I love animation. I especially love when the strikingly beautiful images and the folks who create those images look like me.
It was close to a year ago when he first shared the following image of a little black girl with kinky hair (this detail is important):
And thus, Canvas, an upcoming animated short film, was born.
The image quickly went viral and I—along with thousands of excited Twitter users—was eager to see the final results. Abney and his team then launched a (successful) crowdfunding campaign, which means we’re that much closer to seeing his vision realized. Abney recently agreed to chat with me by phone about the inspiration behind the film, his experience working as a black animator for some of the world’s biggest studios (Disney! Pixar! Dreamworks!), and his advice on the future of young burgeoning animators.
From his Kickstarter campaign:
Canvas centers around a grandfather who is trying to regain his inspiration after suffering a loss.
This story is something we can all relate to. Sometimes in life things happen that make it hard for you to keep fighting for what you love. It’s not so much a matter of ability, but rather a testament to the will of the human spirit. We can all find strength and creativity in the most surprising places and this story exemplifies that.
Full disclosure: I am an OG Pixar stan, and that inner-stan was kind of geeking out while chatting with someone who gets to work at their campus.
Abney first conceptualized Canvas in 2014 and pitched it to a studio he was working for at the time. The studio optioned it, but the film sat in what is referred to in the industry as “development hell” before Abney resecured the rights ten months after his departure from the company.
“My inspiration for Canvas came from a few different sources: my mother, my grandfather, and my niece,” Abney confirmed. “There’s different reasons for each. My grandfather—he’s been pretty stoic and quiet for all the years that I’ve been around him and so I always wondered what happened to cause that. As an artist and just as a person, in general, we deal with losses and that affects us in different ways. I lost my dad when I was 5 and I always wondered about my mom and how that affected her on levels [my sister and I] couldn’t see growing up. [As for my] niece, she was pretty young when I first came up with the story. And with her, it was just the idea of how kids can bring joy without really trying.”
In fact, as soon as I saw the campaign video, which includes a teaser trailer, I immediately knew Abney’s work would have me in a glass case of emotion, especially as someone who also lost her father at a tender age (I was 12 years old). Still, I couldn’t wait to experience it! I am always here for an emotionally-wrought film, as both a creator and a consumer.
But wait, I must.
Look—making an animated film is expensive and time-consuming as fuck. This knowledge isn’t from firsthand experience, but from studying testimonials via professionals in the industry. If you don’t know, now you know.
As I mentioned, the texture of main character Aura’s hair is significant. And for any good animator, they must pay attention to every single follicle in order to present the best quality product.
“If you choose to [animate] different races or different textures of hair, it takes research. It’s not just changing the hair color and adding a little extra curl,” noted Abney, who wanted to learn how to work on hair, but, of course, ended up outsourcing assistance from other animators. Which is something else of significance to note: there are so many working parts of an animated film machine.
Speaking of collaborative effort, Abney’s Kickstarter campaign is wrapping up (it quickly reached its goal and funds are still coming in!), but he still has “stretch goals,” as in, acquiring additional funds to submit the film to festivals, upgrade the film’s quality, and much more. At the time of this article’s posting, the campaign has raised over a whopping $60,000.
While I am a self-admitted stan, I can also acknowledge my favorite animated studio’s flaws. Yes, the content Pixar produces is excellent, but the majority makeup of its content creators is decidedly white and male. This is no secret. In fact, it’s an issue in the entire industry. When looking at the representation disparities in film, it’s key to look at the people creating them, behind-the-scenes. You’re bound to find your answer there. A 2018 Animation Guild report found that approximately 25% of its members are women. When researching, I couldn’t find a definitive breakdown based on race. Plus, this happened just a few years ago:
“I think it’s good to see that there’s more people speaking up about it and I feel like as a company—no matter what studio it is—I think you have a responsibility to answer that,” said Abney. “[You, as a studio] have fans of different backgrounds, so tell stories from [those] different backgrounds or give more people opportunity to tell different stories. And also, from the side of creator, if you’re working at any of these places, we can’t wait for it to happen either. We have to just find a way to do it ourselves.”
“I think the studios are definitely trying to get more representation and give more people a voice, whether it’s more people of color directing or more female leadership, which is nice, because the animation and film industry, in general, is so male-dominated, it’s nice to have different voices—ones that we should all have been listening to anyway. I think there’s definitely a push to answer that call and do better about that,” Abney continued.
There’s certainly more work to do. After all, we have young black animators and their work to look forward to. So, what does Abney have to say to that little black boy or girl who sees his work and aspires to create something as stunning?
“Just create,” he began. “If you have an idea, find some way to do it. There’s the illusion of obstacles, but really, there’s always a way to try to make it happen. It may not happen right away, but just stay focused and keep that goal in mind because you never know when something can open up and it’s just always good to keep that faith and believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself then how can you expect other people to? Getting into this industry, I dealt with a lot of rejection—as anyone getting into entertainment does—I had someone tell me just how amateur I was. You can use those things to your advantage.”
And of course, all work and no play—or living, in general—can make art a dull product.
“It’s also about living your life,” he noted. “All that stuff is just building up a library in your head basically. Just be present and have faith in yourself, find a way to make it happen, find people that will help you, and help others as well.”
Agreed. Create your own Canvas, indeed. And make beautiful art.