Pixar Vets Talk Trials of Moonlighting on Oscar-Nominated ‘The Dam Keeper’ (Exclusive Video)

Former art directors reveal how they achieved the look of their beautiful, touching animated short

This year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts are a strong and varied group that ranges from a witty, wordless Disney cartoon, “Feast,” to a funny, personal childhood story from previous Oscar winner Korill Tove, “Me and My Moulton.” In a highly competitive category, “The Dam Keeper” is one of the richest and most touching of the nominees, a beautiful hand-painted story of a young pig who tends a windmill that “keeps the darkness away” from a small town.

Abundant with both grace and heart, “The Dam Keeper” is the work of Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, two animators who met while serving as art directors at Pixar. They worked on “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters University,” were inspired to make a short together and have since formed the Berkeley-based animation company Tonko House.

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“We had never written a story before, but our point of inspiration was the story of the little Dutch boy who puts his finger in the dike and saves the town,” Kondo told TheWrap. “We thought, What if that was our main character’s role every day, to save his town?”

Added Tsutsumi, “At Pixar, our paintings were only used as concept paintings, an inspirational guide. We wanted to see if we could bring those concept paintings to life by animating them.”

They originally thought they could finish the short in three months off from Pixar, but wound up spending nine months of mornings, nights and lunch hours to get it made. “We made it outside of Pixar,” said Tsutsumi, “but at the same time that we were working there.”

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As the exclusive video clip above shows, Tsutsumi and Kondo had to stop production to teach their animation team how to paint in the beautiful and distinctive handmade style of the film, which included 8,000 paintings on top of hand-drawn animation. They used that style to tell a story of bullying and friendship, sketching a vividly emotional world in 18 minutes.

The Wisconsin-based band Phox provided music, as seen in the video feature below:

Kondo and Tsutsumi said they are currently working on getting “bigger and better.” They are working on a feature idea, and also on a story that would make use of the serial format.

The Oscar-nominated animated shorts are currently playing in theaters around the country, with the live-action and documentary shorts in separate programs.