Showing posts with label animation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label animation. Show all posts

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Alexandra Bowman talks to India's "Wade" animation directors

"Wade" Co-Directors on Discussing Climate Change Through 2D Animation

"Wade" Co-Directors on Animation Inspiration, Production, and Self-Distribution

"Ghost Animation" Co-Founders on Creating an Animation Studio, and Animating for Amazon and Google

From the press release -
Upamanyu Bhattacharyya and Kalp Sanghvi's 'Wade' addresses the dangerous sea rising levels in Kolkata, India

Upamanyu Bhattacharyya and Kalp Sanghvi's Wade addresses the importance of climate change by focusing on the dangerous sea rising levels in India. This stunning animation will be screening online as part of Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June and Palm Springs International Shortfest also in June where it will be competing for the Best of the Festival Award and Best Animated Short.

In an imagined future where Kolkata is rendered unlivable by rising sea level, things take a dark turn when a family of climate change refugees are ambushed by a tiger in the flooded streets.

Co-director Upamanyu Bhattacharyya is an animator, filmmaker, comic artist and illustrator. Upamanyu co-directed the highly acclaimed short film Wade with Kalp Sanghvi. As a founding partner of Ghost Animation in Kolkata, he has worked on a wide range of animation and illustration projects for clients including Google, Amazon, and Penguin. Bhattacharyya worked on the title sequence for acclaimed director Mani Ratnam's film OK Kanmani, storyboarded his other film Kaatru Veliyidai and has also worked with Academy Award winning composer A.R. Rahman to create storyboards for his VR project Le Musk.  Currently, he is finishing his work on his next solo animated short Ten, a dark comedy about the mass exodus from Bangladesh in 1971 and is developing his animated feature City of Threads, set in Ahmedabad in the 1960's.

Co-director Kalp Sanghvi is also an animation filmmaker and illustrator who co-founded Ghost Animation in Kolkata in 2015. He has worked on various animation and illustration projects for clients including Amazon and Sony Entertainment India. Kalp has worked on title sequences for feature films including acclaimed director Umesh Shukla's 102 Not Out, featuring Amitabh Bachchan & Rishi Kapoor. 
He is developing his first animated series Rajbari: The Ancestral House, a fantasy family drama set in Kolkata and working on an animated short film about tiger conservation in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of India called Remains.

Wade has currently applied to over 60 festivals and its selections so far include 
Palm Springs International Short Fest, Brooklyn Film Festival (Best Film, Audience Award), ITFS Stuttgart, Krakow Film Festival, Animayo Film Festival (Best Art Direction) and OFF Odense International Film Festival.

This film screened online as part of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival on June 15th to June 30th and won the "City of Annecy" Award and at Palm Springs International ShortFest on June 16th to June 22nd.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Please Don't Cancel Zootopia: An Editorial

by Alexandra Bowman

In light of the renewed conversation about racism in our country after the death of George Floyd, another sub-discussion has emerged. Works of art, films, and media properties with subjects relevant to the events of the past few weeks are being reexamined--and the 2016 Disney film Zootopia has once again become a topic of discussion.

The film famously attempted to tackle about 45 social and political issues. It seems, at first glance, that racism is the one central issue to the film, but closer analysis of the filmmakers’ intentions and the film’s storyline itself prove that the film is not centrally anti-racist, but anti-bias. And the reason for this, as I’ll explain, is to help explain bias to children from a bird’s-eye view, and should not be condemned for its mission--to help teach the very young to seek out and eliminate prejudice within themselves.

There is a seven-part documentary available for viewing on YouTube about the multi-year creative process behind the movie. Throughout, and in Part Seven especially, the filmmakers speak about their intentions while creating the film, the effect they hoped the film would have on its viewers, and the effect of the film on their own children. 

“You certainly look at the world through a different lens after telling a story like this… Maybe I can do better. Maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way. I’ve been thinking about how to have those conversations [about bias] with my kids… the process of the movie has already changed how I talk to them, and how I want them to hopefully perceive the world differently,” stated co-director Jared Bush.

“I think in my own family. When I look at my little boy, I see a very Asian face. I first and foremost want to instill that he should be proud of who he is no matter what. You know, this world, it’s not easy to not be white. So, as much kind of inner strength and inner confidence and belief that he can do anything is what I want to instill. I hope this movie is part of that,“ says co-head of Story Josie Trinidad.

