Dog’s-eye view: Patrick Osborne’s Oscar-nominated short is a ‘Feast’ for animation fans

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Patrick Osborne had three ideas to pitch to the shorts program at Walt Disney Animation Studio. One of those led to the Oscar-nominated animated short Feast.

"I wanted to tell the story through dinners," Osborne says. "The initial concept was these meals. Take a single guy who eats a certain way, in a certain place, like on a couch. Maybe the next meal is something fancy, and you realize it's a first date and he's trying hard to impress someone. So the initial concept was: What do you read if you're flipping pages of a book over these meals? What might be happening between them?"

Osborne photographed all of his dinners in 2012, editing them into a six-minute video that helped set up the structure of what would become Feast. In his first drawings, he thought of filling the space around the meal with a character, "one who kind of grew shot-to-shot, so you could have a simple puppy story and then a human story in the background."

After he delivered a short pitch, Osborne spoke with WDAS head John Lasseter about the idea for 40 minutes. He was working as co-head of animation on Big Hero 6 when he got word that the short had been approved. The news was good and bad: Feast would be the opening attraction for Big Hero 6, but Osborne had only a year to complete it.

In choosing a breed for Winston, the main character in Feast, the director needed a small dog, one lower than a dinner table. Winston also had to be multicolored so viewers could see him turning onscreen. Osborne went over all the previous Disney shorts and features with dogs, in part to make sure there were no Boston Terriers in them.

"They made a lot of interesting cinematic choices," Osborne notes about the earlier movies. "You take all of that in and think about how their approaches were helping the story. Lady and the Tramp is composed differently than 101 Dalmatians. Its point of view is very much the dog's world. 101 Dalmatians has more of a human point of view, the camera's higher."

During the writing process, veteran Disney animator Dale Baer worked up 14 pencil tests for Winston. "He's been at Disney since Robin Hood," Osborne explains. "He has a farm with horses and dogs in Santa Clarita, he's a wonderful guy and a great quadruped animator.

"What Dale was doing, he made choices for the shape of the dog, graphic and simple choices that we wouldn't have done if we were trying to do this realistically, like if we were moving a real dog around. That inspires the animators, gets us to build the characters in different ways."

As work on Feast progressed, Osborne and his staff set up rules to follow. Food would be in the center of the frame because it's the center of Winston's life. Similarly, the camera is locked down early in the film.

"I love moving cameras, but you don't want the audience to have to look for the character in every shot," Osborne says. "So Winston had to be one solid performance, he doesn't really change in camera space very much. The first few shots were all done by one animator because we wanted to build a continuous performance."

Although he used some dialogue, Osborne considers Feast a silent film. He tried versions with no dialogue, and one with non-English words like those in WALL-E. "It drew attention to itself too much," he admits. "We ended up recording conversations and then taking them apart, cutting in too late for viewers to pay attention to the words."

Osborne also realized that Feast was a montage. When he studied the famous montage of passing time in Up, he saw that it was fully scored.

"So we put a score in ours, thinking that it would help carry the material," he says. "It actually felt very forced, it felt like we were saying, 'Feel nostalgic now' to the audience. So we ended up dropping the score for the entire first half, concentrating on a realistic sound design instead. We started to sneak the score in when the story went beyond what an actual dog would do, when it became more cinematic and magical."

At the time, Osborne was working with a temp track, partly from the Disney music library, but also using songs by Alex Ebert, who sings in the band Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes. Ebert also scored two J.C. Chandor movies, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year.

"I like his band and I like, I loved his score for All Is Lost. The distance between them, I felt if we could get to the middle of that it would work nicely for us. I'd send him copies of the film and he would send back his guitar score. And then last May we went to the Warner Bros. soundstage with thirty musicians. We had one morning, really only a couple of hours to record the whole thing."

That recording session was the first time Osborne saw the entire film projected. "It was very emotional for me. You realize that you don't even know how you got to this point—screening my movie with musicians playing live for it, watching Alex in his element, seeing it go from not there to something he was proud of."

Osborne is currently working as head of animation for Zootopia, assembling a team of animators for the Disney project. "I love animation, that's my home, but the stuff around it is all new and exciting, it's creative stuff that is really fun to kind of dig into. As an animator I never had to deal with choices like scores and dialogue and sound design, I was just doing performance.

"The fun thing about directing is all the other choices. In this job you can do anything you want. There are no accidents. You, or someone on your team, are choosing everything that happens.  So I made it my deal to tell everyone what the story was, what was supposed to be happening emotionally, and then let them all contribute to that feeling."

While Feast operates on several levels, Osborne acknowledges that many viewers may not see past Winston's adventures. "There are hints here and there about the passage of time," Osborne points out. "The clothes change in every shot. James [Winston's owner] gets fatter. The set design starts out early ’90s, with VHS tapes and a NordicTrack machine.

"A lot of this stuff is dropped out of focus, but it still sneaks through. In fact, our visual development artists researched like crazy, trying to decide for everything, 'What makes it look like that?' We try to get all that information into the design so that people will sense it without really worrying too much."

Osborne credits his interest in animation to Jurassic Park. His father, who designed toys for Kenner in Cincinnati, bought him a book with storyboards for the film, opening up a world of career possibilities. Osborne received a degree in computer animation from the Ringling School of Art and Design. He worked on the previous Disney features Bolt and Tangled, and was head of animation for the 2012 Oscar-winning short Paperman.

Asked about his Oscar experiences, Osborne was most excited about the opportunity to talk at length with Boyhood director Richard Linklater. "Look, the other shorts that were nominated are awesome," he adds. "Anyone who makes stuff wants people to see it, that's the point of making it. And my film has been seen by millions of people because of the support of a studio that feels like it's valuable to do this kind of thing. I'm very grateful."