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New Animated Short Challenges Misconceptions About Down Syndrome

Intellectual disability charity L’Arche, animation studio Tonic DNA, and musician Jordan Hart’s powerful new 2D film, ‘Freebird,’ asks the important question, “Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”

To mark World Down Syndrome Day (March 21st), intellectual disability charity L’Arche released a new 2D short film, Freebird, produced in partnership with award-winning animation studio Tonic DNA and musician Jordan Hart. The powerful film challenges the misconceptions surrounding Down Syndrome by asking the question, “Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”

Written and directed by Joe Bluhm and Michael McDonald, Freebird is the coming-of-age story of a boy with Down Syndrome who learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush.

Take a moment and enjoy this touching new short film:

The project began when Tonic DNA, a full-service, award-winning studio with offices in Montreal, Toronto, and Mexico, was approached directly by L’Arche Canada with a script for the film. L’Arche is a federation of over 150 nonprofits in 38 countries that celebrates the gifts of people with and without intellectual disabilities. The pandemic forced the team to pivot quickly and “translate” the script from live-action into animation. As part of L’Arche’s “Free to Be” campaign, the film’s narrative was built on years of oral histories from those with Down Syndrome, highlighting moments familiar to those with the disability that are rarely depicted on screen. Working with actor and LGBTQ activist Nicholas Herd, who also has Down Syndrome, the team moved away from problematic notions of pity and fear that often shape public discussions, and instead recognized how the story of Down Syndrome sounds quite different when actually told by someone with the disability.

Using animation references and real-life stories from L’Arche, Tonic DNA found a style that preserved the emotional and character-driven aspects of the story while ensuring there was no distraction from the narrative - finding strength in simplicity. The team also wove the narrative around the film’s soundtrack, Jordan Hart’s track “Freedom,” which had been part of the process from the beginning.

Michael McDonald, National Communications Director at L’Arche Canada, comments, “In an industry so captivated by CG and 3D, what if we were to ‘disable’ the aesthetic to the bare minimum? In our initial search for style references, we were really drawn to the minimalistic tradition of abbozzi, the preliminary sketches for great works of art. People with Down Syndrome are often treated as such, as under-developed, rough sketches of what should have been a ‘full-fledged’ human being. Could we explore that through the tradition of the rough sketch and come out on the other side with something whose beauty would be deepened by its simplicity, by the fact that it refuses the flashiness of artistic sophistication?”

“From our first meeting, Joe [Bluhm] has taken the animation in such incredible directions,” he adds. “Bodies with Down Syndrome have different proportions than those without Down Syndrome, and Joe and Tonic took the time to get these dimensions right - the gestures, the expressions, the non-normative proportions - and it was all done with such integrity. It’s one thing to dream about the perfect aesthetic to tell this story, it’s another to make a flat world feel round or to match the 42 muscles in the human face with the expressive power of a well-placed line. And yet, once Joe said ‘Yes,’ and Tonic sharpened their pencils, that’s exactly what they did.”

According to Bluhm,Although the timeline was challenging, the concept and narrative was amazing. I was completely moved by the script and the cause, instantly envisioning something free and loose. Knowing that this was a robust story, with half a lifetime of narrative, we couldn’t cut out any of it, yet couldn’t build every detail of the world. Fortunately, my gut feeling was to do something that felt light, familiar, and loose enough to evoke an idea that the story is still yet to be written for many of the people that the narrative speaks to. Tightening up and constraining things is not the answer - letting things be loose and open is. So, a light, slightly vintage style felt right. And letting colors flow, letting textures flow, and getting glimpses of these memories being told to the viewer through an ephemeral form seems fitting.”

Links to donate to L’Arche: EN | FR

Credits:

Music: “Freedom” by Jordan Hart
Writer and Director: Joe Bluhm & Michael McDonald
Creative Director: Nicholas Herd
Tonic DNA Executive Producer: Stefanie Bitton
Tonic DNA Producers: Jennifer Nadeau & Mariana Duran
L’Arche Canada Executive Producers: Louis Pilotte & Jordan Hart
L’Arche Canada Producer: Michael McDonald
Illustrator: David Rémy Goldstyn
Character Design: Joe Bluhm & Michael Renaud
2D Animation: Guillaume Blackburn, Malcolm Sutherland & Celia Bullwinkel
Compositor: Myriam Elda Arsenault
Special thanks: Tonic DNA, to the Tonic Team
Special thanks: L’Arche, Richard Rooney & Laura Diner, Anonymous Donor, L’Arche Atlanta, Warren Pot, Monique Pantel, Damien Cheaveau, Yohan Perera, Nicolas Guérin, Jo-Annie Gauthier, Alexandre Boyer, Lee Jolly.

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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