While some may argue that what the filmmakers intended to do doesn’t matter, and that the thing they ultimately created speaks for itself while their motives in creating the film are of little-to-no relevance, given that recent attacks on Zootopia have been leveled toward its creators--attacks that accuse them of being insensitive in their discussion of complex issues within the film and putting forth a sloppy, incomplete product--it is important that these creators’ intentions be publicized. According to their words, they intended to create a piece of popular art encouraging tolerance.

When talking about Zootopia in 2020, in light of new and complex conversations about racism, we have to realize what Zootopia is.

In Part Three of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, the filmmakers speak about and show clips from an ABC documentary released in 1970, called The Eye of the Storm, in which a teacher of a class of white children conducts a social experiment with her students. She has half of her students put on small black collars. The teacher immediately set rules and limitations for those children to abide by that were intended to be perceived instantly as unfair. Later that day, the teacher gave students an academic test, and the students who wore collars performed significantly worse having been told that they were inferior. Some students even broke down crying over their new inferior social status. 

The teacher states in the documentary that she hoped to teach these children about the arbitrariness of racism. The filmmakers explain that this documentary was deeply influential for them in creating the film, not only for themselves in thinking about that arbitrariness of societally-imposed labels, but also with regard to the impact that can come from teaching young children about bias in ways they can understand.

The filmmakers were inspired by the problem of racism to create a film about bias. They did not, however, seek to create a film about racism, nor to create a film explaining it.

Bias is just one element of racism, and racism is just one kind of bias. Zootopia is ambitious to a fault, seemingly attempting to tackle tokenism, police brutality, regionalism, sexism, racial slurs, and racism more broadly. These are all issues and behaviors that result from the problem of bias. Racism is, of course, incredibly complex, and so is bias. But the concept at the center of bias--assuming something about someone based on their appearance or observable traits, is slightly easier to boil down for the sake of a kids’ film.

Producer Clark Spencer spoke about the need to simplify, which came with an enormous sense of responsibility. “On this film more than any other, this has been a very difficult story to nail down,” he said. “We were dealing with this important topic, and it needed to be told in a very elegant way… it’s a responsibility. They shouldn’t all be enormous ideas, but there should be something very optimistic and very hopeful in our storytelling that allows kids, teenagers, adults, to relate to that story and makes them think about something.”

This is a movie intended to teach children about loving your neighbor and being able to recognize bias in yourself. It is about avoiding relying on generalizations about the many that will cause you to create conclusions about the individual. It is not, at least directly, about racism.

“In this world, predator and prey have figured out a way to coexist in the same city. But what we’re going to find out is that coexistence isn’t as utopian as you might think. There is truly a problem in the city And that is the fundamental part that gets to the idea of bias, about two groups that assume something about somebody else,” says Spencer.

Exactly. Zootopia creates a problem in a fictional world--that predator and prey animals must now live together in coexistence, and it isn’t working as well as the city’s Thomas More-derived name would suggest, as the film quickly demonstrates. Then it uses that very fictional problem--that revolves around, remember, talking animals not getting along--to allude to macrocosmic issues plaguing the human world today. 

The conflict within Zootopia’s story alludes to the problem of racism, but any direct ties between Zootopia’s story about bias and the ongoing problem of racism in the United States are overextrapolations. Zootopia does not appear to stake its plot on the delineations between individual animal species--it draws its main distinctions between predators and prey. If the filmmakers sought to make a film with direct, literal statements about race to be carried literally into our human, 21st-century lives, they will have made a film that suggests there are only two races of human beings. It feels safe to assume that, if someone managed to work their way up to the best animation studio in the world, this is not something they believe.

Jared Bush comments on this universality in Part Three of the documentary. “I think that’s one of the biggest things for us. It’s not a specific group it’s not a specific race, it’s not a gender, it’s none of those things. It’s simply two groups that do not get along, and one group that’s feeling lesser than… For me, in thinking about what are we trying to say--it should feel universal.” 

Ultimately, the people who made Zootopia set out to tell a basic animal fable about bias, are following in the steps of a tradition as old as Aesop. It is unreasonable to throw out a film, or no longer be willing to learn from it or be entertained by it holistically as a work of art, because it doesn’t perfectly accomplish its many goals.

Zootopia is not intended to teach about racism specifically, but if a parent wants to use the film in a dinner conversation with young children about events going on in the United States right now, it is certainly a good introduction for very young children to these profound struggles and issues plaguing our world. And Zootopia should not by any means be the only thing a parent shows their child to teach them about racism.

