On Wednesday, November 5, 2014, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced 10 animated short films that will advance in the voting process for the 87th Academy Awards. The Dam Keeper, the first film from Directors Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi (along their Tonko House crew), was among the list of ten films.
The Dam Keeper is story about a young pig encumbered with the responsibility of keeping the citizens of his small town safe from the toxic gas that lurks beyond its borders. His task sets him apart from his community, and he inevitably falls victim to abuse and indifference by the town’s citizens. The film is an emotional ride, and raises awareness for key issues that every society should address and resolve. In short, it has depth. A story worth telling, and a film worth watching again and again.
Breaking New Ground
Robert and Dice have done an excellent job promoting their film through festivals, interviews, and their own social media platforms. To date, The Dam Keeper has won twenty international festival awards. Robert and Dice have released many behind the scenes features, crew member bios, and early productions tests on their YouTube channel. You can even listen to the film’s entire score. There’s no denying Tonko House has arrived, and the future looks bright. But where did it all begin? How did they get here? I sat down with Robert and Dice to hear their story.
Daniel: For those that don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and the film we’ll be talking about today?
Robert: I’m Robert Kondo.
Dice: I’m Dice Tsutsumi.
Robert: And we both directed, The Dam Keeper together, which is an 18-minute animated short. We are ex-Pixar Art Directors. Both of us Art Directed before deciding to take on the challenge of writing and directing for ourselves. We worked on the film for about a year and nine months total. Early on, a year was spent writing, and then nine months of production with our crew for The Dam Keeper.
Daniel: The Dam Keeper started as a Pixar Co-Op project. Can you explain what that is?
Dice: It’s a really amazing program that Pixar has. Basically Pixar fully supports their employees’ creative endeavors outside of your Pixar work. As long as you are working on your own personal project outside of your Pixar working hours, you get to use the computers and facilities at Pixar. So they encourage you to do your own films, whether it’s live-action or animated shorts, or an animated feature. Whatever it is that you want to do, they encourage you to do it. So that’s the program that we used, so we could use some of the computer facilities and the editorial pipeline, which was a huge help. We were even using their facilities for scratch voice recordings.
Often times at certain studios I’ve worked at, it’s not easy to do your own project because, if you’re working for hire, everything you do creatively is somewhat owned by the company you work for. Pixar is incredible in that way. They fight really hard to make sure that they don’t touch their employee’s personal creative process.
Robert: It’s really a program that’s centered on education. It encourages people to step out of the normal responsibilities in your day-to-day at Pixar; To step out of that comfort zone, and really try other things and other aspects of film-making. It was so different for us. We were Art Directors who had worked on several films at that point, and we really felt like we had hit a point where we were just so curious about everything we knew nothing about. We realized we knew just enough to know how much we didn’t know about film-making; even after working over a decade in the industry. The program was great for us because it encouraged us to step out of the comfort of the art department, take on the roles of writers and directors, and just go full board in hopes that it would actually make us better art directors. I’d say that was the real ambition behind it.
Daniel: This was the first short created by your new studio Tonko House. What was the inspiration behind the name of your studio?
Dice: When we were looking for our new company name, it was really hard. Every time we tried to come up with a cool sounding name, someone else was using it already. We wanted to come up with something original, but something that people can get, but the more we tried to think of something that means something, the more we realized either someone else was using it or it just didn’t quite work. The domains were taken or we couldn’t really hit an original sounding name. So we decided to do something completely nonsensical. That was one idea. Although, of course we wanted to make it mean something, so the “Tonko” is completely nonsensical, however “Ton” in Japanese is “pig” and “Ko” is “fox”. Both of them are kind of old ways of pronouncing pig and fox, and combined it doesn’t mean anything in Japanese. It loosely means Pig and Fox’s House.
Robert: Overall we wanted a nonsensical word because we were hoping to put meaning towards it as we made films. So as we make projects, Tonko House will hopefully take on its own meaning.
Daniel: I have it on good authority that the location of Tonko House was once used by other ex-Pixar artists in years past to pursue their own creative endeavors. Were you aware that the building had this history going in?
