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‘Float’ Director Bobby Rubio on Unconscious Bias and Pixar’s First Filipino American Character

Bobby Rubio, who made his directorial debut with Pixar’s animated short “Float” on Disney Plus earlier this month, has worked at Pixar as a story artist since 2012, contributing to “Inside Out,” “Incredibles 2” and “Brave.” But “Float” broke new ground as the first Pixar work to feature a Filipino American animated character.

The short tells the story of a father who discovers that his young son is different than other kids because he floats. Rather than subject him to judgment from the outside world due to his difference, the father keeps his son out of sight.

“Float” was inspired by Rubio’s own son, who was diagnosed with autism. When Rubio learned about his son’s diagnosis, he didn’t handle the news well.

“My wife said I should tell the story through comic books, as that’s what I did on the side back then,” he explained. Rubio started the creative process, drawing a son floating in the air. “The tagline was: A Father’s Journey with a Special Child.” That was as far as Rubio got, he said. “I wasn’t emotionally ready to tell the story.”

Fast forward to two years ago: Rubio’s son Alex was getting older and the urgency to tell the story grew. “I was looking at my son, and I thought, ‘I have to tell this story.’ I couldn’t let it go, so I started storyboarding it.”

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Rubio went on to pitch the story to Lindsay Collins, executive producer of the SparkShorts program, who thought the story was ideal.

Yet when Rubio pitched the story, even his own sketches and storyboards featured a Caucasian father and son. “A co-worker saw the cover and said, ‘Bobby, this is your story. The character should be Filipino American.’ I thought, does anyone want to see a Filipino American character? I had this unconscious bias,” Rubio admits. It was only when he was asked how his son would feel looking at the screen and seeing a Caucasian kid that Rubio’s thinking was challenged. “I did not want Alex to think that I was ashamed. I wanted him to know that his dad loved him, and he was worth it. I wanted to empower him and empower children of color.”

Producer Krissy Cababa says that when she came on, the idea had been storyboarded, but the power of the story was most important to her. “It was a powerful story about being a parent and the struggles you go through as a parent with your kids. I felt it was an important story about acceptance and being able to love and celebrate the people in our lives.” She added, “It was about celebrating people for who they are and not who you want them to be. Who they are with their flaws and everything? I wanted to do justice to that vision.”

Since its debut on Disney Plus, “Float” has enabled people to bring their own interpretations to the story through its metaphor of floating, whether it’s about being brown, being LGBTQ, or just being unique. “People are talking about representation and how it matters. They’re sharing what this means to them and its importance,” Cababa says.

The SparkShorts program is opening the doors for diversity at Pixar. Where the studio releases one or two features a year, the SparkShorts program works on a smaller budget and faster turnaround. “We can give more people a chance to tell their stories. It’s a great way that Pixar has been able to promote diversity. Not only can we give more people here a voice, but we can also get gritty with our stories,” Cababa explains.

Rubio says, “I didn’t have to sugarcoat the story. I was allowed to tell the story I wanted to tell.”

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