Mitch Counsell has been a Character Technical Director at Walt Disney Animation Studios for several years, lending his talents to films like Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana. He recently had the opportunity to create and direct his own short film through the Short Circuit experimental films program. Fetch is now streaming on Disney+ and I got to sit down with Mitch to learn more about his exciting project.
Alex: Yours is one of the few shorts with dialogue and I couldn’t help but notice that the voice actress is Julia Butters, daughter of Darren Butters. How did you get her?
Mitch Counsell: Originally I was thinking I was going to use my own niece’s voice for this project. But it turns out that to employ very very young talent is quite a complex thing to orchestrate, so I was encouraged to look for other sources of people who already had some sort of exposure to… It was very hard to figure out how to find a voice for this because most shorts are silent. So then someone said, well, Darren has a daughter who’s just terrific and she has done a lot of work before. She’s a real professional, they said. I was like cool, Darren’s awesome. He was my improv teacher and so I kind of went up to Darren… I asked him, I had no idea Julia’s professional record prior to that, she was just the daughter of Darren. But he was like yeah, that’d be neat, I’ll see if I can get her in here to do something because he’d like to be able to work on the thing that his daughter was voicing. So Darren got to animate to the voice of his own daughter, which I thought was really cool. And she just crushed it. There was this moment where I was asking her to laugh a little bit and giggle and she just immediately gave the most candid, super real laugh. I was like did you just actually laugh on command? And then she leaned over to me and said ‘If you want me to cry on command, I can do that, too.’ I was just like oh my gosh, this person is amazing. It was really fun to work with her and her dad on Fetch.
Alex: The look of the short reminded me somewhat of Middle Earth. What was the source of inspiration for the design?
Mitch: I love the kind of cinematography from the Lord of the Rings films where they weren’t afraid to go really wide so you can take in the environment. But I would say that most of the visual inspiration was kind of like Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki esthetic where there’s this sense of wonder and mystery that’s imbued into that forest. We just wanted to make something that was not immediately scary but something that slowly seemed more intimidating and something that gave that sense of wonder.
Alex: I see that now. Were there any other Miyazaki or Ghibli-isms that you pay homage to in that setting?
Mitch: Not specifically the setting itself. I think that more kind of like how the film presented itself. What I love about Miyazaki films is that when you’re done watching a Miyazaki, it’s not that you have a very specific message that you specifically heard, but you have some real, earnest things to think about. And it’s kind of up to the audience member to decide how they really felt about this. So for Fetch I wanted something that was sort of intentionally unclear, but presented still a relationship and a circumstance that was challenging and so I guess in that way we were hoping we could engineer something that way in how it wrapped up.
Alex: The girl in this short has befriended a beast who reveals himself slowly. Where in the process did you decide what the creature would be?
Mitch: I knew that it was something that was going to be mostly manifest through its interaction with the world. So you wouldn’t really see it, you would just see how it displaced the world around it. And thinking about a creature and a presence in terms of its negative space was a compelling challenge. Once we realized the required dynamics that we wanted to have between the two characters, that’s when we started trying to figure out actually how he would look in his corporal form. And we were able to settle on this form that made him still feel very substantial and massive but allowed for this evidence of how does the mechanism of his internal dynamics and this system work. It all actually unlocked for us more narrative possibilities as we solved those issues.
Alex: It’s not often in computer animation that you see a layer of a character disappear to see inside them. What was the complexity level of making that happen?
Mitch: It was quite complex, but it was one of those things that we knew we had to accomplish those shots in such a limited amount. We kind of just knew some ways to accomplish part of it and then we composite, we do a lot of work with the lighters compositing it in Nuke to make it work and give us controls. Like the ability for a light-based indicator to show and highlight her in there. All of these options became available once we realized how we were going to manifest him with this volumetric type of presence.
Alex: I took away an animal rights message from the film about a misunderstood creature. In the intro, you mentioned that this was inspired by a family member. Can you talk more about the specific inspiration?
Mitch: I love hearing different takes on what people think it might be about. It was actually inspired by my nephew interacting with other adults. A little kid interacting with adults. Sometimes adults are jaded and they can be very grumpy and other adults will identify, oh, that’s the jaded grumpy guy, don’t expect to be friends with him. And then these identities form as we get older. But I would see my nephew, because he was naive of these identities, he would just walk up to these jaded old adults, like this old curmudgeonly guy, and assume he was his friend because that’s how he saw the world because he was naive enough to think that he could make a friend like that. And this thing that happened is in the face of this kid who sees something that isn’t there, this jaded old adult would try to be that thing. They would try to be the thing that the kid sees and to see that naivety can transform that jadedness. That was very powerful because the kid isn’t even aware of how heroic they’re being. That was really the thing that inspired this and then as it continued in development. Coincidentally, we’re in a world now where a lot of people are hunting for monsters and everyone’s past is on display. Anyone, if you’ve ever done anything wrong… and it’s good, you should find evil and try to purge it, but sometimes it’s almost like I want to make a short where it’s like you will find monsters if you’re looking for monsters because everyone can be a monster. But if you’re looking for a friend then you can give everyone, even a monster, an opportunity to be redeemed, to be transformed. I feel like magic happens when you don’t know what reality is. Sometimes it’s still true. And that kind of complexity of thematic things is like whatever conversation follows after watching something like Fetch, I was kind of hoping to give something that would fuel those types of conversations.
Alex: Your leadership experience on Short Circuit lead to a long term leadership role within Disney Animation. What has this opportunity meant to you and how have these lessons helped you in your new role?
Mitch: You realize how much of an impact individuals have on the whole when you’re in a position of leadership because when you’re leading something, you realize that you’re serving an idea, you’re a conduit for something to happen and it’s really the aggregate of individuals who actually allow it to happen and inspire each other. It gives you a lot more respect and awareness of how much impact you have been having before you were even aware of it when you’re just one artist in the massive credits at the end of the film. Sometimes you can think to yourself, am I really making a difference? And you realize that yes, it’s actually all individuals. It’s not any single person who makes these things. It’s a real team effort, so you take that and you’re like, well, I need to let people understand how impactful they are being because if people realize that, they kind of multiply their efforts and their talent.
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.