Robert: We were completely unaware. We didn’t know until Jan Pinkava actually came to visit us and told us he had an office in the same building. For us, practically, it was the right sized space, and the right cost. Both of us are local, and it’s within a bike ride, so it just made sense. But we were really excited to hear that Jan had once had a space here because he’s a creative person that we really look up to, and every time we have a conversation with him it’s very enlightening for us. We’ve heard rumors that Tony Fucile had a space here, and…I don’t know, now we’re just building a myth (laughs). But it’s exciting to hear that for us, that the building has history.
Daniel: What was the experience like for you guys of running a studio while at the same time trying to contribute artistically to your first film?
Robert: I think we’re still struggling with that. The Dam Keeper was kind of a new thing on so many fronts. I’d love to say that we did a great job running it and contributing creatively to it. We’re very proud of the work that the crew did. In that time of our lives when we were just pushing to learn and grow more, we were really happy. As any artist, you’re never really in a place where you feel like you’re comfortable with it creatively. Even now, were kind of struggling to find balance. But not just balance between creating new projects and running a studio, but also balancing outside of studio life as well. So that’s something that, while making The Dam Keeper, was a constant struggle; the negotiation internally between these three important things.
I think the real struggle is sort of unexpected. I think we did a lot of preparation going into it. We had amazing producers that we worked with, Duncan Ramsay and Megan Bartel, who were just incredible at organizing the film and the people, and our lives. Now we’re kind of out on our own doing Tonko House as just the two of us, and we miss them dearly. We miss them both as people and producers, as they helped organize the balance between running a studio, and creatively contributing to the film. They really protected our time that way. They wanted to make sure that we were always creatively available and had the energy to create. I know to this day that they did things that we are completely unaware of that was hard, and they thought it was better we just didn’t know. For that I’m forever grateful. We’re learning more about those kind of things now that we’re on our own as just the two of us.
No Turning Back
Throughout the production of The Dam Keeper, the team at Tonko House relied completely on part-time and volunteer employees. Not a single person worked full-time. This amounted to an unusually large crew for a short film in order to get the work done on time. Because some of the crew was volunteering, Dice and Robert wanted to make sure those that did volunteer were going to get back what they put in through a combination of work experience, artistic improvement, and personal enrichment.
Daniel: How many people did you have on The Dam Keeper crew at its peak?
Dice: There were about 70 people; It was a big crew. The hardest part was to make sure we get the best out of every single person because often times it’s easier to run a smaller group. We had a big crew because we couldn’t really get a full-time commitment from anyone; everyone had a full-time job during the day. Our producers did a fantastic job just to make sure we got enough from each person. So for a short film, it’s a very big crew.
Daniel: You had a lot of part-timer’s and volunteers. Did you have anyone working remotely from other parts of the world?
Robert: Yes, our Composers were actually in Wisconsin, and they’re actually part of a band called, “PHOX”, that’s travelling around the world right now. So we would Skype, and give feedback and talk about the music in the film.
Dice: They were actually writing songs on the road because they travel in a van. They would write songs while they were travelling and then send them back to us when they’d get to a place where they had an internet connection.
Robert: You don’t get much more remote than that.
Dice: And Hiro…
Robert: Yes, our Lead Painter, Yoshihiro Nagasuna, worked from Japan.
The Right People
After many years at Pixar, Dice and Robert had a professional network that included some of the most talented artists in the world. Finding talent to help them complete their project wouldn’t be an issue. But it was more than just raw talent they were looking for. They wanted like-minded people they knew and trusted. People that wanted to take on the same challenges they did. The first people they recruited were the most important, and would form the core group that would be essential to guiding The Dam Keeper over the finish line.
Daniel: Which of your Pixar co-workers did you approach for help first, and why?
Robert: The two producers that we talked about were both coordinators that we had worked with at Pixar. There were also people who weren’t quite given an opportunity to produce anything yet at Pixar, but in any interaction with them we were just impressed and excited to learn from them. I think both in the way they conducted themselves as people, and in how effective they were coming from positions that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as positions of power. They were very much in control of a lot of situations. We admired them for a long time, and we talked to them about producing our project.
