'Short Circuit' Season 2 Sets Out On New Adventures With Promising New Short Film Directors [Interview]

Five new shorts just arrived on Disney+, showing off the directorial skills of the studio's brightest animators. The films were made as part of the Short Circuit program, an initiative started back in 2016 to develop original ideas into short films.

The program accepts pitches from anyone at Walt Disney Animation and since it casts such a wide net, the shorts end up being incredibly diverse and experimental, each exploring different topics and styles. This newest season includes shorts that range drastically in tone, from the joy of brightening up a dreary commute to the bittersweet feeling of returning home.

I (virtually) sat down with Short Circuit production manager Jennifer Newfield to talk about the production process and the overall goals for the Short Circuit program. Newfield has been with the program since its inception, working with filmmakers to hone their ideas before pitching them to the committee. Here's what she had to say about everything Short Circuit.

I know experimentation is a big part of Short Circuit, and all of these shorts have such different animation styles, and probably different needs, because of that. I'd love to hear more about the process of working through those.

That's an excellent observation. I agree, it's a challenge, but it's almost the goal of the program, right? So, setting out on these different adventures with new directors, especially who have these visions of what they're trying to achieve, I'd say one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for me is really getting to know them. Especially before they start, ideally, if we have time, so I can get to know what their personal aspirations are, and really dig into their inspiration behind it... So I can start to really understand what their ideal vision at the end is and help to set expectations for that.

Then I'd say the biggest part of my job, honestly, is putting their teams together, bolstering them up with the people that they really need to execute their vision. And if it's a blind spot for me, something that I've never done, or that I don't know a lot about, I bring on advisors for them, to mentor them, and work through it.

I think what's really cool is because we're this nice different corner of the studio, we get to push on things that maybe features wouldn't necessarily jump into, as a challenge, because they have so many other things to think about in 90 minutes, versus our 90 seconds. I really enjoy that we get to use our tools at the studio in a really, really different way. I think that people are really drawn to that, also, and want to work on some of the shorts because we're doing that, which is exciting.

What do you hope is the takeaway for the filmmakers who do the program?

That's an excellent question. I love that question. I think, naturally, what they get out of it themselves, and what they say is, their eyes are opened to all the different talents that come out of working with people from every department. Usually, they're very siloed in their individual jobs, and this kind of opens their eyes, which is definitely a part of the idea behind it.

But then for me, additionally, I think appreciation is part of it. But my ideal situation is that they come out of Short Circuit, and then want to connect more with other people at the studio and continue that on in their regular day jobs.

Because selfishly, coming from production management, the more that artists collaborate, the smoother a lot of shows run. Because they have a greater understanding of how things work, not necessarily to dictate what other people are doing, but to actually reach out and ask, and make more connections, and collaborate more with each other, so that they can push their own limits, and spend the time on the creative, and not have to worry as much about logistics.

I think they probably instinctually come away with a lot of that. But my hope is that they carry that forward into the rest of their jobs, to make sure that they are doing their own footwork, to reach out to people in their day jobs, so that they can make more connections and solve more problems. I think could be a really great added benefit to the program being at the studio.

Were you also part of Short Circuit, season 1?

Yes. So I took over the program from one previous person who had done a lot of the season 1 shorts, because the program itself started six or seven years ago, and before Disney+ and all that, as a studio program, just to push ourselves and evolve, and find new voices and talent within our walls.

But that person, Nick Russell, who's a great, also, producer, I took over from him. Then I worked on Downtown, Jing Hua, Exchange Student and one called Kite. That was a VR project that actually ended up going into the VR space, which is awesome too.

So I had my hands in a lot of those, and Songs to Sing in the Dark has been in production for a really long time, as well. That was like a handoff, to finish out. And it's been great to see the huge wide range of shorts that have come out of it, since the inception of the program.

What does the process look like, for choosing which shorts will go forward, and which other shorts they'll be paired with for a season?

Yeah, I love talking about that because it's so different than anything else we do at the studio, where we'll have an open submission, where anyone, literally anyone at the studio, can submit an idea for Short Circuit. The way that we do it is, it's a blind selection process, where anybody can write out an idea and they have a pitch.

I hold open office hours for a period of time where people can bring their pitches to me. And we hone them, we work through them, I give them notes back on some of their ideas, and they bring visuals with them to the table. When they feel like it's ready, we submit it to a committee.

So I bring together 10 people from all over the studios, current filmmakers, for features development folks, people like VF, visual effects supervisors, and they all come together. They have no idea who submitted.

