Pixar veterans go their own way to create their own film, acclaimed shorts. By Tom McLean The Dam Keeper, one of the year’s most
For many animators, both aspiring and established, a gig at Pixar Animation Studios is a dream job that once in hand few would imagine ever even thinking of walking away from.
But when you do so to direct an animated short film like The Dam Keeper, which has screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals and won more than a dozen awards, it’s easier to understand why Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi did exactly that.
The pair had worked together at Pixar as art directors on such hit movies as Toy Story 3 and Monsters University and found they had similar sensibilities and tastes.
“Toward the end of production on Monsters University, I asked Robert if we could take time off to make a short after it was done,” says Tsutsumi. The motivation was simple: “I wanted to see how far we could take this partnership,” he says. “I wanted to see if we could write and direct a story.”
When Kondo agreed, the duo planned to take three months off from the studio. “We were naively thinking we could finish the whole thing in three months, which wasn’t the case,” says Tsutsumi.
The pair started work on the story after hours and on weekends during the production of Monsters University, eventually writing five different treatments. Figuring out the common threads in those treatments was a big step toward finding the story of The Dam Keeper. The film is set in a desolate future where one small town’s survival is solely due to a large windmill dam that acts as a fan to keep out poisonous clouds. Despite bullying from classmates and an indifferent public, the dam’s operator, Pig, works tirelessly to keep the sails spinning in order to protect the town. When a new student, Fox, joins Pig’s class, everything begins to change.
“Our goal creatively was to tell an emotional story about a character who changes the way he sees the world,” says Kondo. “And part of that is Dice and I are not particularly funny people, we take ourselves pretty seriously, I think. And we just know so many artists who are moved by those particular kinds of films ... so that’s the sort of story we wanted to tell in our first endeavor writing.
“We kept finding that our hero was always this unsung kind of hero,” says Kondo. “We also found that the world always had some kind of pollution in it. And the third thing was we were always pushing this character to change the way they see the world rather than the world around them changing.”
Among the stories they remembered from their youths was that of The Little Dutch Boy, who saves his low-lying town from flooding during a storm by selflessly plugging a leak in the dam with his finger until someone discovers him. That struck a note with the filmmakers, who decided to make their story about a character that has a big daily responsibility to save the town but the townsfolk were unaware of it.
The three-month plan became clearly not long enough to complete the film. It ended up taking about nine months in production as the movie expanded from a planned seven- or eight-minute short to an 18-minute short. And that was with the duo bringing on Pixar colleagues Duncan Ramsay and Megan Bartel as producers.
Kondo says no one worked full time on the project, and Ramsay and Bartel were very good at getting talented creators to pitch in