Life is full of gifts, gains, blessings and unfortunately loss. For his first work as a director and writer, animator and artist Frank E. Abney III shares his own experiences with all of these in his debut short film Canvas, now on Netflix.
In Canvas, in one breath, life changes. The right side of the bed becomes empty, the pillow no longer holding the indentation of a head. With the death of his wife, painter Arthur has lost his inspiration, his muse and his will to create. Day in and day out he sits in the warmth of the sun in front of a blank canvas unable to make even one brush stroke. In contrast to Arthur’s melancholy, the arrival of his daughter Amara, and her young daughter Aura is filled with energy and smiles.
One of the most striking aspects of the nine-minute film is the attention to detail paid to the texture of hair and the skin of characters by surfacing artist Meg Higginbotham, who used various animation programs like MAYA to achieve the effect. As a Black woman, I was immediately taken in with how Frank and his team were able to create the realism of Amara’s fluffed out twist-out, the fuzz of new growth sitting in the middle part of Aura’s two afro puffs, and the age spots and moles (dermatosa papalosa nigra) high on Arthur’s cheeks. In the conversation about representation of Black people in media, not enough can be said the importance of small details like these, but for Canvas and Abney—who has worked on some of the most popular animated films in the last decade, like Frozen, Coco, and Toy Story 4, as well as the forthcoming Soul—they were a priority.
“[Canvas was] me creating something that I was putting out there to represent my experience. It had to be more than just a quick thing of putting a character out there,” he tells Observer in a conversation about the film. “We had to pull that reference, like with Morgan Freeman [or] Dick Gregory for Grandfather. And then with Aura, it was: pull some reference from my own niece and Yara Shahidi when she was a little girl. And thinking of Amara, going from people like Kimberly Elise [Goldberry].”
“Trying to pull from something real,” he says, takes time and patience. “And also working with my artists to iterate on these things to make sure that you know even if it’s taking a little while to get the hair right, it’s like, ‘OK well, we’ll get it to work.’ We got to make sure that although we don’t have like a huge budget, we had to do what we could, you know, get as close as we could.”
Having lost his wife, Arthur is unable to complete a portrait of her that he had begun, leaving it covered with a white sheet in a dark room. Canvas is a mostly silent film. There’s no dialogue, just the sounds of Arthur taking deep breaths before facing his family, and the squeak of the wheelchair as he turns away from the sight of his wife’s clothes hanging in a closet. It’s through moments like these just how deeply his grief has settled within.
For Abney, Canvas is a very personal project emotionally, as its themes of grief and the way it affects us are concepts he is intimately familiar with. Having lost his father when he was 5 years-old, Abney knows both what he felt and what his mother and grandfather went through in the grieving process. Animation has become his way to work through it as an adult, though the experience of sharing it with the world is still nerve wracking.
“It’s definitely a vulnerable experience, but you know it’s therapeutic to use,” he says. “It’s like being a kid and finding that hobby you like, that’s your positive outlet to kind of returning to your center. That’s what creating is for me.”
It’s also a way to connect with others who have undergone similar experiences. “Maybe they find inspiration in it to tell their own stories,” he says.“That’s what led me into film, with Lion King when I was a kid. Seeing that after my dad passed it was like: Someone made this. They don’t even know who I am, but I’m able to relate to this experience with this lion cub losing his dad, and the fear of these upcoming responsibilities as an adult, and as a new kind of leader. It’s just knowing how I was affected by that and wanted to be able to create something like that that other people could find some kind of kindred energy in it or something that allows them to feel that they’re not alone or like I said earlier—be that source of inspiration.”
For children—particularly Black children—watching the film, it would be easy for them to see themselves in Aura, the little girl who spends time happily drawing pictures for her grandfather, but beyond that, they may also see a bit of themselves in Arthur too, especially now that their worlds have changed in light of a pandemic.
Living in a world where they’re no longer to physically interact with their friends at school or have lost family members, grief is an almost constant emotion that younger audiences may not be able to name, but perhaps by seeing this film, they can share the thoughts and feelings they’re struggling with with their parents. Because the first half of the film focuses on grief, Abney wanted to make sure that healing was the focus of the remainder. Abney also chose the name Aura represent the light and inspiration she brings to Arthur’s life.
“There’s so much to learn from dealing with loss or traumas or how we go about moving on from them in a productive way,” he says. “We don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to suffer in silence and kind of just just go through these things. It seems like with a lot of the injustice of the murders, all this stuff that’s going on in the world, and in the Black community, and others as well, but specifically things that have hit home for me.
“It kind of feels like we always have to just kind of push it away and move on, and don’t have that time,” he says. “And that’s kind of reflected in Canvas in how he hasn’t really dealt with the loss of his wife. He’s just locked all his artwork away in this room, you know. He’s just shut it out and it’s one of those things where sometimes it takes that unexpected person to open that door and kind of bring you to face it, and overcome [it].”
As a first-time director, Abney bore the responsibility of building his own team of artists, editors and sound designers. With less than a full nine minutes of runtime, Abney felt it was more important to have the story and emotions conveyed through the expressions of the characters and music which was composed by Jermaine Stegall.
“Jermaine was great because from the moment we started collaborating, it was ‘What do you want this to sound like?’ That was the first task for me, and I had to think about these films that stood out. One of the last ones was Moonlight, there was a power in the emotional weight that can be carried and supported through music, and I pulled from that.”
They also created a theme for each character, which Abney imitates as he recalls in our interview. “We have the sounds of Grandfather Arthur, and then we see that moment when everything starts to light up when we hear the car come in and Aura comes out.” Abney then begins to vocalize high-pitched sounds to mimic the violins from score. “Everything starts to brighten up as she comes in, and it was a lot of that kind of push and pull like with how we wanted the characters represented and the emotion of the scene.”
In the same way Aura inspires her grandfather to paint once more, Abney’s hope is that his work will be meaningful to his community and inspire audiences of all ages. After working for 13 years for some of the biggest animation studios in the world like Pixar and Dreamworks, Abney took the leap to create the art he wanted to and has now shared that he’s developing another film that he’ll be directing for Netflix with his directing partner Michael Williams.
“I can’t talk too much about it, but it’s going to be something special for sure,” he says. “It definitely aligns with what I want to create as a filmmaker—things that highlight specific experiences, and highlighting our culture. I can’t wait for it to be shared.”
Canvas is available to watch on Netflix.