On January 24th, Disney+ will debut fourteen animated shorts from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Short Circuit program of experimental films. Originally designed as a way to develop talent, test new technologies, and give artists at the studio new leadership opportunities, the shorts were produced with no expectations of being seen outside the studio. I recently had the opportunity to visit Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank to get an early look at each of the shorts and meet with the filmmakers to learn more about them ahead of their Disney+ debut.
“The program started as an opportunity for us to get to tell our stories,” explained Terry Meows, director of The Race. “There was no plan beyond this building but we tackled it as though it would go out to the world because we all just want to tell our best story. And this has just been a great boon of things that have happened since we all completed them.”
Natalie Nourigat is a Story Artist whose directorial debut comes with a short called Exchange Student. “Directing here is pretty holistic. You have a hand in everything that goes on in your film, which is great. But a lot of us, we’ve only had exposure to our one single department before that. Or we know about animation, but we don’t know the language that animators speak or how to get the best out of them. So it was really cool to start with a 90-second project, kind of lower stakes, and get to figure that out trial by fire.”
“This was a bootcamp in creativity and just how difficult it is to funnel emotion into that,” said Jerry Huynh, director of Jing Hua who came from a technical background and learned a lot about filmmaking during his project. “I tried to take that back into my day to day and how I approach my job that way… That’s been really nice to have been given the chance to learn a lot about myself as a leader.”
Some of the shorts are designed to push technological boundaries that could end up in future Disney animated features. “For my short especially, we used a lot of tools that hadn’t been used in a production setting before,” Jennifer Stratton shared of her short Zenith where constellations come to life. “So it was a great test bed for that, but also it was at a greater scale and speed than what they were built for. So technically there were a lot of risks. Also visually it was a challenge. It was different from how we normally do things.”
“Because of the nature of these films, we’re just trying to be scrappy and steal from everywhere,” shared Brian Scott, director of Elephant in the Room, regarding the compressed production timeline and how it affected his film. “Basically, a lot of these sets and a lot of environments are stolen from other places. So all that jungle is from Moana and if you look around the bedroom, all that set dressing is probably from Wreck-It Ralph or various films we’ve made. But there’s one scene in particular where the elephant and the boy are running around the bed playing in the house,” Brian added about an Easter Egg in his short. “If you freeze frame it, which hopefully you will do on Disney+, you’ll see there are different posters on the wall and each one represents one of the six films that was part of the first round of Short Circuit.”
The Short Circuit program began four years ago and hasn’t stopped. When you see the shorts, it’s hard not to notice how many names are in the credits and how many of them repeat throughout this series. These first-time directors lead a relatively large team, but not all at once. “I had one story person with me the first month, then it gets a little bigger, that guy rolls off, then you have five, you have ten, you have twenty, then it would go back down,” explained Brian Estrada, director of Hair-Jitsu. “But it's definitely tough leading that many people. If you look at the credits at the end, I still can’t believe that I did it. But you rise to the challenge, you gain confidence as you go, and at the end you want to do another one. You want to do it again.”
You could feel the supportive atmosphere at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the directors from the first round of Short Circuit films became mentors to the next group. “On an individual level, I felt like you’re given an assignment when you’re in any of the departments and to you, that’s your world and you’re trying to make it the best that you can,” explained Brian Menz, director of Just a Thought. “And you know that you’re making a small piece of a bigger thing, but once you’ve directed something and you’ve tried to get this bigger thing finished, you start to become aware of like, okay, I have this that I need to get done but how else can I help you? This is a smaller piece of a bigger thing whereas before, you might hold onto it really tight and say I have all of these shots you gave me and I want to get them done but time is running out. After you’ve gone through this process, you’re like okay, whatever you need. If you need to take them and redistribute them, that’s fine. The end goal is the film, the end goal isn’t the shot.”
Mitch Counsell, director of Fetch, echoed Brian Menz’s thoughts on the experience and how it impacted his role. “When you’re a specialist, you don’t always know how much of an impact you’re actually having. You’re contributing according to your specialization. And then after being able to participate in this program you realize how incredibly important all these specialists are and what their impact is on the whole. That type of appreciation is hard to really see when you’re just so focused on the cutting edge of how to get better in your specialization. It really helps you synthesize and appreciate where you came from.”
For most of the filmmakers, the final destination of their short films was originally going to be some in-studio screenings and maybe used for training purposes. “I don’t think you can give Disney artists an opportunity to make something for them to not push it as far as they possibly can,” shared Zach Parrish, director of Puddles, when talking about the quality of the short films. “I think everyone was striving to make something that compared to what we normally do on our feature films…. So when it found an audience it was just really exciting that people were going to get to share in that.”
“These were all made before Disney+ was even an option,” explained Jeff Gipson, director of Cycles, the studio’s first virtual reality film. “These were made internally at first just to kind of allow us to have new voices, new opportunities for leadership. And just to make something and think about storytelling and how we make our films in different ways. I think maybe a year ago, or whenever the idea of Disney+ came about, it was an added bonus. What was kind of nice is that there wasn’t an expectation when we made these that these were going to go out into the world. These were just for us by us and I think that allowed us to take risks in different ways.”
The Short Circuit program allows ideas to be submitted by any employee at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which has lead to a more diverse group of first-time directors than the studio has ever had before. “I’m actually excited premiering on Disney+ because I’m going to have to bring it to my community,” shared John Aquino, director of Lightning in a Bottle. “Up until now, as a minority, as a Philipino American, we really haven’t had that much showing in the industry. I’m excited to show that, hey, we are part of the conversation. We are part of this great network that is Disney Animation and we do have a voice. That’s extra special to me, to show that there is diversity in our studio and it’s alive and strong. It’s exciting to show that everyone is creative and has a voice in our community.”
When each artist completed their films, most of them returned to their area of specialty. “It actually became nice to go back to my normal job because directing is hard,” joked Kendra Vander Vliet, director of Downtown. “It’s so much work, focus on one thing. But it’s cool having that kind of oversight of what our directors go through, even what our supervisors go through. And knowing what can you bring to the table helps them make better decisions for the movie and can even spark ideas for the story that you don’t even think you have an effect on but everything we do in our departments, we all have a little piece of that story we bring to the table.”
While the opportunity to direct another short film might never come again for most of these artists, there are still opportunities for growth and development within the studio. “My experience on [my short] is what made me want to be in leadership,” explained Nikki Mull, director of Lucky Toupee. “Now I’m a supervisor on Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s not something that I probably would’ve done otherwise.”
“I think going back to our regular jobs, going back to animating, this job gave us an understanding of the whole pipeline and just understand what other people are going through when they work in their departments,” Animator Trent Correy shared on his experience directing Drop. “I feel like if we could do eight hundred Short Circuits, everyone in the studio would have a better understanding of how everything works. Better empathy towards different departments and just the collaborative nature of it all. Just bringing people together I think is the coolest part… By far, the most collaborative experience I’ve had at Disney. It’s been amazing.”
“We very strongly believe in this,” Terry Meows concluded. “We believe in this opportunity and I very strongly want this opportunity for others in this building. I’ve been here for twenty-five years and it’s been my favorite four months in my twenty-five years here and I’d love for others to have that.”
You can celebrate the accomplishments of these first-time directors with the fourteen animated short films from the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Circuit debuting on Disney+ January 24th. While at Walt Disney Animation Studios, I had the chance to have a one-on-one chat with many of these filmmakers and we’ll be sharing their full interviews over the next several days.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.