And for those of us who are no longer children living in this complex world, Zootopia is an entertaining film that reminds us to be tolerant of those who are different from us, who we might expect to be one way but are in reality another.

In the words of Byron Howard in Part One of the featurette documentary:

“In this world of animals, where the animals are so different from one another, those things that are common are where they find that connection, and realize, ‘You’re not so different from me,’” stated Howard. “You may look different from me, you were brought up differently, but in the end, we all care about the same things. And we all deserve the respect that we want from each other. We all deserve to be happy in our lives. We deserve love, we deserve equality. And that’s why I think these movies are so powerful, because they are modern fables. We’re able to talk about things that are very very difficult, and we’re able to bring into conversation things that are kind of awkward to talk about. But that’s what the film is about.” 

It is also unreasonable to expect Disney to set out to make a film under the umbrella of the Aesop’s Fable model and capture every piece of nuance regarding one of the biggest social issues plaguing our world today. No filmmaker would walk into creating a movie with the intent of “explaining racism.” It would be wrong of their audience to accuse them of doing so. Further, to say that the filmmakers failed to create a way to explain racism to children is to assume “explaining racism” what they sought out to do.
If Zootopia wanted to perhaps shield itself from the critique that it oversimplifies—a critique that, perhaps surprisingly, only one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer leveled upon the film’s release in 2016—it could have put an explanatory statement before its opening scene.  Dreamworks’ 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, opened with a black title card and the following in white text:

“The motion picture you are about to see is an adaptation of the Exodus story. While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Moses can be found in the book of Exodus.”

Zootopia could have said something that would convey the following, “This is a family movie about a complex issue. We took artistic license—not only to make the story more entertaining when adapted into a film, but also to keep that film to a 90-minute runtime. This film is about a serious subject that is foundational to the lives of millions, but we believe this captures the ESSENCE of, or an introduction to, the story we want to tell.”

However, the film’s unspoken premise arguably serves in place of that statement. Zootopia is a Disney film, about talking animals, descended from the Aesop’s fable, intended for children. Animal fables have been used for centuries--think Aesop telling “The Fox and the Grapes” in the sixth century BCE--to simplify issues to teach children moral lessons. By definition, a fable is a simplification of an idea, simplified for the benefit of children who come of age in a complex world and must gradually come to understand complex ideas.

Clark Spencer mentions in Part Three of the documentary that the Disney team actually hired Dr. Shakti Butler, President and Founder of World Trust Educational Services, as a diversity consultant and advisor. Butler speaks about what she hoped Zootopia would accomplish with its immense reach as a Disney film:

“Disney’s role in creating culture is profound,” says Butler. “Culture teaches you who you are, where your place is in the world. And a lot of it is implicit. So if I go to school, and I see all the former principals are all white and they’re all male, I’m learning about power. If you’re going to create a society that’s equitable, you can’t do it without changing culture. And so when we shift culture, and children can see themselves inside of a story, and that they can play all different kinds of roles. That degree of flexibility is very important. Prejudice, of course, is something that everybody has. But where does prejudice come from? It comes from the ways that we are taught to be biased. And those two elements are linked together. And they’re also linked to the larger system of inequity.”

The way the film works with the image of the police force is certainly up for debate. It is at least worth noting that the filmmakers made the issue of bias central to its look at the police as well. Judy Hopps begins the film with the explicit goal of “wanting to make the world a better place” while not realizing her own bias, and then spends the rest of the movie realizing it in the context of her role as a police officer, and helps the rest of the force realize their own prejudice. At a minimum, this is a good step. After all, isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of the current conversation about policing in this country? To help officers realize bias within themselves and manage it?

Some have argued that Zootopia paints an entirely positive picture of police--which ignores Judy’s character arc and key moments in the storyline. In the middle of the film, Chief Bogo, a water buffalo (i.e. prey animal), says of Nick Wilde as a potential witness in an investigative case, “you think I’m going to believe a fox?” After Judy teaches Chief Bogo that, as he spells it out, “that the world has always been broken and that’s why we need good cops,” Bogo is later shown welcoming Nick to the police force.

It is probably clear that I am not dealing with the kind of suffering so many are during this time. It is a privilege to be able to sit and write out and publish an op-ed defending a Disney movie amidst an ongoing crisis of racial injustice and police brutality in this country.

