For over two decades, Disney and Pixar have collaborated to tell inventive, inspiring and deeply personal stories. The Disney+ service has enabled Pixar to further expand its range of original content, with the release of brand new SparkShorts shorts. One such SparkShort, LOOP, tells the story of a non-verbal autistic girl on a canoe trip with a chatty boy. To celebrate the 2-year anniversary of Pixar’s LOOP, I sat down to speak with the short’s director, Erica Milsom, and you can read our entire conversation below:
Hi Erica! Thanks for chatting with us. Let’s take things back a bit – when did you first get involved with Pixar and how did you get connected to the SparkShorts project?
I started working at Pixar as a freelance assistant editor for the documentary MAKING NEMO in 2003 and continued to freelance through Incredibles and Cars. I was promoted to a permanent documentary director role starting with Ratatouille. From then on, I worked with the AWESOME Pixar in-house documentary team on films and museum installations that illuminated the studio’s creative process.
In early 2018, I approached Jim Morris, the president of Pixar, with an idea for a story that featured a character communicating with aids like SparkShort. He was intrigued by the idea and connected me with Lindsey Collins and David Lally, the EPs for the SparkShorts Project, who loved the idea. I wrote the first versions of the script and we started production a few months later.
I had no idea Pixar was so heavily involved in documentary filmmaking, but I love how SparkShorts included a diverse group of storytellers from across the Pixar brand. How did working on LOOP stretch your filmmaking skills?
This is a great question. First, after years of telling stories about HOW animation was made, working with an animation team to tell this story gave me a whole new understanding of the medium. I love filmmaking because it’s a collaborative effort – any film crew you’re a part of works best if they’re a pack working together towards their goal. And I had really loved the small crew of documentarians I worked with throughout my career. But there is nothing more collaborative than creating animated films! The degree to which you have to cross boundaries of art, technology, storytelling, aesthetics, and in the case of LOOP, identity and communication differences, is unparalleled. And when you succeed in that effort—being both clear and inclusive—the team can do amazing things.
I learned a million lessons throughout the production from the crew and I am grateful for all of those lessons. (Pixar’s artists are both brilliant and GENEROUS creators!) But the biggest learning I took from LOOP was personal. To make LOOP the most important thing for me was to be truthful and authentic in our portrayal of these two characters whose identities I did not represent. To do that, I needed to learn from autistic people how they experienced the world AND draw on my relationships with young black men who loved canoeing to create a bridge of understanding between all of us, including a very large crew.
In the early stages, creating that bridge involved meeting with autistic people and listening to their experiences and their reactions to my script, as well as diving deep into #factualcautistic conversations on social media. Also, I spent time at a non-profit I loved, Waterside Workshops, listening to the kids who worked there in the boat shop. As the story was formalized, that meant bouncing the story off our consultants at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, taking notes and observations, and adapting our story accordingly. And as the process continued, the producers and I realized it was important to find a way to share this growing compendium of insights with a larger and larger crew. We ended up putting together an introductory keynote that reviewed the characteristics of autism, as defined by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and went through the story, illustrating how we tried to portray those characteristics in Renee’s story. We took our animation team out to the workshop that inspired the location and character of Marcus and we all hung out and went canoeing. In each step of this deeply collaborative process, each artist would begin with a shared experience of hearing from people whose identities were different from their own.
Sometimes I worried that I was explaining too much or repeating myself. But I think the truth is that when you’re a director, and you have something essential in your story, you have to hold it high, like a big, beautiful flag. That means finding the confidence to say YES – this is our purpose – and then inspire a crew to share that purpose. But directors also need to set the stage for the crew to be on the same path as you, and the best way to do that is to nurture the idea that they’re curious, open-minded, and interested in learning new lessons. Because that’s what great artists do. They are growing.
Your passion and intentionality is immediately apparent in LOOP, and I love how the collaborative process of animation brings so many different perspectives together. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years since LOOP was released on Disney+. Although various aspects of our world look much different from early 2020, how do you feel the message of LOOP continues to connect with audiences since the COVID pandemic?
