Frank Abney says the idea for his animated short feature and Oscar hopeful “Canvas” was born out of a need to make a film that was personal.
Six years ago, the animator, whose credits include Pixar titles “Soul,” “Coco,” “Toy Story 4” and “Incredibles 2,” felt he was nevertheless experiencing a rough patch creatively. “I was trying to navigate the industry, and we struggle as artists,” Abney says. “I knew when I created something, I wanted it to be unique to my situation.”
Watching his young niece and observing her carefree nature, he devised a family film in which generations help each other. Abney lost his father when he was 5 and witnessed his mother sharing his grief, his grandfather at her side. “I was curious [about my grandfather] because he was always quiet and withdrawn when I was around him,” Abney says.
The nine-minute “Canvas” tells the story of an older wheelchair user who is withdrawn after the death of a loved one. The film, which is dialogue free, relies on a score by composer Jermaine Stegall. Absent speech, Abney approached the story from a visual perspective. That meant conceiving “subjects rather than what the characters were saying,” he explains. “I wanted to get into what they were thinking and what was motivating them on that journey. We communicate [best] with each other when we look at each other, by body language and by our eyes.”
While “Canvas” deals with loss, there’s also hope through the character of the granddaughter, Aura. It’s a concept reflected in her musical theme. “She brings energy, joy and light,” says the filmmaker. “So when you see her presence, it’s coupled with what you’re hearing.”
Abney paid particular attention to Aura’s hair, using Maya XGen software to render an authentic hairstyle that’s richly realistic. “I needed to look at the texture of the frizz, how light reacts to it and how it clumps together,” he says, noting that he referenced actor Kimberly Elise and other Black women who have worn their hair naturally. Abney says he wouldn’t be able to comment on how studios approach inclusive looks “if I’m not going to put the work in when it’s my turn.” He adds, “It was important to bring that representation to the forefront.”
“Canvas” began as a Kickstarter project, then drew interest from Netflix. “It’s been so nice to see it resonate with people and how it has been affecting people around the world,” says the film’s producer, Paige Johnstone.
Having made his mark, Abney is working to elevate other Black animators, collaborating with Trent Correy, Monica Lago-Kaytis and Bobby Pontillas to establish Rise Up Animation. “The goal was to bring the idea of working in this industry closer to your doorstep,” Abney says. “Working in Hollywood can be unobtainable when you’re coming up in an area that isn’t geared toward artistic growth.” He hopes Rise Up can offer support to people aiming to have careers in animation by providing free industry feedback sessions and workshops. “We have something for everyone to get closer to breaking into this field.”