“So important in today's world.”
Canada/USA | 5min | 2021
Freebird is the coming-of-age story of Jon, a boy with Down Syndrome who learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush.
In just five minutes, we watch 45 years of his life flash by.
WRITER, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER
"I grew up loving animation, but had never before seen representation of Down Syndrome in an animated film. So having the chance to create that representation in Freebird was very special. You know, I was an advocate myself when I was just a baby. I had to give justification for my own life, from a really young age. There is so much stigma around Down Syndrome."
" Within the history of disability storytelling as well as in the entertainment industry, it’s a big deal that we had Nick on the team to shape the story. We couldn’t have done this story justice without him--not just because he has Down syndrome, but because his vision and leadership always kept us on course."
If you look at Down syndrome representation in film, you’ll see a lot of deficit-thinking—a lot of pity or fear. Since the experiences of people with Down syndrome are rarely seen in cinema, they don’t have many opportunities to correct the misperceptions that end up shaping the public discussion about their bodies.
Over the past decade, I had the rare opportunity of gathering oral histories from hundreds of people with Down Syndrome in 19 countries on 6 continents. It didn’t take long to notice that the story of Down syndrome sounds very different when told by someone with Down syndrome than when it’s told by someone without it.
So I reached out to Nicholas Herd, an actor and LGBTQ activist who has Down syndrome himself, and he agreed to be the film's Creative Director. Together, we set out to shoot the script as a live action short.
When I sat down to write the script, I built the script from the oral histories, but I spun them into a composite story that would feel singular while still celebrating all people with Down syndrome--those who accomplish much, those who accomplish little, and those who accomplish absolutely nothing (in the eyes of society).
As we tried to work out a pandemic shooting schedule, we realized we wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Even though vaccines were being administered, new studies were surfacing suggesting that COVID was 10 times deadlier for people with Down Syndrome. No matter how many precautions we took, live action was just not a responsible idea.
Neither Nick nor I knew anyone in the animation world, but as luck would have it, my colleague’s wife’s friend’s husband (if you follow) is a big-time creative director in the gaming world. He loved the script, but said the timeline was nearly impossible, especially given the emotional nuance required of each character. Still, he recommended a few studios who are swift, who can execute emotional nuance, and who aren’t intimidated by the impossible. TonicDNA was at the top of the list.
Until Jason Kingsley (who has Down syndrome) appeared on Sesame Street in the 1970s, there had been almost no disabled children publicly visible since the Victorian era. Since then, there have been about 50 films or TV series worldwide that have featured characters with Down syndrome, but I had never seen a character with Down syndrome star in an animated film. So I asked Nick if he’d ever seen a person with Down syndrome in an animation (Nick is a certified cinephile who’s seen more films in more genres than anyone I know). He thought about it long and hard. “Nope. Not one.” So in the end, we decided to pivot our medium from live action to animation, and in doing so, hoped to make one more small crack the disability glass ceiling.
From our first meeting with TonicDNA and our co-director Joe Bluhm, Joe took the animation in such incredible directions. Bodies with Down syndrome have different proportions than those without Down syndrome and the team took the time to get these dimensions right—the gestures, the expressions, the non-normative proportions—it was all done with such integrity.
There's a question, a cry, a plea at the heart of disability activism: “Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?” We wanted a style that could pose that same question to the world of animation. In an industry so captivated by CG and 3D, what if we were to “disable” the aesthetic to the bare minimum: a few lines, a few shades. In our initial search for style references to send Tonic, we were really drawn to the minimalistic tradition of abbozzi, the preliminary sketches for great works of art. People with Down syndrome are often treated as such, as under-developed, rough sketches of what should have been a “full-fledged” human being. Could we explore that injustice through the tradition of the rough sketch and come out on the other side with something whose beauty would be deepened by the fact that it refuses the flashiness of mainstream sophistication—a sophistication whose mesmerizing power increasingly overshadows the dignity of a simple sketch?
It’s one thing to dream about such an aesthetic; it’s another to make a flat world feel round or to match the 42 muscles in a human face with the expressive power of a well-placed line, and yet, once Joe came onboard and TonicDNA sharpened their pencils, that’s exactly what we did. I’m truly proud to be a part of this beautiful little homage to everyone out there rocking an extra chromosome.