How Doc 'Life, Animated' Brought an Autistic Boy's Imagination to Life Through Disney Sidekicks

To tell the story of Owen Suskind, who found his voice through 'The Little Mermaid's' Sebastian, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams turned to original animation.
Courtesy of The Orchard
Owen Suskind (inset) imagines a world in which he teams up with famous Disney cartoon sidekicks, including Baloo the bear from 'The Jungle Book.'

In his new Oscar-nominated documentary, Life, Animated, director Roger Ross Williams, 43, faced a unique challenge. The film recounts the singular story of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who learned to speak by mimicking the characters in Disney animated movies. Williams — an Oscar winner for the 2010 short doc Music for Prudence and a member of the Academy's board of directors — had access to home footage shot by Owen's father, journalist Ron Suskind, and he conducted new interviews with Owen, now a young man, as he ventured out into the world. But how would he dramatize the role that animated films played in Owen's imagination?

Williams' solution was to employ animation itself, even though he'd never worked in the medium. With the help of Disney exec Sean Bailey, he secured the right to use extensive clips from the Disney films. But he needed something more. So he turned to the Paris-based Mac Guff design studio (separate from the Mac Guff animation operation that Illumination Entertainment acquired in 2011), which created line drawings of the young Owen that were used to fill in his backstory as well as an original, 6-minute animated sequence called The Land of the Lost Sidekicks. It's a story that Owen invented in which he imagines a boy teaming with all the Disney sidekicks with whom he identifies — from The Little Mermaid's Sebastian to Aladdin's Iago — to battle monsters and establish their own identities.

"The idea is you are immersed in Owen's head," Williams explains. "The characters had to be drawn as if they came from Owen's hand, slightly imperfect but beautiful. It was Owen's interpretation of the characters, so they couldn't be too much like Disney. And the world had to be immersive, rich, beautiful and colorful." Adds Mac Guff animation supervisor Mathieu Betard: "We took the iconic characters and tried to make them as graphic and simple as possible. We also had to make their looks work together, since the characters are from different Disney movies. They had to support Owen's story."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.