Long-time Pixar artist Bret Parker discusses her award-winning animated short based on the true story of her wife, Pete Barma, who as an 8-year-old in 1975 Florida, just wanted to play Little League baseball, and whose mom Denise was determined to let her child be themselves regardless of a world that wasn’t quite ready.
All Pete Barma wanted to do as an eight-year-old was play baseball with friends. It shouldn’t have been a tall order but, in 1975 Winter Park, Florida, Pete’s identifying with anything other than what society considered “typical girl behavior,” especially giving themselves a different name, was taboo.
But, not to Pete. And not to Pete’s mom.
Pete, an animated short that recounts the true childhood story of Barma and their mother’s efforts to help Pete gain a spot on the neighborhood’s Little League Baseball team, is eligible for Best Animated Short Film at this year’s Oscars, with preliminary voting beginning 9 a.m. PT Thursday, December 14. Pete premiered at the Tribeca Festival in 2022 and has won jury awards for Best Animated Short Film at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Chicago International Children's Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, and Bentonville Film Festival.
The film focuses on the people who inspire change by trying to be themselves, and the superheroes who allow that change to happen, regardless of whether or not the world is ready. In Barma’s case, that superhero was their mom, Denise; their journey has come full circle with mother and daughter voicing their subsequent animated characters. Barma also executive produces.
Barma’s own wife and long-time Pixar artist, Bret Parker, serves as director. Parker shared in a recent interview with AWN that the experience was truly a joyous one.
Having worked at Pixar Animation Studios for over 26 years, Parker has spent the majority of her career animating families, illustrating (literally) the bond between a parent and their child. And, after many years of hearing her wife tell the story of playing baseball with the kids in the cul-de-sac, Parker knew Pete’s story was one other kids would benefit from seeing. And one that parents could learn from.
AWN chatted with Parker about the classic, storybook inspirations behind her watercolored 3D/CG designs, the complex and powerful role Barma’s mother had in making sure her child could be themselves, and how working on the project has given Pete a new perspective on a story they’ve told hundreds of times.
Bret Parker: Pete and I first met 21 years ago through a mutual friend in Kauai. Our friend Kori had invited a few close girlfriends to celebrate with her for her birthday, and Pete and I were among the guests... and that was kinda that! We got married in 2008 at city hall in San Francisco once gay marriage was legalized in California.
VD: Was there something about Pete's story that resonated with you? Was there something that stood out as being particularly fitting to an animated short?
BP: Pete is the consummate storyteller, so this was a story they told many times. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized there was a broader story to tell within this moment - and that is a story about identity, change, and acceptance.
Telling any story is personal, but we felt like Pete is a story that is both personal and universal. By telling these stories, we not only share the history and small battles that created change, but also bridge the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals with those outside our community. As with any marginalized community, it is important to have representation. In being seen, stories like Pete can continue to create change and help erase the notion that difference is something to be afraid of.
There are a couple reasons why we landed on animation. First, because it was a childhood memory, and took place in 1975, there was a look and feel to the film that we could capture in animation that would really support the story. I also believe that animation at its best can help make difficult subject matter become more accessible.
VD: It's rare that we see a story like this highlight parents in such a loving and heroic light. I adored the relationship Pete has with their mom (and that both Pete and their real mom voice the characters in the film as well). Was that something Pete always wanted shown in the story, or was that something that became clearer as they shared their story with you?
BP: It would have just been impossible to tell this story in any other way because Pete’s mom played such a vital role in it. I think to have only focused on Pete’s experience, and not their mom’s role in that moment, would have felt really incomplete.
VD: In the film, Pete's mom stands up and says, "That's my daughter." Did (and does) Pete still identify as a daughter? Why did this word feel important to include as opposed to "kid" or “child"? Not a lot of words are spoken in the film, but I'm assuming the ones that are were written with deliberate intent and meaning.
