A Whole New World Through the Love of Disney: An interview with the director and subjects of “LIFE, ANIMATED” – Animation Scoop

A Whole New World Through the Love of Disney: An interview with the director and subjects of “LIFE, ANIMATED”

Opening in wide release around the country is the highly anticipated feature documentary based on Pulitzer prize winner Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. If you haven’t heard about this bestseller, it recounts the Suskind family’s experience with their younger son Owen’s autism, and their discovery of how to reach into and expand his world through his affinity with Disney movies.

Life, Animated, garnered the Special Jury Prize and a nearly 10 minute standing ovation at Sundance this year. It is particularly pedigreed, given its director Roger Ross Williams is the first African-American director to win a Oscar, in 2010, for best documentary short subject with the film Music by Prudence. Life, Animated also got complete approval by Disney to use whatever they needed without editorial control, a rarity with the company. Those who see it as simply promotion for Disney are missing the point. Through the Suskind’s discoveries, what they first named ‘Disney Therapy’ has been expanded to include all sorts of subjects. Now called ‘Affinity Therapy’ this technique has become studied and utilized by a growing group of psychologists, parents, and educators around the world.

I first spoke with documentary subjects, Ron and Cornelia Suskind about Affinity Therapy, education, the power of the internet, and how Owen’s passion for Disney can open up ways all kids learn:

Leslie Of Animation Scoop: The way that people understand the brain is changing through this film and through your book. It’s changing the way people are seeing things. Can you talk a little about that?

Ron: The thing is, is that Owen gave us first and then other people behind us, our therapists and clinicians, a glimpse into things that people sort of suspected but didn’t really understand of how these powerful interests, these powerful passions really, are defining for all of us. How they rewire our brains around these things that tap our deepest motivations and deepest sense of who we are, and we do it through the things we gather in the world in many cases. The movies we love, the content so to speak, that we love – art, entertainment – and that’s what we found with Owen. For many years these so-called restricted interests were seen as mostly obsessions, certainly in autism, and even for other kids – don’t do that, do that on your spare time, not in the classroom.

LoAS: Sort of saying “We don’t have to keep talking about it over and over again!”

Ron: Right. And the one-size-fits-all model of all education, much less so many areas of therapy dealing with the neuro-diverse, which are now one out of four people, just discounted the choices that the individual makes as to what they love. And now they’re reversing that telescope, and that’s part of what we’ve done. You know, we did it out of necessity. Trial and error with plenty of error, to figure out: wait a second, this is who he is. And Cornelia had the great insight where she says early on here how it’s going to be this way, “Loving what he loves is the way we love him,” for someone like Owen. And that, of course, a great heartfelt insight, opens up a world to us as we start going deeper and deeper into Owen’s underground cavern, which is like a palace of insights and expressions, emotions. He’s got symbolic thought, there’s navigation equipment down there. It’s all down there. And it’s just like that William Blake line that you learned in high school English, the “world in a grain of sand … an eternity in an hour.” Yes! The DNA of all things is findable in everything if you know how to look and the way we have eyes to see it are through the things we love. And that’s the power of art and the power of the things, the symbolic representations human beings create, that hold a mirror up to who we are and that’s the lesson of the movie. Owen needed to rely on that more than the rest of us based on the hand he was dealt. But of course the universality of the message of how we live our lives through the great works of what humans create, well, that’s a message for everyone who walks upright in the world.

LoAS: So, isn’t it a message for the way that we perceive education and how we interact with each other? Because if the whole world, but specifically the United States – could be thinking from a place of what do you love? It’s a little bit like some of the outsider teaching that is already in place in this country, Montessori and all that, right? And so I think that it has the potential, this movie has the potential, and some research, to change how – let’s just let them love it and learn other things from loving that.

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Cornelia: Which is exactly what Owen has done his entire life, and we have encouraged him to do.

Ron: Cornelia created a whole curriculum around Disney ten years ago to teach him.

Cornelia: I homeschooled him for two years when he was, shall we say, between opportunities where there wasn’t good schools.