Dice: People like our producers, Duncan Ramsay and Megan Bartel, our Supervising Animator, Erick Oh, and our Editor, Bradley Furnish, those are the core people who were there from the very beginning and that we relied heavily on. When we were looking for those core members, we were looking for people who were in the same boat as us: ambitious, passionate, but they still have a lot to prove. They hadn’t done quite the job that we were asking them to do. Erick being in a supervising role, and Duncan and Megan producing, Bradley editing the whole film by himself. Everyone took on the challenge to step up. And just like us, we had never directed, and nobody considered us as having those credentials. So we were all just seeing if we could even do it, to prove ourselves. So that was the reason why we approached those guys.
Daniel: Did any of your Pixar co-workers approach you about helping out and ultimately end up working on the film?
Dice: Quite a few people were interested, luckily. A lot of our generous friends that we’ve worked with over the years offered their help as well. A lot of them ended up helping us. We had this philosophy from the beginning that we wanted to make sure The Dam Keeper was a learning experience for everybody, and it wouldn’t be fair to just get a favor from anybody just because they’re friends. Of course, we still got a lot of favors, but we wanted to stick to that philosophy even if we had generous help offers, we wouldn’t do it unless they had something to gain as well. Obviously Pixar has tons of talented people all of which are very generous with their time. We couldn’t be more grateful.
Daniel: Can you talk a bit about The Little Dutch Boy, and how it inspired The Dam Keeper?
Robert: It’s more than just an adaptation. The Little Dutch Boy was a story that we re-read when we were writing the project. At one point we had really struggled quite a bit. We had done maybe three or four different iterations of the story, and we had a conversation at one point talking about stories from our childhood. The Little Dutch Boy came up and from that, what we liked about it was this idea of this kid who had the responsibility to save the town. We liked that idea as the day-to-day for our main character. What if every day this pig had to, his responsibility was to save the town, every day? So that’s what we were inspired by.
Dice: Up to that point, every story that we wrote had an unsung hero main character. But the problem we had was every single story was very complicated. We couldn’t quite put it in a short format. We hear about a lot of first time directors running into the same kind of trap of turning your short film project into a feature film project. The Little Dutch Boy gave us the hint that it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be a very simple thing. But the core idea of the unsung hero model we could hang onto.
Daniel: I wasn’t familiar with the folktale myself, so I’m curious is it story you found when looking for inspiration or is it a story you grew up listening to as a kid?
Robert: Yeah, definitely, it was a story I had read in my childhood. And talking about all these things, we were just at a desperate point where we decided, let’s just go back to those things we love. And it was one of the stories that came up and we talked about.
Daniel: You have both developed very distinctive painting styles. How did you find teaching the crew to paint like you?
Robert: That was one of the most rewarding aspects, in an unexpected way, of making this film. We took it very seriously. Dice and I started the project. We were working together, and we weren’t producing a lot of work. So we decided to take on five young painters all at once. We thought, okay, we’ll do a little bit of boot camp, with painting in the morning, a few still life’s…It actually, in a very scary way, shut down production for about a month.
For us, we weren’t able to produce because we were spending so much time with them, and talking about painting, and more about how to see than to actually physically paint. So we kept going at it. We would go out painting in plein air. We would paint in the mornings. We would give them exercises. And right at a point where both Dice and I, and the producers, were very worried about us even finishing the film…things just started to click. Everyone just started producing way more work than we could have ever expected, and then suddenly we were producing footage, and getting through shots a lot faster than we ever expected. Things just turned around for us.
Dice: That’s really when we realized how much people can grow in such a short amount of time. We didn’t expect them to get to the level they ended up getting to. When they’re hungry, and when they’re inspired, and so passionate, and kind of determined to get to where they need to be Without their help, we wouldn’t have finished the film. They grew so much and we didn’t think that was possible.
We’ve worked at a big studio with talented people for so many years, and it’s something that we wanted to take back to our big studio system, that people can learn under the right environment. Sometimes in this business we can get caught up in the surface quality of the portfolios, how good they look, and how well they’re prepared. We don’t necessarily look at the raw talent and even raw personalities, and how they approach their life, their work ethic, and stuff like that which actually matters more; especially with young people. We got lucky in that all the people who worked on The Dam Keeper were exceptionally talented. But they also earned what they learned because they were just so passionate and hungry.
