The Dam Keeper, Oscar shortlisted for best animated short, Annie-nominated, and winner of 25 festival awards, blends traditional hand-drawn animation with lush brushstrokes to bring a Dutch-inspired folk tale to life (watch the making of featurette) . It was directed by former Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi (Monsters University, Toy Story 3). Narrated by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen (Sherlock, The Killing), the short is set in a desolate future, one small town’s survival is solely due to a large windmill dam that acts as a fan to keep out poisonous clouds. Despite bullying from classmates and an indifferent public, the dam’s operator, Pig, works tirelessly to keep the sails spinning in order to protect the town.
Bill Desowitz: Let’s begin with the origin of The Dam Keeper.
Dice Tsutsumi: Robert and I worked together as art directors at Pixar for some time on Toy Story 3 and Monsters University. Robert was set director and I was lighting and color art director and we always worked well together. But when we were finishing up Monsters University, I thought it would be great to take this partnership further. I proposed making a short film together without have a story yet. We’d never directed before, we’d never written a story before, let’s figure this out together.
BD: So how did you come up with Dam Keeper?
Robert Kondo: While we were at Pixar, for about a year, we started writing together in our spare time. It was a struggle learning how to write and pushing our relationship to the next level. After five attempts, we stood back and looked at our common threads to these five different versions. We found an unsung hero character that kept showing up and also a polluted world, so we continued to strive to tell a character who changed the way they saw the world. So those were the tentpoles creatively of the story we wanted to tell overall.
DT: And especially the moment when we came up with the initial idea of The Dam Keeper was when Robert mentioned The Little Dutch Boy fairy tale from the Netherlands.
RK: The story of the boy who plugs his finger into the hole that he found on the wall of the dam to save the town. So this was a simple story that wasn’t as complicated as the others we came up with and The Little Dutch Boy was a good starting point.
DT: We basically said what if it was our character’s responsibility everyday to save the town.
RK: But nobody knows.
BD: What prompted you to do it hand-drawn?
DT: We’re both artists who do 2D painting…
RK: We both come from an illustration background. And we both paint and illustrate very similarly, working together for six or seven years. And Dice had actually done a short for a project he had done called Sketch Travel, in which he did two frames-per-second. It was almost like an illustrated children’s book so in the beginning we said if there was two of us we could do double the amount of frames. But, of course, it took a lot more than just the two of us.
BD: How many people did you end up recruiting?
RK: Over 70 people.
DT: We had a lot of friends from Pixar. Fortunately, we had a lot of young, talented artists who had been following our work and were hungry to learn from us and they helped us quite a bit, more than a former colleagues at Pixar.
RK: In building a crew for The Dam Keeper, it was a volunteer project and we turned to the community a lot more than using [professional animators]. Growth was a big part of our crew and who we selected to bring on. We kept asking what can you gain by working on this project? Just as we about animation as illustrators.
BD: It’s a lovely hand-drawn look, and reminds me of the Art of books from Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, which is not surprising.
RK: Writing and directing is such new territory for us, we really couldn’t spend time thinking how we would art direct it. So the look of The Dam Keeper naturally came out of what we felt comfortable with.
BD: Tell me more about the look and what software you used. I particularly like that it’s messy-looking.
DT: We really like that look. We did a bunch of testing in the beginning to see if we could cut corners and not have to paint every frame, and see if we could get any sort of hand-made quality, but we couldn’t. And in the end, we had to paint frame-by-frame. And it’s funny because a lot of our animators are good at 2D and they wanted to animate on 1s at 24-frames-per-second and we had to beg them to do only 8 frames. But that turned out well. Tool wise, the crew used TVPaint [a digital ink and paint program for compositing over Photoshop-painted images].
The other thing was that there was technology that allowed our crew to work remotely with a program called Box, which was an online-based server, almost like a Facebook interface. That also was an essential part because without that tool it would’ve been hard to work as remotely as we did.
BD: Let’s talk about the storytelling challenges.
RK: Yeah, working on other director’s films, we worked really well but working together as writers for the first time brought out a lot of insecurities. We’re both traditionally-trained illustrators so so there were a lot of firsts: how to put together a story, storyboarding, working with an editor. We’ve been in the industry long enough to be comfortable in art direction, but our role suddenly sprung into brand new roles where we didn’t even understand necessarily the basics we needed to do that job well. We had to learn together and at the same time try to establish our voice. We point in the same direction as far as taste. But in that there are a lot of differences between us and we had to learn how to better communicae and articulate when we were frustrated. And we left Pixar in July of this year and started our own company and everyday is about being better artists and better people. Dice and I are excited about continuing this partnership.
BD: What was a key moment?
DT: We had to rewrite with production was starting in a week. That was a nightmare moment for our producer and for us too. We went back home and Robert and I discussed it in the morning because we didn’t have time to be depressed about it. We had to put something together. That’s the moment we created the final story for The Dam Keeper. We thought of that recovery process as our strength rather than avoiding the problem.
BD: Tell us about your endearing Pig?
RK: We wanted this heavy responsibility for this character who people in this town don’t understand what he does. And he’s a very guarded character. Both Dice and I can relate to his being an introvert and has a hard time opening up to other people. And very vulnerable during the moments that he opens up. And he’s stuck in this situation where he has a choice of whether he he’s going to open up to everybody or stay closed and internalize all of it. And we thought this was a character that we believed in and related to. But there’s a counterpart to him being this Fox who’s an artist and gets along with everybody, more of an extrovert, and I like to believe that there’s a little bit of us in both of those characters.
DT: We love the idea of visually representing Pig’s internal struggle with the darkness that’s taking over your consciousness and your emotions. So pretty much in a short we wanted to describe Pig’s internal state of mind using the pollution.
RK: And the town was inspired by the mountain villages we found in the Alps. We really wanted to do a high mountain Valley town. The idea was that the smog has overtaken the world and this is one of the highest places where they’ve damed up in this little valley. And we also loved the European folk tale and we wanted to build a stable-like town with the animals.
DT: We wanted to convey the cute animal with a somewhat serious story.
BD: What next?
RK: Right now we’re at square one again, writing and developing new projects. We saved some money to play in our own world for now. So that’s what we’re doing until someone tells us otherwise.