ScreenCraft Exclusive: One-On-One with Disney Animation Producer Kristina Reed
Kristina Reed has been a producer for more than 20 years in animation and visual effects for feature films, shorts, commercials, and theme park attractions. For the past 7 years, she has served on the Studio Leadership Team of Disney Animation Studios, the squad of executives and producers that engineered the division’s complete creative, cultural, and financial reinvention.
Her short films, Paperman and Feast won Oscars in 2013 and 2015, and she co-produced the Oscar-winning Big Hero 6. Kristina is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the International Animated Film Society, and the Burning Man community. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Brown University and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two teenagers.
She also happens to be one of the judges for ScreenCraft's Family-Friendly Screenplay Contest.
We spoke with Kristina about her journey to Disney, the Academy Award experience, animation, and the anatomy of a short film.
ScreenCraft: Where did your own storytelling roots begin?
Kristina Reed: I was a voracious reader as a kid and I played around at writing all the time, experimenting with different voices and ways of telling stories. It all felt a little self-conscious the way young girls can be but my passion really took shape mid-way through college when I had the epiphany that I wanted to major in creative writing. Since I had spent the previous two years thinking I was majoring in this hot new field called computer graphics, I suddenly had to cram a whole lot of requirements for my new degree. I became deeply immersed in learning structure, voice, and dialogue, reading and writing under pressure for multiple classes. It was actually really rewarding in that my work got significantly better, although if you look at my college transcript, it looks completely schizophrenic.
ScreenCraft: What brought you to Disney?
Kristina Reed: It was 2008 and I had just finished Kung Fu Panda at Dreamworks Animation when Disney approached me. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull had been given the reins of the animation studio and they were laser-focused on re-igniting it. I had been thinking I would explore another career for a while, but the idea of taking a once-revered creative studio — the studio that had pioneered the animated feature — and attempting to restore it was really compelling. And because the head of the studio, Andrew Millstein, knew that to re-ignite it creatively, we would need to re-ignite it culturally, I signed on.
I am a big believer that getting great work from people depends upon making them feel valued. It was a management approach I had seen and felt at a small VFX company called Rhythm & Hues, where I first worked 15 years earlier. It was the kind of company that had a top-of-the-line health plan because John Hughes, one of the founders, believed healthcare was a basic human right. That experience informed my personal leadership style over the years and I’ve been fortunate to have been paired with talent that thrived under that style. The studio leadership team at Disney has brought about a true renaissance of the Disney Animation brand, all founded on the principle that the best creative work comes from people who feel deeply valued and engaged in the studio’s future.
ScreenCraft: What was the Oscar experience like after winning for Best Animated short?
Kristina Reed: Absurd in so many ways. First of all, the act of making nearly any kind of film and particularly an animated film requires so many people, with so many types of talent, it’s crazy that the process boils it down to a couple of names who actually climb on the whole surreal awards-season ride.
When they open the envelope and call out your name, you realize you’re at that do-or-die moment where you must step up and truly be the best representative of that crew possible. I managed to navigate a shoebox-sized cable-junction box in front of my seat and walk to the stage and up the stairs without tripping on the train of my dress. But I forgot to adjust my strapless top on the walk and I found myself staring out at a huge audience under massively bright lights, while my partner was giving his thank you speech, wondering if I could do a quick bodice-tug and not be noticed. Or maybe no one would notice who was watching live but one lone viewer in Africa would catch me. These are the sort of lizard-brained hurdles my brain was clearing while my partner was carefully calling out the amazing people who had worked so hard to get us there onto that stage that night.
Then the evening continues to get more preposterous because now you have this thing in your hands, this heavy gold totem that inspires a reaction from everyone instantly, like the One True Ring. There are armies of people backstage all congratulating you, and you want to share a bit of this crazy object with each one because they’re all working crazy hard to make this whole three-ring circus go but you’re getting prodded on to the press room, and other duties. The night is full of random intimate moments with otherwise-untouchable celebrities — like a hug from Julianne Moore because we’re both so giddy watching them put our nameplates on our statuettes. And the infamous Vanity Fair party where the legend is that your Oscar will get you in and it does: A literal sea of security guards, black SUVs, and concrete barriers part like the Red Sea once they see that gold talisman. But the true joy came from letting other people clutch the Oscar and pose with it because winning an Oscar is an idle fantasy we’ve all had and it’s fun to watch the glow come over their faces as they feel its weight in their hands.
ScreenCraft: Is it difficult to tell compelling story in short films?
Kristina Reed: It’s difficult to tell compelling stories period. That said, anything short — whether short story or short film or short play — has the added constraint of real estate. Every line, every shot has to do an enormous amount of work telegraphing information, engaging us in the story and getting us into the characters’ heads fast enough so that minutes later when the journey is over, we feel as deeply as they do. We’ve gone on that journey with them.
