The former Pixar art directors talk about their first independent collaboration and the challenges of striking out on their own.
As far as visual development goes, both Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi have forged careers working on some of the biggest animated features of the last decade. From Ice Age to Horton Hears a Who!, Ratatouille to Monsters University, their artistic talents, including art direction, have touched numerous well-known and successful films.
But visual development is only one small part of the filmmaking process. For the two filmmakers, leaving the comfort of their Pixar “home” for the vast unknown of independent animation production has been both rewarding and terrifying. With their new studio, Tonko House, they’ve recently produced their first short film, the intensely beautiful and mesmerizing The Dam Keeper. I recently had a chance to speak to Robert and Dice about their film. They spoke about the need to branch out and become complete filmmakers, to learn to the art of storytelling and in the process, become better artists and better people.
Dan Sarto: Tell me about your new film?
Robert Kondo: The Dam Keeper is an 18-minute animated film that Dice and I wrote and directed together. Our idea was to create a moving painting. Our film is about a pig who has the everyday responsibility of saving his town. But the town has no idea of his efforts. Because of his responsibilities, he lives a bit outside of society and is ostracized for it. One day, a fox comes into town and flips the pig’s life upside down, who is now put in a position to either open up to the world, or close down even more. This is our first time directing anything. But it’s been really fun.
DS: That’s certainly a new role for you guys.
RK: Tremendously different.
DS: What’s the genesis of the story?
Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi: Because we had never written or directed stories before, we struggled quite a bit. We went through five different stories. The story kept getting too big. We couldn’t tell it in a short format. We kept trying to figure out what to do. Then we found this folktale from the Netherlands, “The Little Dutch Boy,” which became our inspiration. We turned that story into a short film.
From the very beginning, we wanted a story that showed a character changing his perception of the world around him. Emotionally, he struggles internally before finding solutions throughout the film. In the end, it’s not the world that changes, it’s actually him that changes. We weren’t thinking about plot or visual style for the film until much later.
DS: 18 minutes is a “long” first film. Was that always the plan, or were you looking to make a five minute film that suddenly became 18 minutes long?
RK: Our commitment was, because it was our first story, not to compromise on the film’s quality. We’d do whatever we needed to do for whatever film we decided to make. We had two amazing producers [Megan Bartel and Duncan Ramsay] that supported us that way, letting the story expand where it needed to. In the future, our storytelling skills will get better, so we can be more concise, a little clearer, so we could do a film like this that fits into a smaller box. But, we needed 18 minutes to tell this character’s story.
DS: You both have such storied careers in visual design and art direction. But, you’ve never really written or directed your own films. Not only that, but you’ve always worked within the comfort of a big studio system. What have been the main challenges striking out on your own?
RK: We had been art directing for a long time within big studios, so we thought we knew about filmmaking. We thought we knew how to make a film. But we soon realized we didn’t know enough about filmmaking at all. When we started directing this film, there were so many aspects that we had no idea about. We had never been exposed to those things. It’s almost like we’d been protected from those aspects of production. It was quite a humbling experience. What we had been doing before was really just one small part of the process.
DS: It was an important part, but in reality, a small part.
RK: One thing we both agree on is we became better art directors after having directed a film. We understand better now what a good art director should do to support the film’s director. When artists are really helpful and when they’re just doing their own thing.
DS: How has this made you a better art director?
RK: From the standpoint of understanding context a lot more. Knowing when to provide answers and when to ask questions. As an art director, you’re always providing solutions. But as directors, we found some of the most useful times with our team were when they were asking the right questions. Not necessarily questions that needed answers, but questions that helped us solve the problems we were facing at that moment.
We had taken three months off from Pixar to work on the film. Then we went back during the middle of our production. It was a great thing, empathizing with the director. Empathy is a big part of working in these big studios.
DS: So you’ve officially left Pixar to form a new company?
DT: We officially left Pixar in July. We were at the best phase of our careers at Pixar. Having a great time. They were giving us a lot of opportunities. But we wanted to make sure we didn’t get too comfortable in that situation. Making The Dam Keeper was such a difficult project. We were doing something we didn’t know how to do. But we grew so much as artists because we challenged ourselves to do something we didn’t know how to do. That challenge was almost like going back to school. We both agreed we have to do this for real. Just because we’ve had successful careers, is this it? Maybe now is the time to expose ourselves to an unknown world.
