January 18, 2021 11:00am

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Courtesy of Netflix

With his first large-scale, animated short, Canvas, director Frank E. Abney III channeled the pain of a major loss early in his life into a work of art.

Emerging from a moment when Abney found himself stuck in a “creative rut,” the film centers on a wheelchair-bound grandfather who lives in solitude, following the loss of his beloved wife. In the aftermath, the one-time artist must summon the strength to return to his work as a painter, reconnecting with his family, and also with his one true love, on the canvas of his latest piece.

For Abney, creating Canvas was not only a form of therapy, allowing him to process a profound life experience. It was also an opportunity to amplify the voices of Black artists in animation, both on screen and behind the scenes.

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After working at Pixar for seven years—his last credit as an animator being Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ Soul—Abney found in the short the opportunity to transition to Netflix, cementing his relationship with the streamer, with an animated feature he’s currently directing for it.

Below, the up-and-coming helmer reflects on the years-long process of bringing Canvas to the screen, and the kinds of projects he wants to take on, going forward.

DEADLINE: Can you tell us a bit about your trajectory in the world of animation, and how it led you to direct Canvas?

FRANK E. ABNEY III: As a kid growing up, I always loved to draw. My mom tells me I’ve been drawing since I was around two. I was always watching cartoons and movies, and I was captivated by the magic of animation, seeing these characters come to life that are made from your hand.

But what made me actually want to do it was The Lion King. I lost my dad when I was five years old, and I didn’t know why at the time, but I would watch it every single day after school, no exaggeration. That was the first time I really connected with a story on a deep level, because seeing Simba losing his father, and having those fears of oncoming responsibilities as an adult, that was me. That was the first time I really saw myself. I didn’t know I wanted to be an animator at that time, but that really launched everything for me, in terms of wanting to pursue this as a career.


In terms of it leading to Canvas, there was a period of my life some years ago where I was in a rough space, trying to navigate the industry and questioning my part in it, and around that time, I was spending time with family. Kids have this carefree spirit about them, and watching my niece—how she navigated a room, free of all the burdens of the world—was really inspiring. It allowed me to take some of that and release some of this burden, and just shake it off, and kind of reinspire myself through that.

So, I was reinspired and invigorated to create something, but I wanted it to be something special. I learned, getting into this business, the power in creating stuff that’s personal to us, as artists, and with that, I wanted to pull from this loss that I experienced, and my whole family experienced. Through that loss, I was watching my mom and how she navigated [it], and I always questioned if there was something there that she may have lost, in the loss of my father.

During that time, I was also around my grandfather, and he was very quiet and withdrawn. And I was wondering, what’s the backstory of that, as well? So, just having these experiences with my mom and grandfather, and my own experience with loss, and my experience with my niece all allowed Canvas to start to take shape.

DEADLINE: The idea of finding ways to create art, even in the midst of great pain, feels particularly timely right now.

ABNEY: Yeah. That’s why I always encourage my students, or just people on social media to create, especially during this time, because it really is therapeutic. Animation, and just creating in general, it’s been my voice. It’s been my way of taking in everything from the world and expressing how I interpret that.

DEADLINE: What were your earliest thoughts, as far as how you wanted the film to look? What inspired you to bring the worlds of 2D and 3D animation together?


ABNEY: Creating any project right now, I’ve been really trying to focus on making sure I’m creating something to represent my culture and where I come from, characters that look like me. We don’t see a whole lot of that in animation, so I wanted to make sure that I honor my responsibility, as a Black artist in this field.

So, I wanted to create characters that represent me. Also, with the main character, the grandfather, being bound by a wheelchair, I could have gone another route, having him walking and talking, and everything. But I wanted to do something that was, again, something that we don’t usually see in animation, and also something to tie in with his journey in the story of being withdrawn, and broken down by loss. [At the same time], in the film later on, when we’re suspended in that kind of dream sequence, he’s being lifted in spirit. But also, he’s able to lift himself out of this chair to greet his wife.

For the overall look, I love live-action films, and there’s a lot of reference that I pulled from live-action, in terms how of we handle the camera, and just the look of it, as well. I wanted to take some techniques, and some of the visual language in lighting, and transfer that into animation, so I linked up with DP Morgan Cooper. He’s from the live-action side of things, so we just talked about the camera, and lighting, and how he can handle that, and it was really beneficial for bringing something unique to Canvas.

As far as the 2D aspect, that was what I fell in love with, when I got into animation. So, that was my way of paying respect to 2D animation, by incorporating it into Canvas. Also, going back to that feeling that I’d had about that magical something, in seeing drawings come to life, I chose to use that medium for those sequences where it is either a memory, or some kind of dreamlike state—where it’s just something magical.

DEADLINE: How did you go about integrating 2D elements into the short?

ABNEY: It was all done digitally, using 2D animation software. The canvas texture, I added as an effect afterward, to have that quality, like it was on a canvas. That was something that I wanted to do early on, just as a tie-in to the grandfather being a painter.

DEADLINE: Was there a learning curve in tackling your first major short? What were the biggest challenges of the process?


ABNEY: I’d say the biggest challenge was trying to navigate working on this film while everyone was working [elsewhere] full-time. I was working full-time, as well, so it was all off-hours. And when I started the film, I didn’t have any kids. [By the time] we finished, I had two, and so that was another aspect of navigating trying to create this film, was wanting to be present at home. I would wait until the kids go to sleep and then I would work on this, whether it was a few hours or 30 minutes—any bit of progress I can get.

DEADLINE: How big was your crew? And how long did it take to bring the short to fruition?

ABNEY: It was around 30 artists. [But] we grew some in the post-production process, and we had a lot of very talented musicians in, scoring the film. The film actually took around five to six years to make. There was the conception of the idea, and then there was a little bit of a pause, trying to work out how to do this, and start off getting some visuals together, so I can be able to recruit other artists. I went to friends, and then I went to social media, people online whose work I admired, and just reached out so we could try and get it started. It was really slow going in the beginning, but then after we started releasing artwork and getting more interest, it started to pick up.

DEADLINE: How did the film land at Netflix?

ABNEY: When I initially released the characters—I believe on Twitter and Instagram—just early design work, showing the models and what I was up to, I got a message [from] Netflix, just really showing support for what I was doing. So, I kept in touch over the years, just to keep them informed about the short. I knew in the beginning, with the work that Netflix was doing, that I thought it would be a really good partnership, if that came to be, and then it ended up working out.

DEADLINE: What were the highlights of your experience with Canvas?

ABNEY: I’d say it starts at home, seeing how my family reacts to it. That’s always going to be a part of me, wanting to make family proud, and I always have this image in my head of seeing my two-year-old daughter watch it, and how she was so engaged. I was surprised, with her being so young, and then after, when I’m showing it again, how she turned back and looked at me with her eyes bright, just this excitement. So, that was a major highlight for me, just my kids being able to enjoy something that I made.

DEADLINE: I know you’re currently directing an animated feature for Netflix. What can you tell us about your ambitions going forward, as a feature director?

ABNEY: As a director I want to make films that center on character and real experiences. Whether it’s sci-fi, or any other genre, it has to be rooted in something true to our humanity. I love character and character-based stories, so digging more into character and bringing something honest to the screen that can make you think, and take you somewhere through a lived experience [is the goal].