Ron: Or any school that would take him.

Cornelia: An appropriate school, right. And that’s the way he learns. I mean, he can talk to you about Winston Churchill, about World War II, about all kinds of history and where does he get it? Not from a history book. From various little this and that and then that motivates him to fill in. “Well mom, tell me about… so who was Winston Churchill and what did he do and where did he live… and here’s a voice – I know how to do Winston Churchill’s voice,” he will say. And he broadens it out and that then causes the interaction and the learning and the language development to go through the roof. And all the genesis of it is his motivation sparked by what he saw in a movie.

Ron: And Cornelia and I, look, we’re old enough to remember the “before” time when, you know, we all sat in the desks in the school room and our job was to send back what the teacher said on a silver platter with a garnish and get our ticket punched for the next round of musical chairs – that’s education. It’s still mostly the way that works. Well, you know now all available knowledge is on something you can hold in your hand. It’s a huge revolution for humanity. The beauty of that though is now whatever your passion is you can go a thousand feet deep, you can get manuals, you can get obscure things that only you know the value of. That’s how people can self-nourish around their passions, and are you telling me that’s anything other than heightened education and not only that, it’s applying the content now findable in the world of universal information. Applying it, finally, to the art of active living – that’s something we had never so many opportunities to do as we do now.

LoAS: That’s fascinating because then what you’re saying is so many people think that phones and network and all of that is dumbing people down, but it really has so much more opportunity to educate and to expand knowledge and our passions.

Ron: That’s right. That’s right! That’s what Owen does. He had to do it on his own; he had to improvise this whole thing with our help. But you know, once we saw it and started to feed that wolf, to nourish this growing world that he was building – he leads now. We follow.

One of my favorite parts of this interview was the Suskinds’ enthusiasm not just for Disney, but for 2-D animation, a love near and dear to my and many Animation Scoop readers’ hearts. We also talked about the power of fan art to create community:

LoAS: what do you think it is specifically about the Disney features that captured Owen’s imagination?

Cornelia: I think, I really believe, that it’s the hand-drawn animation, the vivid, vivid, beautiful, hand-drawn animation that can express so much emotion combined with the incredible music. And those, you know… We know that music activates a unique part of the brain and art activates a unique part of the brain and I think when those two things come together that, I think, is the magical combination.

Ron: And what’s the big thing that Walt does with Snow White in 1937? Look, there were cartoons before that – crazy cat and whack over the head stuff – he’s like, I can bring all of the huge emotions, the big ones that define life, I can bring it to this medium. I can do that here. So when the dwarves are kneeling around Snow White’s fallen body and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard start crying, he knows he cracked the code. I can do everything through this extraordinary medium! There was nothing here, was a blank piece of paper oh so long ago. We can summon all the most fundamental human emotions onto this mirror of art and have it then reflect back. I mean that was a huge leap forward and in a way it creates so much of the world that we live within now. Where image, symbolic reference, where these extraordinary tapestries that mirror life, are all around us in this world of the moving image.

LoAS: Do you think that Owen’s drawings, his art, how do you think that factors into his personal expression? Because I think there’s something about fan art and having outsiders feel like insiders that’s really important.

Ron: You know he was drawing incessantly, all the time, and he would find an emotion in one of these big Disney animation books in a particular scene and it was the emotion he was feeling. He would see it there and then he would draw it. And he said to us later, “I could only see and feel with my fingers. That’s why I had to draw. To feel it.” And he would draw these extraordinary expressions which mirrored his emotions. That’s why the house was filling up with sketchbooks and the precision and the vividness of it was so extraordinary. Again, why art? You know, it’s like that Neil Gaiman has a great line about this: “Bad thing happens to you, make good art.” And that’s what Owen did his whole life. The bad thing that happened, he got whacked with autism and fell off the table. Literally was separated from the world most of us live in. And he says I’m going to find a way to nourish myself and make good art just like Gaiman says, and that’s the way it is often with our great artists. There is, beneath the creation, a need…

LoAS: … A need to connect with something inside trying to express itself.– it’s not about autism or Disney cartoons it’s really a lot bigger. It’s about art in general and communication.

