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Film Oscars 2019: Canadian animator Trevor Jimenez draws the line on animation’s remaining taboo: divorce

After a 10 year journey toward completing a 15-minute film, Canadian animator Trevor Jimenez could be gracing the Oscar stage this weekend.

Jimenez’s Weekends is one of three short films by Canadian animators nominated for an Academy Award this year, as well as Domee Shi’s Bao, a former Sheridan College classmate and current Pixar colleague of Jimenez’s, and David Fine and Alison Snowden’s National Film Board of Canada film Animal Behaviour. Weekends tells the story of a boy growing up in Toronto whose parents have just gotten divorced. It chronicles a strange and melancholy period of being passed between households, as both parents struggle with dating and the uncertainty of what comes next, while doing their best to raise their son. Unsure what is really going on, the boy processes his emotions in his terrifying, surreal dreams where the belongings of his former family fly through the air and the head of his mother’s new boyfriend turns into a birthday candle that swiftly burns his house down.

For the film, Jimenez created vivid interiors based on his childhood homes alongside his production designer Chris Sasaki and a team of 27 animators through Pixar’s short film development program. The film has no dialogue but all the nuance and intimacy of a great graphic novel, rich in details like a multicoloured wall covered in hand-prints, the father’s collection of samurai swords, a bright red horse that the child climbs to look out over the Toronto skyline and the siren call of Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, which signals his father has arrived, forcing the child to cross the painful gauntlet from parent to parent each weekend.

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Click the image to see a before-and-after composition from the film Weekends. Charcoal and line drawings are used to set the scene and the colour version is the final product, after many different artists contribute their work.

Spanning a decade as he moved between Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Los Angeles and, finally, San Francisco to start his career in animation (he’s now a story artist at Pixar), Weekends marks Jimenez’s first foray into auteur filmmaking. His deeply personal short will be moving for anyone who has survived the universal and incredibly normative experience of divorce.

“My parents split when I was two, so I don’t have any memory of them together,” Jimenez says, speaking from San Francisco’s East Bay via Skype. Describing himself as “kind of subdued and monotone” (his Myers Briggs type is INFJ) with a great admiration for the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jimenez calls himself an “introverted performer” who channels human behaviour and characters inside his head. Animation is his emotional outlet, so making Weekends was “super therapeutic.”

“My parents just didn’t interact, so it’s all sorts of things for me,” Jimenez says. “There’s sadness there and confusion. But it was also an opportunity to get to know them better since they were never a unit to me, but separate people.”

Canadian animator, Trevor Jimenez, demonstrates his drawing techniques used for his film, "Weekends," at his home in Berkeley, California.

Mason Trinca/Globe and Mail

Seeing your parents as people is one of the hardest and most important parts of coming of age. For Jimenez, that realization came earlier than most. “Maybe by the time I was 14, I knew they weren’t these iconic, untouchable, perfect people,” he says. “They had imperfections, flaws and were kind of like me. Ultimately, I think it’s a healthy thing, but I have cousins whose parents got divorced when they were 15, and that had a whole set of different challenges. For me, it was more like a lot of strange things happened when I was four or five that I only kind of remember.

“I get emotional thinking about it because this film is a love letter to the city of Toronto, as well to as my parents. It’s me saying to both my mom and dad, ‘Hey thanks being part of my life and I’m okay. This is how I felt, but I hope you both know that I love you.'"

While Pixar has humanized everything from lamps to robots, and also given voice to the melancholy emotions that live inside us all (some people have never ugly cried at Inside Out and it shows), divorce is still a somewhat taboo subject for animation, despite so many going through the experience at some point in their lives. Yet Jimenez experienced a low point during his decade-long saga of making Weekends that made him question why anyone would want to see his movie.

“When I first had the idea 10 years ago, I was so passionate,” he recalls. "Then I moved to New York and started working at different feature studios and it just became harder to do both. When I moved to Vancouver a year later, I had all this free time, but I didn’t know any other artists who could help me and that’s when I started to give up. I’d think, ‘Everyone goes through this, so why tell this story when it’s all so normal?’ During low moments, I thought about making all the characters animals just to distance them from my own life.”

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Canadian animator, Trevor Jimenez, photographed at his home in Berkeley, California.

Mason Trinca/Globe and Mail

Luckily for everyone, including the Academy, a chance viewing of Mike Mills’s autobiographical drama Beginners changed his mind a year later when Jimenez relocated to San Francisco with his wife.

“Even though my film is different, I loved how personal [Mills’s movie] felt. It was like, the more specific he got, the more I believed it and the more I felt my own feelings, which is kind of ironic. I went home and wrote a whole script that night. Now when I would show my friends my [storyboards and animatic], they’d say, ‘Oh it’s so cool that the kid has a red horse!’ All those specifics from my childhood were letting people in.”

An Oscar nomination is a galvanizing shot in the arm for any artist. Weekends is only Jimenez’s second short film (his student movie Key Lime Pie, a stylized ode to film noir, is available online), but it shows a tremendous voice. Jimenez’s subdued and emotional style of filmmaking reflects a deeper understanding of childhood than most animated features allow for.

“Even if you’re in a nuclear family, I think childhood is hard, as well as sad,” Jimenez says. “I don’t like sugar-coating stuff, so I like seeing that aspect in animation, as long as it’s done sincerely. I thought Into the Spider-Verse was good; I was surprised at how emotional I felt watching it. So I think there’s room, even in big animated studios films, to tackle harder and deeper emotions. Meanwhile, I just want to keep making stuff.”

A look behind Weekends animation process

Trevor Jimenez drew all the charcoal backgrounds on paper, but that was just the beginning of the film’s look. Production Designer Chris Sasaki and the art team scanned each drawing and used a series of digital paint brushes and textures to marry the personal touch with a photo-realistic style of lighting.

The film is made much like those of early-era Disney. Characters are animated frame-by-frame overtop of the painted backgrounds and, in a similar fashion, they evolve from line drawings to the digitally-painted cells you see here.

Pixar’s short film development program allowed for Jimenez to take a year-long sabbatical in 2016 to make the film. He animated the majority of scenes, but relied on many other artists to round out the work. All the shots with moving horses, for example, were animated by Xavier Riffault.

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