Coming of Age with ‘My Year of Dicks’

One of the writers behind "Moana" and "Ralph Breaks the Internet" tells IndieWire about bringing flights of fancy to her own adolescent misadventures.
A still from the animated short "My Year of Dicks"
"My Year of Dicks"
Cat’s Pajamas/Wonder Killer

There are plenty of dicks in Annecy Cristal winner “My Year of Dicks,” but very few literal penises. The hilarious and sweetly touching animated short film with a story told in five chapters follows 15-year-old Pam’s determined quest to lose her virginity in the 1990s in a small town in Texas. Her kaleidoscopic journey populated with a cast of unsavory characters echoes coming-of-age movies like “Dazed and Confused” and “Superbad.”

Deftly written by author and screenwriter Pamela Ribon (“Moana,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet”) and directed by Icelandic filmmaker, artist, and animator Sara Gunnarsdóttir (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “The Case Against Adnan Syed”), the 26-minute “My Year of Dicks” is adapted from Ribon’s memoir, “Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public).”

The short began to take shape shortly after “Notes to Boys” was published, in a meeting between the writer and FX Networks. “And once we started talking about being able to take these letters into fantasy realms, I got very intrigued,” she said.

“It was probably a year before I got the green light to bring on a team,” Ribon continues. “So even then the whole time it was a feeling of, ‘Well, this will never happen. This is not real.’ I’m making something that I haven’t really seen before, and it’s so personal that it felt like, ‘Well, I’m going to chase this for as long as I can.’ It was always fun, like, ‘Are we going to get away with this?’”

Each chapter boasts a distinct blend of visual styles, brought to life by an assortment of indie animators. Chapter 1, “The Vampire,” featuring animation by CalArts Experimental Animation alums Isabelle Aspin and Brian Smee, won a Special Jury Recognition for Unique Vision in Writing and Directing at SXSW 2022. In a neatly scripted twist, the vampire in question invites himself in and turns out to be repelled by blood. Pam gets her revenge with a perfectly executed ollie, skateboarding triumphantly off into the sunset.

Pam ollies in "My Year of Dicks"
“My Year of Dicks”Cat’s Pajamas/Wonder Killer

“This was a very big project, much bigger than anything I had been doing, because for the past 10 years I had been doing stuff mostly by myself, or maybe with one or two animators at most,” said Gunnarsdóttir, who compares the experience of making “My Year of Dicks” to attending film school. “I learned tons, but it was also like, for me and Pam, ‘We can’t believe that we get money to make this.”

Once Gunnarsdóttir had storyboarded the script, reference footage was shot using smartphone and web cameras and then applied to character models. Evoking comparisons to Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” the technique the filmmakers dub “loose rotoscoping” made it easy for Ribon to play a younger version of herself, while Gunnarsdóttir was able to film intimate moments using her husband (who also served as compositor) as a stand-in.

“I’m usually illustrating or animating a character who is either based on a real person or an actor because I’ve been working so much within the live-action world,” Gunnarsdóttir said, explaining that it was important that the everyday look of the show had a realistic tone to contrast with the fantasy sequences.

“My Year of Dicks” was produced under a budget of $650,000 by Jeanette Jeanenne, co-founder and director of the independent animation platform GLAS Animation. When FX approached Jeanenne to recommend directors for “My Year of Dicks,” she immediately thought of Gunnarsdóttir. “They had reached out to me asking who would be a good director for a teenage girl drama,” she recounted. “I was like, ‘Well, obviously Sara, she’s the number one for comedy dramas, she handles this stuff like the absolute best.’” Several months later, Gunnarsdóttir circled back and asked Jeanenne to produce.

a still from "My Year of Dicks"
“My Year of Dicks”Cat’s Pajamas/Wonder Killer

Coming from Disney Animation, Ribon was accustomed to working with studio budgets and feature film pipelines, but for “My Year of Dicks, “we followed a television series pipeline schedule,” she said. “This film was much like what I’m used to where the movie is broken into all the parts and we’re making the whole thing at once. We were doing the same thing here, but we were doing it in these chapters so the whole movie was always in progress. One of the challenges was thinking of it in a showrunner-director partnership way of, ‘This is a moving train we have to deliver.’ I just wanted to keep the train in momentum.”

Production on “My Year of Dicks” began in October 2020, and was completed in February 2022 in time for SXSW. Chapter 2, “Un Gross Penis,” features the loose, hand-drawn style of Josh Shaffner (“Service,” “Ship of Fools”). Grace Nayoon Rhee developed an anime look for Chapter 3, “The Sweet One,” while the CalArts MFA Amanda Bonaiuto (“Hedge,” “Batfish Soup”) crafted the grotesque, painterly look for Chapter 4, “The Horror Show.”

“When I first got Pam’s scripts, there were all these animators I knew who came immediately to mind. Most of them I had worked with before. It was like, ‘Oh, Josh would be perfect for ‘Penis,’ and Grace would be perfect for that anime. And Amanda is perfect for ‘Horror Show,’” Gunnarsdóttir said.

“I really like these artists and filmmakers, and I really wanted to do this with them, and for us to really be a team,” she adds. “So instead of just asking them to do their thing, I asked them if they would be willing to work with me for 10 months and animate the whole thing with me. And they did.”

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