With “Loop,” the animated short about the inner world of a non-verbal autistic 13-year-old girl (currently streaming on Disney+), Pixar achieved yet another inclusion and diversity breakthrough. It was written and directed by Erica Milsom, the studio’s in-house documentary filmmaker, who’s dedicated her life working with people with disabilities. And this week, “Loop” (made as part of the indie SparkShorts program), also streams at the SIGGRAPH 2020 Computer Animation Festival, where it earned the Best in Show Award.
Milsom wanted to explore, through Renee (voiced by the autistic Madison Bandy), how we communicate and connect through sensory perception. She not only thoroughly researched autistic behavior but also invited a group of consultants from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to dig deeper into the non-verbal characteristics that would help personify Renee. Something Milsom read online became her motto: “Nothing about us without us.”
But animation inspired her further with its unique ability to be non-verbal. “Animation takes you to a place where, if you want to have a conversation about something that matters, people are disarmed by it, they’re intrigued by it, there’s something that we experience that’s so directly visceral from it,” Milsom said. “And, to work with all these filmmakers [at Pixar] that have such a strong capacity to do anything, was very inspiring.”
In the short, the bi-racial Renee and Marcus, a chatty, Black teenager (voiced by Christiano Delgado), apprehensively loop their way around a lake in a canoe and end up bonding together after a rough start. “I’d noticed in films I’d seen about autism that their sensory experience is so often displayed negatively,” added Milsom. “And I got really excited by the positive potential in it. So many of us try to hide what we feel and shove those feelings down. In ‘Loop,’ I love how you can see what Renee is going through, and we tried to display that in a scene where she and Marcus are touching the reeds. It’s a wonderful thing when you can experience the positive side of that sensory difference and bring out the soft side in a teenage boy.”
For the short, the Pixar team created different visual gestural languages for Renee and Marcus, and the camera work of Sylvia Gray Wong (layout lead on “The Incredibles 2”) conveyed different POVs. Renee uses assistive technology through her cellphone, and emulates the sound of the ringtone, while Marcus verbally struggles to make contact or to calm her nerves when she gets upset. “I knew I wanted to be inside Renee’s head,” Milsom said. “Her POV is that she’s not going to make eye contact, except one time when she looks at Marcus and they make an earned connection. Sylvia [Gray Wong], our cinematographer for camera, found a way so that when you were looking at Marcus in a medium shot or a close-up, that it looked like you were outside the boat. She moved the camera to still being expressive with shots that were unnatural.”
Danielle Feinberg, the cinematographer for lighting, meanwhile, worked with the studio’s lighting department to very quickly adopt five visual cues for Renee, based on their research: Sensitivity to light and color, immersing herself in water reflections, a more attuned awareness of environment than a neuro-typical person, squinting when there’s too much info, and the ability to find sensory experiences pleasurable and overwhelming. An email went out to members of the lighting department to provide their loops of a scene.
“One person built something into Nuke [compositing] that calculated speed and distance movement of the camera that they then used as a parameter to blow out the image, thinking the faster the scenery came into view for Renee the more it might overwhelm,” said Milsom. “Others took more traditional lighting and compositing approaches with things like over and under saturating portions of the image, bloom and blown out patches, creative blurring, and vignettes. We then showed the loops to several of our consultants, to see what elements felt the most related to their experience in the world. This was a critical step because some of their answers surprised me. In the end, we took parts of several loops to create our final look.”
Working with voice actress Bandy also proved immensely satisfying. Her non-verbal vocalization was very powerful and she wanted them to listen to that voice. “It’s telling you something that you have to interpret,” said Milsom. “She had to learn to do the ring-tone and I directed her to do responses to parts that she had to be angry or sad. but a lot of it was hanging out as she goes through her normal vocalizations. And then our editor, Jason [Brodkey], mapped out that emotionality.”