THE BLOG
12/29/2014 10:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Walt Disney Animation Studios Kept Feast From Looking Like a Dog's Dinner

Patrick Osborne tried something interesting back in 2012: He set up two 1 Second Everyday accounts. With one he used the app to capture brief glimpses of his day-to-day life, and with the other he recorded quick footage of many of the meals he consumed that year.

"And it was the 1 Second Everyday footage of all that food which turned out to be the far more compelling recording," Patrick explained during a recent phone interview. "There's something cool about the amount of life you see just in showing your meals, these hints of intriguing and exciting things happening out beyond the edges of the plate."

Coincidentally, right after Paperman took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short in February 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios announced that it was formally reviving its shorts program. What's more, studio staffers were then invited to submit pitches to WDAS' new shorts trust.

"And as I was trying to come up with some ideas for films that I then could pitch to the shorts trust, my mind kept circling back to that 1 Second Everyday recording that I did of all that food," Patrick continued. "It just felt like that there was something there that I could center a short around. So I started with that concept and then mixed it in with the patterning and the color of different foods placed on the table, just to see what that might be like."

But in the end, in spite of the obvious potential for doing fun things with sound design and color, Patrick's app-driven idea came up short, mostly because Patrick's short idea lacked a through line, a reason for an audience to sit and watch this parade of food go by.

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"But then I thought: What if we put a dog under that table?" Patrick stated. "That's a character who would be supremely interested in what was being served for breakfast, lunch and dinner within that household. Which then gave us a strong reason to focus on all that food. And what if this dog had been newly adopted by this family? Maybe in the background of all these brief snippets of meals, we could then show how this dog's relationship with his new family was unfolding."

This was one of the three ideas that Patrick pitched to WDAS's story trust. ("John Lasseter won't allow you to come into a pitch session with just one idea," he explained. "He doesn't want you to put all of your creative eggs in one basket. So you always have to come into these shorts pitch sessions with three distinctly different ideas.") Then he went back to his day job, which was working as the co-Head of Animation of Big Hero 6.

"And then, in October of 2013, they called and said they were going to make my short," Patrick said. "And then, in an instant, everything changes. I'm no longer working on Big Hero 6, and I now have a deadline for story, which is something that I've never done. So I immediately began trying to figure out how I was going to turn my pitch into an emotionally satisfying short film."

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And given that Feast's green light also came with a delivery date (this new WDAS short had to be completed by June 10, 2014, so that it could then have its world premiere at the annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France), Patrick didn't have any time to dither -- especially since before production could actually begin on Feast, he and his team first had to nail down this short's story.

"That's the real difference between making a full-length animated feature and an animated short," Patrick explained. "When you work on a feature, a little bit of story gets approved and then moves into production. But when you work on a short, all of your story gets approved at once, which is kind of a blessing and a curse, given that you know as soon as your story gets approved, layout needs to get done by next week."

Getting that final story approval wasn't easy, though. The first three Feast story reels that Patrick and his team submitted didn't pass muster with Lasseter, largely because they hadn't yet realized the vision for this animated short that he had originally pitched.

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"John was always quick to point out all of the stuff that was already worked," Patrick recalled. "He loved Feast's look right from the get-go, how strong the design of the food was, how you could immediately identify every meal that was being served no matter how briefly that food item was up on screen. But what John really pushed us on was this short's through line. At every meeting John would remind us that the reason he selected my pitch for development was because something felt emotionally right to him about this story idea. He just kept after us to deliver on the emotional promise of that pitch."

And in the end Patrick and his storyboard artists did finally find a way to deliver on Feast's initial promise. But a lot of that was because of many of the behind-the-scenes creative decisions that these WDAS staffers made as they rushed to put this new animated short together.

Take, for example, Winston, the cartoon canine who serves as Feast's central character. Given that this animated short was mostly going to be made up of sequences that were less than five seconds long, it was crucial that audiences be able to quickly find Winston in every single scene. What's more, audience members had to be able to immediately read all this dog's emotions.

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"That's why, after looking at all of these breeds of dog, we decided to make Winston a Boston Terrier," Patrick said. "Given this breed's distinctive black-and-white coat, that was then going to make Winston very easy to find in every scene. More to the point, given that Boston Terriers have these big, expressive eyes, that was then going to make possible for audience members to quickly determine what this dog is thinking and feeling."

Of course, to make sure that audiences absolutely knew for sure what was going on at all times in Feast, Patrick and company did employ a few cinematic cheats, like how Winston is placed in the very center of most shots in this short.

"We also don't immediately start in with those three- and five-second-long shots," Patrick continued. "What we learned from our first few story reels is that if we started too quickly, we then didn't give our audience enough time to get on board with the creative conceit of this short. That's why Feast's first few shots are the longest. We wanted to give the audience a chance to get to know these characters first, let them take in a little of their world and enjoy the performances before this short then really kicks into gear."

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And to make sure that the cartoon canine at the very center of Feast came across as an authentic dog, WDAS brought in a trio of Boston Terriers -- Gizmo, Chibi and Swee'Pea -- for Patrick and his animators to observe.

"And we took full advantage of our time with those Boston Terriers," Patrick laughed. "That scene in Feast where Winston is trying to lick peanut butter off of his muzzle comes straight from the afternoon that our artists spent watching and drawing those dogs."

And in the end Patrick and his team met their deadline and delivered a fully realized version of Feast just three days before this short was supposed to have its world premiere at Annecy 2013. And to now have Feast screening in front of Big Hero 6 in theaters around the globe little more than a year after this WDAS production was first officially put into development just seems kind of amazing to Patrick.

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"John always says to trust the process," Patrick said. "But to be right in the middle of that process, trying to get the hang of things like scoring? I won't lie to you: It was very challenging and often pretty scary. But to be honest, the best part of working on Feast was that the team at WDAS got to build on everything that we'd learned from our last couple of shorts. We got to use Meander again like we did in Paperman, but do it in more of a naturalistic style of shooting film, with a little bit more focus on cuts and cinematography."

Which is perhaps a polite way of saying that just because Walt Disney Animation Studios' newest short stars a dog doesn't mean that Feast then had to looks like a dog's dinner.