In his seven years at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Brian Scott has been an Animator, Head of Animation, and now Director of his first short film. Elephant in the Room, part of the Short Circuit experimental film program. Since arriving at Disney, Brian has worked on the Oscar-winning short film Feast as well as full-length features like Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Frozen 2. He also assisted with Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King. I had the chance to interview Brian during a recent visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios about his directorial debut.
Alex: Your film has been screened at a few places, including D23 Expo. What was it like seeing an audience react to Elephant in the Room?
Brian Scott: We definitely took an opportunity as they were watching it to sneak around the side of the stage just to kind of sit there and watch. Just sort of hanging in the wings, it was the first time I’d ever seen anyone watch the film because you don’t get a sense until you see people smiling in the right places, chuckling in the right places, hopefully getting weepy. My vision wasn’t that good, I wasn’t right next to someone to see if anyone was tearing up or anything, but I heard very positive things after, that people were emotionally affected. The film kind of did what it set out to do which is hopefully to bring people this sense of I can do something nice for somebody else or I can be active in choices to make the world a better place. That’s sort of what the film is trying to do.
Alex: Your film has a narrative song that tells the story. Can you talk about that decision and where the music came from?
Brian: That came pretty early. I was storyboarding the film and it had gone from this earlier incarnation of a short that was maybe a little bit longer to the Short Circuit version, which was around three-minutes long. I was studying cutting patterns of commercials and narrative commercials specifically to see how they could kind of tell such effective stories in even a minute, which is such a short amount of time. I was seeing this recurring thing of a song that could sweep the emotion and sort of tie it all together through the themes of these commercials. So I took the edit that I had and started trying different musical approaches. I laid some score into it, I played guitar on top of it, I tried some folk music and laid that in and all of a sudden there was something when I laid this one folk song that really resonated and it felt like the right approach. I reached out to my friend Toft Willingham, who’s an amazing composer, songwriter, and said I don’t know if you have time to look at this but look at these reels and tell me what you think. Would you be interested in writing the song? And that’s when literally the next day I check my email and it has an mp3 in there and it is the song, it’s a demo version. But when I laid it into the edit, he had obviously been writing it specifically for the music because on every key moment where I would jump time or I’d make a distinctive edit, he was switching the chord or a tempo change. I was like oh my God, this is so good. We started iterating on the song and that was a really fun process to try to discover the instrumentation and the specifics that would make it feel special to the world that this story is set in. It wasn’t just guitar and singing like the demo was, we brought a xylophone to it and local percussion and all these different elements to tie it into the world, so that was a really fun process to go through, I’d never done that before.
Alex: Do you think there’s any possibility of that song being released for streaming?
Brian: I would hope so. I mean right now, it just being on Disney+, people could put it on and listen to it that way. Hopefully they can also enjoy the narrative as well, the visuals as well. But I love that idea. How cool would that be to just play it in the car on the way to work or just on your playlist while you’re in the gym or whatever. I agree with you, I’m lucky enough to have a cut of it on my phone that I can listen to, but it would be amazing if we could get it out there in the world.
Alex: In the intro, you mention that this was inspired by a random childhood encounter with a baby elephant. Are your memories of that vivid or are they more dreamlike?
Brian: Super vivid. It’s weird because I’ve told the story so many times now that it becomes almost bigger than the memory itself. Coming out of the baseball game… we were walking down and I just remember the cobblestone streets and I remember stopping at the hot dog vendor or getting a kielbasa and the guy hands me a kielbasa and just as I’m about to take a bite this little foreign finger-like trunk thing reaches over my shoulder and starts trying to take the kielbasa out of my hand. I turn around and there’s a baby elephant. Just seeing that elephant was so vivid, that’s why I’m saying that memory has always been so strong in my mind. I remember the little red drape that was over it’s back promoting the circus, I don’t remember what circus, but I remember the drape over its back, it’s handler standing next to it. I was like why is this elephant in the street? I want an elephant. Just spending a few moments there, a few minutes with the elephant before we had to keep moving through the city. But that is so vivid in my mind and hopefully that comes across in the film in terms of some authenticity of it.
