Writer-director William Salazar’s acclaimed new animated short Bird Karma has been receiving raves since it premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in June. We had a chance to catch up with the long-time DreamWorks Animation artist about his 2D-animated project, which he started working on more than 20 years ago:
Animag: Your short has a very unusual production history…Can you tell us how come it took so long to complete?
William Salazar: The reason why the project took so long to complete is because there were a couple of long periods where I did not work on it. It took me six months to do the first minute and a half of animation, 23 years ago in 1995. I was in London at the time, working in Amblimation studios. Then, I didn’t touch it at all for more than two decades, when I came from England to the U.S. I was very busy working on all DreamWorks feature films as a 2D animator, and then as a CG animator. The animation drawings were sitting in a big card box at home in my attic. It’s only recently that I completed the storyboards. Eventually, I pitched the movie in early 2017.
What was the inspiration for the storyline?
Originally, I only wanted to have fun and just “improvise” an animation of a bird dancing to [traditional] Indian music. I really had no story in mind. The idea to make it as a real movie came later. The Karma theme, with the Indian music… The main theme of the movie is “Be happy with what you have,” or “be careful what you wish for!” This bird, who all his life has eaten the same grey fish, is suddenly introduced to a new kind of fish he has never seen before: A red magical goldfish. And it becomes an obsession. All he wants is to catch this fish. But sometimes, what you want is not necessarily good for you.
Can you tell us about the look of the short?
The short is 100% handmade and hand painted. It is all hand-drawn traditional animation.
There is no clean up, so the pencil line is rough and slightly flickering, which gives life to the characters and a very handmade quality. The final image looks like a watercolor painting. The colors inside the character bleeds, trying to imitate the watercolor effect.
There is actually only one background for the whole short: It’s a simple horizon line with water and sky. It is very minimalistic, and I was afraid it would be boring for the entire five minutes. But because there is a gradual change of weather that occurs during the whole movie, it makes it interesting to watch.
We start the movie in the fog, then when it dissipates and we see a few clouds in the distance, then it becomes overcast, then it rains, then clouds part and we see rays of light coming down to hit the surface of the water, etc., etc.
How was the animation produced? How many people worked on the project with you at DreamWorks?
I animated about 60% of the short myself. Eventually, I had the help of four great 2D animators in the studio for a couple of months, who really wanted to take a little break from CG. Jakob Jensen, Kristof Serrand, Simon Otto and Steve Wood: They were all 2D artists from the Prince of Egypt days. We had Ramone Zibach (production designer whose credits include the Kung Fu Panda trilogy and Boss Baby) painting all the backgrounds, overlays, underlays and doing color keys, etc. … We also had a fantastic little team of After Effects artists/compositors, led by Erik Tillmans, to create the final image, and to move all the different parts of this puzzle. They did a very good job, adding reflections in the water, and sparkles — a lot of details that make the image richer.
What was the biggest challenge for you throughout the whole process?
The two biggest challenges were the final look of the movie and the music! As far as the final look is concerned, I was so used to see the project as a pencil test that I did not know how good and appealing we could make the final image once it’s inked and painted. I did not want to have classic ink and painted images, something we have seen a million times. Thanks to Ramone, the movie looks very original and appealing, in my opinion. It is like a “moving watercolor!”
Regarding the music, I animated the first minute and a half two decades ago, on a temp soundtrack of Indian traditional music, so I got very attached to it. So , when we discovered that we could not get the rights for the soundtrack, I was very afraid we couldn’t get better music. Fortunately, we were introduced to a fantastic young music composer, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. After we pitched the short to her, she went back to her studio, and we did not hear from her for almost a month. When she came back to present her work in progress, it was all there!
She took the chance and presented us a fully scored version of the movie. It was so unexpected, and not at all what I had in mind. But I loved it and everyone in the team was impressed by her presentation. It made us forget the temp music.
Were you surprised that DreamWorks decided to jump on board to help make this 2D animated short a reality?
I am very grateful that DreamWorks decided to help me finish this project. I could not have done it without the help of the studio, and such amazing artists. I believe that 2D is a beautiful art form, and it’s too bad it has disappeared from the big Hollywood movies. Every feature film made in the U.S. now is CG, with a few exceptions (stop-motion).
We still have a few artists here at DreamWorks who can draw and animate 2D, so Bird Karma was a fantastic opportunity to use their talent. I am also very surprised that they would go for such an offbeat comedy. It shows the executives had an open mind about exploring different styles of storytelling.
What has the reception been like for your short?
A lot of people who love 2D animation had very positive reactions after seeing the movie.
Animation students from CalArts and Gnomon asked me if there was a chance 2D would make a comeback at DreamWorks. Right now, there is no plan to make a feature film in 2D, but we might do another short. There is definitely an interest from students and some animation lovers for a return of hand-drawn animation. I am also very happy that the film received a special mention at the San Francisco Film Festival back in March. The jury praised Bird Karma for “taking on astonishing depth with playfulness, simplicity, humor, and beauty.”
Any tips for aspiring animators who want to start and finish their labor of love, like you did?
Do it for fun! It doesn’t matter how long it takes, or if you do not finish it. If you don’t have fun working on it, then it’s not worth all the time and effort.
Then, do a full storyboard (if you can draw) of your short film, that’s very manageable and it’s the closest thing to a “finished” movie. It only took me a couple of months, outside of work hours, to create the full storyboard version of the movie (running time was almost five minutes). You can easily edit it on your PC at home, add a temp soundtrack, sound effects, etc. … It’s very motivating to see your movie up so quickly in a storyboard form. It almost feel like you’ve completed something.
Then, pitch it to as many people as you want in the hope of getting produced. Show your vision. Don’t be afraid of feedback.
There are many good reasons for doing a passion project on the side: First, you discover many different aspects of movie making while doing it. Then, when you pitch it, even if nobody picks up your project at first, they’ll see you as a creative person. They’ll notice you not just an animator or a technical person, and it might help you for a future job opportunity.
When you work in a big studio like DreamWorks for so many years, you learn to put your opinions, your personal tastes, your ego on the side, and your job consists exclusively of creating somebody else’s vision. So, it is very fulfilling and liberating to have a side project of your own, where you can actually feel free to do whatever you want. Even if it’s just for a few hours a week!