When the pandemic took away Thurman White Academy of the Performing Arts Middle School’s ability to perform on stage, Nexus Studios used technology to give them the opportunity to shine again.

Thanks to facial capture technology, these drama students were able to voice and puppeteer their own characters from the safety of their homes for an animated short called “Drawn Closer.” Dedicated to the students who missed out on achieving precious milestones this past year, the film is about the struggle of putting a show together. 

As schools struggle to return to normal, many “nonessential” activities have been sidelined, leaving kids without a vital outlet for creativity and peer connection. According to a survey conducted by the Educational Theatre Association, 85% of schools canceled performances in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Something that was really clear in talking to all the kids at Thurman White middle school was that their friendships, their social existence is entirely born out of being creative with other people,” said Patrick Osborne, who directed the film.  

Osborne, who won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his 2014 film “Feast,” was working at Fox’s Blue Sky Studios before the pandemic. It was announced earlier this year that the studio was shutting down, a foregone conclusion to many industry insiders upon the historic Disney-Fox merger.

Since then, Osborne has joined Nexus Studios’ roster of directing talent and moved back to Los Angeles, where he started outfitting his garage with affordable motion capture and facial performance technology with the capability of connecting to iPads and sensors. Backed by Cox Communications, Osborne spent two weeks meeting with the middle school students over Zoom to discuss the project before capturing their facial expressions in a virtual recording studio.  

“It’s basically the animoji technology hijacked to do what we want with it creatively,” Osborne said.

Osborne said he is very excited to collaborate with the “lean and ultra-creative” Nexus Studios, which creates both branded and story-driven original content as well as immersive experiences. He said the biggest challenge while working on this project was writing the script. He asked Lloyd Taylor, who recently wrote “Spies in Disguise,” to come in and help write the play. They were able to squeeze 22 speaking parts into a 150-second film. 

“We didn’t want to cut anyone,” Osborne said. “I didn’t want to audition sixth graders and say no, so we found a way to write in everyone who wanted to be in it.”

The animated short will debut in a Hollywood-inspired virtual premier party on Mother’s Day, where students will have the chance to walk the virtual red carpet.

“Working with these kids was easily the best part of the project,” Osborne said. “They were endless wells of enthusiasm and natural performers. Each student brought a unique sensibility to the characters that elevated the story to a hugely entertaining and emotional plain.” 

“Drawn Closer” was produced by Cox Communications, in collaboration with ad agency 180LA and Nexus Studios. It is set to hit screens on May 9. 

Watch the “making of” film below: