Local man makes history with animated film based on personal experience

Steven Hunter (Photo courtesy Pixar Animation Studio)

A man originally from Chatham-Kent is the brains behind an inspiring new short film that features Pixar Animation Studio’s first LGBTQ main character.

Out was written and directed by Steven Hunter. The nine-minute short film was released on Disney+ on May 22 and tells the story of Greg, a young man who is reluctant to come out as gay to his parents. He magically ends up switching minds with his dog which leads him to a heartwarming revelation of self-acceptance.

Hunter’s journey to groundbreaking animator started over 3,930 kilometres away in Chatham, where he was born and raised and where much of his immediate family still resides. He got his start in the field by attending Sheridan College in Oakville for animation in the late 80s, which eventually led him to work in the television industry in Toronto and then to Vancouver.

As computer animation grew in popularity, Hunter eventually packed his bags and headed to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of a job.

Jurrasic Park and everything came out, CGI (computer-generated imagery) was starting to get big in the early 90s, so they needed animators,” he explained. “They were hiring for Casper the Friendly Ghost at Industrial Light & Magic [VFX and Animation studio]… I just went down and knocked on the door and gave them my reel and was lucky enough to get a job there.”

After a stint in Los Angeles working on Disney’s Hercules and Fantasia 2000, Hunter went back to San Fransisco when he heard that Pixar was working on a feature film that would forever cement it as one of the most recognizable names in animation.

“When Pixar came out with the first Toy Story in ’95, I was like ‘oh my god, I have to go back to the Bay Area.’ I was lucky enough to get a job at Pixar back in ’97 and I’ve been there for 23 years, which is insane. I’ve got to work on some really great movies. I’m very thankful for my career.”

Hunter is also known for his work on several other popular feature films including Finding Dory and WALL-E.

Flashforward to 2018, Pixar developed SparkShorts, a program designed to give Pixar employees a chance to pitch short films based on personal experiences. Hunter worked on the animation for the first few SparkShort films, Smash and Grab and Purl, before then being asked if he himself had any ideas for a short film.

“I lied and said yes then I had to go home and write something. In the process of writing and trying to come up with ideas and things I wanted to see and movies I wanted to do, I kept thinking about themes I wanted to explore,” he said. “It kept coming back to coming out stories.”

Photo courtesy Pixar Animation Studio

Photo courtesy Pixar Animation Studio

Out is loosely autobiographical. Hunter, who came out later in life at the age of 27, said it was a topic he felt compelled to talk about and dig into deeper.

“It took hiding who you are for so long and part of your life. I’m 51 now, that’s half my life hiding who I was from those I love and from myself. It was really just a way of exploring that and bringing that to the surface and talking about the fears that we hold in sharing ourselves,” explained Hunter. “A lot of it was ‘what is that fear like and how can I communicate that to an audience?”

Besides finding inspiration from his own experiences, Hunter said the concept for the film was also inspired by a well-known television series.

“Growing up I used to watch the Rod Sterling Twilight Zone all the time. The way anything could happen in those things is just fantastic,” Hunter said. “I always loved the idea of the dog swap for some reason. It just came to me. As an animator, I just wanted to animate that. There’s something funny to me about trying to animate a man in a dog’s body and a dog in a man’s body.”

Since the film’s release at the end of May, Pixar’s first gay protagonist  has received attention from across the globe. For Hunter, the support and feedback have been both humbling and overwhelming.

“The number of people who, even at my age, were like ‘I loved your film, oh my god I bawled my face off but I wish I had this when I was a kid. I wish I could see myself in something like this when I was seven.’ Which is exactly why I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to make for me, something that I could have seen myself in back when I was a kid growing up in Chatham,” he said.

Besides those who can see themselves in the film’s main character, Hunter said he’s also heard from parents who’ve used the film as a teachable moment for their children about acceptance and the different kinds of love in the world.

As for his own family and their reaction to the film, Hunter said they hosted a virtual watch party the day it was released.

“The Friday it was available on Disney+ we did a Zoom chat where he had everybody on it. My two brothers in [British Columbia], my family out in Port Erie and Toronto. We all got in the Zoom and raised a glass to it and everybody watched it together,” he said.

Hunter said he’s hopeful that a film like Out is a positive sign that more representation is starting to be seen in the mainstream media and more stories are being told from people of different races, genders and sexual orientations.

The man from Chatham-Kent who made his mark in cinema history by being himself has some advice for people who might feel how he did the first 27 years of his life.

“If you’re scared, if you’re in a situation where you don’t feel you can be your true self, take care, love yourself and know that it will get better,” said Hunter. “There’s a big world out there, you can find your place in it.”