Talk about barking up the right tree.
The new short animated film “Andy: A Dog’s Tale” began with an idea in the mind of Jean Schulz, whose late husband Charles Schulz once had a successful dog-themed idea of his own in the form of the beloved Peanuts character Snoopy.
“I saw something — I think it was over two years ago now — a little animated blurb for a dog organization, and I went, ‘Huh, animation,’” Schulz explained, speaking on Zoom from a meeting room at the Peanuts Studio offices in Santa Rosa.
That moment of inspiration has now come to fruition. The just-completed “Andy“ will have its world premiere this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival in downtown Sonoma.
Schulz is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of the Petaluma Argus-Courier.
She is also national board member of Canine Companions, which she became involved with in 1986, and with which she’s served as president and secretary of the board. Over the years, she’s produced a number of promotional documentaries for the national nonprofit, beginning with the 1986 30-minute film “Canine Companions: Dogs and the Disabled? You’d be Surprised.” That film was narrated by Charles Schulz.
A few years ago, Jean Schulz expressed a desire to produce another short film of some kind, to let new generations know about the work of the organization, which trains service dogs to become assistants to people with an array of disabilities. The “animated blurb” she refers to now inspired her to think outside the documentary box.
“We all have short attention spans these days,” Schulz said, “so I thought that a short animated movie that can tell a story about a canine companion would fit right in with the way we all maneuver today.”
Schulz approached Paige Braddock, chief creative officer at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, asking if she knew someone who might be able to create an animated promotional video for Canine Companions.
“Paige knew Jamy Wheless and approached him, and he came up here and we talked about it,” she recalled.
Wheless, of Petaluma, is an acclaimed animation director whose past work includes special effects on the “Star Wars” prequels and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. He is the animation director/producer of Petaluma’s Ignite Animation Studios, and co-founder of Lighstream Animation Studios, which produced the 2018 short film “The Pig on the Hill,” based on the 2013 children’s book by the English author John Kelly. That film was narrated by Pierce Brosnan and featured a score by Oscar-nominated composer songwriter Matthew Wilder.
“I asked if she wanted something like a commercial or something more like “The Pig on the Hill,” Wheless said. “She said, ‘What’s a Pig on a Hill?’ so I showed her the movie and she said, ‘That. Let’s do that.’”
It was obvious from the beginning that the story they would create together should be told from the perspective of a puppy who, after a few starts and stops, grows up to be a canine assistant to a young girl using a wheelchair. Having already produced live-action content from the perspective of clients receiving their new dog and learning to work as a team, Schulz wanted to take a different tack with the animated short.
“I thought that since puppies are cute and cuddly and funny, showing that same story with a puppy as the center was a more engaging grab of the viewer,” she said.
Over the next few months, Wheless sketched out an original story based on interviews he conducted with a number of people who had personally experienced the Canine Companion program, either as trainers or as clients.
“After I developed the initial treatment of the story, I called John Kelly in London — he’s ‘The Pig on the Hill’ writer, right? — and he wrote a script,” said Wheless, noting that the script originally featured narration, Wheless revealed. “After a few months with a storyboard artist, I knew we could tell the story without a narrator. I really wanted to let the visuals and the music to carry the audience. The music would be a key element transporting us through the story since there was no dialogue.”
Wheless then approached Wilder, who’d done the score for the pig movie, and he signed on to compose the music for the film that came to be called “Andy: A Dog’s Tale.” Wilder had worked with Jerry Goldsmith on the Oscar-nominated score for Disney’s “Mulan,” and wrote the music for the songs in that film, some of which — specifically “Reflection,” released by Christina Aguilera as a single — went on to become hits.
“Matthew’s music took our visuals to a whole new level,” said Wheless. “There are a lot of twists and turns in this short film, and he was able to gracefully make them all come together.”
Wheless also brought in Scott Farrar of Petaluma. An Academy award winning special effect artist for “Cocoon,” Farrar was instrumental, Wheless said, collaborating heavily on the story every couple of weeks. Matt Gaser, another Petaluma resident, pitched in as the production designer and did the original concept and color-work for the film. Ultimately, animators from Ignite Studios partnered with Crater Studios in Serbia to work on the intricately-crafted fur of the animated canines in the film.
“Their production team has done a beautiful job on the look and rendering of the furry puppies,” Wheless said. Compared to “The Pig on the Hill,“ the new film, which runs 8 minutes, was decidedly more difficult, technically. ”The earlier short has 55 shots in it,” he calculated. “’Andy’ has 135 shots. A much bigger story and a bit more complex.”
Asked how the title character came to be named Andy, Schulz told a story.
“Sparky and I once got a foundling, a little dog we wanted as a watchdog,” she explained. “I did some research, and found out that wire-haired terriers are yappy little dogs, which is what we wanted — a noisy watchdog dog. We’d had golden retrievers, but they’re quiet and they welcome everybody into their house, so they aren’t very good watchdogs.”
Schulz went to a local animal shelter and told them what she wanted.
“I brought back this mangy little dog,“ she said. ”He wasn’t much to look at, but I thought, ‘As long as he barks, that’s all that matters.’ But he didn’t bark. He never barked at anything. I called the shelter and asked if it was possible the dog couldn’t hear, and they said, ‘He can hear. He can bark! He barked here all the time!’ Sparky and I finally decided he was just happy here, and almost immediately Sparky fell in love with him. Once his coat grew in he was the fluffiest, funniest little dog. When we got him, he was wearing a leather collar with the name Andy scratched into it, so that’s what we called him — and I wanted the puppy in the movie to be called Andy, too.“
Asked what she hopes the movie will accomplish, aside from entertaining people, Schulz says her goal is education and promotion of the mission of Canine Companions.
“At the most simple level, we will use it as a entry point for people who are interested in supporting Canine Companions, which has eight centers all over the country,” she said, adding that many assume that Canine Companions only trains guide dogs for people living with blindness. That’s a misunderstanding she believes the film will help to correct.
“We certainly do provide that service, but we’re for people with disabilities other than blindness,” she said. “If you have had a spinal injury and are in a wheelchair, we can help by pairing you with a dog to assist you. We also place dogs with kids with learning disabilities. What we mainly hope is that the film will engage people enough to want to ask more questions about Canine Companions.”
Clearly, Schulz is happy she had that initial inspiration to make the film an animated one, and is delighted at how the project turned out.
“I think about Sparky’s cartoons, and how, with one line he could change a character’s whole expression,” she said. “And similar to that, I think Jamy and the animators have done a wonderful job, especially Andy’s eyes. He looks up at someone, or at the door, or at the wheels of a wheelchair, and you know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s amazing.”