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Interview: Dave Mullins on What Inspired His Oscar-Nominated Short, Lou

Whether it’s Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, or Inside Out, Dave Mullins is no stranger to the world of animation. Pursing his desire to create an animated short, Mullins created Lou, which has now been nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars.

I caught up with Mullins to talk about how the short challenged him and how he brought a pile of clothes to life to help a playground bully. Read our chat below:

How did you come up with the look of Lou who is just a pile of things?

That’s the fun of it. You think about this character that embodies the spirit of giving things back and accepting people and he’s just made up of all the things that are lost or forgotten. As an animator, it gives you really a lot of tools to come up with designs and have fun with them. Early on, we knew we needed a face on there because you can’t put emotions on a lunchbox. When I figured out he as going to have baseball eyes and buttons for the pupils and the hoodie was going to be his face, once that came together we could do whatever we wanted for whatever joke or situation he got into.

Talk about the animation and the conversations you had around bringing him to life?

You want to make him a character that people can relate to and you push it to something that people can relate to such as his face. At a certain point, we had the story working well and we looked at storyboards. We decided we wanted to push the boundaries so when we come up with him as a snail or as a human on the bench and all the different shapes, we could start putting the jokes in and the gags, but we had to work out the story first.

When you’re tending to the story, you’re not looking at the gags, you’re looking at the emotions, and once you get the story working, then you look at what crazy things you can do.

You have JJ who is the adversary. Talk about his evolution.

Believe it or not, JJ was the hardest character because writing a character that is a villain like that and has a turn and you have to have the audience feel for a character, that was hard. If you turn him too quickly it doesn’t feel like it’s earned and it’s an after-school special. If you’re being too mean, you’re never going to like him. There was this balance where we had to dig in and find out what makes a bully click. Why is he doing all this? What we came up with was what motivates them and most of them are trying to get attention. It’s something I related to as a kid, I was a new kid and the class clown. JJ is definitely a bully but he’s also inappropriately trying to play with these kids and he’s doing it the wrong way so these other kids don’t like him. He’s really an outsider and once you crack that, he’s just this kid who wants to be accepted and he’s doing it the wrong way.

When Lou forces him to be compassionate with the other kids at the school and that’s when the story starts to take shape and that’s when we felt we had really figured it out.

Is there a checklist? It needs to have heart. It needs to have him liked. What do you go through?

All the Pixar films abide by this. They have to have heart which means the character is flawed and they grow. That’s what everyone relates to. You really want to be in an interesting setting. It’s a familiar setting, you’re looking at it from Lou’s point of view when he’s crawling around.

From an animation point of view, we want to make sure the film is something that has to be animated. We want to make sure it’s something you can’t shoot with talented actors. The other thing is it has to be entertaining and funny. Those are the checkmarks we go through.

With animation it’s never a 28-day shoot. How long did this take you?

I’ve been pitching stories for a while and this is something that took a while. We were in development for nine months. To make it, it was another nine months, because we had to fit in the feature films. I worked on a feature and work with Lou, and then back to the feature. The shorts had to fit in between those cracks.

Why a short?

A short is a pretty big challenge for a writer/director. To get to this point where I was comfortable with writing and directing it was a big challenge for me.

First of all, you need to prove yourself. Shorts are a great place to test that.

What made you say I’m going to name it Lou?

I was originally passionate about calling it Lost and Found. I look back on it now and think, “Oh Wow.” Once we found the LOU it was such a great way to refer to him. We have a character we can call by name. I liked that a lot.