I have a wife, a young son, a mortgage. Robert is engaged and also has a mortgage. But we had saved a bit of money and said, “Let’s give this a try. Now is the time. If we don’t do this now, we’ll never do it.” So we had to leave Pixar. They talked about giving us an extended leave, but we said, “No we have to leave. We have to be accountable for everything we do. We can’t still be protected by the studio.”
DS: There is certainly a different sense of urgency when you’re financing a business on your own. Not everyone can make the transition from a big studio to a small one. They’re used to operating with significantly more resources.
RK: One of the other big challenges for both of us was that this was the first time we’d tried writing. We had to learn how to write “and” learn how to work with each other. There was a lot of insecurity out there on the table. We both are coming from a world of comfort with regards to who we are and what we’re capable of doing. It was hard suddenly to be operating outside our comfort zone.
It certainly tested our relationship. Up until that point we’d never really argued. During our collaborations at Pixar, we generally agreed about a lot of things. Having that first fight…
DS: …All the good things about a new relationship…
RK: Yah, when you come out of it, it’s all good stuff. But when you’re in it, uuuuhhhh…
DS: But sometimes it’s that negative energy that kicks you in the butt. So what are your plans for this new company? Are you doing production consulting? Are you just focusing on your own films?
RK: Our main goal is to make our own films. We’re developing some film and TV series ideas. But we’re not just set on film formats. We’re inspired by Moonbot Studios. They’re all storytellers. They don’t just work on films. That’s a model we really like.
DT: We also have to nurture our narrative skills. It’s not like we’re ready to just jump into all sorts of things. But we’ve got a number of things cooking.
RK: The big thing for us is, “OK, we made one film. We need to get to a second film.” In making The Dam Keeper, we got addicted to this feeling of absolute terror where we were thinking, “I’m not sure if we should be doing this!”
DS: Tell me about the production.
DT: We had a big crew, maybe 70 people. No one was full time. We only had a certain amount of time with certain individuals. Kudos to our producers, who managed all these different people who had different amounts of time to give. We knew if we managed that time well, we’d get a lot of great work done. The production was run quite professionally and efficiently.
DS: How long all told did the film take to make?
RK: Pre-production took about one year. Dice and I were working on Monster’s University at the time. On weekends, we’d write. Our actual production was nine months. Three months of that time we took off from Pixar. The rest of the time…we rented a studio space right across the street from Pixar and were always running back and forth. Morning, noon and night we were there.
DS: I’m assuming a lot of people who worked on this film were colleagues at Pixar?
RK: Yes they were. But we also expanded our social networking and used Facebook to find young painters who had something to gain from working with us. Because it was a volunteer-based project, we wanted to make sure everyone was getting something out of it. We were very clear about that from the very beginning. “What do you want to get out of this? What are you not learning in your day to day that you want to try?” With our paint group, every week we’d get together and paint still lifes. We’d teach people how to paint. That was a big part of our production.
DS: So part of this project involved your mentoring artists working on the film.
DT: That’s how you get the best work out of people. If they’re just doing you a favor, you don’t always get their best work. We wanted to make sure everyone was gaining something from this project. That worked out well for everyone.
DS: So what are the big takeaways from your first film that you’ll bring to your next project?
RK: You can’t avoid disaster. That’s what we learned. Disaster is always going to be in your path. The challenge is how you respond, how you deal with it. How the two of us communicate during times of disaster is critical. It’s not just about work – it’s about life. Tonko House [their company] has been about guiding our lives to be something more than who were are now. Disasters seem to get bigger and bigger now. We’re on our own now. The Internet goes out. We have to deal with AT&T. That’s a huge deal! You talk about the comfort of working at a big studio. Some of things they do are just phenomenal. They have top people in every crevice of what gets done. You easily forget that.
DS: I used to joke that at Pixar, every employee in every position used to be a CEO somewhere else.
RK: [Laughs] That’s so true.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.