Roger Ross Williams Q&A: ‘Life, Animated’ director
“It’s really a coming-of-age story about a young man who lost his ability to connect with the world,” notes Roger Ross Williams as we chat via webcam (watch above) about his new documentary “Life, Animated” that shines a spotlight on Owen Suskind‘s battle with autism. After losing the ability to communicate at the age of three, Owen “spent years after that watching Disney animated films, and his parents realized that he was not only watching these films, he was using these films as a way to understand language and reconnect with the world and emotion.”
The heartwarming documentary has already earned accolades at the Sundance Film Festival and Annie Awards, and just last week was shortlisted by the Oscars as one of the Top 15 films in the running for Best Documentary Feature. What does all of this awards attention mean for “Life, Animated”? “For me, it’s about giving Owen a voice,” Williams explains. “The film is told from Owen’s point of view, Owen’s perspective, it’s from the inside looking out … and so to be nominated would mean so much to so many people like Owen all around the world.”
“It was a long process getting the rights,” Williams reveals about all of the dozens of Disney movie clips that are showcased throughout the film. “Owen uses these clips as a way to make sense of the world and make sense of the situation in his life, so he is constantly watching clips that correspond to a challenge that he has in his life. That was a process that took over a year, but we had a great ally in Sean Bailey, who’s the president of Disney Productions.”
Since Owen is an aspiring animator himself, Williams decided to include original animation in the film to showcase Owen’s works. “That was a very complicated process,” he recalls. “It’s hand-drawn by 12 French animators working for a year to turn Owen’s inner world into reality. The last chapter of the book is the story of the lost sidekicks, and Owen only identifies with sidekicks in Disney animated films. He drew the villains and he created the story, so we just brought it to life.”
Also in our chat, Williams explains how the entire Suskind family have become ambassadors of the film, how “Aladdin” voice actors Gilbert Gottfried (Iago) and Jonathan Freeman (Jafar) became involved in the project, and where he keeps the Oscar that he won for “Music By Prudence” (Best Documentary Short, 2010).