Raccoon survival and youthful curiosity clash in Disney’s latest 2D/CG hybrid short, “Far From the Tree,” premiering Tuesday at the hybrid 2021 Annecy Animation festival, and screening theatrically in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s animated musical, “Encanto,” on November 24. But, for director Natalie Nourigat (the Short Circuit “Exchange Student” on Disney+), her short obviously went much deeper than celebrating childhood memories growing up in Oregon, and family visits to the cold and misty Canon Beach.
In “Far From the Tree,” curiosity gets the better of a young raccoon, whose frustrated parent attempts to keep them both safe from roaming coyotes on their idyllic beach in the Pacific Northwest. “I needed a conflict, the realization that you’re being an over-protective parent,” said Nourigat (head of story on the 2022 Disney+ animated Pan African series, “Iwájú,” also presenting at Annecy). “Where’s that line between I need to keep you safe and prepare you for what’s out there and letting you enjoy being a kid and wanting to have a closeness with you.”
But “Far From the Tree” has a somber tone with its life and death struggle, and there’s even a little blood. When Nourigat first pitched her short, though, it was much darker. It involved people instead of animals, and contained an off-screen death. “I was not sure the story would be approved,” she admitted. “It’s sad, scary, and weird. And I was pleasantly surprised by how the Story Trust [led by chief creative officer Jennifer Lee] embraced that. Lean into it, do something that’s true to you and different from what you’ve made before.”
However, the project sputtered after a couple of months of development — it was too intense. At that point, Nourigat received a note from the Story Trust recommending that she make a change from people to animals. “Having animal characters allowed us to go to these much more exaggerated places, much more emotional places,” she said, “because the stakes are so high and everybody understands that with animal characters. It was a great note [from the Story Trust] that clarified the film.”
During a research trip to Canon Beach, Nourigat couldn’t help noticing the prevalence of cute and playful raccoons in their natural habitat. She immediately seized on the idea of putting these striking nocturnal animals in her short as the parent and child. She also met a woman who takes in stray baby raccoons and got to observe them up close, which eventually helped define the naturalistic animated performances. But not before an iterative process of Disney-fying the raccoons.
“The other great note was that when you’re drawing these super-appealing raccoon characters, it tended to get a little cartoony,” said producer Ruth Strother. “We definitely had some gags, but the Story Trust encouraged us to let the emotions be felt and not feel like we had to make a snappy, wacky cartoon. But that we could actually lean into an emotional story in spite of these cute, cartoon characters.”
The watercolor design and illustrative shape language were inspired by the work of comic book artist and production designer Manu Arenas (“The Gruffalo”). “I also come from comics and I love the outlines around his characters, the watercolor textures, and graphic clarity,” said Nourigat. She’s naturally drawn to storytelling in a 2D space filled with animals and nature. But Canon Beach provided an off-beat color palette, with overcast skies, gray-looking sand, the Evergreen trees, and misty mountains in the distance. “I believe it’s very beautiful, but it’s very different, very cold, and a little bit desaturated.”
As with her experimental short, “Exchange Student,” about a lone human struggling to fit in at an alien school, Nourigat chose a hybrid 2D/CG format since Disney no longer has a pipeline for hand-drawn animation. However, she leaned heavily into the studio’s innovative Meander drawing system, utilized on the Oscar-winning “Paperman” and “Feast” shorts, and winner of the Academy Sci-Tech Award. More recently, Meander proved integral to “Moana’s” hybrid integration for the hand-drawn tattoo animation and has been developed further for the Short Circuit program.
“Meander lets you art direct, frame-by-frame, where you want the line art to be, where you want emphasis to be, overlap, and just draw those graphic shapes you know you want,” Nourigat said. “And then it’s a process where we publish flat color render, and then on top of that, we add back in line art, a lot of which is done in Meander by hand.”
At first, Meander was going to be an accessory, but since it ended up touching 96 percent of the short, Nourigat became well-acquainted with the software. “It’s smart and attaches itself to the geometry and can in-between,” she added. “It starts to get a little weird looking, when a character is moving and things are translating. You can redraw where you want it, so it gives you a lot of control and artistry.”
In terms of animation, the artists got to stray from their usual CG comfort zone, animating more slowly on 3s and 4s, in keeping with the naturalistic tone. Of course, it helped that they got to observe real raccoons. “We encouraged them to drop frames,” said Nourigat. “We love that look and then hitting a strong pose and then holding it. I think a lot of the animators were eager to do it in that style and push themselves. It brought a tenderness to the [short].”