Kitbull

Rosana Sullivan (2020)

Fear, courage, and love find their purest expression in an evolving relationship between a kitten and a pitbull. Produced as part of Pixar’s new Sparkshorts initiative, Kitbull is a rare work of hand-drawn animation from the studio. It’s the first directorial effort from Sullivan, who’s worked as a storyboard artist on several Pixar features.

Sullivan: I was stressed out at work, so I started drawing this scrappy little kitten as a fun escape. I was always attracted to the frenetic, unpredictable energy of cats, and craved more thoughtful representation of it in animation (like Simon’s Cat).

I had also studied to become a veterinarian before making the switch to animation, and used to volunteer at multiple clinics and shelters. It was here that I encountered pitbulls up close, and saw how sweet and gentle they could be, despite my initial fears of them. I also saw the disproportionate number of black cats that were still not adopted. So I set out to tell a simple story about the two.

As I kept boarding off and on over the years, I started to find more personal meaning in these characters’ relationship. I had always personally struggled with deep social anxiety, so the themes of isolation, connection, trust, and empathy resonated with me. My hope was to capture these universal feelings through the lens of these two characters’ experience, and hopefully reflect on how we treat animals, as well as each other.

Growing up, I loved how the older classic animated features and shorts were unafraid of showing darker themes, from Dumbo to Princess Mononoke. I think this helped me form a deeper range of emotions and empathy as a child. I didn’t want to shelter children from the more raw realities of this story, so I tried to find as tasteful a way to weave them in.

I really cared about these characters. I knew that in order for both to be able to connect, they had to understand each other’s pain and learn to be vulnerable with each other. Unfortunately, that meant putting both of them through the worst. I never wanted to linger too long in the dark moments, and relied on my crew and peers to gut-check if I was going too far in either direction.

Observing animal behavior has always been a deep passion for me, so I found the subtle and bold body language of the kitten and pitbull to be immediately engaging. This allowed their interactions to be uncomplicated and pure. However, because there was no dialogue, I had to make sure the story was as airtight and efficient as possible. It meant cutting out a lot of moments that would have pulled the viewer out of the story.

Although the core of the story always remained the same, the short changed from a lighter, looser, sprawling narrative to a darker, more condensed piece. The longest version was an 18-minute-long storyboard reel that I had cut myself. When Pixar offered to produce it as a Sparkshort, I was able to bring on an amazing editor, Katie Schaefer Bishop, who cut it down to a six-minute reel.

The initial premise of the Sparkshorts program was to see what a director could do in six months with a small crew, virtually no oversight… and preferably not rated “R.” We were pretty much left alone to determine what we made. 2d was my first love, and on a practical level, it was the most producible medium for our story, time, and budget. However, I also felt the kitten’s unpredictable nature could only be captured by the imperfect beauty and energy of hand-drawn animation.

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