Animator turned Workflow Supervisor Zach Parrish recently directed his first short film as part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Circuit program of experimental films. During a visit to Disney Animation in Burbank, I had the pleasure of meeting Zach to talk about his film Puddles.
Alex: Your short was one of six that played at D23 Expo. What was it like seeing an audience react to Puddles?
Zach Parrish: I just remember being blown away because we were backstage, we were behind the screen and we heard all the laughter and I was just like ‘I had no idea this was funny!’ It got a great response, I was very honored.
Alex: It’s very funny. During the story boarding process, was none of it intended to be comical?
Zach: It was always intended to be comical. I think when you make a film, you live with it for so long you just lose your eyeballs on if that joke is actually landing, does this timing actually work. You set out with best of intentions. All the people around you have also watched it dozens of times and so nobody is laughing in the room anymore. So it’s really that fresh perspective you get from an audience where you say ‘Oh, thank God. It actually is funny.’ Because we try very hard to work on every facial expression, every timing, every staging to make sure that things that are supposed to land comedically do.
Alex: This short is very imaginative. Where did the concept come from of things living beyond the puddles and using them as portals?
Zach: I’ve always had this weird imagination as a kid. It really comes from just stories I would make up for myself as a kid. The stories I like to tell usually involve using imagination, seeing the world different. It really came from my nephew Noah who, I was playing with him and I saw so much of that with him. I realized that I have lost as I’ve gotten older and how much of that I want back. To see the world in that way. I was just looking around, it originated with wouldn’t it be cool if you stepped into a reflection if it took you to what was being reflected. And then that turned into water and I thought oh my gosh, I remember playing in puddles as a kid and imagining that they were actually teleporting me to other places and then they just kind of snowballed into what could this world be and what if it was this magical world just to strengthen the theme of stopping and looking at the beauty of the world around you, taking that to an eleven.
Alex: Earlier you mentioned that you would’ve changed the look of the film if you had more time. I really like the children’s picture book look of the short and I’m curious to know what you would’ve changed if you had more time.
Zach: I don’t think I would necessarily change it. It’s more that anytime you do any artistic endeavor it’s always that pencils down situation. I actually really like the childrens book illustration look, that was very much the intention so I’m very excited that’s what you said. But there were certain things where for time and scope we didn’t do realistic hair, not that I want realistic hair but a little bit more breakup in the hair. We did a few places where we did some drawings and things like that, but would love to continue to push the characters further. I think the team did an amazing job at making it all feel very consistent and very believable in that style. The motion of the hair in the puddle world with that wind blowing feels very very believable considering the low budget approach that we used for that style.
Alex: I have to ask about the puppy. As a dog owner, is it their dog? Where did the dog come from?
Zach: I always imagined it was their dog. At one point we joked about it being a stray that walked across and Noah looked at it and threw it in the puddle. But the animal lover in me was like that’s just so evil. He knew it was going to be safe so we had lots and lots of discussions about animal safety on that one. But yeah, I always imagined it was their dog. He ran inside to get it and she never even noticed.
Alex: What are some of the shorts or films that inspired you and made you want to chose this field?
Zach: I wanted to be an animator since I was a child. I was one of those weird kids in DARE in first grade, you know, ‘I want to be a fireman,’ ‘I want to be a doctor,’ I was like ‘I want to make cartoons,’ I had no idea what it meant. Between that, just my love of animation and cartoons when I was a kid and my obsession with what I called playing guys when I was a kid, which was effectively Ninja Turtles action figures and things. I think I always intended to make stories with my hands or with drawings or what have you. Even when I described what I do to my grandmother, it was like she’s never going to understand this, it’s way too technical, she’s never going to make any sense of it. She was like ‘You play guys for a living.’ I was like, uh, yeah, in a way I do. Disney was a huge influence for me my entire childhood, it’s just a huge dream to get to be here.
Alex: Yours was one of the first films out of the Short Circuit program. You didn’t necessarily have the same level of support as those that came later, but what has it been like going through this and then becoming a mentor?
Zach: I was the second maybe or the third. It’s been awesome. The support we did have in the first round was each other, which was nice. Because of us and because we were trying to figure out what the program was and how to make sure it succeeded for the next generation, we very much supported each other. And then after we finished our films, it’s been awesome. I’ve gotten to be in the selection committee, reading in the blind pitch selection committee as well as I got to do pre-vis for Just a Thought, I got to do character exploration on Natalie’s Exchange Student film. You get to sit in rooms and give people advice, you get to talk with the directors and say ‘Okay, so don’t freak out about this. Make sure you’re thinking about this.’ I think the biggest thing we all have tried to share with each other is remember to stay in the moment and appreciate how cool this is because it can be a stressful thing and it is work, but it’s such an amazing opportunity. You kind of don’t realize it when you’re in the thick of it. You need someone who’s been through it to kind of snap you on the nose and say this is amazing and you should really appreciate it.
Alex: Since your film was made three years ago, was it produced at the temporary Tujunga studio or back here at Walt Disney Animation Studios?
Zach: Where was this made? I think it was here technically. I think I got the opportunity and I we were told that it was going to happen at Tujunga. And then I think I did my first month of story pre-vis at Tujunga and then animation in this building.
Alex: Because of films like The Little Mermaid being made in a trailer and the discussion of the way they were able to collaborate in that environment versus when they got to Feature Animation after The Lion King, do you feel like the film would’ve come out differently had it all been produced at Tujunga?
Zach: I don’t know that it would be different. I mean, there definitely was a different vibe at Tujunga versus here, neither one of them bad. I actually loved Tujunga. I felt like we were all, at least where animation was, it was all cubicles and I could just turn to the person next to me and pitch ideas. The end of my film actually came from an animator who was just walking around on a coffee break and was like ‘What are you working on?’ I showed him and he said ‘You know what would be really funny…’ and he pitched the fish eating the phone at the end and I was like that’s brilliant. So that kind of organic-ness was very easy at Tujunga and a bit more challenging at this studio. But at the same time, you get so much more at this studio. I don’t know, I don’t think it would be different. I’m happy that this film got to live at both studios.
Alex: The colors in the puddle world are so vibrant and rich. Were there any colors that were important for you to include?
Zach: James Finch was my Production Designer, he did a ton of exploration where he tried a lot of different things. He had a lot of different color patterns, but there was sort of a consistent pink undertone. Pink and kind of a turquoise color that I always gravitated to. We looked at a lot of undersea reference of coral and things like that. I wanted to have a look that was inspired by underwater vegetation so we looked at a lot of that. There was always a kind of pink turquoise feel to it, but I also wanted it to feel like a real world which is where all the green and the sunset and all of that comes from. We tried to get all of those colors in there so that it just felt very saturated and we tried to downplay the saturation of the real world for Noah and Skyler.
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.