One of the most memorable pieces of animation in 2021 was the animated short Us Again. This beautiful film told the story of a grumpy old man named Art who gets a second chance to be young and dance again with his wife Dot. Recently we had the chance to talk with director and animator Zach Parrish about the short and his career in animation at Disney and Netflix:
Why don’t you introduce yourself and how you got started as an animator?
My name’s Zach Parrish. I’m currently an animation director at Netflix. I got into the animation industry in 2007. I went to school at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, and then I did online schooling at Animation Mentor while I was working in the visual effects industry,
I started on Alvin and the Chipmunks and then went to Sony Imageworks and worked on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and then eventually found myself at Disney in 2010. I was at Disney for 11 1/2 years as an animator, animation supervisor, head of animation, workflow supervisor and director. I directed a short called Puddles, and then I most recently directed Us Again, which was one of the last things that I did before making the switch.
You’re now working for Netflix, and I’m so excited about Netflix. So many of things like Arcane was so amazing, and seeing their work with Aardman, I’m super thrilled about.
it’s an opportunity for so many people to get to tell their stories, and there’s been a shift, and I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or if it’s streaming services or what it is, but there’s an appetite for more and for different and for specific and for personal and having all of these different platforms who are all trying to put those voices out there. It’s amazing, because then you get something like Arcane that might not have existed five years ago ’cause it’s such a specific audience.
That’s the kind of interesting cool thing about Netflix, is there is no brand at all. It’s anything and everything, and it will find its audience, and so it becomes these unique things that blow up. Arcane is huge and is, for good reason: It’s incredible.
So how did you get the idea for Us Again? How did it come to you?
So it was back in probably 2017-ish. I was into my 30s, and I was starting to feel the aches and pains that go along with crossing that threshold…. I had this desire to want to be young again, (even though I was only in my 30s) but I had this fairly cynical view on it. However, my Mom was in her 60s, and she would talk about all these things that she was gonna do when she grows up.
And I had this realization that by my definition, I’m old, and by her definition, she’s young, and that totally got me thinking and kind of broke my brain as far as, what is age? Truth is it’s all relative, it’s all a state of mind, and that kind of led to these conversations that I always have with my wife about being present and living in the moment and appreciating where you are and the people around you…
So that’s what I pitched: this idea of this elderly couple who have this one magical night and this world of dance…
The music and the choreography was so key and added so much to the short. How did that all come together, both the choreography and the music?
It was hard…. Even in my original pitch, I had a playlist of music that I… I knew I wanted to be in the soul funk range of music, because I wanted something that the characters I imagined in my head would have listened to, but also something that felt like it could be on the radio today. I wanted everything in the film to have a then and now kind of feel to it.
And then I was a huge fan of Keone & Mari, who ended up being our choreographers. I had been following them on social media for years, and I was talking to a friend, and he reminded me of this video of them dancing as an older couple to Bob Marley, to a Bob Marley song. And so I use that and a bunch of clips of Keone & Mari dancing and doing different performances as examples of how we could build a world where they have conversations with dance. It was really hard because it’s a chicken and egg problem. You never have any of it until you had all of it.
And so we would work a little bit on the story. Pinar would write, (Pinar Toprak was our composer, who was incredible). She would write themes and temp scores for the story artists and for Keone & Mari to try to imagine what this film’s going to be. Keone & Mari would have some ideas for dance and things like that, which would maybe inspire the storyboard artist. Then Pinar did kind of a final pass at the music, and we had a final pass at the choreography, and then finally we could actually make the movie. Once we had the music, the choreography and the story, then all we had to do is make the movie. LOL.
Well, one last question, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into animation?
Oh my gosh. Practice patience… What I tend to tell people when I talk to students or anything like that, is to not forget to live. It’s sort of the purpose, it’s sort of the message of the film, but I think it’s also… It’s something that I really needed to learn when I was going to school, I was so focused on, I need to learn Maya. I need to understand this animation principle. And I kinda closed out, I became so focused that I closed out the world and I didn’t experience… And so much of what art is, film is is an interpretation, it’s a view on the world.
Getting out experiencing, going to museums and drawing, and going to the park and watching people and movies and TV and observing life is key… It’s always going to end up being useful. It’s gonna be better for your soul, but it’s also… It’s gonna be that thing where you go to when you need inspiration. I remember this one time, I was at this park and I saw this couple and this guy did this thing, and it became a character-specific moment in my animation. So I think people can learn different packages of software, (and you have to learn how to do those things or to actually do a job), but I think in order to have a perspective as an artist experiencing life is probably the biggest secret.
To listen to the full interview click here or watch on youtube: