Five years ago, “Up” raised audiences’ expectations of what could be possible in animation. Over the course of a short montage, director Pete Docter spanned the decades of a lifelong love story.
Ever since, animation fans have been searching for anything that can come close to approximating the sublime emotional experience of that sequence from “Up,” which condensed so much feeling into 4½ dialogue-free minutes. Now Disney has done it via a 6-minute short with the understated title of “Feast,” which made its world premiere at the Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival on Tuesday.
To call “Feast” a hit with that crowd would be an understatement: Erupting with laughter early on, then moved to the brink of tears in almost record time, the audience erupted into applause when the credits rolled, and then, realizing that clapping wasn’t enough to convey their enthusiasm, began stomping loudly on the bleacher seating while director Patrick Osborne stood stunned and speechless, overwhelmed by the response.
As in “Up,” the short relies on the tools of montage to compress a wide span of time — here, 12 years — into just under six minutes. Osborne imposed further restrictions on himself, too, setting out to tell a human romance from the p.o.v. of the couple’s pet dog, a Boston Terrier named Winston. But the challenges didn’t stop there: Inspired by an app that he’d used to record 1-second video clips of his various meals, Osborne decided to confine the story to whatever Winston happened to be eating at key points in his own relationship with these two owners.
Following on the success of “Paperman” and “Get a Horse,” “Feast” is the first project to result from a new in-house program in which employees of Walt Disney Animation Studios are invited to pitch short-film ideas to John Lasseter and the “Idea Trust.” If selected, the director can then put together a small team and step away from whatever project they were working on to develop and execute the short — in Osborne’s case, co-head of animation on the upcoming fall feature “Big Hero 6.”
Reuniting with “Paperman” producer Kristina Reed, Osborne tapped visual development artist Jeff Turley, with whom he’d collaborated on two month-long creative exploration projects in the studio’s Spark program. Together, the pair found a look for the short that mixed 3D digital rendering with a line-free style in which both the dog and his environment were designed in blocks of solid color. Without spoiling the specifics of the story (revealed in further detail below), suffice to say that the short begins with Winston as a starting abandoned puppy in the street and ends with him overstuffed and happy a dozen years later.
Along the way, Osborne found an indirect way to reveal the dynamic within Winston’s household, remaining firmly focused on the dog and its various unconventional feeding options. The approach rewards audiences’ intelligence, inviting viewers to identify with Winston while allowing everything else to fall slowly into place from there. Each shot is breathtakingly beautiful in its own way, with great attention paid not only to lighting — and of course the natural behavior of dogs — but also “live-air specks” (tiny flecks of dust that catch the sun, giving the impressionistically styled short a more real-world feel).
Rather than endow Winston with human characteristics, Osborne allows the dog to remain a dog, winning over audiences with his decidedly canine qualities. He’s an insatiable little pup, greedily gobbling up anything put in front of him, except Brussels sprouts and other icky dishes presented after his junk-food-eating master begins to date a health-conscious young lady. With minimal dialogue, the script details how this new g.f.’s arrival impacts Winston’s diet (and by extension, the relationship with his owner), culminating in a a stunningly rendered tracking shot through a restaurant in which Winston is confronted by all his favorite foods: steak, spaghetti, ice cream, etc.
The title may refer to the fact that each shot centers around food, but this exquisite short is a feast for the eyes and imagination as well, just one more way in which Disney is proving to the world that its animation department — which spent the past 20 years in Pixar’s shadow — is as vital and creative as ever.