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‘Dam Keeper’ Filmmakers Talk About Animated Short Oscar Nom, Leaving Pixar and What’s Next

Making the animated short “The Dam Keeper” started out as a three-month experiment for former Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi that has turned into a whirlwind of film festivals, awards season mania and, ultimately, a new independent animation studio. Kondo and Tsutsumi now find themselves nominated for an Academy Award for that experiment, the emotional tale of a bullied and misunderstood pig who protects an unappreciative community from disaster, and the newcomer who changes his perspective on the world.

Kondo and Tsutsumi have struck out on their own, leaving Pixar to open Tonko House, an independent animation studio with a staff of two — Kondo and Tsutsumi. And finding themselves without the financial backing to fund an Oscar “for your consideration” campaign, they have recently struck up a grassroots social media effort to bring attention to their film, which has scored several festival laurels along the way. But for these two artists, it’s not about the recognition, it’s about the journey.

Variety recently sat down with the filmmakers for a Q&A:

How did your partnership come about?

TSUTSUMI: We started this close partnership since I started at Pixar in 2007. I was hired to become one of the art directors on “Toy Story 3” and Robert was already one of the art directors there. We were art directing the film together. He was covering set design, and I was covering lighting and color. We always had offices right next to each other, and we really hit it off. We have similar tastes. We’d complain about the same things [laughs]. And then toward the end of “Monsters University,” while we were still making it, I told him after “Monsters” is done … let’s take three months off and make a movie, and see how far this partnership goes, maybe outside of art direction. Maybe we can write and direct.

KONDO: At the time, we were in the busy part of making these big productions and this commitment seemed so far away, making a film over three months, so I said, “Yeah. It sounds like a good idea, let’s do it.” So we just started writing, learning how to write for film and learning how to work with each other on a different level. But the intent and purpose for making the film, really, was for us to grow outside of the art department. Up until that point, our experience had been from a unique point of view within the art department. I was kind of born and raised at Pixar. That was my first job. So when Dice came (from Blue Sky), I was fascinated by his outside experience. And Dice’s vision always seemed to be greater than the box that was there as far as our responsibility. So this kind of fit within that idea and it felt like nothing but good things could come out of this, as far as our growth and experience.

So did it take three months to make the film?

TSUTSUMI: [Both chuckling] Uh, no. We said we were going to finish the bulk of production within three months, then hopefully, once we’d go back to work at Pixar we’d have small things to do to finish it up in post-production. It ended up taking nine months. It was pretty intense once we went back to Pixar. What was really interesting was that three months was the number we came up with when we first storyboarded and it was an eight minute short. Due to our lack of experience, the short got longer. It turned into 18 minutes. And if you look at the math, three months of eight minutes to nine months of 18 minutes is not too bad. We just couldn’t foresee the length of the story we wanted to tell in the beginning.

KONDO: I think the thing that made it balloon from eight to 18 was our ability as storytellers. This was the first time we had set out to do this. We had clear goals as to the kind of story we wanted to tell. We really wanted to be able to take a character and change the way they saw the world, and it took us 18 minutes to convey that. I think in time, as we tell more stories and get more comfortable with our skill sets, and our strengths and weaknesses, we’ll be able to tell a story that has just as much emotion in a shorter format.

It didn’t feel that long.

TSUTSUMI: That’s cool. I think our editor, Bradley Furnish, did a fantastic job. It was always a constant battle because both Robert and I love slow-paced, poetic, very quiet movies. Bradley gave us a nice balance to make sure it didn’t lag too much. A lot of people said the same thing: It didn’t feel like 18 minutes, which we feel very good about. Obviously we were very worried, because it’s slow-paced and there’s not much dialogue.

The style was unique. How did you decide this was how you wanted it to look?

