A woman holds her baby for the first time. A young boy braves school bullying. True love blooms. A child given a little extra care becomes a caretaker … These poignant moments are captured in Freebird, an animated coming-of-age story about a boy with Down syndrome who learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father and life-long crush. Recently awarded the Oscar-qualifying Best Animated Short Film – 1st Prize at the 38th Chicago International Children’s FIlm Festival, the piece was produced by Quebec studio Tonic DNA in partnership with Canadian intellectual disability charity L’Arche, set to a song by Toronto-based singer/songwriter Jordan Hart.
On the heels of this festival victory, Animation Magazine was fortunate to hear more about the making of Freebird from writer-director Michael McDonald, Tonic DNA director Joe Bluhm and creative director Nick Herd about the journey of creativity, empowerment and compassion through the making of this impactful film.
Animation Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your wonderful short?
Michael McDonald: Last November, my brother invited me to breakfast (which is kinda rare because he’s more of a dinner guy) and he told me that his wife and him were going to adopt a child with Down syndrome. I’d been working as a disability activist for years, so he had a lot of questions about Down syndrome in general and people I knew with Down syndrome in particular. What were their experiences, how did they manage their differences, how did the world treat them?
After our conversation, I was so excited about having one more little one in our family that I started thinking about what I could give my future niece as her first gift. I usually miss the mark when picking out gifts for people, but I do know how to tell stories through film, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt a bit worried that when she grows up, she’s not likely to see many shows where characters who look like her are living out their dreams. So I thought, maybe my first gift to my future niece could be that story.
So, all that’s happening in my head as I drive home, and then I stop at a red light and check my email (which I need to stop doing). In my inbox was an email from a buddy of mine who I hadn’t heard from in about eight months. He said that he woke up at 2 a.m. that day with this impulse to send me his latest unreleased song. It was a song called “Freedom.” He had grown up with a friend named Jon (who we named our main character after) and when Jon was born, he was told that he’d only live until he was nine-years-old. Now Jon’s in his 50s, he’s a three-time cancer survivor, and his karate chop can still snap a board in two. (If you don’t believe me, here’s a 30 second video of it: https://youtu.be/VHbVbpbnHaI). Jordan thought his song “Freedom” could help highlight the struggle of people with intellectual disabilities and the last line of his email was: “Could we do some sort of collaboration for World Down Syndrome Day?” My jaw dropped. The light turned green.
When I got home, I reached out to Nicholas Herd, an actor and LGBTQ activist who has Down syndrome himself (and whose work I’ve been a fan of for many years) and that’s how the ball got rolling.
When did you start working on it and how long did it take to produce?
Michael: Well the story itself began forming over many years of listening to people. It’s based on real-life stories from different parts of the world. The secret handshake between Jon and his mom came from a real secret handshake by a man named Amir with Down Syndrome in Egypt. (A clip of Amir and I goofing around.) The opening scene where Jon pushes his elderly mother in a wheelchair was inspired by a moment in Italy between a woman named Rafaella and her father (seen in this episode of docuseries #AsIAm). The romantic reveries (there were four in the script but only one in the final cut) were based on Nicholas’ favorite love scenes in film.
So, over time, I met people whose stories and experiences stuck with me. I held onto them and all of a sudden, they just poured out. That creative downpour started on November 11 of last year at that red light, but the rain had been collecting for years.
Originally, we planned to shoot it as live action and the shooting was scheduled for January 2021, but we kept postponing because of COVID and the fact that doctors were saying that COVID was 10x more lethal for people with Down syndrome. After our third postponement, I called Nick up and said, “What do you think about animation?” “I love animation!” he said, “And I’ve never seen anyone with Down syndrome in animation!” Jordan was equally excited. So mid-January we decided to pivot to animation. We reached out to about two dozen studios/animators (all who were amazing) but we were thrilled when we found out that Tonic DNA (who was our number one pick) was thrilled by the project. Tonic DNA’s director, Joe Bluhm, was immediately hooked on the story and the cause.
The final animation was completed on April 16th, so it was in animation for three months.
How did you come up with the straight-forward animation style?
Michael: From a visual perspective, we wanted to create a sort of visual haiku, and we found ourselves drawn to the tradition of abbozzi, the preliminary sketches of works of art.
Joe Bluhm: We knew that with the short timeline, we would have to go with something more evocative, light, familiar and loose enough to evoke the idea that a story is yet to be written for many of the people this narrative speaks to.
Michael: The present moment was in full color, but every memory was a different hue and slightly faded. And Joe had this incredible idea that if you were to put the scenes together on a storyboard, you’d see the full spectrum of light which Nicholas Herd loved — not only because he’s an LGBTQ advocate, but because the rainbow-colored infinity symbol is the symbol for neurodiversity.
Joe: Constraining things wasn’t the answer for us. Letting things be loose and open was. So a light, slightly vintage style felt right. And letting colours and textures flow, while getting glimpses of these memories being told to the viewer through an ephemeral form seemed fitting.
Michael: I’d like to just add that sometimes you don’t need the full force and expense of artistic sophistication in order to convey a narrative. Joe’s black and white storyboards alone had people in tears. In fact, after seeing the storyboards, one of my uncle’s told me, “Now I understand cave paintings.” He had never grasped how evocative and emotive a few lines on a wall could be until he found himself balling over Freebird’s storyboards.
Which tools were used to produce the animation?
Joe: The animation was created and drawn in the 2D traditional way, frame by frame, in Toon Boom Harmony software. All the animation was done in black and white, then colored in post-production.
What were your biggest challenges?