Then we read over the pitches, and look at the visuals, usually about 40 to 50 submissions at a time. They pick typically two, but it ranges, depending on the availability of the studio, from that grouping. Then I bring back notes to everyone who didn't get selected, as well, so they can start honing, and going again for a potential next round of selections.

But what's so nice is, I'm kind of the middleman of the liaison. I have no say on the committee of which ones get selected. So it's really nice for me to be a third-party person, who gets to just help the filmmakers work on their ideas.

So when you're going through that process with them, what's changing? And with this crop of shorts, what changed a lot from the initial pitches to the final product?

That's a really great question. Yes. Some of them get selected after on the first go-round of submission, and then some of them submit multiple rounds. And I'd say, what changes and evolves... Sometimes it's as simple as scope and complexity. If we feel like something's too big, we'd be biting off way more than we can chew, we have to give the notes of, "Listen. You have to either scale back." Or "this is feeling automatically too long or too complex of an idea. So how can we tell your same story and hone in more on your theme?"

That's often where it comes down to. It's like, "What are you really trying to say with this short?" It's so concise. You have to have a very clear vision as to what you want the audience to take away from it at the end or a fun slice of life or snippet that you're trying to tell. So it's usually refocusing the structure of pitches around that concept.

Plus, I encourage them to really, in their pitches, talk about any personal connection that they may have to the idea. And I say, "Really talk to us as a panel, as if you're standing up in front of us. Tell us why we should make this short at this time." And that's a big note that I've given before.

So less of that, personal preference or specificity, I'm really not about that. It's more just about, how do I make them better storytellers from the get-go, which ultimately, selfishly ends up benefiting me later, when they go to direct and they know what they want.

Yeah, of course. Once they're all chosen, what's the timeline for the production?

Usually what we do is, we say, we set aside a timeline of four months. That doesn't always work out immediately, for the directors to jump right in and spend four full months right away. So sometimes it rolls over a long period of time, depending on what their other assignments in the studio are at the time.

But we curate it to the director, so we can ebb and flow. But that's the range of time in, usually, which we give them.

When you have the shorts altogether, and you have a season of Short Circuit, are you thinking at all about there being a through-line? Do you feel like there needs to be some kind of connection?

What's so unique about Short Circuit is, because it's a studio program that we're so passionate about continuing, to allow for the opportunities we've been talking about is, they don't have that curation to them, necessarily, but you ended up when you watch them together in groupings, you kind of find those things yourself. It's almost like a discovery moment. And I think that's really unique and kind of special about the way that they have landed.

Even if some of them have some similarities, there's a really high probability chance that they were selected years apart from each other, unbeknownst to previous committees. You know what I mean? So it's more happened like happenstance, just happy accidents that if they have some familiarity to each other, that's the way the shorts were pitched and born, and not necessarily curated as a grouping.

Do you feel like that's true of this collection, and in what way?

Yes. I think that one really natural thing that comes out of Short Circuit ideas, is that first-time filmmakers honestly, usually have some kind of personal connection in which they infuse into their ideas. If you think about the way that people make all kinds of other films as their first pieces that they're going to put out there, they want to make something that's either familiar to them, or they feel passionate about, or is a part of them.

I really do think that's a really great through-line for Short Circuit overall. And this season definitely has little bits of that from each filmmaker, a part of themselves is infused to their stories. And I think that that could actually just make the viewer experience all that more enhanced, because they're feeling it through the eyes of the director.

So for you, just looking back at season 2, how do you hope the audience responds?

Well, there's certainly multiple moments for both laughter and nostalgia, and I think that's the fun of this collection is, it doesn't leave you feeling one particular way. And I think that's great.

Because if they all had the heartstring tugs of Going Home, I think that it would be so challenging to get through them all. And I think that's why there's the Dinosaur Barbarians of the world, and Crosswalks of the world, so you can get that mix of emotions. I just really hope that people open their eyes to the beautiful and very specific choices of all the aesthetics that each short went for. None of these, not a single one is our traditional CG look of Disney animation.

But I think that's the beauty of these particular projects and the experimentation they went for. If the audience can just open their eyes to that part of it, and hopefully admire a little bit what the filmmakers were able to get on-screen visually, I think that would be so satisfying.

What are you proudest of, now that it's all complete? 

I am extremely proud that each of the filmmakers really enjoyed making their shorts. It's hard, it's difficult, and it's the first time. There could be a lot of stumbling blocks and things that you look back on, and you wish could be better, or whatever it may be.

But I'm really excited, and I think the program has really supported each one of them uniquely, and I think that they enjoyed it. And I think that's what I am the most proud of.


Season 2 of Short Circuit is streaming now on Disney+