The shorts programs at SFIFF58 have been increasing in popularity the last few years, and Shorts 5: Family Films is no exception. One film from the group, the colorful and magnificent musical Aria for a Cow, is appropriately quite the showstopper. I sat down with Disney animator and Aria for a Cow writer/director Dan Lund, art director and co-producer Amos Sussigan, background designer and painter Stephanie Dominguez, and production manager Siddhartha Maganti at the Hotel Majestic, a few blocks from where their short would premiere the next day and a few hours before their premiere party. The camaraderie within the group is infectious, and they had no trouble jumping right into the nitty gritty of their film:
Where did the idea for Aria for a Cow originate?
Dan Lund: I’ve always had a pretty healthy ‘outside-of-Disney’ project type thing going. I was a PA in 1989 at Disney and was working with people who were working with Howard (Ashman). I had kept hearing about this passion project of his called ‘Fatty of the Opera’. Right before we started working on Frozen I had this period where I didn’t have an outside project to work on and it kinda freaked me out. I was in New York and I had mentioned to a friend, ‘I wonder what ever happened to Howard’s “Fatty of the Opera” project’ and my friend knew Sarah (Howard’s sister) peripherally and he said, ‘You should email her.’ So I did and she graciously agreed to give me all the information I needed on this passion project if I listened to her favorite song that no one has ever heard by him, called “Aria for a Cow.” I really just did it to get the other thing I wanted, but the other thing I wanted turned out to be a little odder than I thought. And I just fell in love with the cow song. She let me turn it into an animated thing. Originally she was thinking of it being a children’s book but I don’t know that world at all. The song was just lyrics on a page. I wrote the wraparound. I didn’t just want to make a music video. I wanted the song to have a home that was as story-driven as the song.
So the song existed before?
DL: Yes, Howard passed away right before the release of Beauty and the Beast. Howard and Alan (Menken) wrote it right before Little Shop of Horrors hit big. They wrote it because they were trying to get a job on Sesame Street and it was rejected. And right when they rejected it, Little Shop blew up on Broadway and the two went on to sort of reinvent Disney, and through that reinvented Broadway because Broadway wasn’t doing musicals at the time – it wasn’t en vogue. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the catalysts for Broadway to get their shit together and start doing what they were supposed to be good at, so they (Howard and Alan) were pretty influential. I started at Disney right as Little Mermaid was getting released so I got to see how the studio changed because of that.
How has Aria for a Cow shaped your appreciation for cows, if at all?
Stephanie Dominguez: Well, I’m vegan.
Amos Sussigan: Me too.
Oh, so there may have always been respect for cows, then.
SD: I had been vegan for about four years, so I was like ‘Yes, yes, I totally agree.’ <<laughing>>
AS: I remember when I first wrote her (Stephanie), she was like ‘It’s a topic I really respect’ and then I learned later on when she came over for two months during the finishing parts of the movie that she was vegan and we just ate vegan food for months.
SD: And you loved it.
AS: I like it, yeah. <<laughs>> This is the kind of short that makes people think that we’re like super activists about animal rights and these things. I think that would not that correct to say because we’re not. It’s definitely something that everyone should think about and be a little more conscious about and there are great documentaries that do that <<laughs>>. I think that we were focusing much more on the entertainment side of it. And even if it sparks that kind of thinking, then I think that’s a good thing, but that’s definitely not something that we started out trying to do.
DL: No. Actually there were a lot of conversations about how I didn’t want it to be a PETA driven …ya know – ‘milk machines are bad’ – it wasn’t about that. We worked really hard to make sure the milk machine wasn’t a villain. It was the lack of respect for each other’s job that was the villain. So if you viewed it as respect for animals, great, but I would love to think that if somebody watched this that they would think about simple little gestures like looking someone in the eye, or next time you hand someone a tip, you hand it to them in a way that means something. These little gestures that show appreciation and respect, they don’t have to be big.
Disney has a track record of alluding to their own previous works. I immediately thought of the character Linguini from Ratatouille when I saw the farmhand chasing his own earbuds around.
DL: Oh, I love that movie, but it’s accidental. I haven’t seen it in a long time and we reference the book a lot, the art from it. I didn’t realize we had something that mimicked that.
Probably just me. <<laughing>>
DL: No, I love the movie so much that if there’s something in there that reminded you…I mean I love all the “hidden Mickey” type things.
Were there other “hidden Mickeys” in there?
Siddhartha Maganti: The iPhone has my name in the back.
AS: And the pear. There’s a pear, instead of an apple. <<laughing>>
AS: I think most of the references were being picked from Broadway. We have references to The Lion King. When I started on the style guide, it was the first time I had watched a musical live. I had the chance to go to New York and our choreographer is from Chicago, so I went to the backstage of Chicago, and we referenced The Lion King during our fan dance part. So we put all that in it.
DL: I was really determined to not just honor animation but honor theater, and we wanted the theater pieces to feel legit, like they could actually be done. We didn’t do any tricky animation things so when I heard that he (Amos) had never seen a Broadway play, we got him backstage tours of theater.
AS: I’d been working on it for just two weeks and it was mainly going around and meeting people and having this style guide to pitch to Sarah. And at the end of the dinner that we had, which was at a restaurant…I forgot the name…where Howard and Alan went before the opening of Little Shop of Horrors. By the end of that she said, ‘I’m really excited because when Alan and Howard wrote this song, they were more or less your age and were about to blow up.’ So that was very nice.
