Pixar Alums Turn to Directing With Animated Short Contender 'The Dam Keeper'

The Dam Keeper Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Tonko House LLC

The Dam Keeper Still - H 2014

Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi — two former Pixar art directors with credits including Toy Story 3 and Monsters University — gave their new banner Tonko House an impressive start: The first project, which they wrote and directed, is a moving animated short titled The Dam Keeper that made the festival rounds and landed a spot on this year’s Oscar shortlist.

A beautiful blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and digital painting techniques, the short follows an emotive little pig with the responsibility for running his village’s dam. Instead of holding back water, however, it holds back pollution. “This gets him a little dirty and sets him as an outcast; he isn’t treated with the respect that you would think his job would get him,” said Kondo. “That changes when the pig finds a little bit of a friendship in a Fox that comes to the town.”

The directors related that the pig is an introvert and he’s also strong, while the fox is outgoing and well liked; their goal was to change the pig’s perception of the world, in a short format story. “This new friendship opens him up to being vulnerable, and in that vulnerability we wanted to see what happens,” said Kondo. “In telling this story we were also able to talk about issues, including things like bullying and environmental problems.”

It was a labor of love for all involved. The pair wrote and made Dam Keeper during weekends and off hours while working at Pixar. Explained Tsutsumi, “We did a lot of the design work for this film, but we also wanted the experience of working with other artists. We brought on character designs, editors, painters — at the end we had about 70 who worked on this film, all volunteers.”

Kondo and Tsutsumi are now aiming to develop longform and serial projects under their Tonko umbrella.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA