Premiering tomorrow on Netflix, the poignant and moving animated short draws directly from the director’s childhood loss; he hopes his film encourages storytellers in the Black community to get their voices heard.
As part of Disney’s “golden age” in animation, The Lion King proved iconic for many viewers -adults and children alike - with captivating visuals and an award-winning score. But for Pixar animator Frank Abney III, it was the story’s approach to grief that made him first fall in love with animation.
“One of the things that has been ongoing in my life is dealing with the loss of my dad when I was five,” says Abney. “Seeing Simba going through that similar experience, I really saw myself in him. I would watch that movie every single day when I got home from school, really connecting with it, and that lit the fire underneath. I didn't know I wanted to be an animator at the time, but I knew I wanted to be part of making these stories.”
Now, Abney - whose credits include DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 as well as Pixar’s Coco, Toy Story 4, and Soul - is making his directorial debut with similarly grief-focused and family-centered story, Canvas, releasing December 11 on Netflix. The nine-minute 2D and 3D/CG animated short, funded by Abney’s Kickstarter campaign and developed through his own animation company, Chainwheel Productions, follows the mourning and healing of a stoic grandfather and painter who has lost his wife. While the man has previously shut away his sadness and desire to paint again, his granddaughter, who also loves art and color, discovers a hidden painting of her grandmother, ushering her grandfather into the beginning stages of healing.
Produced by The Boss Baby’s Paige Johnstone and created in collaboration with 20 animators including Substance’s Jamaal Bradley and Moana’s Boris Maras, Abney’s short film, five years in the making, is highly personal; the main characters are inspired by his own grandfather and niece, with the short’s story and messages drawn out of the grief Abney observed his mother journey through every day.
“Growing up after my dad passed, I watched how my mom would navigate that grief, usually through something artistic, whether she was on the phone and doodling or taking part in a play,” says Abney. “And I had always wondered if there was something she’d lost in that loss with my dad. Canvas started to take shape as I was kind of thinking about these things. It was my therapy.”
He adds, “We go through these traumas and losses and I wanted to put something out there that shows we don't have to go through it alone.”
Canvas is a music-led short with no dialogue, alternating between the earth-toned 3D/CG world of the grandfather’s everyday life, and the star-dusted 2D animation that makes up his dreams and spiritual experiences involving his late wife throughout the film.
“Most of my career has been in 3D animation, so I had a crew around me already, all these people that I've worked with and know in the industry,” says Abney. “But I also wanted to pay respect and homage to 2D animation and that magic that I was hypnotized by as a kid.”
Wanting a clear separation between the 2D and 3D worlds, Abney grounds the grandfather’s real-world day-to-day in warm hues of yellows, browns, and greens, inspired by the live-action cinematography of Selma’s Bradford Young.
“I was always fascinated with his work,” says the director. “There's a very unique look and feel to it, and there was a lot of live-action influence and quality to how he handled the animation work and the camera angles and movements in Canvas.”
In contrast, the “spiritual plane,” as Abney describes, looks more like the crayon sketches depicting the grandmother in heaven that are drawn by the granddaughter in the film, with rough-lined 2D characters featured in scenes saturated with blues, purples and pinks, the background sprinkled with golden, shimmering flakes.
“I love seeing rough drawings before everything is cleaned up super perfect,” Abney shares. “It's kind of a direct line to the artists when you see their process. So, I wanted to maintain some, quote-unquote, ‘imperfection,’ and still convey that feeling of serenity and calm, and that’s where the blues started to come in and the stardust to make it more ethereal.”
The final 2D shot also contains yet another deeply personal inspiration from Abney’s life, the emotion highlighted even more by the absence of dialogue. “There's a moment where the grandfather gets to say goodbye to his late wife and, before they share the kiss, she places his hand on her cheek, and softly presses her face against it and smiles,” remembers Abney. “That’s something my wife would do. And that scene always has stuck with me.”
He adds, “As an animator, I'm less interested in what's coming out of your mouth, and more interested in what you're thinking. I wanted to focus in on the performances and get a rawer take on the emotion coming from just the expressions and body language.”
The background texture of the 2D sequences, while more simplistic to highlight the performances and emotions of the characters, is texturized like a canvas, tipping a hat to the healing powers of art through grief and the grandfather’s salvation in returning to the paintings, as well as the emotions, he had tucked away. It’s a message that not only is meant to reflect the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one, but that Abney also identifies with the Black community.
“The way he’s locked away all the artwork that he's done, and things that remind him of his wife in this back room, that's how I felt in the Black community, where there's a trauma or tragedy that happens and you feel like you have to just move on and don’t take that time to really process and grieve,” explains Abney, who also executive produced Matthew A. Cherry’s Oscar-winning African American family short, Hair Love. “It's like you have to just push all that stuff aside and lock it away. Being a Black animator and director myself, I want Canvas to inspire other black creators to get their stories out there and allow their voices to be heard.”
The vulnerability of both the characters and the short’s director is woven throughout Canvas, the animation being a window into Abney’s own family and grief, and his hopes for more diverse voices in animation. Having worked on Canvas for six of his 13 years in animation, Abney says it was the deeply personal aspect of the story that help bring the film across the development finish line.
“If I was creating a story that wasn't personal, I don't think I would have been able to stick with it for so long,” says Abney. “Wanting to put out that kind of hope, something that my kids can watch and that I can experience again, along with other people going through the same stuff, it was all fuel for the story. It’s always a vulnerable experience, putting yourself out there. But this film has the power to reach a lot of people, and that's the main goal. We all have something to say, and it's important to get it out. I think we owe it to ourselves.”