Beginning her journey with Pixar eight years ago, as a storyboard artist on The Good Dinosaur, Rosana Sullivan made her directorial debut this year with Kitbull, which on Monday made the Academy’s shortlist for Best Animated Short Film.
Examining a fiercely independent stray kitten and a pit bull, and the unlikely friendship that emerges between them, Kitbull emerged from Sullivan’s desire to capture animals in animation, the way that they actually are. “I love cat videos, as we all do, and I just wanted to draw a kitten being a kitten, because I never saw that done in animation, at least not often. Usually, they’re anthropomorphized, and I just wanted to capture the spirit of a real kitten,” the director tells Deadline. “It then evolved into something about connection and friendship between two outcast characters, because that was something that I had struggled with as a kid. Just that feeling when you don’t feel connected to the larger world.”
Initially, Kitbull was just a side project for Sullivan, she says, “a thing to make me feel good and release some stress during peak production times, on the show I was on at the time.” After years of developing the film’s story, though, Sullivan’s life changed, when Pixar’s Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris took an interest in the project, giving her the opportunity to make it as part of the SparkShorts program. Launched last year, SparkShorts has given a number of up-and-coming Pixar talents the chance to make an independent short, backed by the studio, with only six months and a limited budget to get the job done.
With Kitbull now on the front burner, Sullivan set out to make the short in the classic 2D style she’s always loved. “That’s my nostalgia, the thing that I grew up on, and ironically working at a CG animation studio, that’s something that I was craving a lot, just for myself,” says the director, whose film was inspired by classic Disney shorts, and the work of Studio Ghibli. “Also, once I started the Sparks program, I realized that the expressiveness of the kitten couldn’t be as easily captured, with the time and limitations that we had, in CG. Whereas in 2D, it was very easy to capture that frantic, frenetic energy.”
Thinking about Kitbull over the course of six years, Sullivan came to a very clear vision of what her kitten protagonist would look like. “If you could just take a piece of charcoal and smear it on a page, and put two little eyeballs on it, that would be the kitten. It’s just this little black frizz of fur, and claws, and eyes—almost abstract,” the director explains. “The pit bull had to be developed stylistically, to fit in that world. This more graphic, simplistic style was what we ultimately came to.”
For the world of her film, Sullivan imagined a space that was gritty and impressionistic, with a shallow focus that would keep the eye on her characters. To realize the film’s pastel texture, in concert with production designer Tim Evatt, the director turned to Pixar veteran Bill Cone. “When you’re in the SparkShorts program, one of the great things is that you get to work with all the different artists within the studio, time willing,” Sullivan notes. “Bill’s bread and butter is pastel work. He [does] gorgeous pastel landscapes, and he’s been doing work for Pixar features since time began. So, he set off the original style guide of what our backgrounds could look like, using Photoshop to mimic that rougher, looser, pastel [texture].”
As for the challenge of animating animals realistically, Sullivan simply had her animators watch a YouTube playlist of cat videos she had put together, “which may or may not have begun before I started working on this short,” the director admits. “It was just my embarrassing admission of how crazy of a cat lady I am.”
Striving for a balance between realism, in the animals’ movement, and a bit of caricature in the film’s design, Sullivan also storyboarded the entire film before it was put into layout and animation. Thus, the director ensured that her animators would be very specific with the movements they put on screen. “For instance, the eyes dilating for a cat,” Sullivan says. “As soon as the eyes dilate, you know exactly what that cat’s about to do.”
Working hard to create eight minutes of quality animation in just six months, Sullivan found that the biggest challenge that came in directing her first short was simply learning to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ feeling free to make executive decisions and direct others to change course, when necessary. “As a story artist, you’re working to please the director, or working to plus something. It’s not your job really to decide things. You do have to decide what to draw, and how much of it to draw, and how to interpret a script. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the director to say, ‘I don’t want that.’ So, to be in that seat can be challenging,” the director admits. “I think for me, it was just learning how to find my voice and commit to my decisions, and then communicate that clearly to a large, diverse crew.”
In retrospect, being a part of the SparkShorts program and having her work showcased on the new global platform of Disney+ is still humbling and unreal for Sullivan. “I was working on this for a long time, on my own free time, so I never expected it to be made with such high production quality, and also to reach as large of an audience as it ended up reaching,” she says. “I always thought this was just going to be a passion project, on my own time.”
“One of the great things about the SparkShorts program is not just finding diverse voices in the studio, and finding potential directors,” she adds. “It also really fosters leadership and opportunities for people who normally wouldn’t have that, on longer-term projects like feature films.”
So, will Kitbull claws its way to Hollywood’s biggest night? We’ll have to wait until the Oscar nominations are announced on January 13 to find out.