Joe: Working with a small team and an accelerated time frame is always challenging. The style we chose was not agnostic to the story, but also partially that we were aware we couldn’t eliminate most of the story, to simply get it done. We leaned on the process that we have as an efficient team, and started with a lot of groundwork of storytelling and designs planted into the storyboards, making sure Michael and Nick were onboard. From there, the best way to keep the train moving is to let each team member play their instrument well. It has really helped us learn a lot about efficiency and trust in this collaboration (in ourselves and in others).
Michael: I think the biggest challenge was the emotional nuance. We covered 45 years of life in four minutes. Tonic DNA had a difficult task, especially because of our minimalist approach. You only have a few lines, but you still have to express the subtleties of a broken marital relationship, the tension of co-parenting, the bashfulness of teenage love, the nerves before stepping into the spotlight, the expression on a mothers face as she holds her newborn. Some of the emotions we were trying to convey were pretty subtle, and getting them right was essential.
How many people worked on it?
Joe: Overall, we had 19 people working on Freebird. Michael’s team had nine creatives (from the producers, director, creative director, musician, creative consultants) and Tonic DNA’s team had 10 creatives (producers, director, artists).
What do you hope the short accomplishes?
Michael: When we heard the news that we had made the Oscar long-list, Nick (our creative director) boarded a plane from Toronto to Chicago to accept the Oscar-qualifying award from the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. It was his first time flying alone and he was having a marvelous time. But when he sat down, the woman sitting next to him asked to change seats because she didn’t want to sit by a person with a disability. (Nick talks about it here.) A few weeks earlier, Nick — who’s a big movie buff — went to the movie theater for the first time since the COVID outbreak. The same thing happened there — a group of moviegoers asked to change seats and complained about his disability.
After we released Freebird, one mother reached out to us and said, “Freebird is what I’ve always tried to say about my child, but never found the words to say.”
An experience I’ve heard from so many parents around the world is this: They’ll be walking down an aisle in the supermarket with their child and they’ll catch a disgusted glance or disturbing stare from someone. As a parent, what do you say? Where do you begin? You can’t undo a stranger’s attitude in a brief exchange near the Cocoa Puffs and you’re not likely to change someone’s attitude over a packet of pretzels on a flight, but with animation, you can transform how people see things. We’ve heard from thousands of people who have told us that Freebird is helping to transform how people see things.
So that’s absolutely amazing, and that’s what we hope this film can inspire.
But personally, I hope that those moviegoers who refused to sit by Nick will one day go to a movie theater and enjoy a film by a filmmaker with Down syndrome and I hope that the woman who changed seats on the plane will turn on her in-flight entertainment one day and see someone who looks like Nick walking the red carpet on an Oscars best-dressed list. It doesn’t have to be Nick, but I do hope that day happens.
One last thing: We’re really hoping to embolden more people with intellectual disabilities to make films. So many films feature characters with disabilities, but the stories aren’t shaped by people with those disabilities. We’ve been using an approach we call adaptive filmmaking over the past few years to find ways to help filmmakers with intellectual disabilities shape the stories about their bodies. We hope that Freebird encourages more artists to step not just in front of the camera, but behind it.
As you can tell, we have many hopes for this little animation.
Nick Herd: Freebird covers a lot of things: losing a pet who is close to you, having a father or mother not stay after the birth of a child, being in love with someone in a classroom (all of us have been there in our own lives!) That is what Freebird accomplishes, telling those life moments so familiar to us.
Can you tell us how Nick himself participated in the production?
Michael: Where do I begin? Nick helped carry the directorial burden from start to finish. He helped shape its ultimate vision, he helped choose and hire the animation studio once we had whittled it down to the final three studios. When the animation began, he weighed in on everything from which scenes to cut to which character designs to greenlight to which expressions to re-draw. And with every comment he gave, his thoughtful attention and creative diligence helped safeguard both of our teams from replicating the mainstream ignorance and misrepresentation we hoped Freebird would overcome.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Nick: When I worked in retail, my disability was a drawback: I had to fold clothes in the back so that the customers weren’t made to feel uncomfortable. When I started acting, my disability was a prop: I worked as an extra in films that had special-ed scenes but nothing more. When I joined an inclusive theater troupe, my disability was a good thing: I saw and felt things differently and that made me more original. This year, working as the creative director for the animation Freebird, my disability was an expertise. It wasn’t a drawback or a prop. It was a form of mastery.
Joe: I am always grateful and stunned by the level of responsibility and trust put in me by Tonic, the partners, producers and our team. Projects like this remind me of how fortunate I am to tell their stories, do it in a fashion which I believe suits the message, and, most of all, to have the privilege to be a caretaker of such a strong and important message. It also goes to show that when teams trust each other, wonderful things happen. Tonic DNA is grateful to have been able to work on a story like this. Every single person on our team felt connected to this project, it was a very emotional process. It’s truly fulfilling to work on a story with so much meaning behind it.
Michael: When I’m making a film, I can get obsessive and stop everything in order to create. I think that’s just how it goes for those of us who are the obsessive types. Most everyone on our team was in the same boat, but there was a moment when Joe had a big life moment during the production and he was 100% present to that moment. When he came back to the animation, he redrew a scene that touched on his experience, and when we saw the change, it just stopped us in our tracks. One of the things I learned from this is that: Yes, go crazy. Go ahead, get sucked in. Work tirelessly if that’s how your creative process goes. But also let yourself continue to live life and be available to life’s richness because if you do, the animation will reflect that. That thickness of life will make its way back into your work. I’m not saying that you have to be balanced because I’ve never been and I don’t think it’s likely, but let life break its way back in your work and consider living life a part of the responsibility of making good animation. The type of creative focus you give to the page, give it to life as well. And life will give it back to your art. That’s what Joe taught me.
Preliminary voting for the 94th Academy Awards is open December 10-15. The Shortlists will be announced December 21.