For former Pixar animator Frank E. Abney III, making his short film “Canvas” has been a longtime labor of love. He and his devoted crew have worked on the nine-minute animated film in their off-hours for about six years, all while working on larger studio projects.
Now all that hard work is about to pay off as “Canvas” is one of three unique animated shorts premiering on Netflix on Friday. The others are “Cops and Robbers” and “If Anything Happens I Love You.”
“Canvas” tells the story of a grieving grandfather who loses his creative spark after suffering a devastating loss and finds it again through his inquisitive young granddaughter. Abney, one of Variety’s 10 Animators to Watch in 2016, pulled from his own life experiences to craft the tale, which is CG with hand-drawn segments.
“The spark of the idea came around six years ago or so,” Abney explains. “I was having a rough patch creatively, trying to navigate in the industry and find my place in all of it.” During that rough patch, Abney spent time with family. “I was watching my niece, and kids are so carefree. They navigate the world without having the burden of things that we have on our shoulders as adults. It really inspired me to create something.”
He tied the story to his losses in his own life and how family members responded to them. “I knew that it needed to be something personal if I wanted it to be something special,” Abney says. “I lost my father when I was five and seeing how my family has been affected by it, especially my mom, watching her and how she has had to work to support us as a single mother. I always kind of wondered, ‘was there something that was left behind or something there she lost in that loss of my dad?’”
He was also influenced by his grandfather, who wasn’t really interested in art, like the film’s main character, “but he was very quiet and it seemed like he was always a little withdrawn. I wondered, if there was anything like that in his life as well.” It got Abney thinking about the backstory. “And that’s how ‘Canvas’ starts to begin; that’s how it began to take shape, actually.”
Abney, who executive produced Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short “Hair Love,” tried to finance “Canvas” on his own, but, like with “Hair Love,” he turned to Kickstarter for some capital. “We did the Kickstarter with ‘Hair Love’ the year prior and just going through that experience got me thinking if I should go that route or do it privately. Kickstarter has its challenges,” Abney says. “It’s a full-time job in itself, trying to keep the engagement up.” But it was a rousing success. “I think we raised the full amount in the first week or a little less. It was a wild ride, but it was worth it to get this film out. “
Abney kept his investors and other project followers updated on the pic with work-in-progress clips that drew the attention of people at Netflix. “So they actually reached out showing support when I first released the characters a couple of years ago. I didn’t know how that would pan out, but it was nice to know that there was some support there.”
That support was key for Abney, who, as a Black animator, wants to champion better representation in stories and crews. “Highlighting Black characters was a big one for me, because growing up I didn’t really see that many cartoons or movies that had main characters that were Black, that I could identify with,” he explains. “As a Black animator, a Black director, I feel like that’s part of my responsibility to get that representation out there. And then to have a studio like Netflix respond to that, just on the characters alone, it was really refreshing and inspiring as well. It put some more wind in our sails to continue on it.”
With the success of “Hair Love” at last year’s Oscars, Abney thinks things are moving in the right direction. “I think even before ‘Hair Love,’ there’s just the idea of not waiting on a studio to make what we want to see. I think that’s ultimately what it is. Just finding a way to get your content out there and get stories told in some way. Platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, these crowdfunding sites, make it more possible as well. And, thankfully, with the power of social media and you can share stuff out there and there’s a lot of people, if they see it, they may choose to support it. You’re really leaning on the people at this point and not the studio space.”
Abney says staying visible is important. “As a Black creator in general, being out here and having that visibility, I think is a huge thing. That’s why I try to stay on social media and stuff like that. Hopefully, it can inspire other artists of color and Black animators, that they see this goal is something that’s attainable and inspires them to get their stories out there.”
Even as “Canvas” makes its debut, Abney’s partnership with Netflix is continuing. He’s tight-lipped on the details, but Abney is working on a feature for the streamer. “I can’t talk too much about it, but it’s a special one, for sure. My whole thing as a creator is to tell stories that illuminate a unique experience and also representing something that’s truthful that people can identify with and be inspired by.”
Abney is represented by Anita Surendran at Granderson Des Rochers, Li-Wei Chu at Partizan and Anna Berthold at UTA.