'Life, Animated': A Brand New Documentary About An Autistic Boy Who Found His Way Through Disney Films
We caught up with Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams and Ron Suskind, the author of the book the doc was inspired by, to find out more about the documentary that's teaching everyone things they never knew about autism. It's one to watch in this year's Oscar race!
‘Life, Animated’, a new documentary by Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Mills, has recently been announced as one of 15 shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Oscars. It’s already won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and received praise from documentary greats like Louis Theroux who recommended it to his Twitter followers just the other day. And it's out in cinemas now!
So what’s it all about?
‘Life, Animated’ is a doc all about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who could barely communicate with his parents until they discovered that he was using the Disney films he watched to relate to the world around him and understand his own life experiences. It was a breakthrough discovery, and from then on the family started using Disney quotes and characters to communicate with Owen. Suddenly, they could understand and get through to the boy that they had not been able to find since he was two years old.
‘Life, Animated’ tells an incredible story about autism and one family’s love and commitment to accommodate it into their lives. It also makes an interesting point about reality vs. fiction, and how our lives are interwoven with stories.
Last week we caught up with director Roger Ross Mills and Pulitzer prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, who authored the best-selling book that the documentary was based on (‘Life, Animated – A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism’), and who’s also Owen’s dad. We wanted to know a bit more about how Roger came to be such a big success in the directing world and find out more about his latest project.
How did you know you wanted to be a director?
ROGER: I wanted to be a director because I was seeing real journalism, and really journalism meets art in documentary film. I used to be a journalist and I really wanted to tell stories that were giving honest truth about things that were going on in the world.
What’s your advice for someone starting out as a director?
ROGER: There’s a lot of advice that I could give. What I always say to people is make sure that the story you’re trying to tell is personal to you, that it’s something that you’re really passionate about. It doesn’t have to be about you but it needs to be something you’re passionate about because you need that passion to carry you through. And if you have that passion then you’re going to tell a great story and you’re going to make a great film because it’s something you have to do, you have to get out, a story you have to tell, so it’s essential that you feel a connection to what you’re doing.
Favourite thing you’ve directed?
ROGER: ‘Life, Animated’ is my favourite thing I’ve directed, because it was such a difficult film to make - it’s so complex and there are so many layers to it. It has three different types of animation in it – Disney animation, our own original animation that takes us inside Owen Suskind’s beautiful mind, and the hand line drawn animation. It has all these layers, and to build and to tell a story using all these layers was a challenge and I love a good challenge. So ‘Life, Animated’, definitely artistically, is my favourite film.
What made you want to tell Owen’s story?
ROGER: This is a dream for any director because it’s a powerful story about the power of story, and as a story teller why wouldn’t you want to tell a story about how powerful stories are, and have an amazing subject.
For me I had the library of the classic Disney films, I got to bring Owen’s inner world to life and create original animation… it’s like a creative goldmine!
Did you have any misconceptions about autism when you first started the film and what did Owen teach you?
ROGER: Well I didn’t know anyone with autism, which I think was probably a good thing because I came to it fresh and I discovered Owen. So the audience gets to discover Owen and slowly be transformed into Owen’s inner world and start seeing the world through Owen’s eyes, from the inside looking out. I think the audience then gets to take this incredible journey into the beautiful, rich mind of Owen, and their lives are better for it. That’s what happened to me, and I think that’s what will happen to audiences who’ll watch ‘Life, Animated’.
RON: In a way that’s what happened to us over twenty years since Owen was diagnosed. You know, in 90 minutes the audience run across through decades of depth and search and findings and learning that the family went through. And they arrive at the end when the lights come up, as Roger says, with new eyes as to all sorts of things, including the power of story in all of our lives.
Ron Suskind (left) with Roger Ross Williams (right).
Click here for the video interview!