Wow. Another great question! I think, after these past years where the whole world has been more isolated and guarded through the pandemic, LOOP reminds us that there is power in exploring the unknown in your life – both the world around you and the world between us as humans. It’s a testament to the idea that no matter where you are, there are unexpected connections that can be made.
And on a functional level, I’ve been amazed that this 8-minute animated film has stayed so active in the world for the past two years. I still receive notes from people about the story almost weekly, some letters of appreciation and support, and some requests to use the film in their communities to follow inclusion campaigns. I feel so grateful for that. I think all of us who tell stories hope that the stories provoke something deep that lives on beyond the screen. As far as I can tell, LOOP did. So hello to all of us who made it together.
In a world that often feels so disconnected, it’s always refreshing to find something like LOOP that brings people together and tells an inclusive story. Watching LOOP also connected me to your directing work for the short film SO MYE GUL, which tells an intimate story about children with Down syndrome. How do films like LOOP and SO MUCH YELLOW bring awareness to these important but often less discussed stories?
Awww. Thanks for seeing SO MUCH YELLOW. That film was my first foray into fiction filmmaking, drawing on my documentary background to explore true stories and then adapt them as fiction. My goal with that film, which was about a small family on the day they institutionalized their young son who has Down syndrome, was to let the audience have a DEEPLY HUMAN experience of a story that hasn’t been told very often. I had worked in disability services in the 90s, just after the US deinstitutionalized, so I was fortunate to meet many interesting people who had gone through this experience. I had never seen their story portrayed on screen as anything other than a horror story. And yet they were people with very nuanced experiences full of love, loss, confusion and redemption. I wanted to approach this story from a very small, human perspective of what it means to lose someone you love. And at the same time to be lost. LOOP has a similar ‘human scale’ goal – to fully envelop an audience in an experience that is essentially very private, as two children find a way to connect.
In each case, we worked hard to give the audience a POINT OF VIEW-based experience, where they stepped outside their reality and into someone else’s. And to me, that changes what consciousness means. Instead of looking at someone’s experience from the outside, you hopefully sink into it.
Wow! I love seeing these raw, human experiences portrayed through film. As we mentioned earlier, your work spans both live-action and animated media, and I’ve also enjoyed the live-action Disney+ documentaries INSIDE PIXAR and EMBRACE THE PANDA. How does your directing style differ between the two formats, and which do you find funnier?
Hehehe. Such a great question. I have to say – I LOVE all of these formats. And they play into each other for me as a writer and director. The sense of truth and real humanity you find in a documentary is important to me to always look for in animation. No matter how far-reaching the stories I tell in future animated films, I want the audience to feel rooted in a truth that feels so human that you see yourself in the story. And so, the playfulness and heightened expression inherent in animation makes a documentary so powerful. As I progressed in that mold, I was always looking for ways to enhance the surprise and joy of the story—to be playful, bold, and artful, while still telling a truly true story.
Animation has always been a medium that breaks barriers, and it’s great to see so many unique stories portrayed through that medium. I always like to end these interviews by asking you what’s next, and I noticed that you recently started a new venture at Ryzo Animation Studios. Congratulations! What exciting plans do you have for Studios?
Thanks for asking! We are in a time where so many of the world’s problems can seem overwhelming. We need stories that move us forward, connect us across barriers and give us a way to work towards new solutions. At Ryzo, we believe that animation has a special power that can bypass some of the resistance and fear we feel about our future, about each other and about the world. We created Ryzo Studios to tell wildly entertaining animated stories that move you and move you to act. Our selection of feature films address the big questions of our time in animated fiction and then chase those stories with activations that give audiences a way to further engage with the story’s themes. I am so excited to bring together artists from around the world to explore the big questions and find new ways to engage with them in an imaginative, optimistic way.
I’m so excited to see what’s on the horizon for Ryzo Studios, and I’ll definitely be looking for your name on future projects! Thank you so much for sitting down to chat about LOOP and your Pixar story!
And for the reader, you can stream Pixar’s LOOP now on Disney+.