While many documentary filmmakers find themselves in a constant search for a potential story, American director Roger Ross Williams had a personal connection to the subject of his latest film before he knew he was going to make it.
As a journalist at ABC News some 15 years ago, Williams worked alongside a man named Ron Suskind whose youngest son, Owen, developed autism at the age of three. When Owen withdrew into a silent world, and experts remained unable to help, Ron and his wife Cornelia began to lose hope. But as Owen grew and developed an obsessive love of Disney animations, he started to memorise and recite dialogue and, eventually, was able to use the films and their characters as a gateway to effective communication.
As Ron was writing a book about his family, he approached Williams about turning it into a documentary. (“Cornelia always says that she would only have done the film with me,” Williams says, “and that’s because I knew the family.”) While no stranger to factual filmmaking – his 2010 documentary short Music by Prudence won an Oscar – Williams reveals that he approached this project with particular care. “I felt a big responsibility to Owen,” he says. “To allow him to tell his own story, and to allow the audience to take this journey into his mind. I knew that the Suskinds would be happy if I told the story from Owen’s point of view and created a true representation of who Owen is, and his beautiful, rich mind and world.”
In order to do that, however, Williams knew that he first had to shape an accessible narrative structure that would enable Owen’s remarkable personality, and journey, to come to the fore. “I had to think about how I was going to tell a story that’s all in the past, and wrote an outline of the backstory beats. Then I started talking to Ron and Cordelia and, in a matter of fact way, they said ‘Oh, Owen’s graduating, and moving into his own apartment, and is in love.’ And then it hit me that he was about to go through a transformative year in his life, and that’s the film. It was a eureka moment.”
And so it was that Williams and his director of photography, Thomas Bergmann, followed Owen as he struck out on his own and lived independently for the first time; a man not simply defined by his autism but also by his recognisable human experiences and interactions. “The stakes are higher for Owen, but it is a traditional coming of age story,” says Williams. “And it was also about the hero’s journey; he was becoming the hero of his own destiny, his own future. He had come such a long way from a child who couldn’t communicate to a man who was living totally independently.”
To fill in the backstory of Owen’s challenging childhood years, Williams again looked to the man himself. “I had the luxury of having all the Suskinds’ home movies, but it wasn’t enough. Then I realised that Owen had always sketched, and it was like he had drawn his own backstory.”
The sketches to which Williams refers are Owen’s renderings of the Disney characters he loves so much; specifically, the legion of sidekicks (including Aladdin’s Iago and The Jungle Book’s Baloo) who have acted as his emotional and psychological touchstones through adolescence and into adulthood. Owen’s self-penned story featuring these characters, Land of the Lost Sidekicks, has been stunningly brought to life by Universal-owned French animation studio Mac Guff (The Lorax, Despicable Me) after Disney granted unprecedented permission for Williams to recreate their characters. (“They saw that what they created actually changed a life,” he says of Disney’s unequivocal support for the project. “And that was really moving to them.”) Together with equally as evocative black-and-white recreations of key moments from Owen’s past, these animated sequences offer genuine insight into what life has been like for this young man.
Just as important in this regard is Life, Animated’s masterful sound design, overseen by Skywalker Sound, which goes some way to recreating the overwhelming and isolating experiences of living with autism. “The whole concept was to get inside Owen’s head, so I wanted a composer who could really reflect that,” says Williams. “I read an article in the New York Times about a 23-year-old electronic music producer named Porter Robinson, who grew up on animation and video games and uses all of that in his music. I contacted him and he was on a worldwide tour, but the label said that they had another young electronic music genius named Dylan Stark. I heard Dylan’s music and I was blown away.”
“Dylan spent a year on the project,” the filmmaker continues. “He took Owen’s talking and he turned it into almost like a musical instrument, morphed it into an unbelievable sound. Then he took the sound of the Disney films, the dialogue, and morphed that, and also used the sound of VHS fast-forwarding and rewinding. He layered all these to create an aural landscape that is unbelievably powerful.”
Powerful is also a word being used to describe Life, Animated itself. An uplifting and moving celebration of the human spirit, it has recently been shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar. Screening for students, medical professionals and groups such as the UK’s National Autistic Society, and having sold to multiple international territories, the film is also bringing understanding and sparking debate on a global scale. To Williams, that legacy is the most important accolade of all.
“The reason that [the Suskinds] wanted to write the book, and agreed to do the film, is that Owen came to them and said, ‘People look past me. People don’t see me for who I am, and I am an unpolished gem, a diamond in the rough. And I want people to know me for who I am’. And now people with autism are telling Owen that he is their hero because he has given them a voice, and that they have seen themselves on screen. That is the greatest compliment I could ever ask for.”
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