Animator Brian Menz recently directed his first short film, Just a Thought, as part of the first wave of Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Circuit experimental films program. The short recently debuted on Disney+ and I had the opportunity to interview Brian about his project on a recent visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.
Alex: What was it like presenting your film in front of a big crowd at D23 Expo?
Brian Menz: It was awesome. The first time we actually went to Annecy, I think there were a thousand people in that audience, it was pretty large too. And it was cool to hear what they respond to, anything that gets a laugh or the ‘Ahh’ moments. When you’ve got a larger group like that you hear something at every point where you’ve never heard somebody respond audibly at this part or that part. That’s one of the exciting things when you see it with a big group is just things are landing that you don’t always know. A lot of people will watch something and internally they’re thinking ‘Oh, that’s charming,’ but they might not have any audible response.
Alex: The look of the film seems to be inspired by Sunday Funnies. A lot of those classic Sunday Funnies became animated cartoon shows or specials, but lost the look. Why was it important for you to bring in that esthetic with the dotted colors in the characters?
Brian Menz: I had come up with the concept of the short and in the first development phase when I was developing it for an older shorts program, they said what do you think you want this thing to look like? Besides the story and the concept, what do you want it to look like? So I was thinking when I think of those Sunday Funnies, I’m immediately thinking of those dots because I grew up on them. And I hadn’t seen anything like that before. A few other people have had that idea since, but I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And the studio had just finished Paperman and so the line work on top of CG, I thought I could do that but then somehow figure out a way to do the dots and make it feel like… I wanted it to feel like you were looking at a newspaper and that it had come to life. And so as much of those elements that I could get in there the better.
Alex: Your short is very funny. Did you collaborate with others or did you do the old school Walt-era approach of soliciting gags for a dollar?
Brian: Some of it came from other people in conversation as I was pitching it through the years. But ultimately I boarded the whole thing. I think the one gag that came late is the one where you close the locker and he’s got [his thought bubble] stuffed up his shirt and that came from a group of us standing around and talking about replacing what was there. I don’t know if someone came up with the idea or if someone said something that sparked me thinking it could be in the shirt and it could lift him up and carry him towards her because it’s a progression. The bubble is like your over eager friend trying to get you to talk to the girl you like. First he says ‘Hey go talk to her and look, if you go over and wave to her, she’s going to love you.’ That’s what he’s saying in the thought bubble, just tap her and she’ll give you a hug and he’s terrified. So then it pushes him towards her, it says you’re going to go talk to her but he refuses, he pushes back. So then the bubble says fine, I’m going to tell her for you and then he has to stop the bubble. And so there was a progression in story that I was thinking of with everything that was happening, not just like random things happening and that ultimately he shuts his friend out, locks him outside. I also, when he stuffs him in the locker and it seeps out and bonks him on the head, that was the setup for at the end when the bubble is hitting him on the head and he’s shoeing it away. You think that's his bubble and then the reversal that it turns out that it’s hers. So everything is carefully placed to help build the whole narrative and thread it. But ultimately, I don’t know what percentage was me and what percentage was sharing it with others and getting their feedback along the way.
Alex: One of the reasons I connected with this short is because it reminded me of my middle school years when nothing could be scarier than having my inner thoughts on display for all to see. Was that something personal for you that inspired this?
Brian: I feel a strong connection to Ollie, who’s the boy in the short. When I was younger, when I was in middle school, I was terrified to talk to any girl that I liked. And so my first girlfriend had to ask me out and now she’s my wife and we have seven kids, which are the seven kids that pop up on the screen. Definitely that was one of the things in the forefront of my mind when I was developing the short. And then when I started looking at it a little deeper and thinking if I oversimplify it, this short is about fear and how fear tends to be this thing that’s keeping you from acting on something that might be a good thing to act on, but fear is holding you back and when you are held back, you never have the possibility of a good outcome. If you go for it, you have the possibility of either a good or bad outcome. That whole short is exploring that, trying to fight that fear. It’s an internal conflict that we’ve made a visually external conflict and then in the end when he’s been exposed and fully embarrassed it ends up working out for him.
Alex: I’m impressed by how collaborative this whole studio seems to be. Can you talk about what it’s like to work in an environment where you’re not only given this type of opportunity, but you’re supported and championed by your colleagues?
Brian: That’s my favorite part of it. When I got selected, in the credits they’re called ‘Thought Partners’ but they’re these people that you really team up with to try and figure out the different obstacles and the collaboration with them was paramount to even getting the film done. It had a couple of compositors and Angela figuring out how we were going to get the final look of the thing with the dots and everything coming together; The lines, the paper texture, the ink texture. I had two people, Rachel Bibb and Huynh Minh on the Meander side, the drawing program, trying to figure out how to get the characters to look the way we want and one of my office mates, Brian Scott, who I’ve been bouncing ideas off for years. So a lot of the ideas for the short, probably a good chunk of them, come from him, too. But we figured out a way where we could animated and see… everything going on inside the bubble was animated in a different file and he figured out a way where we could project it into the main file because the two characters are interacting. So just a way to be able to do that without having to wait for it to go all the way through the process. That was huge, being able to get through animation and get the performances to read as good as possible.
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.