KONDO: It was a choice that came out of what we knew. By looking at our skill sets, and what we were comfortable with and what we weren’t comfortable with. Clearly story and animation were two departments that we hadn’t played with too much. Art was the place that we were most comfortable. Within Pixar’s art department, doing two films together, we noticed our painting styles are very similar. We learned a lot about painting and designing from each other. And Dice had actually worked on a small short for a non-profit charity called “Sketchtravel,” and he had done all the assets himself and animated it himself. It was kind of a step above an animated children’s book. Very limited animation. Naively, at the time when we set out to do this, we said, “Gosh, if you did all that alone, if there’s two of us, we could do twice as much.” Of course, twice as much wasn’t quite enough. But it was always part of the idea that this was coming out of our comfort zone. This was something that, uniquely, as two artists we had that we should take advantage of in telling this story. We also approached another artist, Erick Oh, who is an independent filmmaker who has done so much animation. We went to him for guidance and he just became a part of it. It started to go from “What you guys should do” to “When we do…” and we were so excited that Erick was willing to help us on our film. He turned out to be our supervising animator. We animated everything in TVPaint, which is a digital animation program, so the animators worked in 2D on the computer. Then we would take those individual drawings and, in Photoshop, paint frame-by-frame. When we were working at Pixar, we developed a way of painting that allowed us to paint things in this kind of overcast light and apply layers of adjustments in Photoshop to create lighting situations. One great thing about that was it allowed Dice and I to go back into these frames. Even if we had this entire team of painters painting it, we could go back and identify areas that might need a little bit of work to fit within our style. It allowed us to bring on a lot of younger artists who were looking for production experience and looking to learn from our painting styles and the way we see the world, and we would do training with them. We’d do still life painting with them in the morning. When we would get things on our desk, they would be in a range, but would be a little bit all over the place, so this way of working allowed us to really get in and adjust little things to make it feel like we touched everything in the end. Then we comped everything in AfterEffects.

TSUTSUMI: I think what made this slightly more unique was that we focused on animating light. We animated the characters, but at the same time we animated the light frame-by-frame. When we paint, we try to paint light, not just shape, and that’s one thing we tried to capture in this film that I think gave use a kind of signature look.

So you’ve decided to strike on your own. Talk about Tonko House and how you made that decision.

TSUTSUMI: I think the experience of working on “The Dam Keeper” as first-time directors and first-time writers and first-time working with a group of people who are working for the idea we came up with, everything was so new and terrifying and difficult. I can’t say we did it very well, but every time we had a hard time, we had a lot of help to pick up and we learned from it. Pixar provided so much of a learning experience for our careers, but we both said that we learned more in this short amount of time than the years we spent previously. And we felt like, “We have to do this for real. This can’t be just for a short stint. We want to still grow.” Then it became of question of “can we really do it?” I have a new son. Robert’s engaged and has a house and a mortgage. We’re very grounded. It was a fantastic job at Pixar. Pixar treated us incredibly well. We had nothing to complain about. But we looked at our lives and careers and felt that now it’s only going to get more difficult. We almost felt like we had no choice but to do this now.

KONDO: I think in making “The Dam Keeper,” there was a point in time when Dice and I looked at each other every day, and we didn’t know what was going to break. Something was going to break, but we just didn’t know what. So every day going in you just had to wait to see what it was going to be. And I think that, collectively, us, our producers, our leadership got better at dealing with situations like that. So we became better filmmakers, but we also got better at dealing with crises. And somewhere in there while we’re learning how to deal with that, we got really addicted to the feeling of walking in that door every day and that feeling of being totally terrified of today, but I’m really excited about what we might make. I think we just got that itch. And going back to Pixar, of course they were great to us. They’re our family still, but its that feeling that we knew if we didn’t go back to that place and challenge ourselves on that level, that in the end not only would we suffer but Pixar would suffer as well. So for us right now it’s really about every day making sure that we’re challenging ourselves at that level. And everyday at Tonko House, I have to say, has been that, and then some. In a good way. We’re different people now than when we left and I think that’s the part that’s exciting and terrifying.

How long has it been since you left Pixar?

KONDO: We left in July of last year. We are definitely creatives. We are not business people. But with all of that I think it’s always been about learning about each other, and learning about ourselves, and knowing what you’re not has been eye-opening and humbling. We asked for this, so we’re definitely not complaining. But it’s hard.

TSUTSUMI: Right now it’s just the two of us. We hope to create a team because I believe it’s our strength to work with people. What we’re doing now is really planting seeds. To do what we really want to do, the projects like feature films or a television series. We love to tell stories in different formats and longer formats. That’s our focus right now. We know we need a team to do that. We’ve been very fortunate to meet potential partners and people who are very excited about working with us. But right now we are just really trying to hold to this. We have to make sure we don’t lose the sense of what started this, why we left Pixar and why we even came to animation. We have to make sure the reason why we’re doing this is clear and won’t change. Until that’s completely solidified, we need to wait to bring in people. But we’re very excited about the day we can start our own team.

KONDO: We spent a lot of time thinking internally, digging in about who we really wanted to be and what we really wanted to contribute. I think Dice having a family now, he looks at things differently. The future looks very different. Even bringing people in, we know we’ll only bring n people who we absolutely love. But the potential to hurt those people by not knowing what we want or what the company is, and be clear about that, is probably one of the most damaging things we can do to those people. So we really want to be clear with ourselves first and go through that so that, as we grow, people are given an opportunity to change the company and to clarify that vision. And that’s something that we’ve seen at the best of the studios we’ve been at and the people we’ve worked with. We want to build on that.

