Animating light: Local filmmaker Robert Kondo on ‘The Dam Keeper’

Robert Kondo
Jennie Warren /Courtesy

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Robert Kondo isn’t a poet, though the language he uses to describe his animation style might suggest it. An artist enamored with the project of “animating light,” he has set out over and over again on a journey to find the alchemic mix of “excitement and terror” that has characterized “everything that’s really satisfying in (his) life.”

That chase led him to create his own short film, start an independent animation studio and dive into making graphic novels. Kondo spoke with The Daily Californian about his artistic interests, what inspired him to leave Pixar to start his own animation studio and the short film that put his studio on the map.

Kondo was hired at Pixar straight out of art school. A trained illustrator, he worked on major projects such as “Ratatouille” and “Monsters University,” achieving what he had set out in his 10-year plan in only fraction of that time. After more than a decade of work there, Kondo found he couldn’t shake the memory of “what it’s like to be 22 again,” anxious and excited for everything to come.

Diving into extracurricular projects gave Kondo and his friend and colleague Daisuke (Dice) Tsutsumi “the excitement and insecurity of just not knowing” all over again. After working for nine months on a short film called “The Dam Keeper,” they chose to leave Pixar and start their own animation company together, called Tonko House, which is based in Berkeley.

“The Dam Keeper” was Tonko House’s first and best-known project. It’s based in part on the story of the little Dutch boy, a short story within the novel “Hans Brinker,” who plugs his finger in a leaking dike to save the city of Haarlem from flooding. Kondo and Tsutsumi were drawn to the narrative because they wanted to tell the story of “an unsung hero, someone who’s working tirelessly and taking on a responsibility that’s in a way greater than them,” Kondo said.

The short film is very much like the story in “Hans Brinker,” if instead of a flood, there was a massive environmental disaster, and no one knew that the little Dutch boy had even saved the city in the first place. Pig, the protagonist of “The Dam Keeper,” is a major underdog. Though he winds the gears of a windmill religiously in order to blow away a massive cloud of poisonous black fog that threatens the entire city, Pig’s work isn’t recognized by the other animals in the town. Instead, he’s bullied relentlessly for the dirt spots on his face and teased for being a messy pig.

Pig’s outlook changes when he meets the artistic character Fox, whose humor, kindness and artistic ability change Pig’s perspective on the world. At the end of the day, Kondo says, “It’s a story where the witness makes a difference.”

Though Kondo says he and Tsutsumi “tried really hard not to say what is right and wrong” in the film, “The Dam Keeper” does have some clear messages. The poisonous fog creeping over the dam sends a warning about pollution and Fox’s friendship with Pig plays out like a plug for bystander intervention.

Still, there’s nothing heavy-handed about “The Dam Keeper.” It’s emotionally intense, yes, but its gravity is mediated by a striking style of illustration. Chalky, vibrant and highly attentive to contrast, the animation draws the viewer’s eye as much as its unusual subject matter latches onto the heart. Together, the short’s visual and emotional components make for an incredible study into the relationship between a character’s internal state and their external circumstances, shining light on how artists can, in Kondo’s words, use “color and lighting and staging to be able to tell a story and convey a mood.”

It’s heavy stuff for an animated short — so much so that it might leave some wondering whether it’s really a movie for kids. In Kondo’s mind, however, that distinction doesn’t necessarily have to be a clear one.

“I think a lot of times, especially here in the States, animation immediately skews toward children, unless it’s Adult Swim or ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy,’ ” Kondo said. “Hopefully we can continue to make content that makes people think about animation in a different way.”

Though the assumption that animation is just for kids isn’t something Kondo necessarily wants “to put tons of energy into changing,” the quality of his work, his stylistic concerns and his film’s subject matter press against it anyway.

The name Tonko House mashes together the Japanese words for pig and fox. It’s a cute allusion to the animals who started it all — the animation studio wouldn’t exist, after all, if Kondo and Tsutsumi hadn’t been doing double-time at Pixar, working through lunch and well into the evening to make those characters’ world come alive. But in another sense, the portmanteau Tonko is a reminder of an artist’s ability to change the world, even if it’s just the world of a dirt-smudged pig.

As part of the Bay Area Book Festival, Robert Kondo will speak at “The Transformative Power of Art: Making The Dam Keeper” at Hotel Shattuck Plaza at 1:30 p.m.

Contact Sarah Elisabeth Coduto at [email protected].