Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest short, “Us Again,” is a dialogue-free experimental film where the whole story is told entirely through dance. Set in a vibrant city pulsating with rhythm and movement, an elderly man, Art, and his young-at-heart wife, Dot, rekindle their youthful passion for life on one magical night. The years fade away as the joy of dancing propels them across the exciting cityscape of their youth and revives fond memories and ambitions. With choreography from World of Dance stars Keone and Mari Madrid, “Us Again” is in theaters in front of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon, and will be available to stream on Disney+ in June.
The short’s director, Zach Parrish, has worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios for over a decade, and was head of animation on Big Hero 6. He previously directed the short film, “Puddles,” as part of the Short Circuit program, which is now streaming on Disney+. We were lucky enough to sit down (virtually, of course) with Parrish, and ask him a few questions about the vibrant, heartwarming film!
What was some of your initial inspiration behind the short?
It came from a variety of points, around me and my family’s views on aging. I was starting to recognize the changes in my own body — my knees were starting to give out, and wrinkles and grays and things like that — and longing for this point in my life that I felt I had lost. And talking to my mom about it, and she was in her 60s, mid-60s at the time, and she was talking about “when she grew up,” these things that she was going to do. And that got conversations going with my wife, and I was telling her about my grandparents, and I realized that [my two] set[s] of grandparents had very different views on aging. One sold their house, bought an RV, traveled the United States, went to all the national parks; and one kind of became sedentary and kind of adhered to this view of age that I think we kind of put on people in this country. And I just felt like that was a really interesting dichotomy to represent in a relationship, and also kind of that wish fulfillment of a fountain of youth that I was wishing for just felt like kind of a nice synergy there.
I was wondering about the meaning of the rain in the movie, and this is making me think, is that representative of the fountain of youth sort of thing there?
Yeah, that was kind of the idea, like, man, wouldn’t it be nice if I could be that guy again, that I’m longing for? Again, I’m only 36. ...And then extrapolating that and talking to my older family members about that feeling and kind of that wish fulfillment… I think I asked every family member, what would you do if you had one night where you could be young again? And got all kinds of varieties of answers, but my mom’s answer was the most interesting. She gave me this big list: “Oh, I would do this, and I’d eat this, and I’d go here,” and then she was like, “But wait. I don’t think I’d want to do that, because I like my life.” And that perspective being so different than mine [made me think] this feels like there’s something very sweet, emotional to be had.
How did your collaboration with Keone and Mari Madrid come about, and what was it like working with choreographers in animation?
It was awesome. It was a dream, just because I’m a huge fan of dance — I’m a terrible dancer, but I’m a huge fan of dance…. clips of theirs from World of Dance on YouTube were part of my original pitch when I pitched at Walt Disney Animation, and said, “Here’s one of my ideas. I’d love to create this entire world of dance, and I think it could look like this, and I would love it if it was this style of dance.” So it was mind-blowing when we called them and they actually agreed to come in for a meeting, and I got to meet them, but they were also great thought partners in story and character and everything, because they’re really great storytellers in their own right. So we had them along the journey for about a year, over a year. And we would show them every iteration of the storyboards, we would send them the music, get their notes, kind of collaborate in that way. But when we finally locked the story, gave them the reels with the final music, and they started sending us back pieces of dance specific to these scenes — yeah, I don’t know if I cried as much at any moment of making the movie as that. Because it was honest, and it was true, and it was emotional, and it proved that it was going to work. This whole thing was a little bit of an experiment — can [we] tell a story entirely through dance with no dialogue? And then when they came back with their dance, it was proof that like, oh, this is going to be good. This works.
So the clips were of themselves doing the dance that ended up being in the short?
Yeah, well, yes. They were in their garage basically. And a lot of times it was like, we’re thinking something like this. A lot of times, Keone would have their infant daughter on his chest, and they’d be acting it out for us. And then I’d give them notes, and they’d come back, and iterated like that.
I was really struck by how the emotion was communicated entirely through dance. And it reminded me a lot of the final ballet scene in An American in Paris, the Gene Kelly movie. And so I was wondering: Besides Keone and Mari’s dancing, were there any other specific dance scenes or musicals that inspired the short?
Yeah, definitely. An American in Paris is a great reference that we definitely looked at. It’s referenced in La La Land, which is also a movie that we referenced a lot, because La La Land was an amalgamation of a lot of references and a love of theater and dance as well. Singin’ in the Rain, we have a little tip of the hat to Singin’ in the Rain — literally. [LAUGHS] And then also, you know, I love Fantasia. I love stories that are told entirely through music and so — especially “Rhapsody in Blue,” [from Fantasia 2000] which is on the screen in the shot where they’re dancing in front of the drive-in theater, “Rhapsody in Blue” is actually on the screen. That was another reference, because it’s an ode to New York City, which, ours is not New York, but it’s a big city, it’s the hustle and bustle of that kind of metropolitan life. And so, yeah. Lots of references from kind of all over the place.
Yeah, the vibrancy of the city feels like such a big part of the short and that world. How did you guys go about creating the look and the feel of that?
Yeah. It was hard, because it’s a very big movie. Complexity-wise, it’s a lot of sets and cars and crowds, and things like that. So it was incredibly complex and I’m incredibly proud of the team for stepping up and knocking it way out of the park, way beyond what I ever expected. But we knew from the beginning that we needed the city to feel big and vibrant and youthful and energetic, in order to really contrast from Art, and to really make Art feel like, yeah, that’s really not my place anymore. I don’t belong out there, I’m not those people — just to really force himself into that corner to pull him out of. And then also thematically, we wanted the lighting of the film to feel theatrical, but also to feel old in some ways. We used a lot of neon light to try to elicit the feel of the ‘60s as well, to make it feel old and new at the same time.
Yeah, the light was really stunning. Was the city a specific city? I felt like, is this Chicago? Or is it sort of an amalgamation of different cities?
[LAUGHS] It’s an amalgamation, but Chicago is definitely a big one. You know, because that’s where — I grew up in Indiana, so Chicago is the nearest big, big city. And so it’s kind of Navy Pier, Grant Park-ish. And the bridge too, is reminiscent. But that type of architecture and things are also in New York. We also looked at downtown L.A., Santa Monica Pier, things like that. So, it’s definitely an amalgamation.
This is your second short with Disney. What did you learn from your first experience that you brought to this one?
That’s a great question. When making “Puddles,” it was a much smaller team, over a much smaller period of time, and it was, you know, let’s try to get it done. And I was very much learning the ropes, learning the dialogue — each department has different words they use, and different ways, and different kinds of notes that are helpful for them — so learning the process was a huge learning curve on that film. On this film, it was kind of a refinement of those ideas, but also learning how to take so many more notes, and [there are] so many more voices in the collaboration. My job was very much trying to be super clear, and super attentive to my vision while also recognizing that I don’t have all of the best ideas, and to let the film become what it needs to be based on the best ideas in the room. And with that many more people, that part of the job became much more front of my mind.
“Us Again” is in theaters in front of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon, and will be available to stream on Disney+ in June.