This weekend, audiences who've bought tickets to see Disney's latest animated feature film Big Hero 6 are first getting treated to the culinary exploits of an adorable Boston terrier named Winston. The animated short film Feast tells the story of a (largely unseen) man's romantic journey through the lens of the (largely human) food he feeds his dog. While it is Disney's third short in as many years, Feast also officially represents the company's return to its deepest, oldest roots.
"Well, the irony is that Disney's actually had a long, long history of making [animated] shorts," Feast's producer Kristina Reed told BuzzFeed News. "That's really where Mickey Mouse came from at the very beginning of it all. And I think we kind of lost our way." Disney's short film renaissance technically started with the 2D-3D hybrid Paperman, which played in front of 2012's Wreck-It Ralph and went on to win an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. But unlike sister studio Pixar — which has always maintained a steady pipeline of animated shorts in front of its feature films — Paperman was something of a one-off fluke. Up to that point, Disney had largely abandoned making animated short films as part of its regular operations.
"It was more of a, hey, we're really exploring this idea of mashing 2D and 3D together," said Reed of Paperman's inception. "Here's an interesting idea from a young animation director that could be a vehicle for exploration. Let's put it into play."
After Paperman's success, however, another animator at the company hit upon the notion of honoring those old Mickey Mouse shorts by bringing the character into the world of 3D animation, ultimately resulting in the the delightful short Get a Horse!, which played in front of 2013's Frozen and was also nominated for an Oscar.
By that point, the enthusiasm at Disney for working on these two shorts was so palpable, Reed explained, that John Lasseter and Ed Catmull — who oversee operations at the otherwise independent animation studios at Disney and Pixar — realized something important was afoot. "The studio leadership looked up at some point and said, 'Whoa, there's this incredible energy that gathers around these shorts, and we want to make sure we keep that alive,'" Reed said. So Lasseter and Catmull decided to formally create a short film pipeline at Disney similar to the one at Pixar.
For Feast director Patrick Osborne (an animator on Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Bolt), that meant submitting three possible ideas for a short, then honing in on his best idea, and then making a formal pitch to Lasseter. "I'd been playing with this idea [that] maybe you could tell a story through dinner," Osborne told BuzzFeed News. He actually did it, using the app 1 Second Everyday to document all of his dinners in 2012. But it wasn't until he hit upon the idea of using a dog as the mechanism for telling the story that he realized he had a film.
And then he had to wait. "Frozen was being worked on at the time, and most of John Lasseter's time was going to that," said Osborne. "So they told me every week [that] I was going to pitch to him, and then it got pushed to the next week — for four months." Osborne used that time to further perfect his concept, and by late October 2013, after pitching Lasseter, he finally had a green light. That meant a budget, a team, and a deadline: June 10, 2014, the start of the annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, where the short was due to premiere. They made it with three days to spare, but as Reed explained, missing the film festival was the least of their worries.
"We used the animation festival as a deadline because it's a fun deadline to use," she said. "But the truth is if we hadn't made that festival, we weren't going to be in front of Big Hero 6, because they were needing all the resources in the company. Nearly everyone in the building went to help Big Hero 6 get finished. We weren't going to stop Big Hero 6's progress to serve Feast. That is the joy and the challenge of having a short. You're trying to stay in front of a steamroller."
Which brings up a nagging question about the entire endeavor of making an animated short film at a major studio. From a financial perspective, it seems totally counterintuitive. Unlike animated feature films, which have a built in revenue stream at the box office and beyond, these animated shorts are, in Osborne's words, "an art project. There's no financial return."
So why sink so much money and time into them if there is no chance of seeing that investment back? "They do them to grow talent, mainly," said Osborne. "It's difficult just being an animator to just say, 'I want to supervise a feature,' and be trusted with that. That's not going to happen. But everybody can apply for every [animated short] job internally. So, like, Brian Scott, my head of animation on the short, had never done that here at the studio. Josh Staub, the effects [supervisor] on the short, has never been a VFX supe before. And I've never directed before. So that's their main goal — to try people out, see how they work together."
"Feature films are really hard," added Reed. "The stakes are high, the schedules are long, the budgets are really big, and the movies have to be fantastic. And shorts allow a breath of fresh air in there. We find they're really popular for people to come work on, because you have much more direct access to the filmmakers. It's easy to go to the director and talk about an idea you have."
Short films also give filmmakers a chance to try out new technology and visual styles — like the mixture of hand-drawn 2D artwork with fluid 3D animation present in both Paperman and Feast. It's like an animation studio's version of an R&D department. "When you're working on a feature, it's just a rolling machine," said Osborne. "You don't have a lot of time to experiment with tools and looks very often. So it's neat to be able to do that in shorts."
That experimental visual style also informed the film's story, like the decision to make Winston a Boston terrier. "The look of the film was really simple and graphic, and we needed a dog that had patterning on it so you could tell when he was rotating," said Osborne. There was also a more historic reason for choosing that breed: In the entire history of Disney animation, the studio had never used a Boston terrier in its films for a main character. "We didn't want any kind of confusion," said Osborne, "that this is a character from some other [Disney film]."
As Osborne worked through the development process for his film, however, he came to understand just how risky Feast was for his career. He had been the co-head of animation on Big Hero 6 — a dream job, something he'd been striving for since he started in working in feature animation 10 years ago. Osborne even credits his work as the animation supervisor on Paperman for helping him to land the even bigger job on Big Hero 6. But once he got the green light to direct Feast, Osborne had to give his other job up — with no guarantee that Feast would ultimately get made.
"I have this visual agenda in CG that I've been trying to push through Paperman, and unless you're really helming the thing, it's difficult to get exactly your vision out there," he said. "I didn't want to pass up the opportunity. [But] if we didn't get the story ready by January when animators were ready to go, we couldn't have made it. It does weigh on you a little bit halfway through when you realize, What did I decide to do?, when it's not working." He chuckled nervously. "But they say trust the process, and it worked out this time."
That process is already underway on another Disney animated short: Reed said that the next one has already been green-lit — although she declined to give any further details. "It's starting its path" is all she would reveal.
As for Osborne, even though Feast is already winning over audiences (and reducing some to copious tears), the rewards of his film have apparently not yet fully mitigated the risks to his career. When asked what he is working on next, he got very quiet. "I have no idea," he finally said. "I'd like to know soon."