There is no room for extraneous fluff in a compelling short story. If you the creator feels deeply attached to something that could be considered fluff, ask yourself what it’s doing that you like and if that thing is truly necessary for the strength of the greater story. Or if there’s a more efficient way to get it.
Given that, I would recommend focusing your short film on a very simple story in terms of actual beats, and using all the other tools in the toolbox — the camera composition, the pacing, the production design, the sound — to help broaden your story into a larger comment about your world.
When I’m watching a truly great short, there’s an incredible moment that happens when I realize that the creator has been so deft that literally everything I’m seeing has been selected to further the story. Every line, every camera angle, every prop, not one detail is extraneous. That is a delicious feeling: to be in the hands of an auteur in complete control.
ScreenCraft: Is there any particular type of structure for a short film script, as opposed to a feature length script?
Kristina Reed: In a short film, the primary goal is to find the simplest version of your story possible. Then you can decide how best to structure the narrative.
The three-act structure that we’ve all been conditioned to love can work beautifully in a short film; Paperman and Feast were both three-act structure stories, and they each work so well because the actual story beats they move through are few in number.
Feast is a particularly simple story made glorious by the way the director Patrick Osborne chose to tell it: through the eyes of the dog, Winston. Then he was able to add a brilliant construct of having every shot centered on a plate of food. The camera is completely locked off until the moment when food stops being the center of Winston’s attention, then the camera starts moving, following Winston’s new goal, and there are even moments when food falls into Winston’s path and he dodges it deftly, underscoring the arc he’s on as a character. In the end, the film becomes about something much bigger than the specific story; it becomes about the relationships people have with their pets and how their pets love them back.
These are the kinds of cinematic tools you can put to deft use when your story doesn’t need a lot of beats. Ideally, the story beats are so simple that the film can contemplate saying something bigger about the world.
For example, there is a great short live-action film, nominated last year, called Butter Lamp. It relies on a purely visual system, rather than a narrative, to shine a light on multiple complex conflicting forces in its world. Yes, there’s a script, but it exists entirely in service to the larger idea of the film.
ScreenCraft: How do animated short films vs. live-action short films differ in terms of creative development and production?
Kristina Reed: Well, I imagine that short films get made through so many avenues and approaches that they can’t be so easily summarized by medium. In general, animation is really labor-intensive and the crew cannot create frames as quickly as a live action film crew can. So what we do is pull the editing up earlier in the process, essentially making it part of the story development step. Using storyboards to stand in for shots, we experiment, iterate, and shape the film as much as possible. This helps us hone exactly what the shape of the story is, including the length of the shots and where the action is at each cut, ideally enabling us to be really precise about what we need from the crew, with little waste.
Once we had our cut for Feast, we put frames of each shot up on a huge bulletin board and designed an overall lighting and depth of field approach that we then applied to each shot in the film. And for the watchful viewer, there’s a color scheme shift as well that mirrors Winston’s journey.
I think this is how you want to develop your short film, start with the simplest version of your story, decide how you’re going to tell it, lay it out in a way that you and your key crew can see it, walk through each shot with them and define how their craft areas will elevate the story and underscore its larger message.
ScreenCraft: It's interesting that companies are spending more and more money producing short films.
Kristina Reed: As media consumers, time is our most precious resource. Ultimately, this is what puts all forms of entertainment into direct competition with each other: Facebook, ESPN, Netflix, Disney World, Wall Street Journal, Activison, etc. We’re also competing against all the other ways people use their time: Little League, the gym, the nail salon, etc. Audiences have a finite amount of disposable time and if something will take a while to consume, that can become a barrier to entry. That said, people love stories. So a story told elegantly and compellingly in a bite-size nugget of time can be as delicious as a full meal. And nuggets are easier to share, which is what we’re all doing in this social media driven world.
ScreenCraft: What do the Academy Awards voters respond to in a short film?
Kristina Reed: The same thing all viewers respond to: a journey of some kind, an emotional arc that feels true to the characters, a deeper understanding of a situation that wasn’t obvious at the outset.
The Phone Call — the live action short that won last year — is a great example. The film is the story of a woman who works at a helpline call center and a man who is considering suicide after his wife’s recent death. Without spoiling it in any way, let me just say that the film absolutely takes the audience on a journey. The details of the characters are given to us in well-chosen shots, framed to highlight their loneliness or desire or panic. The goal of the female character shifts abruptly at one point in the film, and we watch her adjust. Ultimately, as the camera pulls away in the final shot, a deeper understanding of the journey sinks in. As a viewer, you walk away with the sense that you went somewhere and saw something with new clarity.
Read Part II of ScreenCraft's Exclusive One-On-One interview with Academy Award-winning producer Kristina Reed now in How to Write Four-Quadrant, Family, and Animated Scripts.
If you have a short film script and are looking for the funding to produce it, look no further than ScreenCraft's Short Film Production Fund. Submit your short script now.