Robert: When we set out to make this film, the most important thing was vision. And we were willing to sacrifice the look of the film just to get it done knowing that it was our first project, and that it wasn’t going to be perfect. And the amazing thing is they made the film better looking in the end than we ever expected. Because of the nature of their growth, there were points where we had to pull them away from shots and tell them it’s done because they were really excited. But I think all of us feel that, when you’re learning something, and it’s new, and there’s a discovery process in just doing the work. We gained from them a lot, just in terms of the energy level in the studio, and the energy level for us in seeing the project through. I think in the beginning we were giving a lot, but so were they, and in the end it just buzzed its way back and forth.
Daniel: You have an upcoming Schoolism course on your painting techniques. Was this born out of teaching your own projects or did Schoolism approach you?
Robert: It was a little bit of both. We’ve always had an ambition to teach. To share what we know up to this point. We had to take inventory, take stock, because there’s two of us. We had to communicate about where we are. Bobby Chui, who runs Schoolism, did approach us at a time when we were searching for what would be the right way it was going to manifest. And Bobby’s approach and philosophy on education, and his belief in what he’s trying to do on a larger scale, is very much in line with what Tonko House’s overall mission felt like. So we both like Bobby very much, and Schoolism seems to be doing such a great thing for the international community, and we felt like it was a good fit for us.
We wanted to be able to teach the first class together because having two of us forces us to be objective. You can’t just sweep things under the rug as easily. “Oh yeah, I just do it like this…” There’s a lot of ways that Dice and I will challenge each other and be like, “What did you just do there? We need to talk about that because I don’t think it’s clear to me.” And so teaching has forced us to communicate a lot more about things that, for the last six years working together on big feature films, we’ve not had to deal with or talk about. So it was an opportunity for us as a studio, but also there was a strong desire to share that with the community out there. And it’s a big experiment. We’ll see. We’re looking forward to feedback about how the class is structured.
Dice: We took it on like we’re teaching our Dam Keeper crew. Robert said at one time, “Let’s make sure this is almost as if it’s a training course for future Tonko House employees.” It’s not just about how to paint like us. It’s more about the approach of concept design, and how to see light and color in order to tell a story. And we want to share that aspect of how we approach it. So it had to be taught together in a way, just so it comes from Tonko House as opposed to just me teaching individually or Robert teaching individually. So our class might be slightly different from other online courses, because it’s really to get the company philosophy out there, and in the future, hopefully people who took this class can help us on future projects. That’s kind of how we approached it.
I couldn’t let Robert and Dice go without asking the obvious question. The one that every ambitious artist out there wants to ask. After all, they didn’t just make a short film. They left Pixar, started their own studio, made an eighteen minute short film, and got the attention of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the process. It’s an inspirational story to say the least, and it’s just the beginning. For those of us that dream of directing our own ideas in the same fashion, seeing a team of hungry artists push to realize our visions, what advice could they give?
Daniel: What advice can you give to students and working professionals about the rewards and sacrifices of leaving a studio environment, starting your own studio, and pursuing your own projects?
Robert: It puts you in a different mindset, a different world, where the safety net is gone. There is something liberating about that, and terrifying about that. The safety net being gone means that you need to be accountable for almost all the decisions that you make, and live and die by those decisions in a way. Our families are incredibly supportive. But also, they understand the risks that we’re taking being out on our own. We have yet to really generate any income from the work we’re doing right now, but I feel like the work we’re doing now is so important to who we are as people.
I’ve worked in the industry for twelve years, and its taken me twelve years to really find a voice. Pixar really helped me to find that, and it really provided a safe place to make mistakes. Walking away from Pixar was not about leaving that place, so much as it was really taking everything I had learned there, taking everything I knew about film-making, and that they were so gracious to share with me, and going out and just really trying to make something on my own. It really feels like I’m leaving high school and going away to college in the sense that Pixar is a great place with incredible resources, incredible people, and I felt like I had something to learn from everyone there. And now I feel like were in a place where we have to apply everything we’ve learned, and forge new ground for ourselves. That’s really important to us, and where we are in our careers.