I think that the question of whether this film is culturally renounced (or “canceled,” as the young’uns are calling it now) is not unimportant.

Back in 2015, I had just finished a tough freshman year of high school. Having transferred to a different high school for sophomore year, I had to rebuild myself--to find something that I was good at, that I would stand out for. I loved popular culture and literature, particularly The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who, but I couldn’t quite place why. I knew I loved these series’ ethical and emotional depth, but I hadn’t yet mentally grasped what about that depth appealed to me. Going into my sophomore year of high school, I began to work with my interests in illustration and literature, and had begun working towards understanding my goals as a student and person in the world.

Nick Wilde by Alex Bowman, April 2016
But coming out of the Regal Cinemas theater on Zootopia’s opening night on March 4th, 2016, I finally realized what I loved about these works of popular art. By faithfully basing themselves on classical story structures, classic fables, and conflicts of good and evil and love and hate, these stories taught young children moral lessons. They helped them better understand in their hearts AND their minds the world they were about to grow into. Zootopia was released six months before Donald Trump was elected President, and its climactic scene of societal unrest was how I mentally framed this new world for myself from my small world as a high school student, coming into social and political consciousness during the most polarized time in American history since the Civil War. I remember looking over and making eye contact with my parents in the theater when the line “Have you considered a mandatory quarantine on predators?” was uttered by a Zootopian reporter to Judy in the press conference scene--earlier that afternoon I had just been reading headlines about then-candidate Donald Trump’s insinuations that quarantining all Muslims might be something he would champion as president.

Zootopia helped me to, even as a 16-year-old, start to wrap my head around the issue of tolerance, and how even those who consider themselves tolerant are likely to have seeds of bias, and even bigotry, inside them.

photo by Bruce Guthrie
The work I do today with political cartoons and satire is still based around my central mission of creating media to educate young people through entertainment. Zootopia enabled me to finally put the pieces together, to realize the power of media to affect the young and influence their minds for the better. My goal with my work across the board, both now and for the foreseeable future, is to realize the most effective means of doing just that.

If Zootopia is somehow “cancelled,” or made socially or culturally unacceptable to enjoy, generations of children will miss the chance to not only learn about the basics of tolerance--and perhaps even realize within themselves the potential of film to touch future generations. I hope that Zootopia can remain a beloved modern classic that will stay alive to do so. 

Alexandra Bowman is a freelance illustrator, political cartoonist, and fine artist from Washington, D.C. She serves as the Editorial Political Cartoonist for Our Daily Planet, a climate news platform. She serves as an in-house illustrator for Georgetown University’s Office of Communications. 

Alex is a member of the National Cartoonists Society and the Cartoonists Club of Great Britain, and is the youngest current member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. She also currently serves as the Satire Correspondent on The Economist's Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher's webseries, "Satire Can Save Us All." During the Summer of 2020, she is interning for Voice of America, for whom she will be creating illustrations to be published across VOA's social media platforms. 

Alex is also the creator of “The Hilltop Show,” Georgetown University’s political comedy show, which seeks to present campus, national, and international news to a wide audience in an entertaining package. More information about the show can be found at 

Alex has illustrated three children's books and has had work published by BBC News, BBC Books, Puffin Books, the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, and Penguin Random House UK. Her work has been featured by a variety of groups on social media, including Disney XD and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Clay Jones' new video is online

Clay emailed me today about this -

What do people do with time to kill during a state-at-home order? This was hard.

He's got a Paypal button if you want to buy a print or send him a tip, in this difficult time. I did.

Clay Jones

Tales from the Trumpster Fire

Please visit  Claytoonz,

Friend me on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter

Follow me on Instagram

Watch me draw on YouTube

Monday, March 02, 2020

Onward's story head Kelsey Mann really loves his job at Pixar

by Mike Rhode with Alexandra Bowman

Kelsey Mann loves his job. He emphatically made that point several times when speaking to an audience at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The head of story for Pixar’s new animated movie Onward was in Washington last week to promote the movie and talk to students (and a few local cartoonists) about it. After his presentation, I got to speak with him for several additional minutes and ask some questions which follow at the end of this story.

His voice rasping from previous interviews and class presentations, Mann spoke to students for an hour about his career and his work in shepherding the development of Onward’s story. Two young elves, Ian and his older brother Barley Lightfoot, lost their father before they formed any memories of him, but a magic spell promised to bring him back to them for twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, the immature magic of Ian only brings back part of their father – from the waist down. The movie becomes a quest to reunite him with his whole body and his family before the day runs out. 