Ron: That’s right. And you know and also you know how we use the content that we now create, available to everyone, how we use it as a camp fire. The place of gathering, the place in which we can step away from ourselves and see ourselves most clearly. No different than shadows on the cave wall 50,000 years ago. And that’s the underlying and powerful message of the movie. There’s a line that Cornelia says, that we need stories to survive – you bet we do! Owen had to actually test that posit, he had to test that theory. Is it true? You bet! He used stories to survive and grow into this extraordinary person out now in the world.

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As part of Life, Animated, the filmmakers thought it was essential to use some animation to reveal the story.
Director Roger Ross Williams talked about his experience working with the company Mac Duff for those sequences, why he chose them, why he found them perfect to enhance his film visually, and how that part of the movie came together:

LC: Can you talk about the animation in the film? You worked with the French animation studio, Mac Guff.

Roger: When I was starting to think about the animation, it had to be different than Disney animation. It had to be Owen’s.

It had to be something that Owen created and you were in Owen’s head. It had to be a visceral experience, it had to be an emotional experience and it had to be almost dream like. So I was looking at different animation and I was looking at the Oscar nominated shorts. I saw this animated short that was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago called The Dam Keeper about this pig that took care of this windmill that kept the smoke out of the atmosphere. He had to keep it going but he was sort of bullied, mistreated, and if he let the windmill stop, everyone would die. Even though he was bullied and mistreated, he kept this going to keep everyone alive. So I love the style of it, I was like I want that European, I can only describe it as the way I thought of it, as European animation.

LC: That’s what it is, yes, absolutely. And the French have a very different aesthetic in comic books and in animation.

Roger: Yes, exactly, so I wanted that … So Mac Guff, they’re a 3D animation and special effects company …

LC: And they just worked on The Secret Life of Pets.

Roger: Yeah and they did Despicable Me, The Lorax, and Minions. So I didn’t know any of that, I just saw the reason I went to them, it was a weird thing. I saw in a documentary called The Gatekeepers they had these animated backgrounds. They did all their interviews on green screen, and built all these environments around the interview subjects, and I thought, “That’s interesting, maybe I should interview Owen on a green screen and create the animated world around him.”

That was the first iteration of it, so I contacted Mac Guff, and I went to Paris, and I met the owner of the company. He was this guy Philippe [Sonrier]. Philippe spent, I don’t know, 15 years or so living on a boat on the Seine and is this crazy, eccentric, very French character, you know. I loved it because no one really spoke much English. He just fell in love with the story and he goes, “You don’t have the budget of these big Hollywood features, but I’m going to put together a team of young French animators.” And I remember the moment it clicked that Philippe, it had to be. He had headed up – he sold Mac Guff to Universal a while ago. But he kept a small group of animators at the original Mac Guff office, which is underneath the Eiffel tower, so it has all these windows and Philippe’s there and the Eiffel tower is behind us and this was like a dream. This is meant to be. But he said something to me that really resonated with me – that clicked. He said, “After people watch this film, they will all pray to be autistic.”

LC: And that’s so nice; with a thick French accent.

Roger: With a thick French accent, [Roger mimics Philippe], “They will pray to be autistic.” And so I was like, that’s exactly what I want. He totally got it and he brought in this guy Mathieu Betard, and Mathieu was brilliant…

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LC: It’s very evocative animation, and it is a little bit – to me it harkens back to The Man Who Planted Trees, which is Canadian, but very influential…and the sequences in Life, Animated has the passionate visual quality of some the great European animation ….