Alex: The film has a message of where elephants really belong. With the circus recently falling out of public favor, was that a message you were trying to send or was it simply that the story takes place near where elephants live in the wild?
Brian: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think the story led to the elephant getting reunited with his family in the jungle. Humans and elephants have a complicated relationship. In places where humans and elephants cohabitate, I think conflicts arise because there’s conflicts over whose land it is and I wasn’t trying to speak to that conflict as much as just our responsibility to really be the stewards of conservation. I really want us to think about our role in protecting wildlife because, honestly, wildlife can’t protect itself. I feel like we kind of have an obligation to do that. I was fortunate enough to talk to a lot of people with Disney Wildlife and DisneyNature to consult with them on the film and make sure I was saying the right thing. They looked at the film and they loved it and they just were like you are doing the right thing by talking about conservation issues. They were such ambassadors of the film and they really helped me understand exactly what I was saying. I really thank that team for getting involved with me.
Alex: You also worked on Feast, which has a similar cel shading esthetic. Why did you choose that style?
Brian: Having worked on that film, I fell in love with that graphic look and it’s something we don’t do here at the studio in our features. I was like where Patrick [Osborne] left off, he had worked on Feast as [Director], he had taken that style and was like I’m going to do it in color and bring something to it that way. I was Head of Animation on Feast and I was like I’m going to take it and bring some sense of atmosphere and environment and even push the sense of bounced lighting. Just taking the technique and trying to build on it was something important to me. I’ve always fell in love with the [Visual Development] we do here at the studio and feeling like that’s what I want to see on screen. I want to see beautiful Vis Dev and I want to just leave it in the treasure troves of the archives. Let’s put it up on screen for everyone to enjoy. So we had Lisa Keene and Mike Gabriel do these amazing Vis Dev paintings and seeing those, I was like that has to be what we see on screen. We were literally trying our best to find tools and techniques, we were able to leverage some of the stuff we used on Feast and transpose that flat static image into a very deep, moving image. Hats off to the team that helped to achieve that here because as soon as I saw that it looked like the Vis Dev and it started moving, I almost cried.
Alex: The collaboration at Disney Animation is really amazing. What was it like getting this opportunity to be at the helm of your project and then mentor and cheer on others who are going through this same experience?
Brian: I think it’s huge. When I’m in a leadership position, I always try to think back to when I wasn’t and the people who helped me along and helped mentor me. I try to just give back in that way, to be a mentor where I can be, to be a cheerleader where I can be, to be a champion of people when they need it and to really help people feel safe and that their ideas are heard and respected. I think through that openness and collaboration, you get the most out of people because they feel like it’s a safe space so I can volunteer my ideas and then all of a sudden you’re not leaving an idea that may not have heard because people had their walls up. People are very willing to express themselves so as long as you’re open to hearing it, I think that those ideas make it into the film and hopefully improve the film. And in my opinion, they did improve the film throughout. I don’t think the film would be one tenth of what it is without the involvement of the people at the studio working on it.
Alex: You had the benefit of coming from a leadership role. Do you think that helped you in any way with the task of being a director?
Brian: Yeah, I think if you trace my career back from when I was just in school helping people collaborate on their short films, their student films, and my first jobs in the industry working on VFX and working for directors who are great and working for directors who are challenging, the whole gamut of experience leads you to a place where you’re ready to do your job. In my case, I felt very prepared having done this for about fourteen, fifteen years, I was at that time maybe thirteen years, I felt very comfortable. It was just a matter of trying to remember what I had learned along the way and not be the difficult director; Not be the precious director. To try and model myself after those that I felt most inspired by. To be the one who wants to improv, the one who wants to be collaborative, the one who wants to hear all the best ideas and kind of create some comfort in the filmmaking work where people feel thrilled and jazzed and excited to contribute and not scared or intimidated. It can be a hard job, very demanding, but you want to make it as inclusive 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.