By Harper Harris
In one of the most visually and emotionally striking films nominated for Best Animated Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards, The Dam Keeper has garnered a lot of well-deserved praise. The creators, Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, have worked as art directors on such films as Toy Story 3, Ratatouille, and Ice Age, but got together to create The Dam Keeper as a very personal short film, and it shows. The film, done in a gorgeous painted style with almost no words, is unique and heartbreaking despite its short running time of only 18 minutes. What’s more exciting than such a great short? Why, how about a series of graphic novels by the creators, published through First Second, that explores this world?
The Dam Keeper is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world with anthropomorphic people living in a valley, the only safe haven from the dark and dangerous clouds that surround it. Keeping this darkness at bay is Pig, a young boy with no family who must wind the windmill every day to blow back the clouds. In the short, he meets a girl his age, Fox, and through a series of wordless interactions, they become friends. However, a misunderstanding causes a rift between the two that has drastic consequences for the entire valley, which leads to the dramatic climax. Kondo and Tsutsumi recently announced that they plan to elaborate on the world of The Dam Keeper through a series of new graphic novels. I got a chance to speak with both creators to hear about this interesting cross-media expansion on their celebrated short film. The below answers come from the team collectively.
Where did the initial idea for the short film spring from?
The Dam Keeper was our first effort to write and direct together as a team. Initial ideas of an unsung hero in a polluted world went through different variations in discovering our creative process. Along the way, we rediscovered a childhood folktale, The Little Dutch Boy, about a boy whose little act of sacrifice ended up saving his town. We wondered, “What if our character held the responsibility of saving his town not just once but every day?”How did you decide on the very unique visual style for the short film?
We spent time thinking about what might distinguish us as a team. Because we worked closely together for over seven years at Pixar and had influenced each other’s artwork, we actually could paint like each other. This made us unique within the art department there and it felt like the unique thing we could apply to our film. Not to mention, creating a painted look seemed a more natural route for us at the time than building a 3D CG pipeline.
With over 8,000 painted stills, it must have been a painstaking process! How long did the film take to create?
The actual production and post-production ran for 9 months — a long process, but considering we all had full-time jobs during the day, it was an extremely well run production thanks to our producers Megan Bartel and Duncan Ramsay.
Part of what makes the short so interesting is how little we as an audience really know about the circumstances in this world where a dark cloud constantly threatens the valley beneath. What made you decide to explore this world more deeply?
For us, on one level, the dark cloud represents our character’s internal demon. On another level, it also speaks to us quite literally, and so we have always imagined other cities and people living on the other side of the dam. It feels natural for us to explore how different societies might deal with this deadly fog and how the particular inhabitants of each civilization would have their own respective social issues, just as we saw with Pig’s idyllic-seeming town in the short.
Speaking of, will the book series focus primarily on Pig’s future as he grows up, or will there be a look into the past of this world as well?
There will be elements of both, with a very emotional storyline for Pig and his friends set against the ticking time bomb of their polluted world. But there will be a lot of laughter along the way, too.
One of the many things that makes The Dam Keeper so endearing is its lack of dialogue…do you plan to keep the companion graphic novels in the same silent style?
Dialogue will be an important addition to the story and we hope to use it while maintaining the feeling and tone of the short.
Will these companion pieces be graphic novels in a comic book style, or more along the lines of illustrated novels?
Much as we did with the short, we are exploring different ways to execute this new form of storytelling, not just in terms of format but as a team, since we haven’t done a book together before.
Why a graphic novel series to continue the stories in this whimsical world instead of, for example, an animated series?
We are concurrently pursuing an animated feature adaptation of The Dam Keeper. Our company, Tonko House is open to telling stories in different formats. We believe graphic novels are different than films, but are great vehicles for narrative just the same. We are inspired by stories like Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki‘s This One Summer and Gene Luen Yang‘s American Born Chinese.
What kind of adventures can we hope to see Pig, Fox, and Hippo get into?
Pig and Fox’s adventures will be epic, wondrous, revelatory and daunting all at the same time — they will be taken out of their element and challenged as they come of age. And they will be joined on this journey by a most unexpected ally or enemy, depending on whose point of view it is.
What inspired you to jump the story ahead to their teen years rather than continuing to explore their youth?
The early teen years are such an interesting rite of passage, when innocence challenged by one’s awareness of the world forces growth in character. The underlying story is based upon a personal anecdote that fits well at this point in our characters’ lives as they are forced to engage with who they are and who they want to be.
While the short covers some darker territory, it maintains a childlike tone that is both charming and quite beautiful; can we expect the story to get a little more adult in tone in the continued story as the characters grow older?
We believe in the balance of light and darkness, and we will strive to capture both to connect with international audiences of all ages. We want the choices our characters make to have real consequences, whether it is neglecting your responsibility and letting the darkness in, or something new and possibly more far-reaching. We feel that if our characters and their motivations ring true, then this journey of boys becoming men will be enjoyable by many regardless of age.
How did you come to choose First Second as the publisher for this series?
We are big fans of First Second first and foremost as readers. As creators, since conceiving the larger story of The Dam Keeper, we have been searching for the right people to work with in both film and publishing to help protect it and take it to the highest level of work we are capable of. When we met our editor, Mark Siegel, there was an instant connection and the kind of partnership we had sought after. We feel we are in great hands to learn this new medium for Tonko House.
How many books do you foresee being in the series?
It’s a bit of wait and see!
Do you feel that you may hand the reins over to a different writer or artist at some point to let them explore this world, or will this always be a personal project for the two of you?
We would most likely always be involved with how the world of The Dam Keeper expands. The story we are working on now is based on our own personal life experiences, and we hope any artists or writers we work with will bring the same level of personal investment and motivation into this world. Coming from big feature animation studios where teamwork is essential, we hope always to collaborate with and learn from other artists since those experience have proven to be extremely rewarding time and time again.
When can we expect the first book to release? Where can fans follow both of you and your work?
We’ll be working around the clock to have the books ready as early as possible.
The first of two graphic novel sequels to The Dam Keeper will arrive in 2016 from First Second.
The Elite Beat Staff is a trained squad of ninja masters.