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“We Wanted to Celebrate the Lives of Those with Down Syndrome”


We go behind the scenes of L’Arche’s beautiful and emotive short for World Down Syndrome Day by speaking with national communications director Michael McDonald, as well as animation studio Tonic DNA’s Joe Bluhm and Mariana Duran

“We Wanted to Celebrate the Lives of Those with Down Syndrome”

To mark World Down Syndrome Day on March 21st, intellectual disability charity L’Arche debuted a teaser for a new short film, entitled ‘Freebird’. Partnering with Canadian musician Jordan Hart and award-winning animation studio Tonic DNA, the charity produced a beautiful film that challenged the misconceptions surrounding Down Syndrome. 

The plot follows the coming-of-age story of a boy with Down syndrome who learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush. In the words of Nicholas Herd, assistant director and an LGBTQ activist who has Down Syndrome himself: “he becomes a soul-giver to his mother, and a freedom-granter to his father.”

Now, as the full four-minute film launches, we witness 45 years of life flash by in just a few short minutes. Not that it moves too fast to leave an impact - quite the opposite, as a combination of stunning animation and soulful storytelling communicates the quintessentially human story at the heart of this campaign. 

To go behind the scenes of the film, we spoke to L’Arche Canada’s national communications director Michael McDonald, and Tonic DNA’s director Joe Bluhm and producer Mariana Duran…

Q> How did this campaign first come about? What was the initial brief? 

Mariana Duran> L’Arche reached out to us with a challenging timeline, but a great story. The script was originally written for a live action short, but we had to pivot due to Covid, so we set out to ‘translate’ the script into animation. The story is built on L’Arche’s years of experience working with people with Down Syndrome. It’s pretty amazing, as most of the script is based on different real life stories from different parts of the world. Joe was immediately hooked on telling this story for such a noble cause. 

Joe Bluhm> Tonic does an amazing job in pairing stories and projects with the right creative people, and this is a testament to that. I was completely moved by this script and the cause, instantly envisioning something free and loose. Michael had a brilliant script, and when we start with such good material and writing, it makes out adaptations that much better. We wanted to share their message and awareness with the level of responsibility and respect that they bring to their own work, and that’s what we’re doing. 

Michael McDonald> If you look at Down Syndrome representation in film, you’ll see a lot of deficit-thinking - a lot of pity and fear. Since the experiences of people with Down Syndrome are rarely seen in cinema, they don’t have many opportunities to correct the misperceptions that end up shaping the public discussion about their bodies.

Over the past decade, I’ve had the rare opportunity of gathering oral histories from hundreds of people with Down Syndrome in 19 countries on 6 continents. It didn’t take long to notice that the story of Down Syndrome sounds very different when told by someone with Down Syndrome, rather than when it’s told by someone without it. 

So we at L’Arche decided to create the ‘Free to Be’ campaign, which would have a short film at its centre. When I sat down to write the script, I built it on the raw material from the oral histories. We wanted to highlight the life moments so familiar to those of us in the Down Syndrome world, but so rarely depicted on screen, and we wanted to celebrate people with Down Syndrome - those who accomplished much, those who accomplished little, and those who accomplished absolutely nothing (in the eyes of society). We had two words in mind: freedom and authenticity. I reached out to Nicholas Herd, an actor and LGBTQ activist who has Down Syndrome himself, and he agreed to be the assistant director. Together, we set out to shoot the script as a live action short. 

As we tried to work out a pandemic shooting schedule, we realised we wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Even though vaccines were starting to get rolled out, new studies were surfacing, suggesting that Covid-19 is 10 times deadlier for people with Down Syndrome. No matter how many precautions we took, live action was just not a responsible idea. Neither Nick nor I knew anyone in the animation world, but as luck would have it, my colleague’s wife’s friend’s husband (if you follow) is a big-time creative director in the gaming world. He loved the script, but said the timeline was nearly impossible, especially given the emotional nuance required of each character. Still, he recommended a few studios who are swift, can execute emotional nuance, and who aren’t intimidated by the impossible. Tonic was at the top of the list. 

Q> What were your initial responses to the animation approach?

Mariana> The challenge was to find a style that would preserve the emotional and character-driven aspect of the story. We knew with the short timeline that we would have to go with something more evocative, that would also work with Jordan Hart’s song - which had been part of the process from the beginning. 

Joe> Knowing that this is a robust story, with half a lifetime of narrative, we couldn’t cut any of it out, yet couldn’t build every detail of the world. Fortunately, my gut feeling was to do something that felt light, familiar, and loose enough to evoke an idea that a story is still yet to be written for many of the people who this narrative speaks to. Tightening up and constraining things wasn’t the answer - letting things be loose and open was. So a light, slightly vintage style felt right. And letting colours flow, letting textures flow, and getting glimpses of these memories being told to the viewer through an ephemeral form seemed fitting. I trust my gut and experience a lot when offering a style, and this was a great example of how it truly is a good fit for everyone involved. 