As the head of story, Mann was involved from the beginning of the project, one of the few people who were with the movie from beginning to end. However, his journey to working at Pixar took quite a few detours. He grew up in Minnesota, majored in illustration in college and started working in animation. He began in Minneapolis in a small studio and got to wear many hats. He applied to Pixar and moved to Los Angeles around 2000, but they turned him down. “I knew that was where I wanted to be, so I worked in small studios doing Flash animation for the internet. While I was doing that during the day, I would take night classes in illustration. I finally got my big break and became a story artist.” After working in various places, he was with Cartoon Network for five years, but moved to the San Francisco area to work at Lucasfilm including on Clone Wars in the Star Wars universe. Nine years after first applying, he finally got a job with Pixar.
Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Monsters University was my first film that I worked on.  I had worked on Newt for six months, but they ended up shelving it. I became the story supervisor on Monsters University, very quickly moving up the story ranks, which blew my mind because it had been so hard to even be a story artist at the studio. I never thought that I would ever have this job.” After directing a short, Party Central, also in the Monsters world, he worked on the story for The Good Dinosaur. Wrapping up his career overview, Mann said, “I’m the story supervisor on Onward, and I’m here to answer ‘What does the story department do?’ I’m going to answer it very specifically because each director works differently.”

Dan Scanlon, director of Monsters University and Onward
“One of the unique things [about this film]? I was there from day one,” He showed a picture of director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and himself, the three of them recreating the jobs they had on Monsters University. They began working on Onward on September 17, 2013. Mann left to work on The Good Dinosaur, but stayed in touch with Scanlon once a week while the project was in development. When asked if the director put together his team of people including the story boarders and the animators, Mann says of Pixar, “The director and the producer pick the associate producer, but there’s an interview process to make sure that it’s a fair process. It’s an open call.” The director works with the head of each department to build the movie’s team.

For the three people at the beginning, Mann, Rae and Scanlon, the movie began “in a blank empty story room with intimidating white walls and blank boards.” The story team uses index cards with ideas written on them, “trying to fill the walls with something to react to…Working out possible beats of the story from the beginning to the end of the movie. “ Scanlon was both a writer and the director on the film, and other people were added to the team to work on the script. “A lot of people think we just get the script as story artists, and we just go and draw it, but there’s a lot of working in the story room with the writer and director, helping to shape the story that we have to do.”

The story artists gather in a room Mann called the Fish Bowl (because it looked out onto the atrium of the building). Mann pointed out a unique physical feature of creating Onward, something he had started on The Good Dinosaur. “I had noticed how the smaller the studio was, the more interaction we had because we all sat in one room. The bigger the studio got, the more people went into their offices and didn’t talk to each other. Something about that felt wrong to me, especially with the story team where the collaboration is so key to the films we make at Pixar.” He noted that the team worked in the collaborative room, received their handouts, and made their pitches for the storyboard animation they created. A smaller group would work in the story room more directly on the script. “Once we had the beats of what we needed to happen, then Dan and Jason [Headley, the other writer] would go off and make a pass at the script.” The small group would then mark it up, “literally page by page.”

“Whenever Dan felt the scene was ready to go, we would hand it out for story art,” Mann said. The story team working under him were the first people to read the words, “trying to absorb the scene that they’re eventually going to storyboard.” Meanwhile Mann and the story manager spend a lot of time organizing the work.  “I’m a creative filmmaker, but a lot of my job is organization. I need to know what everyone is doing.” At this point, Mann showed a complex weekly chart of how scenes are assigned and when the animator will create a first pass and ‘pitch’ their suggested art for the scene.

Mann has everyone do that pitch in one room and at one time, noting “It’s great that I can show Dan a chunk of the movie, not just a slice.” He continued, “Once the artist has read the script, and figured out a plan and gotten it done, then we all gather in that fish bowl. Everyone is welcome at any time and we do all of our handouts in the fish bowl. On some shows, artists get handed a scene and they are the only ones present. We wanted to make sure everyone was present for all the handouts so they knew what their colleagues were doing.” Scanlon would read the scene out loud, as the reading is recorded, so the artists can refer back to his comments and voice. At times, the director would act out the motions he saw the characters doing. The scene that Scanlon described was the two characters looking across a gaping bottomless chasm, with a drawbridge on the far side. Mann would return to this example again and again to show how the scene evolved.  

