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Roger Ross Williams On a Life Uniquely Animated

Oscar-winning director brings us ‘Life, Animated,’ a heartbreaking, evocative and ultimately uplifting live-action/animated documentary about a young man’s struggle with autism and his unique embrace of Disney animation.

'Life, Animated's Owen Suskind. All family photos are Courtesy of The Orchard. All animated images are © A&E IndieFilms, courtesy of A&E IndieFilms - Credit: Olivier Lescot / Mac Guff.

By the time you’ve finished watching Roger Ross Williams’ new documentary, Life, Animated, you’ll have experienced the complete spectrum of despair - angst, frustration, dread, sorrow and utter hopelessness - that families of autistic and other developmentally disabled children experience each and every day. Every waking moment of every day. But, by the time the credits of this heartbreaking, evocative and ultimately uplifting film finally roll, you will also have experienced a transformation of sorts, from awkward trepidation to hope and admiration, a feeling that you’ve just witnessed a unique story, one that gives real affirmation to the easily jettisoned and often frowned upon notion that hope can win out, and that fairy tale endings can come true.

Life, Animated chronicles the life of Owen Suskind, who suddenly, at age 3, went silent. Doctors explained to his parents the harsh reality of raising a child with autism, a child who might never speak again, who might never connect with another person again. For years, the family careened through life, looking for answers, grasping at remedies, struggling to help a child they could not reach. You share their pain as they came to realize that love, unfortunately, does not conquer all.

But as their son grew older, Owen’s parents, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Suskind and his wife Cornelia, realized he began responding to repeated viewings of classic Disney animated films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Ron and Cornelia found a way to use the lessons and characters of these films to communicate with him, to tunnel through the walls of his autism and reconnect with their son. What follows is a touching and uplifting look at Owen’s emergence from a world of silence, bridged by his love for and knowledge of classic Disney animation, into his independent life as a functioning adult.

Owen’s embrace of the “sidekick” character, rather than the hero, how they lived, how they handled adversity, framed his entire perspective, helping him to start dealing with a world he otherwise could not understand. Though Owen’s life will always be challenged, his path to adulthood, his unique perspective on those silent years and how he approaches his daily challenges, as described by Ron, Cornelia, older brother Walter and Owen himself, and expertly crafted, warts and all, by Williams, is a richly satisfying experience. The film’s hand-drawn animated sequences, done by French studio Mac Guff, are beautiful, sensitive, illustrative and delightful to watch, a perfect match to Williams’ documentary narrative. Never preachy, always honest, the film is a must see.

I spoke this week with Williams about the film, his work with Owen, the Suskind family, Mac Guff, why he made the film and how watching Owen transform changed him as a person and filmmaker as well.

Note: the film opens today, July 1, 2016, in Los Angeles and New York.  You can find more information at http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com/.

An animated Owen.

Dan Sarto: As a filmmaker, I imagine you're developing potential projects all the time. What compelled you to make this film?

Roger Ross Williams: It was the story. It's an amazing story. After my last film, God Loves Uganda, which was very personally difficult, and challenging, and depressing, I wanted to do something completely different. This story is very uplifting and life affirming. Also, because I've known the Suskind family for so long, I felt like I could get great access and materials. When Ron told me about the book [Suskind’s New York Times bestseller, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism”], I really connected with it. I feel connected with the idea of otherness and outsiders and how they overcome those challenges. That's what Music by Prudence was about [Williams’ Oscar-winning documentary short], so it is a seam within my work that I gravitate towards; helping people understand people who are not necessarily understood by the mainstream society.

DS: That's part of your power as a filmmaker, to get people to pause for a moment and look at things they don't normally see, from a perspective they don't normally experience. It jars them a bit out of their comfort zone.

RRW: Exactly.

DS: Besides the obvious link to Disney animation, which is so central to the narrative of Owen’s story, what was your thinking behind the use of 2D animation to illustrate various portions of the film as well as tell Owen’s own story directly?

RRW: Well, there are two types of animation in the film. There's what we call the backstory animation, which are the flashbacks. The story is told in the present day, mostly in the vérité of following Owen through this transformative year of his life. The idea that I always had and wanted to execute was telling the story from Owen's point of view. The whole idea is for the audience to get more and more immersed in Owen's world. Owen's world is animation, so it was an obvious choice, besides the Disney clips.

Then we get to the sidekick story, “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” which is the last chapter of the book. Owen wrote that story. He created that story. That's his autobiography and he uses the sidekicks as his guide to life - the sidekicks are his animated characters.

I'm just bringing to life the story Owen created inside his head, to demonstrate his thinking to an audience. By the time you get to The Land of the Lost Sidekicks, you're ready to go inside Owen's world, inside Owen's mind. Owen has grown up using these animated Disney films to make sense of the world. When he uses the sidekicks from the Disney animated films to figure out life, the world he creates, where they battle these monsters, that correspond to the monsters he's battling in his own life. Animation was the obvious choice.

DS: How did you come to Mac Guff?

RRW: I started looking at animated shorts. First I looked at some Oscar shorts. I was inspired by the sort of French 2D look and feel.  Owen connects with 2D animation because he likes the emotion of hand-drawn animation. I knew Mac Guff really didn’t do 2D, they did stuff like Despicable Me, but I was put in contact with them anyway. At first I thought I'll just ask their advice about French animators.

Philippe [Sanrier], the owner, kept part of the studio after part was sold to Universal and Illumination – I think that’s what happened. They have hundreds of people who work at Mac Guff’s studio outside of Paris. Philippe kept a small group at his original office, which is in the neighborhood right beneath the Eiffel Tower. You look out every window and you see the Eiffel tower. So I went to meet him. Philippe is this eccentric character who lived for many years on a boat on the Seine. He fell in love with Owen’s story and said, "I want to take this on." He bought in Mathieu Betard and Olivier Lescot, these really brilliant, talented French animators. Together with Emily Hubley, who was our animation advisor, we created Owen’s world.

Owen's father Ron Suskind (l) and Owen (r).

From the beginning, Philippe “got it” – in one of the early meetings, he said to me, "After people watch this film, they will pray to be autistic." It was such a provocative and French thing to say, but that's what I wanted. I want people to be so immersed that they feel, "Owen's animated reality, his world, is so much richer than ours. It's just this amazing place. I want to have that kind of imagination, and live in that world."

That's why I think people come off sort of transformed in their thinking after watching this film. You start off feeling very awkward, watching Owen stop talking, his pacing, but by the end, you know exactly what's going on in his head. You live in his head.

Owen, sword at hand.

DS: Working with Owen and his family, chronicling this amazing story about a triumph over autism, creating an uplifting but realistic portrayal of the challenges Owen will face the rest of his life…how did this change you as a person and a filmmaker?

RRW: I changed in many different ways. I think I became a better storyteller because I had the challenge of telling a story from the point of view of someone living with autism. How did I do that? I had to come up with devices and ways to bring the audience into his world. I also learned from Owen about the power of story, the power of fable and myth. That's what these Disney films are. In a sense, they are classic myths and fables that have been told for thousands of years, that Disney has updated and brought to audiences around the world. Owen, in a sense, grew up on a diet of myths and fable by watching these films so many hundreds of times that he became an expert on what makes us human. I think these stories are what connect us to one another -  it's how we connect as people. I think Owen has become an expert on that. In a sense, I've become an expert too because of him.

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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