Making of Us Again

At its heart, the true foundation of the Walt Disney Company are short films. Before there was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before there was Pixar Animation Studios, and even before classic animated films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, there were short films featuring beloved characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and many more that were driven by music instead of iconic, symbolic characters. In the last decade, as Disney Animation continues its status as a standard-bearer of the animated medium, shorts at the studio have had a resurgence.

One such short, Us Again, is now available on Disney+ months after premiering with the latest Disney Animation feature Raya and the Last Dragon in its truncated theatrical release (combined with a VOD approach via Disney+ Premier Access). Written and directed by Zach Parrish, Us Again is the story of Art and Dot, an elderly married couple representing two different approaches to aging. Art’s grumpy and dour, while Dot remains young at heart. During the dialogue-free short, a magical rain washes over the glittering city where they live, making them young again and able to express their nostalgic delight through dance and music.

The Warring Impulses of Aging

In talking to Parrish during a recent press day, the warring impulses on aging were close to him personally. “It was kind of a sudden realization that I was starting to get older,” he said. “I was talking to my mom about it. She was talking about all these things that she was going to do when she grew up. The phrasing she used really struck me. From my perspective, I was old, and from her perspective, she was young.” For producer Brad Simonsen, Parrish’s point of view was what drew him to work with the director on Us Again. “I just saw something during [Big Hero 6, that made me really want to work with him. I think he’s got an incredible eye for animation and he has a unique ability to visualize the story.”

The Magic of Music and Dance

The true key of Us Again isn’t its fountain-of-youth story with the rainstorm that turns Art and Dot young. It’s the film’s use of music, through the work of composer Pinar Toprak, and dance, as derived from reference performers Keone and Mari Madrid. Toprak, whose previous scores include Captain Marvel and the Pixar short Purl, noted the difference in working on a Pixar short and working on Us Again. “Purl was already done. I basically scored the finished short. This one…I was involved from the very beginning,” she said. “Even before storyboards. It was such a wonderful way of working.” 

For the Madrids, working on Us Again meant more than just dancing as a way to guide the animators through the process of bringing the way Art and Dot moved to life. As Mari said, “We’re huge Disney fans. Disney Animation has such a legacy of amazing work that has spanned over generations.” Both Keone and Mari were brought onto the project after working on a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, and being compelled to join was an escalating process. “It honestly started as an email,” Keone said. “We [get told] Disney wants to meet. We had no idea what that meant. Finding out it was Disney Animation, [then] walking into the meeting room with Zach and Brad, we see all these sketches and pictures of Art and Dot dancing. We immediately felt the joy of [this being] an amazing opportunity, not just for us, but for dance.”

In the finished product of Us Again, Parrish said that roughly half of the dancing on screen was specifically drawn from what Keone and Mari did. “A lot of the ideas were there [already]. The specificity was not. What we tried to communicate in the storyboards were those emotional moments. It’s really a hybrid of lots of people’s awesome ideas.” Mari noted that specificity was something she and Keone saw in the animation as well as in their own work, too. “Something that I think connects between our style and animation is the attention to detail and specificity and the care that’s taken.”

Working Remotely

Unlike a number of other recent projects from the Walt Disney Company, most of the animation in Us Again wasn’t directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were fortunate because we try to tuck [the shorts] into the schedule of the studio between the big cruise liners of the features,” Simonsen said. “[Us Again] was the movie after Frozen II and before Raya and the Last Dragon. We slow-cooked in that window. Literally our last day of animation was the Friday before [in mid-March 2020].” As Parrish said, wrapping up the animation production remotely created new challenges. “That was another level of learning how to be super-clear with what you’re asking for. Making sure everybody is comfortable, and we all have the same context.”

For Toprak, the scoring process was a mix of getting things set before and during the pandemic. As she noted, the actual performance of the score took place during the fall of 2020. “I had written all of the music. We knew what it was going to sound like, but obviously we needed to record it. The score required quite a bit of position. We had 40 strings and a big band, and we had to figure out how to [record]. We did strings first, and then they left and the brass [performers] came and they had to be spread apart. I wanted to make sure we recorded exactly the way it was intended and I didn’t want to sacrifice on anything.”

A Million Lives

Now, of course, the vibrant and musically dynamic Us Again is getting a vastly larger audience than it had in the spring of 2021, attached to Raya and the Last Dragon. For Parrish, the accessibility is a good and a bad thing: “The idea of hundreds of millions of people watching the film is terrifying on some degree. But it’s cool! That’s the amazing thing about Disney: their platform is so big. If you’re trying to say something that has a positive message, you might get to bring a little joy. If 1% of Disney+ subscribers watch the film, a million people watched. You impacted a million lives. That’s just mind-boggling.”

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