A still from The Dam Keeper, which was made by Tonko House in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Tonko House

On a recent morning before dawn, two former Pixar animators, Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, met up at their Berkeley studio to watch live as the nominees were announced for the  2015 Academy Awards. It was worth the 5 a.m. start, as their beautifully crafted short, The Dam Keeper, was indeed nominated for an Oscar. The 18-minute film tells the tale of a young pig encumbered with an important job, and how meeting a new classmate changes everything. Kondo and Tsutsumi have worked as art directors on Ice AgeRatatouilleMonsters University and Toy Story 3. Berkeleyside caught up with Tsutsumi to learn more about their new film and about the two filmmakers who made the leap to go it alone a year ago this month.

What did it feel like to find out your animated short, The Dam Keeper, was nominated for an Oscar? 

We got together at our studio, Tonko House, at 5 a.m. so we could watch the announcement live together. We did Google Hangout with our producers and editor as well. One of our producers, Duncan Ramsay, who now lives in London, saw it from London but still managed to watch it live with us. The internet at our studio is slower than everyone else’s and we had a bit of a delayed streaming. We saw other guys scream with joy while we were still watching the previous category!

Dice Tsutsumi, co-founder of Tonko Studio in Berkeley, whose film The Dam Keeper is nominated for an Oscar. Photo: courtesy Tonko House

The film is a powerful tale about bullying, friendship and pollution, among other things. What inspired the story?

Thank you. We didn’t necessarily want to make a statement about bullying or pollution. While we wanted to tell a simple story of this unsung hero who fought his own internal demons, we really wanted to stay true to what we face every day, so it is something anyone can relate to. Bullying, pollution, loneliness, dealing with one’s own demons no matter how good a person we all may be…. these are the very real things we, as kids or adults, deal with every day.

We started off being inspired by the simple folk tale The Little Dutch Boy, and turned it into our own story.

A still from The Dam Keeper, which was made by Tonko House in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Tonko House

The film is made up of more than 8,000 paintings. Can you talk about the drawing techniques you and your partner Robert Kondo use?

Both Robert and I have worked as art directors for animation studios, including Pixar, and we did lots of concept paintings for films like Toy Story 3 and Monsters University. We wanted to see if we could create a film with our painterly style. The animation was done rather conventionally: hand-drawn, frame by frame.

What is unique about this film is that we painted every frame on top of it using Photoshop to make it look like our painted illustrations come to life.

A still from The Dam Keeper, which was made by Tonko House in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Tonko House

Why did you leave Pixar?

We all know we must take risks in order to grow. But often, we don’t really take risks and rather lean towards safety in life. We were well protected by big studios like Pixar for some time in our careers and we started to realize our growth pattern was tapering off.

We love our industry which was built on what people like John Lasseter and Ed Catmull created years ago from the ground up. They took tremendous risks no-one else would dare take. Because of them, our generation has had the incredibly creative environment of Pixar.

Now, we feel it’s time for us to take risks and be accountable for what we do. We know it is the only way for us to grow as filmmakers and as people.

A still from The Dam Keeper, which was made by Tonko House in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Tonko House

Your studio, Tonko House, is in Berkeley. Why did you set up here?

I live in Berkeley and I wanted to make sure I could come to work without a car as my three-year old started to going to preschool last year and my wife needed a car to take him to school. And Berkeley is still pretty close for Robert who lives in Montclair.

While many of the aspiring filmmakers migrate to L.A., we find the Bay Area the best creative environment for us. So hopefully we can stay here.

Robert Kondo, one of the two founders of Tonko House, whose first animated short film has been nominated for an Oscar. Photo: Tonko House

This is a first-time collaboration for the two of you. What’s next? (Other than winning the Oscar, of course!)

One thing we kept asking ourselves when we started Tonko House was, “why?” Why did we leave Pixar, and the most creative, well-paying, secure jobs while we have families to feed and mortgages to pay. Why did we even come to animation? Why do we want to tell stories? It may sound crazy, but “what” Tonko House does is less of our worry right now.

But we really want to make sure out new company does not lose the sense of “why.”

That said, of course, we are pursuing creating films which is what we know. We are currently developing several long-format projects, such as feature films and television series. We are still in the very early stage with just two of us .

Our industry is fast changing with the introduction of various distribution platforms such as online streaming. We believe this is a unique time in the history of the film business and hope to be a part of this changing current.

Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award nominated shorts (01.30.15)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...