Michael> “Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?” This question, this cry, this plea, is at the heart of L’Arche’s activism. We wanted a style that could post that same question to the world of animation. In an industry so captivated by CG and 3D, what if we were to ‘disable’ the aesthetic to the bare minimum: a few lines, a few shades. In our initial search for style references to send Tonic, we were really drawn to the minimalistic tradition of abbozzi, the preliminary sketches for great works for art. People with Down Syndrome are often treated as such, as under-developed, rough sketches of what should have been a ‘full-fledged’ human being. Could we explore that tradition of the rough sketch and come out on the other side with something whose beauty would be deepened by its simplicity, by the fact that it refuses the flashiness of artistic sophistication - a sophistication whose mesmerising power increasingly overshadows the dignity of a simple sketch? 

It’s one thing to dream about such an aesthetic; it’s another to make a flat world feel round or to match the 42 muscles in a human face with the expressive power of a well-placed line, and yet, Tonic and Joe sharpened their pencils, that’s exactly what they did.

Q> How do you think animation - and in his style in particular - enhanced the story? 

Mariana> Animation in the style that we chose is more about creating a mood. There’s no distraction from the story, which finds its strength in simplicity. 

Joe> Live action can pull off something like this, but the challenge with showing actual places is that it solidifies specificity, while animation (especially with this approach) can be universally relatable. Like a good book vs. the film counterpart, often the reader of the book sees what works for them ‘between the lines’ - and with animation like this, the viewer experiencing this story can do so as well. 

Michael> Until Jason Kingsley (who has Down Syndrome) appeared on Sesame Street in the 1970s, there has been almost no disabled children publicly visible since the Victorian era. Since then. There have been about 50 films or TV series worldwide that have featured characters with Down Syndrome. When Nick and I were trying to figure out whether to pivot from live action to animation, I asked him if he’d ever seen a person with Down Syndrome in animation. Nick’s a huge film buff who’s seen more films in more genres than anyone I know. He thought about it long and hard. “Nope. Not one.”

Here’s a man who’s watched animation for almost 40 years without ever seeing anyone from his neurominority group on screen. So in the end, I’m glad we had to switch our medium from live action to animation. It’s one more small step to crack the disability glass ceiling. 

Q> Were there any particular challenges you faced whilst working on the campaign? How did you overcome them? 

Joe> Working with a small team and an accelerated time frame is always challenging. The style we chose was not agnostic to the story, but also partially that we were aware we couldn’t eliminate most of the story, to simply get it done. We leaned on the process that we have as an efficient team, and started with a lot of groundwork of storytelling and designs planted into the storyboards, making sure Michael, Nick, and L’Arche were onboard. From there, the best way to keep the train moving is to let each team member play their instrument well. It has really helped us learn a lot about efficiency and trust in this collaboration (in ourselves and in others). 

Michael> One of the largest challenges for us was getting to Tonic’s door. We never thought we’d be so lucky to get our story in front of such talented creatives who are so receptive to the vision and so adept at adding their own instruments to the ensemble, as Joe so nicely puts it. 

Also, as I mentioned before, we didn’t just want to tell a story about a person with Down Syndrome, we wanted to tell it with a person with Down Syndrome - not in a token way, but in a real way. I know Nick has it in him to be a great film director one day, and I didn’t want him to lose this opportunity even though we were switching mediums to animation. At the same time, I didn’t want the story to miss out on the opportunity of being shaped by Nick’s artistic vision - no matter the medium. But I wasn’t sure if a big studio like Tonic would be game for this approach, so Nick and I met up before talking with them to try to beef up his IMDB page in case there was any resistance. What was so remarkable was that when I said that Nick Herd, my assistant director, has Down syndrome - which, I’m sure they don’t hear everyday - they were excited to have Nick on board. That spirit of inclusion is not something you see everyday. Thanks to Tonic and Joe, that’s yet another little crack in that disability glass ceiling. And thanks to Nick, we have a more honest and authentic animated short. I’m truly proud to be a part of this collaboration.

Q> Any parting thoughts? 

Joe> I am always grateful and stunned by the level of responsibility and trust put in me by Tonic, the partners, producers, and our team - as well as a very positive and collaborative client. Projects like this remind me of how fortunate I am to tell their stories, do it in a fashion which I believe suit the message, and most of all to have the privilege to be a caretaker of such a strong and important message. It also goes to show that when teams trust each other, wonderful things happen. 

Michael> Since I’ve spoken mostly about Down Syndrome, I wanted to take a moment to mention what it’s been like working with Joe. From our first meeting, Joe has taken the animation in such incredible directions. Bodies with Down Syndrome have different proportions than those without Down Syndrome, and Joe and Tonic took the time to get these dimensions right - the gestures, the expressions, the non-normative proportions. It was all done with such integrity. 

Joe has this knack for distilling a scene down to its elements, then choosing the camera angles, the character’s positioning, and the poses. I’ve never before been so moved by a storyboard. And despite the speed of the narrative, he managed to compose human exchanges that made time stop.

Joe also infused the story with some key moments, lending his writing ability to us as well - switching a bee sting for a butterfly chase, adding a superhero blanket at the end to tie everything together and, one of my favorite Joe-additions, adding what I think amounts to a new character: the raking lights (which were the visual echo of John’s absent father). Joe also added the scene where John goes to the window hoping to see his dad but is left disappointed. It was clear to me that our animation was in the hands not only of a great artist, or of a great storyteller, but of a person who could meet each character in the depths of their own experience and explore each life from within rather from without.

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Categories: Charity, Corporate, Social and PSAs

TONIC DNA, Thu, 22 Apr 2021 15:02:38 GMT