***These articles originally ran in the August ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 302)***
A New Benchmark in LGBTQ Visibility
Steven Clay Hunter’s well-received short Out features Disney’s first openly gay lead character.
Last May, writer/director Steven Clay Hunter’s SparkShorts film Out received a lot of attention when it debuted on Disney+. The charming short centers on a young gay man who decides to come out to his parents after his mind is magically swapped with his dog’s. Out was a benchmark for both Disney and Pixar for featuring a gay lead character, and fans responded enthusiastically to the project. As one viewer noted on Twitter, “Out has been played more than five times at home, creating a great conversation with my four-year-old son, and it ended up with him saying, ‘Everyone can love anyone and I love it.’”
Hunter is a veteran of Pixar movies (his credits include Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, WALL·E and Brave), and also worked as an animator on SparkShorts’ Smash and Grab and Purl. He says he learned a lot about story working with directors Brian Larsen and Kristen Lester. “One of the things they taught me was that when beginning to write a story, ask yourself what theme it is you’re most interested in,” explains the director. “What is it you want to talk about most as a human being? And when it was my chance to pitch an idea, I sat down and all I kept coming up with were coming-out stories. It just felt like something I needed to talk about and sort out emotionally and mentally through animation.”
The nine-minute short took Hunter and producer Max Sachar about two years to make. “We had a whole bunch of folks help us out throughout the making of the film, but the core team was quite small. We had maybe 18 people max and that core team worked on it over the course of anywhere from six weeks to a year.”
Taking a Page from Mary Blair
Hunter revisited his childhood to find inspiration for the short’s charming visual style as he wanted to tell a story for his inner seven-year old. “When it came time to think about what kind of look I wanted, I thought about the Little Golden Books we used to read as kids and that led me to Mary Blair’s painting style,” he notes. “Especially her Alice in Wonderland paintings, which are absolutely gorgeous!”
“I love the freedom that the SparkShorts program gives us as artists,” says Hunter. Of course, there were some challenges along the way. For one, he didn’t know whether they were going to achieve the painted look they were aiming for. They hadn’t created this specific watercolor-like visual with the pipeline at Pixar and there was no guarantee they could pull it off in the time frame they had. “But our core team led by DP of lighting Andrew Pienaar managed to figure out how to make it work,” he adds. “I really wanted to have a hand-painted feel to the depth of field, but we really didn’t think we’d be able to do it. Then one Monday, our look development supervisor Colin Thompson came in with a big grin on his face and said, ‘I think I figured it out.’ And he did and it looks gorgeous!”
Hunter, who is 51 and came out as a gay man when he was 27, says he and his producer have been completely overwhelmed by the love and support the short has received. This has included “everything from older LGBTQ folks who love it and wish they’d seen a film like this when they were younger to notes from parents, gay and straight, who tell us about the amazing discussions about love that they have with their kids after watching Out,” he says. “But mostly I love the fanart!”
“We made Out thinking wouldn’t this be a nice gift to the world — a story about a family together?” Hunter adds. “Today it feels like this kind of story is what the world needs, now more than ever. Hopefully, it’s just the beginning, there’s a lot more LGBTQ stories to tell!”
Out and the other six SparkShorts are available for streaming on Disney+. For more info, visit Pixar.com/SparkShorts.
Poignant Tales that Inspire and Innovate
An overview of the SparkShorts program at Pixar
When Pixar’s SparkShorts program was established two years ago, it set out to provide a new avenue for fresh storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques and to play with new production workflows. As Pixar president Jim Morris said at the time, “These films are unlike anything we’ve ever done at Pixar, providing an opportunity to unlock the potential of individual artists and their inventive filmmaking approaches on a smaller scale than our normal fare.”
As of July, animation fans have been treated to seven of these excellent, distinctive shorts. The program began on a high note with Kristen Lester’s short Purl, which received the Best of Show honor at SIGGRAPH last year and was nominated for a Humanitas Prize. The timing for the short, which made a strong statement about the importance of female voices in male-dominated workplaces, was perfect. It arrived as Pixar was trying to redefine its “boys’ club” image after John Lasseter’s exit from the studio.
Lester told Animation Magazine that the short was inspired by her own experiences as a woman working in animation. “I was often the only woman in the room early on in my career,” she said in a 2019 interview. “So, I wanted to make a short that reflected that experience. Being a first-time director, our short schedule and our limited budget were some of our challenges, but I was lucky to have such a supportive team that helped me deal with them.”
Purl was followed by Brian Larson’s Smash and Grab, a charming tale about two robots trying to escape their soul-killing jobs, and Kitbull, Rosana Sullivan’s heart-warming tale of the friendship between an abused pitbull and a stray kitten. Sullivan’s short went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short.
“I think the SparkShorts program is different in that it is an initiative that spotlights stories that are personal, told by a group of diverse creatives and allow for a broad range of voice to tackle wide-ranging subject matter like animal abuse, autism, depression, homosexuality, immigration and gender equality,” says Bobby Rubio, who directed the program’s fourth short, Float. “Stories like these aren’t your typical animation fair, especially coming from a major studio. I felt like we were the offshoot independent group that was given carte blanche to tell whatever story we wanted to tell.”
Rubio says since SparkShorts started out without the Disney+ connection, there was no guarantee that anyone was going to see these shorts. “So my crew and I were doing this to show that we had an amazing story to tell and we wanted to do our very best to prove we had what it takes to make an awesome film with limited time and budget,” he points out. “I was a first-time director and most of my staff had their first experience in a leading role on Float. So the program also gave opportunities to artists and creatives to prove that we were capable of our roles and could deliver a great product!”
