Those who were not able to go to the cinema during Raya and the Last Dragon’s theatrical run, would have missed out on the vibrant short which plays before it, Us Again. The six minute long film tells the story of an elderly couple who rekindle their passion for life and dance on a whimsical night. Finally, audiences all over the world are able to stream the touching animation on Disney+.
To celebrate it’s wide release on the streaming platform, we were able to sit down with several members of the short’s team including Writer/Director Zach Parrish, Producer Brad Simonsen, Choreographers Keone & Mari Madrid and Composer Pinar Toprak. In these conversations we got a detailed insight into what exactly goes into making a short film like this. We dove into each crew member’s specialism and effect on the finished product to show you how intricate the crafting of this emotional short really was.
Writing and Bringing the Story to Life
Writer and Director Zach Parrish is not stranger to working with Disney Animation. The short he previously wrote and directed, Puddles, was a part of Disney’s Short Circuit Programme. Parrish is also an animator himself and served as Head Animator on Big Hero 6 and was part of several other film’s animation teams including Moana, Tangled and Zootopia. The heart of any film is the story and more often or not the inspirational spark comes from a place of personal interest. When we sat down with him, Zach told us about the conception of this story and how he went about directing this short.
Let’s talk about writing for a second because the soul of the film is ultimately the story. How did you go about writing such an emotional piece with no dialogue at all?
Zach: It was it was a long, arduous journey, I’ll say that! I think the stories at Disney always start from a core and for me, it was it was this idea that if I’m spending all my time focused on the past then I’m missing what’s right in front of my face. And so I’m trying not to lose that as the story evolves, because the specifics of the story were very different at the beginning, but what the characters were supposed to learn and experience and with the audience was supposed to feel remained the same. So, trying to hold on to that core belief, through the storm of notes that you get from all the other collaborators and everyone at Disney who are trying to take that idea and elevate it is one of the biggest challenges. But from the beginning, it was always that end emotion that I felt in my gut. As it as it changed and as it evolved, I could use that to make sure that relief, joy and that excitement at the end of having them back to themselves and them being ‘Us Again’ came through. The title was there from beginning because that was always what I wanted the end to feel like.
As a director, how do you go about blocking such an energetic piece that explores such a large space?
Zach: Like everything in the process of making this film, it was a lot of layers. We did storyboards for basically the entire film. There were some scenes that we didn’t do storyboards, we did a pre-visualisation instead using what we called ‘cube vis’ where I created these little very basic cube characters that I could animate around. With storyboards, you don’t always get to be super specific with timing, with a dance that is driven by music and also with a time constraint of trying to keep it within five to six minutes, made the timing is incredibly specific. I come from animation and so it was just in my natural toolbox to use my animation skills to explore that space and say it feels like we can go from here to here in this amount of time. Then that came with an added benefit of knowing what backgrounds we were going to see from a very early stage so that we didn’t have to over engineer the film as far as the production value of it. We knew which buildings were going to be on screen and which weren’t and so we didn’t need to build everything that was behind camera as much. That kind of allowed us to work a little bit smarter, rather than harder.
Putting Together a Team
You can’t make a film without a team of talented individuals who are masters of their own craft. As a producer with credits on Zootopia and Big Hero 6, Brad Simonsen knew that assembling a team who was passionate about this particular story would be crucial to it’s development.
How do you go about assembling a team that you know will bring a story to life?
Brad: I think that carefully is the short answer. We’re so lucky at Disney animation to have incredibly talented artists and incredibly talented supervisors. In our short film programs, when we do something like this, we’re actually looking at finding those artists that are wanting leadership opportunities. Pretty much anytime if an artist says they want to be a leader, that plants a seed that we all kind of tried to help foster and grow. So, on this movie three out of five were new leaders. Ultimately, it’s about conversations and support to help people grow through opportunity and that’s exactly what we did on this movie. Everybody stepped up to a new level. As a team, we would meet every morning and discuss how everyone was doing to make sure everybody knew what the goals were and take suggestions if anyone had them. We definitely put a team together that wanted to make a beautiful project.
