Dealing with what comes naturally isn’t easy, especially for animals.
In Animal Behaviour, the latest animated short from the Oscar®-winning team of Alison Snowden and David Fine (Bob’s Birthday), five animals meet regularly to discuss their inner angst in a group therapy session led by Dr. Clement, a canine psychotherapist.
The group includes Lorraine, a leech who suffers from separation anxiety; Cheryl, a praying mantis who can’t seem to keep a man; Todd, a pig with an eating disorder; Jeffrey, a bird with guilt issues; and Linda, an obsessive-compulsive cat.
But this week’s session proves to be a challenge for the group when they’re joined by a reluctant new member: Victor, an ape with anger-management issues. As we watch him navigate his first session, we learn about each animal’s issues and how they’re trying to deal with them, but Victor just doesn’t get it. He sees the group as a bunch of self-obsessed navel gazers.
This hilarious yet emotional short deals with animal issues that are not unlike our own. Should we learn and adapt, or should others just accept our true nature?
Produced by Michael Fukushima at the National Film Board of Canada
Where did the idea for this film come from? Can you talk about what inspired it, how it came together?
Alison Snowden: I took a lot of confidence-building classes to deal with shyness, so in some ways, that was a starting point. Observing people’s behaviour, traits, and issues, and recognizing that it’s hard to change and hard to deal with them, as well. Some people are obsessed with therapy, and other people are so anti-therapy. It was interesting.
David Fine: The overarching question of “Should what comes naturally to you be something that you seek to change to please others, or should others accept you as you are?” is what appealed to me. Animals seem like a focal point of what comes natural to them, i.e., apes are aggressive, pigs eat a lot, etc. We thought it was a nice, clear analogy. It’s hard to change. You know people with certain characteristics, they don’t change so easily.
The notion of going to therapy to change seems like a tall order, so we thought it would be fun to look at therapy and have a character who comes in and questions its validity. At the same time, we’re careful not to go for the low-hanging fruit or make fun of the process. We don’t want to answer the question (“Is therapy valid?”), we want to pose the question and start the discussion.
How did you first pitch the idea?
DF: We hadn’t made a short film for about 20 years. We knew Michael [Fukushima, executive producer of the NFB’s animation studio], and bumped into him at a conference. He said, “If you guys ever want to make a short film again, I’d love to see something.”
And it was as simple as that.
We thought, “Yeah, maybe we would like to make a short film again.” We’d done TV series and commercials and things where we worked with large teams of people, with intense production schedules, and that comes with its own excitement—having so many people bring their creative vision. But it would also be nice to go back and put pen to paper, digitally now, and make our own personal film, where the creative vision is solely our own, and we’re supported by an institution and a producer that is supporting the creators and our vision, so that seemed like an enticing opportunity.
I pitched the idea at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I remember describing it to him, but he recalls that I was gesticulating like the ape, standing up on tables, and that’s why he bought into it right away.
Michael Fukushima: David’s pitch was dead simple: he described the premise and some of the characters and did some spontaneous performance of some of the doctor/patient interactions. But even with just that, David’s comedic timing and performance were pitch perfect, and in about two minutes I was crying whilst laughing and sliding out of my chair. That was it. In less than five minutes, David had fully described a scenario, characters, and given me a taste of what’s to come. I’ve been in stitches almost from the get-go.
AS: In fact, when we handed in the first draft, Michael said, “It’s funny, but not as funny as the pitch.” And we went back to work, thinking, “We have to make Michael laugh like he did for the pitch.”
How do the two of you work together? Does one write and one animate? Do you both work on both elements?
AS: When we met, we were both filmmakers. We were going to film school, making films, so we kind of have the same skill set to a large degree.
DF: We co-write, we both animate. We both do everything together, separately. We sometimes swap our scenes if we need help with it, stuff like that. The significant thing that Alison does that’s distinct from me is that she’s the character designer, so the look of all the characters are her hand. Of course, I get a say in that, but they’re her character designs.
AS: We both have the same sense of humour and sensibilities, which is one reason we were drawn to each other. So, it makes it easier to write together.
DF: Not to say we don’t ever disagree. We do. But that’s a good thing. Sometimes, when you disagree it makes you analyze why the other person sees things differently, and makes you want to understand where they’re coming from and search for that middle ground you’re both happy with.
This is your first project with the NFB in almost 20 years—what’s it like working with the Board again?
DF: Well, one of the things we wanted to do in working with the NFB was have a creative process that involved them. We didn’t want to come with a thing and say, “Here, this is it.”
We wanted to work with a community of filmmakers that we know, get feedback, come up with ideas, try things out and play with the whole notion of a group therapy session with animals to see where it took us. So, there were a lot of processes and changes along the way. We changed some of the animals.
