habitat.”
While both Strother and Nourigat undoubtedly greatly enhanced their knowledge of raccoon behavior in the making of Far from the Tree, the director also was able to apply some newly acquired human-based principles during the course of the project.
“I think something really important that took me a while [to learn] was just trusting the artists, trusting people to be experts in their own field,” she confides. “So as long as I can articulate what I want in terms of theme and character and story, I can trust a lighting artist to translate that into their craft. I don't need to tell them where to place a light. I was able to give them room to surprise us – describing what we want on a high level, and then being so impressed with what they brought back.”
As for the benefits of making short films, especially for studios that are geared toward producing features, both creators were unequivocal in their enthusiasm for the form.
“I see shorts as their own format with their own value,” Nourigat says. “And I think a story like this wouldn't necessarily work as a feature. I think it's meant to be a short and it's so wonderful that we have an outlet for stories like this, because they're just as rich, just as meaningful. And I love feeling transported and moved in a short amount of time, and seeing experimental art styles, and getting to push in all of those ways.”
Adds Strother, “And on the production side, I think it's a real opportunity for people to be part of a smaller team. And you just have a voice in a different way. All of our crew were encouraged to bring notes, to bring ideas, to bring solutions. So I think a lot of people in our studio want to work on shorts, because they know what a cohesive team it builds and how much fun they can have.”