Mcasso's CEO Mike Connaris on a 10-year-old’s poem which inspired a song and award-winning music video, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani
Sat in a New York classroom, Benjamin ‘Ben’ Giroux was asked to write a poem beginning with the words ‘I Am’. The 10-year-old, who is autistic and labelled as ‘other’ by his peers, titled his piece ‘I Am Odd’. Being too shy to read aloud to classmates who often subjected him to criticism, Ben’s dad shared the piece on Facebook where millions, including music experts Mcasso’s Mike Connaris, came across it.
The poem is now a book, highlighting the power of being different and motivating others to see that their uniqueness is a strength rather than a weakness. Mike also turned Ben’s poem into a song, with animation from student animator Rory Russell. The music video and song have won awards for Los Angeles Fim Awards’ ‘Best Student Film’ and ‘Best Inspirational Film’, and the Hong Kong World Film Festival’s ‘Best Music’, as well as several other accreditations, including a nomination at the British Animation Awards.
Here, Mike speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about the logistics of creating a song and music video within a pandemic, finding the perfect fit of people to work on the project and its release on SKY's FYI on World Autism Day.
LBB> You initially read Ben Giroux’s poem ‘I Am Odd’ in 2019 - what were your first thoughts while reading it?
Mike> I was completely moved. A 10-year-old autistic boy wrote these words, and I was touched by how someone so young could express their true thoughts and anxieties about autism in a simple poem.
LBB> What made you feel like this was a story that you had to share and bring to a larger audience?
Mike> It was on finding out the backstory, about how his class were set a task to write a poem starting ”I Am”. Ben was too nervous to read it out in class so his dad said, “don’t worry” and posted it online instead. When I saw it, it inspired me to write a song because I wanted to help Ben share his message with the world about Autistic Acceptance. I contacted the family in NY for permission to come up with an idea based on Ben’s words and they were happy for me to do this.
LBB> The film and single have been released on 2 April, which is World Autism Day 2022, can you tell us about the significance of this decision?
Mike> Well after the song was completed, at the start of 2020, we agreed that a good date for release would be April 2, World Autism Day, 2020. That had to be shelved because of the pandemic, but by delaying the release, this gave me time to commission an animated video, and so we had a film that could be released to the public on World Autism Day this year – the start of World Autism Month.
LBB> Talk us through the process of crafting a poem into a song, what were the initial steps after you got approval from Ben and his family?
Mike> It was just one of those strange things that can happen when composing. I had been writing a song and had a chord sequence and melody, but no lyrics. I looked at the poem and started singing the melody with Ben’s phrases. I did have to add the odd ‘and’ or drop a linking word here and there, but magically the words fitted the melody perfectly.
LBB> How long did it take to create the song from start to finish?
Mike> The demo didn’t take long – 24 hrs. This included the idea of another vocalist singing Ben’s lyrics back to him from a different perspective in the second part of the song i.e. from a neurotypical friend who is aware of and accepts autism with the message, “You may be odd, but hey, that’s ok”. But then I needed to find the right vocalists for the project so held auditions. I picked a singer called Alex Byron for the male part. Alex had approached me to mix a single for his band a few months earlier and I remembered being very impressed with his voice.
For the female section, I chose Mia Nicolai (Bymia), she is an incredibly talented artist, who has worked with us at Mcasso for a number of years. I recorded Alex, and my friend Ali Bangay on BVs in London, and Mia in LA, directing her over Zoom. Once I was happy and had compiled the vocals, I brought in young Sam Worskett from Mcasso and Mike Maclennan, and our friends at SLT to help complete the production.
LBB> Did the sound and music go through many drafts or did you nail it quite quickly? Can you talk us through the process?
Mike> Yes quite a few drafts, but mainly re-mixing. I’m very happy with the very first mix listening again, but with my ‘client’ hat on, I’d listen afresh every couple of days and make tweaks to the mix.
LBB> Did you face any challenges when it came to creating the song and music video?
Mike> Autism can be a sensitive subject, and I have learnt so much about it these past two years through speaking to people who have first-hand knowledge about living with autism in family life. The biggest challenge was making sure the song resonated correctly with these people, so I listened carefully to their thoughts and opinions. However, all their comments were positive. Having said that, I continued to get opinions whilst the animation was being created and last October, I took on board a comment from someone with an autistic child and changed a small part of the response lyric in the second half of the song. Mia rerecorded this small section for me in LA and the lip sync in the animation was changed accordingly by Rory Russell.
LBB> How did you first hear about Rory Russell and why were you keen on using her to create the 2D animated video?
Mike> In a pub of course! It was at the lovely Morgan Hutchins’ [RSA film director] birthday bash in a pub in North London, and Rory was there with her parents who I was introduced to by Morgan. Rory started showing me some animations on her phone and I was pretty impressed. So last year I contacted Rory and sent over the song, and asked if she would be interested in taking on a four-minute animation project. Although Rory had never attempted an animated video, she loved the song so I wanted to give her the opportunity to be involved, and she spent the whole of last summer working on it. Once complete, I asked my son Louie’s company, Rolled Sleeves, to add graphics and we then started to enter the film into film festivals.
LBB> ‘I Am Odd’ has amassed wins for Best Student Film, Best Inspirational Film and Best Music, as well as being nominated at the British Animation Awards - how did you hear about these and what were your initial reactions?
Mike> At the end of October, the first two film festivals we entered (via Film Freeway) were Kids First! in the US, and a tongue in cheek entry into the BAAs. Within 24 hours we heard back from Kids First!, and it was their reply that made me think that we might have something. They said, “I love this film! I think it's stunning. Watching this completely made my day! It is so positive and uplifting”. This gave me the encouragement to continue entering more festivals.
LBB> What has the feedback to the music video been like so far?
Mike> It has been fantastic. Selected by over 20 Festivals and it has won 11 Awards. And of course, to be nominated at the British Animation Awards, which we never expected in a million years, was the highlight to date. And those, with whom I have shared the whole film privately, have given nothing but compliments, saying it really moved them.
LBB> Would you like to share anything else with us?
Mike> The poem has already been made into a children’s picture book ‘I Am Odd, I Am New’ by US Publishers, SchifferKids, and is available on Amazon in the UK. But for the video and single, the hard part starts now! The single was released last Friday and the film was shared publicly on Saturday on Carnaby Blue’s YouTube channel. It debuted on Sky News’ FYI programmes at the weekend with four showings, and we’ll be continuing to promote it over the coming months. If your readers like it, we’d appreciate the video being shared to help spread autistic acceptance.