photo by Bruce Guthrie
As he showed a drawing of a story artist with ideas popping in around his head, Mann asked, “What goes on inside the head of a story artist? We think of a lot of different things. We thing of cinematography, writing, acting, character, staging, editing, humor, design, composition and hovering above everything, is the deadline. And the other thing all artists think about every single day is what to have for lunch.” Artists may work differently and Mann doesn’t impose a format for the preliminary story. Some work on paper, some on Post-it notes, some do digital sketches on an iPad and some people work immediately on the Cintiq. In addition to Photoshop, the software used at Pixar is an internal program called Pitch Doctor which lets storyboards be altered in real time.

“Collaboration is so key to the stories we make at Pixar,” he feels, and the fish bowl is the closest animators can get to being on a set of a film. The story team ended up doing 97, 759 storyboards for Onward. When an artist has a scene ready to pitch, the story team gathers in the fish bowl and the animator performs the script and sound effects as the storyboard animation projects so everyone can see it. Mann demonstrated the boards for the bottomless chasm, and people clapped for his performance, which did put me into the movie. He noted that, “It is tradition to have applause at the end of a pitch. There’s a bit of performance here. Hopefully, you’ve forgotten about me and you’re not looking at me. You’re looking at the movie and that’s our whole job - to road test the movie and see if it’s working or not. And that’s before Dan starts.”

The process becomes iterative at this point with the scene possibly being redrawn, artists being ‘scratch’ voice actors, and then the entire scene with temporary sound, scratch voices, temporary sound effects and basic art screened several times until the story works. Eventually the animated storyboards for the whole movie are strung together into a basic preliminary version of the movie. Parallel with the story development is some visual development, but throughout this time, the characters and backgrounds aren’t finalized and the animators aren’t working on it. “It’s not until about screening four until animators start building the characters in 3-D.” Onward had eight internal screenings, once every three months, throughout its development. “We’ll watch in the theater. Screening is a big day and we fill the audience with people who are on the crew and people who are working on other movies, because we want a fresh perspective.” When the movie is getting closer to a final vision, it’s seen by the Brain Trust, the creative leaders of the company, and studio head Pete Docter, who get together and make suggestions about the version they’ve just seen. “It’s all just advice. What’s great about the Brain Trust is that we don’t have to blindly do what they tell us to do. If they presented a solution, isn’t doesn’t mean we have to do that solution. They’re trying to solve a problem so we want to identify the problem they’re talking about. We’re only there for two hours and we can’t solve everything in that meeting.” For weeks after the meeting, emailed comments come in to one of the writers, who reads and aggregates the suggestions, and then the story team starts all over again. Responding to a question about  storyboard artists working with the final animators, Mann noted “The movie is really made in the in the last year or year and a half of the process, and we’re on this thing for six or seven years. Most of the story artists, when the movie begins to get made, aren’t on the show anymore.  We’re trying to get more overlap with the story team and different departments. Layout is the next department after us. They’re the first ones who take our storyboarded scene and start to put it in a 3-D environment and start to block it out.” Mann tried to get the story people work with the layout people to solve potential problems as they arose.

The audience gathers for a group shot (photo by Bruce Guthrie)
“Pixar isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great. I’m so thrilled for this movie to come out. It’s been since 2013 and I’m dying for you guys to see it. We’re really proud of it and we tried to make a really funny movie that was really entertaining, but had something to say.” Ending his talk, Mann gave the audience a basic lesson in how to draw the older brother Barley, and then broke for questions from the audience.  His presentation was thoroughly enjoyable, and probably convinced several of the students that they wouldn’t want to work anywhere but Pixar.

ComicsDC’s Mike Rhode and The Hilltop Show’s Alexandra Bowman were given an opportunity to speak directly with Mann after his public talk.  

AB: What does it mean to be head of story at Pixar?

KM: It’s a big job. I’m on the movie for a very long time, so it’s a commitment. With this one, I was involved from the very beginning and went all the way to being at the final mix review at Skywalker Sound. At any point, we can improve the story, or break it. I worked together with [director] Dan [Scanlon] on Monsters University and was the story supervisor on that, so we have a long history. My primary job is to oversee the story artists through the storyboarding process, which is us taking the written strip and visualizing it. We’re the first ones to draw the movie and we draw the blueprint of the film and road test, for lack of a better word. Until we’re happy with it and it gets approved and goes into production.