Roger: And Mathieu… This artist Olivier [Lescot], who really created the look and style, he’s an amazing artist and I really love his drawing, I remember at one of the first meetings I said, “What style would you say…” – because Olivier didn’t speak a word of English, only Mathieu and Philippe did, and Mathieu spoke a little more English than Philippe – and Olivier said, “It’s Olivier style.” So we had this thing that we called Olivier style. They put together this team of eight or nine kids right out of animation school who were doing the work. I remember one day someone was drawing and they created a scene, but it wasn’t Olivier style and I said, “Who did this? Who did this?” and they were like, “Oh, Olivier is out sick today,” and I was like, “It must be Olivier style!”

LC: Talk about why you thought it was so important to have 2D.

Roger: It’s the, well, it was the emotion of the hand, you can feel the emotion of the artist. It’s almost like I could feel Olivier, who is this young guy, very French guy, who’s very sort of – I don’t know, I can’t describe him. He’s very French in the way he dresses and you know he’s just a very French, bohemian artist.

LC: Filled with that authentic joy and passion. So then it started coming together…

Roger: Yeah. I was getting very excited about where it was going. I felt Olivier’s passion in his drawings, and in his work, and I was just enamored and when I first saw the first work, I was just like, “Oh my god, this is exactly right.” but we also worked with Emily Hubley, who’s the daughter of John Hubley (UPA, Mr. Magoo) and Faith Hubley (known best for her animation on The Electric Company in the 70s), who was an animation producer and had worked with me. In my first meeting with her, she bought an art book from the 1950s and showed me some abstract art, and we were talking about the look and feel…and she was like, “You know, let’s not do dialogue. Let’s make it this experience.” And I thought, “That’s a brilliant idea.” So I found this 25 – same age as Owen at the time – 23-year-old electronic music composer from Portland, Oregon named Dylan Stark, and Dylan had grown up watching Disney animated films on VHS. And he used, in his music, the sound of VHS tapes fast forwarding and rewinding, so I wanted someone who had the same experience to create sort of a musical composition. And what he did was, he took Owen’s self-talking and then with Skywalker, who did our sound design, we did Foley in the woods, and in old houses, and he created this soundscape that’s a completely emotional – it’s as much part of the storytelling as the visuals. So much fun.

One of the likely takeaways after watching Life, Animated is considering what character from Disney you feel a particular connection with, so I asked Williams if in the course of production, he found that true for himself:

Roger: You know, I didn’t grow up Disney, I was more Hanna Barbera. I was more Flintstones and Jetsons. Especially filming with Owen and the animators, I understand why Owen connects to these characters, because these stories are classic fables that have been told for thousands of years, and they’re just updated by Disney. And then Owen, you know, was connecting to that because it was this world map for him to understand the world and the facial expressions. The exaggerated facial expressions was how he deciphered emotion and he still uses them. So I gained a new understanding and I think, you know, people ask me what’s my favorite, and now I understand that it’s Peter Pan. One of the things is that I have this sort of child-like wonder. I don’t feel grown up even though I am. I feel it’s just that sort of wonderment and magical, sort of mystical world of Peter Pan. I think because I’m so child-like and so immature, I’m able to tell these kind of stories. I think it helps me as a filmmaker and a storyteller not to be so grown up. It gets me in trouble in other places but it helps me as a filmmaker. I think I realize that getting to know Peter Pan through this film and getting to know it through the movie, hence why we start with Peter Pan. It’s the first thing you see – and then also because of the theme of growing up is the theme of the film.

While Owen was not scheduled to be part of the interview, Ron, after learning I both write for an Animation Scoop, and have owned an animation gallery for 24 years, went to get him and introduce him to me. He quizzed me about what concept work I’d seen from a number of specific Disney movies, and if I had any images I could send him from my history, and what older animators I’d met. We chatted for quite a while. Before we said goodbye, he informed me, as Disney sidekicks go, I was a combination of Turk from Tarzan and Grace from Home on the Range. Though a fairly tricky mix, I took it as a compliment.

Life, Animated opens nationwide Friday, July 8th.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie is a freelance film critic and interviewer at Cinemasiren.com. She began representing artists and animation art in 1988, co-founding ArtInsights in 1994.
Leslie Combemale
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