The Pixar veteran says directing Float reignited his passion of creating and telling his own stories. “I am grateful to the SparkShorts program, because it gave me, a person of color, the opportunity to tell a story with Filipino American lead characters (the first time for Pixar and any major animation studio) and let me tell a story about families that are different from the typical family.”
The writer-director points out that the child “floating” in his short was a metaphor for being different from others. “I wrote and based the story on my own personal relationship with my son, who is on the autism spectrum,” explains Rubio. “The message that I was trying to spread is to love, accept and celebrate our differences! Ever since the short has been streaming on Disney+, I have received many notes and messages from viewers on how Float has resonated with them and how much the short means to them. I’ve received so much positive recognition and support from friends and peers at Pixar and the animation industry, and I hope that I get another opportunity to direct in the near future, because I’m definitely ready for the challenge.”
Erica Milsom’s Loop was another first for the studio. The short centers on two kids who find themselves on a lake, unable to move forward until they find a new way to connect. It broke new ground by showcasing Pixar’s first non-verbal autistic character. Milsom tells us that it was important for the studio to find storytellers that had something to say, and then encourage them to find their own stories and styles. “When you allow someone to access a sophisticated toolset and master craftspeople, but you say ‘We want to see what you will make,’ — you’re going to learn something new about both what your tools and your craftspeople are capable of,” she explains. “So, that transformation of what kinds of stories we could tell at Pixar is beautifully expressed in the SparkShorts program.”
Milsom says Pixar is full of people who aim high in our storytelling and look for stories that leave audiences with something to think about or remember or carry with them as they travel through life. “So in the end, I think the SparkShorts are experiments in how wide-ranging our storytelling can be if we give a new community of creators the tools and see what they do to redefine the medium,” she adds.
For the director, one of the high points of her experience was being able to work with autistic actors and advisors together through art. “Learning from our advisors at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and working together with our voice actress, Madison Bandy, to find the best expression of our character’s experience was really fun and engaging. And then, leading this awesome filmmaking team as they soaked up the insight and found our interpretation on film, with the benefit of their well-honed craft and expertise, was amazing. I feel so proud of what these two communities were able to bring to life through this connection.”
Edwin Chang’s powerful short Wind was inspired by his own father’s experiences who emigrated from North to South Korea and then to the U.S. He says the SparkShorts program exists to give voice to a new and diverse set of storytellers and to enable them with creative freedom. “This freedom allows for stories that are more experimental, more risky and more personal than any shorts Pixar has done before,” says Chang. “In my case, it allowed me to transfigure my own family’s story into one in a world of magical realism.”
Chang says it was quite rewarding to collaborate with others at the studio and to see their work make the film blossom in surprising ways. “Many moments stand out — the first time I saw a painting of the world inspiring its scale and wonder; when a character first moved with life; when the lighting imbued the images with weight and emotion — the talent of the crew came together to create something beyond any expectations,” says the director.
The short received a wide range of reactions and emotions during its early screenings. “These reactions revealed how one’s own history and background can deeply shape how one experiences a story,” explains Chang, who is currently working on one of Pixar’s feature films. “Elements like familial sacrifice and filial piety, which I hadn’t even realized were innate to my own upbringing, were less familiar to others and needed to be communicated more clearly. Ultimately, though, I was happy to see that audiences, of many different backgrounds, connected with it on a personal level above anything else, remembering their own grandparents and family who had enabled them to reach where they are today.”
Delivering Mini-Movies with Deep Impact
By Lindsey Collins
I was wrapping up as producer of Finding Dory and transitioning into a new role as head of development here at Pixar. One of the things I felt was really important was to find ways to give opportunities to a broader group of storytellers at the studio. I worked with our president, Jim Morris, and the rest of the creative leadership, and came up with SparkShorts, a quicker and less resource-intensive “experimental” shorts program that would allow us to make two or three shorts per year instead of just the one theatrical short like we had been doing. And with more storytelling opportunities, we’re able to tell a more diverse group of stories.
SparkShorts are like the indie-filmmaking wing of Pixar. There’s complete creative freedom. Filmmakers are able to assemble their own brain trust, build their own teams, and there’s no pressure to deliver a final product of a certain style. Initially we didn’t even know if anyone outside of Pixar would see any of these. So filmmakers are really able to express themselves creatively, in terms of the stories they want to tell, the style and look they wish to employ, or the technology they might want to test out.
Each one of these shorts is unique in terms of its story and visual style. As amazing as our theatrical shorts are, there was definitely a pressure to make something that would look as polished and perfect as our feature films. Because of this they took longer to make and Pixar’s creative leadership was much more involved in guiding them along. With SparkShorts there’s no pressure to meet a visual standard. Kitbull was hand drawn. Out has a very painterly look. The title character in Purl is animated on twos and fours. The creative expression is really unchecked.
The SparkShorts directors and producers are people at the studio that we have our eye on. Maybe they’ve pitched shorts in the past. Or they’ve really excelled at another creative role at the studio and we want to give them a chance to tell their own story. When we find someone who’s passionate about an idea and we put them in a room with other incredibly talented people, with minimal oversight and a tight budget, it allows us to take some risks in a relatively safe way. Disney+ was eager to include Pixar content on the service, so they asked us if we had anything in the pipeline besides our feature films. We told them about our SparkShorts, and screened the first few for them, and they loved them immediately. The timing was perfect and we’re thrilled that all of our SparkShorts so far are now able to reach a broad audience through Disney+.
Each one of our SparkShorts has been a very personal story. We’re dealing with some emotional issues here: inequality in the workplace, autism, immigration, coming out. Many of these topics are rarely addressed in mainstream animation. So my hope is — and so far this has been the case — that these shorts speak to people in a deeply resonant way. And that people are able to see their own stories represented on screen in a way maybe they haven’t before.
Lindsey Collins is the VP of Development and Producer at Pixar who oversees the SparkShorts program.