TIFF 2018 Short Takes: Alison Snowden and David Fine on Animal Behaviour

by Andrew Parker

For their new and hilarious animated short film Animal Behaviour (which premieres this week at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival), tandem filmmaking team Alison Snowden and David Fine look at some of human beings’ basest instincts through the eyes of cleverly drawn and insightfully written critters with issues.

Fine and Snowden (who have been teaming up for over twenty years now) take a look at a group therapy session, led by kind, soft talking pooch Dr. Clement, who tries desperately to keep the wildly different problems and temparments of his patients from clashing too wildly. There’s Lorraine, a lovelorn leech, Todd, a stress eating pig, Cheryl, a narcissistic praying mantis, Linda, an OCD tabby cat, and Jeffery, a blue jay with some dark, repressed childhood secrets. The already tenuous and chaotic group dynamic is thrown into further disarray by the arrival of Victor, an ape with clear rage issues who refuses to engage in any sort of therapeutic treatment.

We sent Fine and Snowden some questions about the film that they collaboratively answered as they were en route to Toronto for the world premiere of Animal Behaviour.

After working together for so long, how has your collaborative process evolved over the years? What makes you want to keep working together?

We met at film school, so we were working together from day one. We really enjoy sharing our ideas and bouncing stuff off of each other. We don’t always agree with each other about everything, but that makes us work harder to prove ideas, or realize that something isn’t worth pursuing, so the dynamic of working together is something we really enjoy.

The characters in the film are incredibly well fleshed out, which is something that viewers can see by looking at the character profiles that can be found on the NFB website. What was the process like when trying to come up with what animals fit what personality types?

We were inspired by animals that have traits which are analogous to humans like anxiety, aggression, guilt, etc, so we looked for animals which best suited that remit and would also be a funny balance, visually. We always felt a dog should be the therapist.

What’s it like creating a main character like Victor in a short film and constructing a group dynamic around him? He’s a big and (for lack of a more appropriate term that might spoil things) boisterous sort of fellow.

Victor took the most care because we wanted him to be annoying and cynical, but also sympathetic. We really fine-tuned his dialogue until we felt we had it right. At first, he had quite a bit more dialogue and snarky comments, but it felt like he was too much of a wise-ass, so we cut it back and made him less communicative until it was drawn out of him. He had to be physically domineering so that as soon as he walked in, he posed a threat.

You guys have your own favourite sequences and stories that the patients share in the film, but personally I think the standout moment is Jeffrey the Blue Jay’s bit of regression therapy. What was it like being able to put something that gleefully strange into an animated film, and how did that sequence come about?

Thank you. We loved doing that sequence because we love film pastiche, and this was pure Hitchcock. I think our composer had a lot of fun doing the track, too. Initially, we had thought that maybe more of the characters would have little regressions where we visualized what they were saying, but in the end, it seemed to work to just have that one sequence with the bird because it was meant to be Dr. Clement trying to impress Victor with one of his techniques. It came about because our research showed that some birds will actually kill a sibling if they feel threatened by them in the nest. We thought that was the most extreme example of sibling rivalry.

There’s a lot of background detail throughout the film, and you can see the other patients doing things while other characters are talking. What’s it like creating subtle details for characters that don’t distract from the main point of the film and adding an extra layer of depth?

It’s something we have always done. We really like the idea that people watch the film again and maybe find new things, or that they notice the small details in the first viewing. It’s very real that other characters are doing things and keeps the screen alive.

Animal Behaviour screens as a part of Short Cuts Programme 7 at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 10 at 9:30 pm (Scotiabank Theatre) and Sunday, September 16 at 4:15 pm (Scotiabank Theatre).

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