Composing the Music
Pinar Toprak is a very popular composer in the industry, especially in Disney, having previously composed the soundtrack for Captain Marvel. She is also known for having written the score for popular battle royale video game Fortnite. Toprak was involved with this short from the very early stages of it’s production and told us all about the evolving process.
The music in the film feels really natural, what kind of process did you go through to get it to the final point?
Pinar: Well, I started very early on and I was composing all throughout the process. I had my initial ideas in terms of themes and general energy wise. Then afterwards, it was just a lot of back and forth because everything really had to just fit perfectly. Every single note, every single second was timed. So, it was just kind of constant process of fine tuning and sculpting it until the very end.
Were you inspired by any specific pieces of music or film?
Pinar: Some points of reference were Rhapsody in Blue and Fantasia, which really was from the start an inspiration point because of how the story is told through music. I love soul and funk very much, so as soon as I heard those words from Zach, I thought it was great, because I don’t get to do that too often.
Choreographing the Dance
Married couple and accomplished dancers Keone and Mari Madrid served as reference choreographers for this short. Their incredible slate of previous work includes choreographing and starring in Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ music video as well as working with other celebrated pop-stars such as BTS, Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran. The duo has also choreographed the upcoming Broadway Karate Kid Musical. At their San Diego based studio, Keone and Mari worked with the music that was already composed for the short to craft a stylistic dance matching the essence of the story.
How do you go about choosing a visual language and style for an energetic dance piece like this?
Mari: I think it’s all coming from the story. It’s all coming from the characters and since it’s a married couple, we’re pulling in from that dynamic. I think one of the things that was really imperative for us is that we got music in a fairly final temp track that we’re working off of versus on other things, sometimes if you get music, it’s temp, but it’s very vague. And so, with this we got something that we could be very detail oriented, we could be really, really specific about things so that we know we’re moving, communicating and telling the story beats the right way, and that it’s going to be all cohesive together. So, it was really a combination of just pulling from that and from story was how we developed that language.
Keone: And it was important to us, just like with writing, that the movement had a narrative to it. How would they move when they were old? How are they moving when they’re young? But also, how does that bridge together because they can’t just be completely different entities. What kind of payoffs or motifs might there be in the piece is something that we do all the time. Then how does art move versus dots because those things matter. When you narrow down into the story and you understand who the characters are, it’s really helpful because you can get carried away with all these different choices, but once you understand who they are, it helps narrow it down and lets it be driven by story.
Animation is a storytelling medium that is beloved by audiences all over the world. As a studio, Disney is renown for their heart-warming short and feature animations. However, they are beginning to roll out an increased amount of live action projects. This posed the question of what animation brings to the table that live action cannot.
What makes animation the best medium to tell this specific story?
Brad (Producer): and I ask myself that question as a producer, because ultimately your job is to support that director’s vision. When Zach pitched this to me I said, it sounds like we could do that live action or it could work for Disney animation. So we discussed what he saw in it that takes it into the animation space and makes it makes it special. We had a wonderful conversation for probably half an hour about the history of animation, the history of eclectic dance in animation and how dance, especially in the Disney world, has always elevated the emotion of a story. So, once he explained his vision and really told me what he wanted to achieve, I was all in because I think animation allows you to highlight everything.
Zach (Writer/Director): I love animation, and I’m an animator! I mean, to me, animation can do anything. To me, you can go a little bit larger than life, you can exaggerate things, you can make things feel more whimsical and more theatrical and you can you can break rules a little bit more. But at the same time, I never wanted to go that far with this film. I wanted it to feel like we could break rules with things such as cameras and obviously transforming characters a character, but I never wanted it to feel overly animation. I always wanted it to feel to feel grounded. To me, the skill set within the building at Disney Animation felt like the right kind of synergy.