MR: Is this a traditional role, or is it evolving as more animation is being done?

KM: It’s been around for a very long time. Maybe the duties are evolving over the year. It changes from director to director.  I worked with Peter Sohn on The Good Dinosaur, and there’s some similarities but there’s some differences. It depends on the director and what they need from their head of story.

MR: How did you personally get the job? You’ve alluded to your organization skills.

KM: I’m my known for charting. People will say, “Kelsey with his beautiful minding of things…” I’m a visual person so I’m always drawing things out on the whiteboard. I do it because it’s how I think, but also do that so everyone’s on the same page. If I draw something in front of everybody, it’s really clear. The first time I did the job was on Monsters University. We had a different director at the time, and Dan was the head of story. I was a story artist at the time and we got along really well. He didn’t even know me, he just brought me on, and we got along instantly. I think he likes working with me because I keep an optimistic attitude. I want to be accountable, loyal and if I say I’m going to do something, I follow through with it.

AB: What do you think separates Pixar from other animation studios?

KM: There’s so much good stuff being created these days. It’s not only movies, but it’s television, streaming … so much great stuff is being created now. I think what probably sets us apart is how the directors are asked to tell something personal. Something that’s really meaningful to them. This film is pretty darn personal because it’s about Dan and not knowing his father. Dan’s dad passed away when he was six months old so he has no memory of his father. He has an older brother, three years older, and Bill doesn’t remember their father either. Dan thought about how that’s shaped him, and what he’s learned about who he is, and thought ‘What if there’s a character that had a similar experience? And what if that character had an opportunity to spend one day with the person they had lost? I would want that.’ And that’s where this came from.

MR: It seems like Disney mostly adopts existing stories where Pixar tells stories from scratch and that seems to be one of the differences between the studios. Would you say that people gravitate to one studio or the other because of the types of source material?

KM: Pixar never will buy a property and make a movie from it. It’s a director-driven studio so it always comes from the director and what they want to say.

photo by Bruce Guthrie
AB: What are Pixar’s primary goals going forward? Or your goals? What do you think is the impact of your work on audiences in today’s world?

KM: We always want to make our movies. What we want to do in the future is to entertain the audience. We want to make a fun entertaining movie. We want it to have a heart and a reason why we’re making it, and about being alive. That usually comes from a really hard question that maybe the director can’t even answer themselves. Another thing we really want to do is surprise the audience. There’s a lot of [films] out there, and we don’t want to repeat ourselves. Pete Docter calls it ‘something unexpected.’

MR: The movie seems to have a curious parallel to Coco where a young boy is searching for his father. Did that ever come up?

KM: No. We hadn’t thought about that too much. We go to each other’s screenings to make sure we’re not repeating each other, but that was never a concern. I don’t remember the Brain Trust saying anything. I do remember early scenes of Toy Story 4 opening with a unicorn flying, and I was like, “Wait a minute. That’s what we’re doing.” They went away from that though.

AB: Do you have words of career advice for students who attend liberal arts schools like Georgetown or schools that don’t’ focus on art?
photo by Bruce Guthrie

KM: I always tell people it takes three things to get a job at Pixar. The first is passion. You have to love the heck out of this. Love movies and have a really deep, deep passion. Don’t tell any of my bosses, but I would do this job for free because I love it that much. That kind of passion. That leads me to the second thing – hard work. It takes a lot of hard work. I worked really hard. It took me nearly ten years after my first rejection letter from Pixar. But that hard work was a little easier because I was so passionate. A lot of times the hard work cuts people out because they really don’t have the passion for it. The last thing is luck. It takes a bit of luck and timing. You have to be prepared for when lightning strikes. You have to have your portfolio ready.

MR: Following up on the hard work thing for this particular movie, as head of story, how many hours per day are you working at the height of the storyboarding process?

KM: It’s a lot. My days are really full. They start at nine and they end at six. That’s a standard day. We always work through lunch. Dan would rather work at lunch than stay late, and I agree with that. I want to drive home and kiss my kids goodnight. If I have to put in extra hours, I do it in the morning because no one is around. I’ll go in early, but I try to stick to those hours. We’ll do the occasional Saturday every once in a while, right before a screening. Every three months, we’ll do a Saturday, but it’s only 10am to 1pm.  Not that terrible. At the past studios I worked at, you’re pulling pretty late nights but Pixar cares about your health and the longevity of your career so they don’t want to injure you. Other places… they didn’t care so much.