From what I’ve heard, Aria for a Cow seems like such a community and student driven project. Can you explain why it went down that route?
DL: Sidd can take that one.
SM: Well, he (Dan) started the whole “global barn” thing. I was at CTN in 2013…
What is CTN?
SM: It’s the Creative Talent Network. That’s where all the artists and illustrators come and show their work.
DL: Kind of like the Comic Con of animation.
SM: So my cousin was there and she told me that she was working with a Disney animator on a short. She wanted help from someone at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. And she gave me the design of the cow. I was so impressed with the design of the cow, I still like the design.
DL: It’s a great design.
SM: Amos doesn’t like it.
DL: It’s an old pre-production design. <<laughing>>
SM: It’s really good.
AS: I did like it.
SM: You always say you didn’t like it!
SM: I got impressed with that. I thought it was a 2D show when I started. I saw Dan’s credits and I saw all 2D effects, 2D effects, 2D effects. I always wanted to do a 2D show because I like ‘old school’.
So were you disappointed when you found out that it wasn’t 2D?
SM: No, I wasn’t disappointed because when we started the animation at the school (Academy of Art), he (Dan) used to send me layouts and I would say, ‘why are you sending me layouts? Isn’t everything done in 3D?’ And he told me that we’re gonna have the 2D background, and I thought he was crazy because integrating the 2D and 3D was really hard, especially on this “global barn” thing. We have to send all the assets to each other. I would always ask him, ‘I don’t think Amos can comp all 150 shots’. But he did. It’s so amazing.
DL: Well, he (Siddhartha) came up to me at CTN and said we’re gonna put all this through Shotgun, which is an organizational tool for animation. It just seemed so official. I said, ‘We don’t need that. That’s what we do at Disney’. And he ended up mapping out this whole thing, and organizing 150 artists throughout the world and gave them deadlines and we did dailies. He structured it like a real studio.
SM: I got a few emails from the parents of students saying that, ‘This is not a company, this is a school and you shouldn’t treat students like that.’ <<laughing>>
DL: We weren’t treating them bad, we were treating them with great respect! There were deadlines and dailies and pressure to do well and things wouldn’t end up in the movie if they weren’t approved.
It’s cool that you had such a global community, your “global barn” working on this.
SM: Apart from Stephanie, we had people in England, too.
SD: Yes, at Teesside University, just where the Animex Festival happened. I went there with Dan when he was promoting Frozen and it was a good kickoff point for me to meet other people and say we need a few extra animators.
DL: I wanted all the student to have the experience of getting a film done. Because I love the process of making a movie. I kept saying that I didn’t want to look at any portfolios and I didn’t care what anybody’s credits were. I just wanted to make sure that I found people that needed my project as much as it needed them.
SM: We used to have animation jams every weekend. We’d provide them pizza.
Where were the animation jams?
SM: At Academy of Art University.
DL: Free food does it.
So what’s next for Aria for a Cow?
DL: Well we’ll premiere here, tomorrow. The festival (SFIFF) reached out to us and they were like ‘We’re gonna put you in the family section. It’s a really popular section, but if you wouldn’t mind, we could also use you for our education and outreach program’ and that’s what got me super excited because we get to spend a week and go to different schools everyday. Obviously you want people to see your short, but I also want people to leave our story and want to go find their own barn and own crew and put on their own show. We presented the film to ILM yesterday and I was amazed at how these people, who are working on Star Wars and do not need to be inspired by us <<laughing>>, were coming up to me and all of us saying how they were gonna go home that night and think about the way they do their own projects differently and actually get them moving. And I know a lot of people that have much more power and much more money and much more sway in the community, like if they were to say ‘hey, I’m making a short’ people would fall over just to be in the room with them, and I think we were a little bit of a wake up call for some of the people who haven’t done as much as they could’ve with their own ideas.
AS: And it’s sometimes hard with students because they’re goal is to get a good grade. Most students. Making a short is much more than that, it’s much more complicated and takes much more time. There are students that want to do good because they want a product they’re proud of. And there are some that say ‘well, I technically have an ‘A’ here’. I speak from experience that having somebody that pushes you, like Dan did on this short, is the best thing he can do. Because when you’re in an actual work environment, no one is going to ask you what you did in school. That’s why when people get out of art school, sometimes for 2 or 3 or so many years they won’t do anything like art because it’s a lot more than just painting all day and smoking some pot, you know? <<laughing>>
DL: I meet a lot of students through Disney. All kinds. And when I met Amos, he reminded me of myself in the way he wanted to be an adult and be a professional and couldn’t wait to get into that world. And he just ate up any mentorship, lunch or dinner party and treated it like such a gift to see a part of that world. And people kept saying ‘Don’t use students, don’t use students, don’t use students’ and I get that 90 out of 100 are going to be what you’d expect. That’s not a bad thing but they’re students looking for a grade. If I could just find 5 or 6 people like Amos or people that I thought were like me, it would be worth it. Those five people would then inspire 5 more people and within a few months or years, we have our little global community that could continue to make stuff together.
What’s on the horizon for you all as a group?
DL: I’m not sure what’s on the horizon as a group. For me, the next thing I want to do is a feature. I’ve done a few shorts and I’ve done a bunch of stuff at Disney and feature documentaries and my next project needs some people that I’ve been able to plant the seed with with Aria. The next project is live action but it has an animation component with puppets as well and I know the Aria team could jump in and do it again.
SM: I think I’m in, right?
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