BP: We have been wondering when that question would come, and you are the first to ask. It was important for us to represent the time period and, for Pete and mom, the language and understanding of any language around trans or non-binary children did not exist in 1975. Mom instinctively understood and supported Pete’s chosen identity but, for her, Pete was still her daughter. That was not separate from her acceptance of all of Pete’s choices to play ball, present like a boy, and just be Pete.
But at that time in the world, both Pete and mom understood the choices were limited. Therefore, she defended Pete in the only way she knew how to at the time. This incredible defense, love, and support, combined with the complexity of not understanding what it meant to be trans informed the rest of Pete’s life and identity.
VD: Was it a moving and fun experience to watch Pete and their mom working on this short together at a time when society has changed so much? Did it seem like the journey had come full circle in a way?
BP: Working with Pete and their mom throughout the short was amazing. Through the process, I was always prodding them both with more questions about each moment. How did they feel? What was said? How did the crowd react? I think, in the process of diving deeply back into that moment in time, they each went on a journey that unlocked more emotions - both about that day and how it had impacted them. It was also interesting because, in many ways, Pete’s mom had shielded her from a lot of the commentary that happened on the field, so Pete learned more about what happened that day through making the film than they had ever known before.
VD: How did you decide on the animation style for the characters? Was your time at Pixar a factor?
BP: I think I’ll answer those questions in reverse. I’ve had the amazing honor of working with incredible filmmakers in my career - Brad Bird on The Incredibles, Andrew Stanton on Finding Nemo, just to name a couple, both one-of-a-kind directors and storytellers – and without a doubt, I would not be where I am today or have been able to create Pete without standing on the shoulders of the talent I was surrounded by during my career.
In terms of the look of the film, I wanted to marry the look and style of the animation with the story. So even though the animation is done in 3D, we animated in more of a 2D style and flattened the look to feel more like a watercolor painting that came to life.
Tom Gately did all the character design for the film, and I couldn’t be happier with how they all turned out. He’s so incredibly talented, so finding the character design was just a really fun process. For all the main characters, I had photos for him to draw reference from and, once we landed on the style, he designed everyone else from there.
VD: What inspired you for the overall design of the story’s environments? It was a cool style choice to have the background watercolor and not quite expand out to the edge of the frame. Was that reminiscent of old pictures?
BP: Yes. I felt like giving the image a border was both reminiscent of old pictures and sort of "storybooked" the film so that you were aware it was a memory. I was really inspired by the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” watercolor illustrations by E.H. Shepard, which never extend out to the edge of the page but are drawn more like a vignette, as well as Bill Watterson’s watercolor paintings for “Calvin and Hobbes.” Since this is based on the true story of Pete as a child, and takes place in 1975, much of the inspiration is from the art, colors, and books that we grew up with.
Developing the look of the film was one of the hardest aspects to figure out, and there was still more I wanted to explore, but I am really happy with where we landed.
VD: What animation software did you end up using to achieve this look? Did you enlist the help of anyone at Pixar?
BP: Pete was made through the Pixar Cooperative - which basically means that if you have a film that you want to make on your own time, once approved, you can use the resources at Pixar, including software and people, to make the film.
It’s an incredible opportunity, because I am surrounded by talented artists who opted in to work on the film and was able to use our state-of-the-art animation software to do it. Part of that talented group were also the engineers who literally developed new tools for us so we could both create and control the ink outline I wanted on the characters.
VD: I loved the photos and videos woven into the animation. I know the photos are of Pete, but are the videos as well?
BP: This is also a first for this question! The videos are actually not of Pete. We tried for months to find any documentary footage from that time of Pete or friends in the neighborhood but, as it turned out, nobody had any. So instead, I researched documentary footage of that same period and landed on pieces that we felt fit each moment.
VD: What do you hope other kids with a story like Pete's take away from this short? What do you hope parents take away?
BP: When kids are left to their own, acceptance and inclusion comes easy. We hope, through Pete, we can continue to inspire change and erase the notion that difference equals exclusion. Pete is based on the true story of my wife so, as an inspiration, change doesn’t always have to be grand. It can happen on a small sandlot in Winter Park, Florida and forever change a community.