Owen Suskind, the star of “Life, Animated,” is one of the more fascinating and endearing documentary subjects you will come across. Owen, who is autistic, was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered an unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films. It’s a story that was captured in a book written by Owen’s father Ron, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
When director Roger Ross Williams met the Suskinds he was instantly drawn to the family, but he wasn’t interested in making a documentary that looked backwards and retold their amazing story. Williams wanted to find a way to use the tools of cinema to bring the audience into Owen’s world and allow viewers to relate to him on a very human and emotional level. IndieWire recently interviewed Williams about this process of translating Owen’s story into a moving piece of cinema.
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As Williams got to know the Suskinds, he realized that Owen was approaching what would be a very transformative period in his life, as he was about to graduate from college and had fallen in love.
“It was this sort of a natural arc of events that were going to happen which everyone goes through in their life — everyone graduates, everyone moves out one day on their own, everyone falls in love,” said Williams. “Because Owen has autism and because he has these struggles it’s even more edge of your seat. Is he going to make it? How is he going to do out there on his own? As someone says in the film, ‘life is not a Disney film and he has to confront all the things that adults confront,’ which you know is sex and heartbreak.”
Once Williams had an unfolding story — which had the potential for various story beats — he could take the role Disney films played in Owen’s earlier development and make it backstory. These stories would show how far Owen had come and raise the stakes of his current journey.
Williams now had a present tense story, which meant he could take a cinema vérité approach to documenting the transformative year in Owen’s life. Ron and Cornelia Suskind trusted Williams and did not interfere with him filming their son while he set out on his own. The key, though, would be building that same level of trust with a cinematographer.
“It was very important that it was only one DP with Owen and that it was consistent,” said Williams. “Owen likes routine and needs to feel a sense of security and comfort around him. Luckily, my DP Tom Bergman really connected with him and was able to embed himself in his life.”
“And the great thing about Owen as a subject is that he lives in the moment and he lives in his head,” said Williams. “He forgets about the camera and he’s living, which I think you really sense watching the movie.”
The Side Kicks
Williams knew to tell this story he would need access to the classic Disney films that were the tag line hook to Owen’s story, so he approached the studio and got them onboard right from the start. While showing clips from “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” were necessary, it wasn’t the Disney animation that Williams knew he’d rely on tell Owen’s story.
“Often films about people with disabilities are from the outside looking in,” said Williams. “I always knew the whole idea behind the film is to see the world through Owen’s eyes and to get into his head and experience the world from the inside looking out. Which is why what excited me early on with this project was bringing to life ‘The Side Kicks.'”
In response to his beloved Disney films, Owen created a story of Side Kicks, which often serve as a way of processing or bridging the gap between his life and the world of Disney. Williams knew the ability to animate and bring those characters to life would be a rare gift for a visual storyteller trying to access the interior world of his character.
Williams, who wasn’t a huge animation buff, started watching a ton of it. Early on, a short from Luxembourg, called “The Dam Keeper,” caught his attention and helped him process what he was looking for in bringing the characters to life.
“The only way I could explain it is that it had an elegant European feel to it,” said Williams. “Owen connects to these original classic films and he loves 2D, hand drawn animation. He doesn’t like computer generated animation. He likes the emotion of the hand on the paper, and those old animators used to look in a mirror for facial expressions as they draw the faces of their characters.”
Williams targeted European animators and discovered Mac Guff, a French animation company that was sold Universal Studios years ago (“The Lorax” and “Despicable Me”), but maintained a small shop of animators in their original offices near the Eiffel Tower. There he met Philippe Sonrier, a real character who lived on a boat on the Seine River for years, who was drawn to the project and had an immediate vision for Owen’s “Side Kick” world, which he found so rich and beautiful.
He told me, in this really thick French accent, ‘by the end of the film everyone will pray to be autistic,'” recalled Williams. “And that was to me exactly my goal.'”