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Pixar’s ‘Kitbull’: Hand-Drawn 2D at its Most Engaging

Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson’s heartwarming short, about an unlikely connection between a stray kitten and pit bull, deftly illustrates the inherent beauty and power of 2D animated storytelling.

One of 10 animated shorts that made the Academy’s recent shortlist, Kitbull, directed by Rosana Sullivan and produced by Kathryn Hendrickson, delivers us everything we could ask for: humor, heart and beautifully designed animation. And… a real ending; nothing head scratching, “Ruh Roh” or WTF.   

As if that wasn’t accomplishment enough, Sullivan and Hendrickson also manage to achieve something you just don’t see every day: they made their hand-drawn, 2D animated short at Pixar. Yes, that Pixar. And it’s a charming, compelling and thoroughly enjoyable hand-drawn, 2D animated short. It’s hard to imagine this story being any more engaging or enjoyable had the filmmakers chosen to use any other animation technique; in an entertainment world dominated more and more by 3D, Kitbull exemplifies how 2D animation, in the right hands, telling the right story, remains something truly special. Dare I say, unequalled.

One of the first projects produced within the studio’s SparkShorts experimental short film initiative, Kitbull is in many ways a simple story; the film reveals an unlikely connection that sparks between a fiercely independent stray kitten and a pit bull chained inside a junk-filled yard. Together, they experience friendship for the first time. The film’s development began simply enough with Sullivan’s indulgence in an activity that for many people, is the one thing they rely on to bring a smile to their faces and a tugging in their chests. As the director explains, “During stressful crunch times on projects, I often resorted to watching funny cat videos for relief. In 2013, my officemate showed me a video of a cat arching its back and trying to act tough, then promptly falling off a counter. I was so entertained by the contrast of this cat's self-perception vs. reality, that I wanted to draw a tiny kitten who embodied this essence of ‘cat-ness.’”

Continuing to work the idea visually, she “started to crave something more,” and the story eventually evolved into something deeper, focusing on “a lonely cat and dog learning to connect.” “The themes of isolation, empathy and vulnerability always resonated with me growing up as a shy kid,” she notes. “I've also always had a deep love for animals, so I wanted to tell a story through the lens of animal welfare.”

Enter Hendrickson. “A few years before the SparkShorts program was created, Rosie and I partnered and began collaborating on the idea for Kitbull outside of work hours,” she shares. “Originally, we were planning on making the short on our own, but when the SparkShorts program was born and Rosie was given the opportunity to direct, Kitbull found its home at the studio.”

Sullivan had always envisioned Kitbull as a 2D project, inspired in part by her love of European and Japanese animation, such as Ernest and Celestine and the Studio Ghibli films. She also drew inspiration from old classic Disney shorts, like 1939’s The Ugly Duckling, admiring “how they managed to balance character-driven humor and heart without dialogue.”  “I had always wanted to do a 2D animated short, because I grew up watching hand-drawn animation,” she describes. “It was primarily nostalgic, but I also decided that the kitten's frenetic energy could best be captured through hand-drawn animation, especially within our limited resources and six-month production timeline.”

Once greenlit, they were given six months to complete the film. They spent the first three months developing their story, design and pipeline technology, followed by three months of layout, background painting, animation, compositing, sound, score and post-production. Their base crew of eight expanded to as many as 20 during peak production.

One of their biggest challenges was the most obvious: how best to leverage Pixar’s cutting-edge 3D animation pipeline to make a 2D animated short that captured Sullivan’s desired hand-drawn look. “Fortunately, we had a team of brilliant minds that was up for the challenge,” Hendrickson notes. Helping Sullivan arrive at the film’s final look was animation supervisor Guillaume Chartier, and character designer Zaruhi Galastian. “They’re love of 2D helped craft the final look and design of the characters,” Sullivan adds. “For the backgrounds, I worked closely with my production designer Tim Evatt, as well as Bill Cone, to find a gritty, impressionistic feel to the environments.”

“Because of our collective love of both cats and dogs, capturing elements of their true behavior was one of our main goals in animation,” Hendrickson continues. “When we were in pre-production, Rosie built a YouTube playlist with hundreds of cat and dog videos that we used as reference, because so much charm and appeal can be found in an animal’s nuanced movements. Our animation supervisor, Guillaume Chartier, did an incredible job of guiding the animation team through that journey.”

Kitbull took full advantage of Pixar’s formidable in-house expertise, deftly using 3D tools to help guide the film’s 2D production. “One step in our production process that people often find surprising was our use of 3D layout,” Hendrickson asserts. “Our team created rough previs models of the sets and characters for our layout DP, Arjun Rihan, to use in Pixar’s in-house software, Presto. The use of 3D layout gave Arjun the opportunity to pitch camera and staging ideas to Rosie in context. It also allowed background painting and animation to happen in tandem, as the locked 3D layout provided background plates for both painters and animators. Due to our short production schedule, the ability to have both departments working in tandem was a huge win.” 

The film’s final images were painted and drawn digitally using Photoshop for the backgrounds, TVPaint Pro for the hand-drawn animation, and After Effects for compositing.

Sullivan, who loves cats and dogs but can’t have pets due to her husband’s allergies, hopes audiences who watch the film come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of animals and their needs. “I aimed to give a voice to the voiceless,” she notes. “I also hope that this relationship can inspire empathy and compassion for ‘the other,’ no matter how scary it may be to step outside of our comfort zone to be vulnerable and connect.” 

“Rosie and I are both big animal lovers,” Hendrickson says. “I’ve had cats throughout most of my life, a fact which is also true for many people who worked on Kitbull. As people watch the film, my hope is that they’re not only moved by the friendship they’ve watched grow between the kitten and pit bull, but that they’re also reminded that friendships come in all shapes and sizes and can be found in the most unexpected places. As the kitten experienced, vulnerability and trust are the foundation of the deepest friendships.”

Dan Sarto's picture

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