As far as advice, it really is about that feeling. About the why. Why are you doing it? Why are you working in that studio? Why are you going out on your own? Why are you leaving the studio? It’s a simple question, but we’ve spent more time thinking about why were doing things lately. Being accountable for that question, no matter where you are is a difficult thing. You really have to ask yourself who you want to be as a person and an artist. Its scary, to face that head on. I’ve heard a lot of artists talk about how frustrated they are with what the big studios are doing. I gotta say, there are moments where I’ve had that in my career. But if I look back at those moments I think, “What a waste of time.” I should have really powered through that and said, “What am I getting out of this?” As an artist that works for a studio, what am I getting out of this, and why am I doing this? So that I wasn’t wasting time thinking about how someone else was accountable for my growth, my learning, and my contribution to film-making.
Dice: It’s true. If we just focus on why. Unfortunately for myself, I don’t think I got to this realization until much later. I’ve worked in the business a little bit longer, about sixteen years, and I was maybe more focused on what I was doing in the early stage of my career. In the past six months since we left Pixar, we keep talking about why. Why are we even doing animation? Why are we even creating art, or films? Instead of what were doing, we really focused on why were doing the things that were doing. And if I had focused on why more in the earlier stage of my career, I think it would have been a little bit easier for me to find the path. It’s really not about leaving a studio, or working for a big studio, or being on your own. To me, all that stuff doesn’t matter as long as what you’re doing fits why you’re doing it. That’s something we’re going to be constantly asking ourselves, no matter where we go, no matter what we are doing, because that, to us, is the most important thing. I think for aspiring young animators or animation artists, I think it helps a lot to think about it that way.
Daniel: Where do you see Tonko House in five years?
Robert: I hope in five years time we can look back and say we did as much storytelling as we possibly could have. Being artists that have been given opportunities to use our painting and illustration skills to make films, we realized how much practice it takes to get to a place where you can actually use something like film-making to express yourself. We’ve gotten to a place with illustration and painting where we feel like we definitely haven’t mastered it, but we’re comfortable enough there to express ourselves in a way. To get whats in our heads and our hearts, out onto screen. And as storytellers I gotta say, we feel like we just did our first figure drawing, and we’re looking at it and thinking that could be better. Let’s hurry up and put that away, and get onto the next thing. But what I hope is that five years from now maybe we made some good films, maybe we made some bad films, but we’re at a place where we feel more comfortable as storytellers, and a little more aware of who we are as people. Well, what kind of stories were capable of telling, and what kind of stories we should be telling. If in five years we’re at a place where we know exactly the kind of stories we want to make now, and know exactly how we’re going to do that, and were open to the challenges involved because we have a better understanding of what film-making really means, I would be super happy. To be on that precipice, where we still feel this excited about making story and film, but having as much story under our belts as possible in five years.
Dice: No matter what were going to be doing, and no matter how big we become, we won’t lose the reason why were doing it. Hopefully whoever joins us in the future will share that sense of reason. So there is a purpose, it not just, okay, we have a movie to make or a television commercial. We will have to do things to generate income as we have families to feed, but hopefully we always come back to why. And not just us or our employees. Even our audience will understand why were doing this.
Robert: We should touch base again in five years (laughs).
Daniel: Do you have any upcoming The Dam Keeper or Tonko House related events that you would like to make everyone aware of?
Robert: We are excited about taking The Dam Keeper to the next level. Early next year well be working with local schools and a local non-profit company to create a curriculum around the The Dam Keeper to talk about some of the issues that the film brings up, and talk about film-making. We’re really excited about that. There’s a group of people who have really been working hard and thinking about how The Dam Keeper might have educational potential. So we hope your readers keep their eyes and ears open for that. Dice and I have worked a lot with non-profit groups, and we’re excited about the opportunity for something we made to be able to be a part of any sort of educational process. So that will come out sometime early next year.