What is the significance of the name Tonko House?

TSUTSUMI: We were sort of brainstorming what the name of our studio name would be, and we went through a lot of different ideas. Every time we came up with a name that sounded cool, it was already taken. So we wanted to come up with some made-up name. But with some sort of an indirect meaning to what we do and who we are. Tonko is a made-up name. I’m from Japan so in Japanese “ton” is pig and “ko” is fox. (The two main characters of “The Dam Keeper” are a pig and a fox). Even in Japanese, “ko” is a very old word to describe fox. It’s not even what we call a fox in a modern Japanese word. Tonko is pig and fox, but as a combined word, it doesn’t mean anything.

KONDO: It’s nonsensical.

TSUTSUMI: We wanted a word that in time we could make mean something. And we wanted to call it “House” because we felt that the way the industry’s going and the way that it’s constantly changing, we wanted to be open to narrative in many different forms. We just wanted a more creative place that felt comfortable to experiment with that. So “House” felt more appropriate than “Productions” or “Studios.” It’s got to be a comfortable place.

What are you working on now?

KONDO: We really want to build upon where we left off as creatives with “The Dam Keeper.” “The Dam Keeper” was a good experience for us. It was challenging in that kind of storytelling. It was an 18-minute short, so now we’re really looking to build upon that. Challenge ourselves. The thing that forced us into uncomfortable places in the end and what was most rewarding was the fact that we had no idea what we were doing throughout on many levels. We just want to find the place of casting ourselves into the deep end and find that we can swim out of that. So right now we are writing a kind of serial idea that is extending the world of “The Dam Keeper.” We’re also coming up with an original feature idea that is completely brand new. We’ve begun an exercise in starting a project. The reasoning behind doing “The Dam Keeper” was working together, finding a relationship. I think that was an important first step. But now we want to be able to tell the story we’re telling because we have to tell it. Because it’s a story that’s within us that we really feel, on some level, no matter where it’s distributed or how, that we’re going to make it. That we’re dedicated to it because it means something to us. All these projects have started from a different place than “The Dam Keeper.” Starting almost with, like, therapy sessions between the two of us. And they’re hard because I think there are certain things about each other that being business partners are hard to admit to each other. You’re trying to get the other person to respect you, but some of the things we talk about are not our proudest moments. And some of them we’ve never shared with a lot of other people. I haven’t even shared some stories with my fiancee Jenny. But that’s what we’re trying to do. Find truth. We talk about finding stories to appeal to the world, to appeal to an international audience. We feel that rather than going outside and trying to figure out what it’s about, we want to try to go inside and get to good things that we find make us human. That make us kind of flawed and imperfect and real. All these stories are stemming from that.

You started on the festival circuit with “The Dam Keeper” last year at the Berlin Film Festival and now you’re here in all this awards season hoopla. What do you make of all that?

TSUTSUMI: It’s been just incredible. A year ago we really didn’t expect this. We were super excited to even be in one festival, which started with Berlin. But Berlin wasn’t the first festival we submitted to. We got rejected a couple of times before we finally got into Berlin. That was like the ultimate satisfaction for us. But we didn’t make “The Dam Keeper” to enter festivals, we just wanted to make a film. But once it was done we wanted to share it. And then you learn how to share it and you submit it to different festivals. Now we’ve gone to more than 90 festivals and we’ve won quite a few awards. It’s absolutely something we did not expect. And an Academy Award nomination is just the ultimate craziness that we did not expect. It wasn’t a part of Tonko House’s plan. It wasn’t something we were thinking about. The funny thing is, it doesn’t change what we made. This new recognition and press and really wonderful things are happening to us right now is a little bit overwhelming. It’s crazy overwhelming. But I think we are grounded.

KONDO: We know that there are so many places we need to go and see and experience to become better storytellers. All of this attention, we feel the pull of it, but we just want to get back to the studio and work on all of the projects that are sitting there. The love and the closeness of the animation community makes us want to go back and make more films. And this Academy Award nomination is, really, for us, about being part of this community of artists and filmmakers. We grew up dreaming about things like this. Now that we know what this really feels like, we just want to get back to that thing we love. It makes you feel like a kid again. It makes you feel like you’re in touch with your dreams. The taste of it makes you want to do more.

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