Keone (Choreography): Yeah, to Zach’s point, while it is animation it’s still so grounded in humanity. When it starts out, you feel the animation of it, but once you get a few beats in, you kind of forget and you’re just immersed into these characters and the story. I think animation was beautiful in the sense that, a lot of times in film or in theatre, it’s hard to find people who can do our style of dance, act and play the characters the way that you dream about and animation obviously knocks those hurdles down.
Pinar (Composer): In this particular film, the fact that music is so much presence, and an entire conversation happens through music. There’s no spoken word so the music becomes all of those words and evolved along with the dance. For me that was that was very, very special and unique.
Awaiting the Release
In February of 2021, it was announced that Us Again would accompany the release of Disney’s anticipated movie Raya and the Last Dragon. When the film came out on March 5th, audiences were able to see the short on the big screen before the feature began. Although some cinemas were open globally, a large majority were not due to local lockdowns as a result of the ongoing pandemic. At the time, this was the only way to see Us Again. Now as the short is available to stream on Disney+, we asked the team behind the spectacle of music, dance and colour if the wait had been extensive.
A whole new audience is about to experience this short, does that feel like a long time coming?
Zach (Writer/Director): Yes, big time! I haven’t gotten to see it on the big on the big screen yet which is crazy I know, I know. My daughter was born March 11 and it came out March 5, so it just wasn’t the best timing for me to be going to theater. I’m super excited. I’ve gotten to share it with some of my family, but most of my family hasn’t gotten to see it yet. So, just knowing that it’s hitting a broader audience in general, is so exciting and does feel like a long time coming.
Brad (Producer): I hope the experience was what it was meant to be on the big screen because it was made to be on there. Los Angeles was still locked down at the time. I felt like I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, so I found the closest theatre which was in Vegas. I met Keoni and Mari in Vegas to watch the movie on the big screen, and we watched it at a nice Cineplex there. It was a wonderful experience, especially viewing it with them who hadn’t seen it as well.It does feels like forever, but we trust in the Disney team because they’re brilliant at what they do and we’re really looking forward to it hitting Disney+ and more people being able to experience it.
Pinar (Composer): It’s always the waiting game after you finish something. Also, the fact that the film was available in theaters, but nobody could watch it at home. I had to say to everyone “Just wait, just wait!”, so this is really exciting. I can’t wait.
Keone (Choreographer): We were fortunate enough to see it. Well, we had to drive quite far because no theaters were open to go see it. But we’re so happy because a lot of friends and family have been questioning if it’s out and where they can watch it and were confused because they bought Raya and the Last Dragon and it wasn’t there like it is in cinemas. So, we’re happy that it’s finally coming out.
When crafting any story, there is always a message that the filmmakers are looking to elicit from the audience. This short is no different. To end off our wonderful interviews we asked this talented group about what they hope to see from audience reactions.
This short has a really personal and emotional tone. What are you hoping that audiences will be taking away from it?
Mari (Choreographer): I hope that people will just remember to be present with their loved ones. Your time on this earth is precious, the people around you are precious and really take those moments and try to be with them because you can get so caught up in many different things. So just be aware and be focused with your people.
Pinar (Composer): For me, it’s really Zach’s theme which is just being really present, enjoying life and noticing everything. At the end when he’s looking around and noticing life and every single detail, that just goes to my heart immediately. I hope that’s what they feel.
Zach (Writer/Director): I’ve always hoped that this will be able to make people look at their parents and their grandparents a little bit differently. It came very late in my life that I had that realisation that my grandparents were once kids because they were always old in my head and so that realisation that they were young and had aspirations, struggles and emotions. Recognising that and being curious as to what those experiences were will also help you to be more present in your own life, I would hope. That would be icing on the cake for me.
Brad (Producer): Stay young, love your elders and support them as they age because you will be there one day. I think that love, attention and movement in the form of dance keeps you young.