AB: How did John Lasseter’s departure affect you and the company?

KM: Wow. That was an interesting time not only in the world, but at Pixar. It was definitely a change because John did a lot for the studio. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for what he and everybody else did at the studio. I’m really proud of Pete Docter… we’re both Minnesota boys. I grew up in a town near him and he stepped up to be our chief creative officer. He’s really great, because he’s sharing. The amount of weight he has to carry leading this studio creatively is too much for one person. Pete says, “I don’t want to handle all of this. Take a little of this weight,” and I’ve seen Dan step up and be a leader not just on this movie, but in the studio. It’s an exciting time.

AB: There hasn’t been a Pixar Bronze age. You haven’t had your Black Cauldron moment.

KM: Yeah, I don’t want to have that moment.

MR: We were wondering what happens when a project gets shelved.

KM: Newt was weird, because that’s when I started at the studio and I didn’t know the difference between something going great and something not. All of a sudden, they shelved it, and I was like, “That’s a thing? We’re done? That’s it?” It’s typically after a screening that they’ll make a call on it and they called us all in a room and said they decided to shelve the project. It’s a hard thing. Part of working in story is being a problem solver, and I think of it as a Rubik’s cube that you’re trying to solve.  Then you’re told to put that cube down. And then it’s on the shelf and you have to walk away and be okay with it.

AB: Did the shelving of the project have anything to do with Rio and the similar premise?

KM: No, not from my knowledge. Again I was early in my career there so I wasn’t privy to conversations behind closed doors, but the story wasn’t working. It wasn’t because of any other projects. It’s always hard. In any creative endeavor, when you try to invent something, something always pop up. Maybe it’s a new Netflix show with the same idea as yours. It’s amazing how that happens. You just have to say, “I’m going to keep going forward and I’m going to do the best that I can.”

MR: When something is shelved, do you ever resurrect any part of it for a later movie? Did anything you had done for a previous movie that didn’t make it end up in Onward?

KM: I can’t think of anything that came from another property. On Monsters University, sometimes we’d resurrect old gags from Monsters, Inc. There are so many great ideas that get cut, not because they’re not great ideas, but because they’re not right for the story. Part of my job as head of story is to oversee all the ancillary material and so I just have this card catalog in my head of all these cut ideas. I’m busting them out constantly when they are doing a novel that’s a side story or an activity book.

AB: In a themed movie like Monsters University with its college theme or Onward with its medieval theme, how do you draw the line with a reference, or obvious gag, or a trope, or an homage?

KM: What was interesting about this film is that there’s a lot of fantasy out there. We wanted to make sure that the movie is appealing not only to the people who really know fantasy but also to the people who could care less about it. That’s what we want the film to hit. I think about that in casting the crew. I make sure I have people that could care less about fantasy, and then I put in people who love the stuff. Austin Madison and Louise Smythe were our two fantasy experts on the story team. I helped organize a group of us that we affectionately called The Fellowship. It was a collection of people, not just in story but in all departments, that really knew their fantasy. Across different aspects – some people knew novels, some people knew movies, some people knew role-playing games. We always had this group so when Dan had a question about fantasy and needed an idea, or a name, or something, he would say, “Take that to the Fellowship. See what they think.”

MR: I saw one press piece on Yahoo where an article was about a character referring to her lesbian daughter. Was that part of a story conference from when you were working on it, or did someone come in and say we’d like an LGBTQ+ reference?

KM: Lena Waithe plays (Officer Spector) the character that you’re referring to. Those two characters are police officers and were originally male when we boarded them. We want to make sure it’s a diverse cast, not only in male to female ratio, as balanced as we can make it, but also in diversity. Diversity is really huge. Noah Klocek is the production designer and his team did so much work to make sure all the species were as diverse as they could be and the casting was that way too. We knew that this movie, a fantasy film told in a modern setting, and we wanted to make sure it reflected the modern world. That’s a diverse world. That was an idea that came up later and we didn’t want to make a big deal about it. We wanted to have one tiny little line and just reflect the way our world really is.

I'd like to thank GWU's Naomi Rothwell and Kirk Kristlibas and my friend photographer Bruce Guthrie for making it possible for Alexandra and me to attend this talk and meet Mr. Mann afterwards. I'd also like to thank Mr. Mann who was extraordinarily gracious and forthcoming at the end of a long day.