Two of Pixar’s animators, Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj (“Inside Out,” “Brave”), have made the first off-the-shelf CG short at the studio. After winning a slew of film festival awards (including SIGGRAPH’s prestigious Best in Show), the adult Western “Borrowed Time,” produced at Pixar University’s Co-op program, recently went viral on Vimeo. (Watch it below.)
Boasting a beautiful Monument Valley landscape right out of John Ford and Sergio Leone, it’s a sensitive and exquisitely rendered story about a mournful sheriff who returns to the scene of a tragic accident he can no longer escape, as painful memories keep flooding back.
“They have a brand at Pixar and what we did was completely off-brand and they appreciated it, but it was not something that Pixar would literally would ever make,” Hamou-Lhadj told IndieWire. “There’s themes in it that they could address, but it wouldn’t be done in the same way.”
The two character artists first met at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and then went their separate ways, with Hamou-Lhad landing at Pixar and Coats at Blue Sky. Then Coats joined Pixar in 2010 and a year later they began collaborating on “Borrowed Time,” which took five years to complete: working nights and weekends, utilizing studio resources with the help of a few colleagues toward the end, but outside of the Pixar shorts program.
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The Oscar-nominated hand-drawn short, “The Dam Keeper,” was initiated through the Co-op program (intended mostly for dabbling in live-action) before former Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi completed it at Tonko House.
“It took us a while to pare down the story and hone in on the character of the sheriff.” Hamou-Lhadj said, who admits they were trying to stuff a feature into a short. “We wanted to caricature the deputy and looked at Lee Van Cleef, Daniel Day Lewis and Clint Eastwood. He’s the shell of a man he used to be with gaunt features and an almost skull-like appearance, especially with down lighting on his face.”
“From a dramatic standpoint, there were changes in lighting and we wanted to echo the inner turmoil of our protagonist, so we looked at other films for reference,” added Coats, “including ‘The Road’ [the post-apocalyptic indie directed by John Hillcoat] for its monochromatic color palette, and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ for its ’70s film stock feel. We were trying to get some of what the Western genre is known for but then bend it a bit.”
Although the first-time directors had help with lighting, camera, cloth, hair and simulation, there isn’t innovative tech on display (a staple of Pixar shorts, including its latest Oscar contender, the tender “Piper”). It was tough enough problem solving and getting it rendered. However, when they finally finished “Borrowed Time,” it was screened internally four consecutive times and was applauded by Pixar co-founders John Lasseter and Ed Catmull and President Jim Morris.
“At the end of the day, everyone’s going to take their own personal experience with death and grief and that’s what’s been amazing to see online with the responses and what the film meant to them,” said Hamou-Lhadj.
Watch “Borrowed Time” below:
Watch the “Why We Made Borrowed Time” featurette: