Two teenagers floating together in a canoe doesn’t possess the makings of a compelling feature film if you ask director Erica Milsom. But the director of the Disney/Pixar Spark Short “Loop” took the premise and gave audiences the company’s first non-verbal autistic leading lady. In a world where disability is often presented in the simplest ways possible, “Loop” takes the idea of miscommunication and lets the audience confront everything from ableism to the need for human connection, in a nine-minute short. Milsom and producers Krissy Cababa and Michael Warch sat down to discuss creating the short, the need for more disabled representation, and how they found a ringtone you won’t forget.
How did this story come into being?
Erica Milsom: It’s funny because I feel it’s not a simple, direct answer. I was thinking about doing a Spark Short [and] I was trying to challenge myself to think what are worlds we haven’t explored at Pixar? You end up in this weird thing where you’re like, “is it in outer space? Is it inside someone’s head?” It becomes strangely exhaustive to re-pass everything we’ve done. So I rejiggered my thinking and I was like, “What are worlds you haven’t seen explored on-screen yourself, Erica?” and it was this weird little world between us. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life and also volunteered a year before with organizations that serve people with disabilities, and most often people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses have been my experience. I always treasured the interactions I had in these spaces because they challenged me in a different way to connect with someone. Oftentimes, I would not know what to do.
I’m a very chatty person; I usually know how to do small talk really, really well. But when I would be in this space I would hit this place where I’m like, “wow, I don’t quite know how to connect with this person. I don’t know how to get to know this person” and that’s kind of a spicy storytelling topic. It’s small, but there’s a journey implied in the process of getting to know someone with whom you don’t share necessarily the same language, and in the case of someone who is non-speaking there’s not a learned language you can go take a class on. You have to find a way that’s very individual connecting. It was basically a lot of me trying to think of what are the worlds we haven’t explored and I’m like, “I’ve been in this world in my life, in many different ways, and I loved it but it presented exciting challenges” and that’s the world I want to explore, this world between people who may not use the same form of communication and may not know how to learn each other’s language.
Michael Warch: For me it was an opportunity to work with Erica because I really admired her work so much. I mostly knew of her as a documentary filmmaker and I had recently seen her short So Much Yellow. I was really impressed with what she brought to the narrative format, coming from documentary, and it was a super powerful film made with a small budget. She has that social realist genre I really enjoy in other filmmakers, and it was such a powerful film. I was interested to see what she would do in animation with that same sensibility.
Krissy Cababa: Michael was the producer of “Loop” for the first half of production and then I came on for the second half of production, and I came on to help out because Michael got a promotion at Pixar and he got super busy and wasn’t able to finish the Spark Short so, lucky me, I got to come out and work with Erica again; I had worked with Erica previously on a documentary film she did on the side at Pixar. I love working with Erica and I knew this story had the potential to have a lot of power, and reach a lot of people, and be really different from anything we’ve seen on screen before.
EM: Sometimes pointing your finger at an issue, you see it more clearly if it comes from a context that’s not real life. Sometimes having a metaphor involved or having something that doesn’t look like real life makes the issue come to light more strongly. I feel animation is one of those mediums where you can push an idea you might not be able to illustrate the same way in something that’s a live action or documentary idea. One of the things about “Loop” I think is very interesting is we may not have been able to make this story in live action. Two kids out on a boat alone together, being the age they are and one being a nonverbal, autistic person. I don’t know if we could have made that live action. So that’s one of the joys of working in animation is you can actually produce things you probably can’t do in live action.
I feel like animation goes through a different heart hole. When you watch something that is animated the magic is in the filmmaking approach, but our work was on conveying a sense of truth and honesty in those characters. The main challenge for us was to feel a sense of heart seeing those characters. There wasn’t a high degree of caricature we were seeking. I knew the power of our filmmakers and, specifically, our character animators to convey a sense of connection and truth. I really wanted to get under the skin of these two characters, in an animated form, and let that honesty flow through their little animated self. An audience who might not otherwise have watched the show about these two kids might not have been drawn to that in the live action form. It’s a designed, beautiful piece of work that hopefully feels very honest and true. I’m just hoping that because it animated it gets to go to a much broader audience.
MW: I was really intrigued to see what our animators would do with this film because they’re so talented and they always surprise me. When you’re working on a film, by the time it makes its way into animation, just to see it come alive is always inspiring and to see what they do with something that’s a mostly nonverbal, main character. We were really challenged with finding the voice talent for this and were discouraged from using an actual autistic person to do the vocalizations because of how challenging it would be. Erica was adamant that that was not something she would consider and it was very improvisational because you couldn’t direct them in the traditional way. It was a really interesting process to see how we capture vocalizations and how they were interpreted by our animators.
EM: People were worried because they hadn’t encountered a lot of nonverbal folks in their casting previously, but I was like, “Hey, let us deal with that” and I have to say we found her. For Madison [Bandy, who voices Renee], we basically spent under a week once the casting call went out. I reached out to different friends in the Bay Area who worked with artists with disabilities and was like, “We’re seeking this. Please pass it around” and then we found Madison so fast. There’s a spirit, or the idea, that there’s no pipeline; “There’s no pipelines. We can’t find someone.” You have to create new pipelines. It’s not that hard to reach out and find where people are and look for talent in a community outside of your normal one. Testing was super fun and I was totally confident we would find a voice actress who used vocalization more than words because I had met [them] in the community of disability and I was like, “that’s all over the place.” People communicate this way for a lot of different reasons. We just need to find a way into those places.
We were really aware of the “Nothing about us without us” movement and I was like “there’s no way I’m going to make a film that doesn’t honor that.” What would be the point of that? The greatest challenge I can give Pixar is to take all these artists who are so talented and say, “Let’s focus on this character that we haven’t seen portrayed in film or TV at all.” I haven’t seen a lot of nonverbal characters, let’s just dive in and learn and listen to these voices. Our first consultant was actually a friend of mine, Adrian Citroen, who I’ve known since she was born, and she’s autistic and she’s not nonverbal but I was like “I really need to bring somebody in to read the script early on.” I don’t want to put the script forward until we tested it and heard from an autistic person like “does this work for you? Does this feel truthful? Where are we making mistakes?” It was great. She read it, and we all sat and did a table read and read it out loud, and she had her thoughts on it and I integrated those into the script. It was a really powerful experience bringing her on.
You use color to capture and differentiate Renee’s point-of-view from Marcus. Can you discuss that process?
EM: I’m so glad you noticed that because we spent quite a lot of time working on that. So the people who work on “Loop,” the crew, were so great about thinking really deep thoughts about how the two characters would perceive the world differently and then how we wanted to show that in the short, so there were some very specific choices made about camera placement. You’ll notice when Marcus is looking at Renee you get a really familiar camera shot where you’re looking at Renee, she’s centered in the frame [and] Marcus is trying to make eye contact. When you’re looking at Marcus from Renee’s point of view you almost never have him centered in the frame; you almost never have her looking at his face. It’s a way to show they’re not connected in the way a neurotypical person would expect.
You mentioned the color and the light, that was one of the things our consultants from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network helped us a lot with. We had some of our lighting artists do some experiments for what they thought based on self-reporting from autistic folks about how they perceive the world. We showed those tests to our consultants and we were super surprised and really happy that they actually picked different ones than we thought they would pick. So it showed us how different our brains are from each other.
Why do you think representation from this angle is so vital to entertainment?
EM: Any one of us who looks around will see there are people with disabilities throughout our lives. It’s that thing of looking at the screen and not seeing something that represents the depth of your story. I don’t have a disability that I’m aware of, but I have so many people around me who carry a story that’s really profound and interesting who I haven’t seen represented on the screen. Snow Day, the documentary I made, features a character who has cerebral palsy. It was so hard not to make the whole movie about him because he’s so interesting. And then I made So Much Yellow which features character who has Down Syndrome. It wasn’t like I was looking for a story about disability. I was looking for a great story about a person, about education and connection and they are all over the place. We’re always looking for powerful, specific characters on the screen with interesting stories and I feel like there are many, many of those in the world of disability and we just haven’t seen them. When we have seen them they are often played by non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. I feel very positive. I feel like we’re finally seeing it.
MW: I have a lot of friends who have kids with autism and a lot of them are really hesitant to even acknowledge that their kids do. I think it’s great for these families to be more accepting to seek help and not have it be such a stigma in society.
KC: As a person of color who grew up largely in the ‘70s I did not see people who look like myself in any media, like ever. So I remember how powerful it was when I first started to see people who looked like me on-screen, in TV. It’s still shocking to me how underrepresented certain certain groups are, so I can imagine that for other communities that are underrepresented on screen how powerful this is. I am with Erica, I hope we’re just at the beginning of this.
“Loop” is available to stream on Disney+ now
By Kirsten Lopez