For the director of the studio’s vibrant and lively new 7-minute film, now playing theatrically in front of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ yearning for what you had in the past can prevent you from enjoying what you have in the present.
Now playing in theatres on the same bill as Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, Director Zach Parrish’s vibrant and lively new original theatrical short, Us Again, skillfully brings together dance, music, emotional storytelling, and inspired animation to tell a story about an older couple trying to recapture the spark in their lives.
The studios’ first new theatrical short since the Inner Workings fronted Moana in 2016, the seven-minute Us Again is set in a vibrant city pulsating with rhythm and movement, where an elderly man and his young-at-heart wife rekindle their youthful passion for life and each other on one magical night. The years fade away as the joy of dancing propels them across the exciting cityscape of their youth and revives fond memories and ambitions.
The film, told entirely without dialogue, is set to an original funk and soul musical score reminiscent of the mid-60s. It’s scheduled to make its streaming debut in June on Disney+.
Parrish, an 11-year veteran of Disney Animation, served as head of animation on Big Hero 6 and director of the Short Circuit film, Puddles, in addition to his numerous animation credits on features at the studio. Us Again is produced by Brad Simonsen (associate producer on Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Ralph Breaks the Internet), and executive produced by Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Award-winning choreographers/dancers Keone and Mari (featured performers on World of Dance, and renowned for their collaborations with such top talents as Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish), and acclaimed composer Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel) also joined Parrish on the production.
AWN recently spoke to the director about the film. He shared his insights on the story’s origin and the concept of getting older, opportunities to “cheat” by reusing assets from other films, and what he learned directing Puddles that he brought to his new production.
Dan Sarto: What’s the genesis of your story about an elderly couple, chasing their youth, told without dialogue, that’s intimately integrated with music that completely drives the narrative?
Zach Parrish: The idea to not use dialogue was there from the beginning. I love stories that are told through pantomime, and I love stories that are told through dance and music. I'm a huge Fantasia fan. Those films are beautiful in their lack of dialogue. The origin of the story comes from my realization that I'm starting to get a little older. My knees are starting to give out, things like that. But in talking to my mom about her perspective on aging, she talks about all the things she's going to do when she grows up, and she's in her mid-sixties. And that really started jogging my mind as far as her definition of youth, my definition of youth, and how they’re arbitrary choices. It's a state of mind. That really got me thinking about “fountain of youth” stories and having a character who gets to have that youth again, dancing in the rain and all of that. It came together [as a story] early on years ago. I'm just excited that it got to finally get put together.
DS: How, how close to your original idea is the final film?
ZP: You know, these things shift all over the place. I think the intent of the film is the same. That's always your goal. Details of the plot always shift. But my original idea was always this older couple, rain is the fountain of youth, and there’s this realization that you can't stay focused on the past or you're going to miss the present. That was always at the heart of it. I'm happy that all made it all the way through to the end. I'm proud of that.
DS: Your film is filled with dance, lots of stylized, interesting movement. There are lots of characters, lots of visual elements. You’ve got folks running across the frame in front of a giant fountain. I'm thinking, “My goodness, there’s a lot of stuff in here.”
ZP: [Laughs] Well, you’re not wrong!
DS: We’ll get to all that “stuff” in a minute. How did you animate the dancing? How was it choreographed? Is the animation keyframed, did you use motion-capture? Are the dancing crowds done with sims? How did you create all that action?
ZP: It's all the above. We did a reference shoot with [choreographers and dancers] Keone and Mari Madrid. We highly referenced that with the animators. There are simulations, if that’s the right word, for the crowds. We did a lot of crowd cycles… dancing cycles that were then populated throughout the backgrounds. I don't know if it's necessarily a simulation. We have dancing folks, walking folks, and things like cars driving that were handled by our crowds team. There's obviously cloth simulation as well as rain simulation. But our main dancing was highly referenced from the wonderful dancing of Keone and Mari.
DS: How much were you able to “cheat” by using assets previously created for other studio projects? I know you had a bigger budget than on Puddles, but still, there’s only so much time and money for any project. How much were you able to borrow from other productions?
ZP: You're absolutely right. We got to reuse some stuff. There are some elements from Big Hero 6 and some other short films for things like buildings in the far background, or cars. But much of what you see is original. We've created a really smart way of making films at Disney; we have really smart people who’ve written tools that allow us to fit a rig to a new model fairly quickly, and then refine from there. So, you can get to a pretty good place pretty quickly. Our head of characters, John Kahwaty, is an absolute genius. Creating that many characters, including our two main characters who transform between different models, he handled all of that. So, there's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put into it, because you're right, there are a lot of sets, a lot of characters, and a lot of effects. But a lot of it is just brute force.
DS: What did you learn on Puddles that made you a better director on this film?
ZP: Puddles was my first time really feeling it, my first time going through the departments, and interacting with each one. Learning the vernacular in each department; what types of notes are helpful, and what type of direction is clarifying for those individual departments. So that experience gave me a huge leg up in making Us Again. Before making this short, I was a workflow supervisor. So, I was focused on the process, interacting with each department, and understanding how they do what they do. That definitely made the conversations a little bit smoother. But to your point, the scale on this film, as far as the number of people working on it, that was the new challenge. The number of notes on this was much bigger. Trying to make sure that you were hearing all the right things, reading the note behind the note; staying true to your vision while also letting the best ideas rise to the top. Compared to Puddles, having this many more people involved was the bigger challenge.
DS: There are many reasons why Disney produces shorts, from incubating new tech, to giving people new creative challenges and opportunities, testing their mettle so to speak. But not that many shorts get made. Were there any particular reasons why the studio chose you, or chose to make this film specifically, that fit some larger purpose?
ZP: That’s a great observation. And I ask myself that all the time: the “why me” question. It’s a huge honor and privilege to be selected for this. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to [Jennifer Lee] Jen and [Clark Spencer] Clark for that. You know, I don't know their exact reasons [for choosing me]. But, I do know that I've had a wide variety of experiences within the studio in different leadership roles in different departments. My experience as a workflow supervisor, trying to challenge how we do what we, may be a factor. In my first conversation with Jen, when she told me I was getting this opportunity, she said she hoped I’d challenge how we do things and think about things differently because of my experiences. Maybe that factored into it. I don't know exactly why they chose me, but I'm lucky they did.
DS: So, does that mean helming a Frozen 7 may be in your future?
ZP: [Laughs] I don't know about that. I haven't heard any plans for that.
DS: But, moving forward, I assume you’d like to do more directing?
ZP: Definitely. I would love to direct a feature or anything for Disney+. I enjoy the entire process, from development all the way through post. But I also love participating in the creation of other people's content, to be part of that magic making. But to your point, I'd love to direct again, for sure.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.