At one point, David Verall was working in the studio on a temporary basis. He looked at the script and said, “In Bob’s Birthday, there’s a surprise twist. Everything’s going along, and then something happens that turns it on its head, and you don’t expect that. That’s what’s missing from this story.”
We went back, realizing it was a good point. We thought about it until we came up with the idea of Dr. Clement becoming a rabid animal, which no one expects. So that inspiration from David to come up with something was key.
Being in Vancouver, we missed the opportunity to roam the halls of the studio and see what everyone else is working on, gather inspiration and feedback. But we were able to do that virtually. We would send over drawings and get feedback from filmmakers like Janet Perlman, Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, but it’s all done remotely.
And working with Michael… well, if things would take a little longer, he’d be okay with that. “No,” he’d say. “I’m happy with the work. I’m happy with what you’re doing.”
The support from him in terms of wanting the film to be as good as possible was invaluable. Throughout the whole process he’s been incredible. He’s stuck with this film through everything, he always believed in it, and he’s just amazing to work with.
AS: You always feel like you’re making a film with a community at the Film Board, which is what’s so nice about working with them.
What was it like writing the script?
AS: It was quite a difficult script to write. We thought it would be easy, because it’s in one room, there’s one conversation, but there are so many possibilities with all the animals, and if we did it wrong it would get boring.
At first there were a lot of characters, but you couldn’t get attached to any of them, so we honed it down. Really, it’s about the ape and Dr. Clement—that’s the showdown. Then they all came together. The others are in the room, they’re observers, and they’re there for comedy. But the key characters are those two and their drama.
At first, the ape wasn’t a sympathetic character—coming in, in denial, etc. We needed to make the ape like one of those naughty school boys who go to the principal’s office, and Dr. Clement is the teacher, and so he became sort of lovable in that way. We changed the dialogue a bit and worked out the delivery. This helps you identify with him more.
What are each of your favourite moments in the film?
AS: I think it’s Lorraine being really pleased with herself for saying “frozen peas” as the answer to Dr. Clement’s question about what’s got Victor angry.
DF: Mine is when Dr. Clement regresses and talks of how the smell of a dog’s ass, for him, evokes the smell of a warm apple pie.
At the heart of the comedy, we want a film that will touch people in some way. And we hope moments like these will do that.
Can you talk a little bit about the animation technique used?
DF: We used a program called TVPaint, which is basically a digital, natural drawing program, so there’s no computer animation. It’s all hand-done, using software that allows you to animate in the traditional way, just without paper. Of course, you can grab elements and move them, adjust them, etc., but basically, it’s all pen-in-hand drawing. No CGI effects.
And that was nice, because 20 years ago we worked on Bob’s Birthday and it was cels and paint and all that stuff. This was the first time we got to animate ourselves using computers, and it was nice to learn about that.
AF: This film turned out to be a lot harder to make visually interesting. You had to use all these crazy angles and think about continuity—things we never dealt with before. We had seven characters at a time, instead of one or two, like we were used to.
DF: And we wanted to keep this one location interesting, so we wanted the angles to be cinematic and dramatic, so one of the things we did do that was CGI, but wasn’t used in the film, was use a 3D build of the room so we could take the camera where we wanted, print it out in 2D, and use it as a reference for drawing.
What’s next for you both?
AF: We want to do things we really enjoy. We’ll take a break, and hopefully go to some festivals and promote the film and enjoy its life. We never really know what’s coming next. We’re not the kind of people who need to line everything up. We like to wait and see what inspires us, see what opportunities present themselves. Just go with the flow.
Written, Directed, and Animated by
ALISON SNOWDEN and DAVID FINE
Dr. Clement – RYAN BEIL
Victor – TAZ VAN RASSEL
Lorraine – LEAH JUEL
Cheryl – ANDREA LIBMAN
Todd – TOBY BERNER
Jeffrey – JAMES KIRK
Linda – ALISON SNOWDEN
NEERA GARG (Your Sound Productions)
© 2018 National Film Board of Canada (SOCAN)
David Gossage (flute)
Thom Gossage (drums)
Ink and Paint
ADAM de SOUZA
JEAN PAUL VIALARD
DR, SHIMI KANG M.D.
THE TVPAINT FORUM
EMILY CARR UNIVERSITY ANIMATION PROGRAM
CAPILANO UNIVERSITY ANIMATION PROGRAM
ROSALINA DI SARIO
Producer and Executive Producer
Dedicated to the wonderful doctors, nurses and staff at Vancouver General Hospital
Produced by The National Film Board of Canada
English Animation Studio