Dream Job

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

Animation Magazine - - Spotlight -

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.”

Town Sav­ior

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

Robert Kondo

Daisuke Tsut­sumi

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