A behind the scenes interview with church filmmaker Dan Brown about how he made his animated film I ♥ Love.
First of all, this film makes me cry every time. Was that secretly your plan all along?
Ha I actually get that a lot. That was not the plan, actually the way the film happened was not my plan either.
A second or third grader in our Rock Kids children’s ministry wrote a prayer on a piece of paper to God that said, “Help me feel unalone.” This was heavy and I paused, not sure what to do. I felt prompted to ask a woman named Lisa from the church what her story was. We did not know each other. All I knew is that she works as a social worker. She didn’t know me and thought I was weird when I reached out to her, but with 3 sleeping triplets in the back of her car she told me her story. As I listened, in my mind I saw hearts playing out her story. All the people in this world were portrayed as hearts. No faces, but moved as people would.
What an amazing story she has. I think the way you were able to tell the story was so well crafted – it’s not a long film for what I’m sure was a long story, but every word carried so much more to it. How did you go about turning that conversation in the car into a script?
I took notes and sketched hearts as we talked. I tried to write a treatment of the story knowing it had to be short, like 1-3 pages because 1-3 pages equals 1-3 minutes and 1-3 minutes of animation averages 1-3 years of work for me. So I got a few pages down and shared it with my friend Glenn Abrams for feedback. I wrestled with the writing so I got a stack of 3×5 cards and started to storyboard out the scenes from my mind.
I had no idea that animation could take that long. How long did each phase of production take you from that conversation to the finished film?
Storyboarding was quick and rewarding. From there came frame by frame animation. That’s where the grind occurs. However, I rallied a dedicated team of twenty-one volunteers that were also inspired by the story. Together, we worked in various capacities overlapping a production timeline that included traditional hand drawn animation, backgrounds, digital ink and paint, and compositing. My wife and I also had two awesome kids during this whole process and so did some others working on the film. We were all on a volunteer basis so having kids slowed things down and added two years in the middle because we had to put the project on the back burner. Altogether the project took 5 years from start to finish.
My wife is awesome and she gave me every Friday of the summer of 2018 to dedicate to finishing the composing and working on foley and SFX with Cory Moesta of MMGM and working on the score with Aaron Paiva. Finally, we mix, mastered, and rolled out the red carpet for the dedicated team to celebrate with a premiere of I Heart Love.
Wow, that’s quite a journey. Was there ever a time you thought about giving up? Or taking an easier route like a live-action version?
I questioned at different times if I would ever finish the film. I knew I would, but when years go by I questioned it, but deep down I was sure I would finish. It helped to have so many other dedicated people give their time to keep me on task to finish.
I’m passionate about animation and when I see a visual in my mind I try to stick with the initial vision. Somehow live action people wearing heart suits just didn’t carry the same emotion, so it had to be animated.
What has the response to the film been like?
We screened the film to all of the youth groups at the church. I was encouraged because if the kid that wrote that original prayer request was still part of our church 5 years later, they would be in the youth group and would have seen the film. I showed the youth pastors the film and gathered their ideas for discussion questions and then I compiled a list as well of how to follow up if a child opens up about a form of abuse.
I got to sit in on a discussion group and a boy said, “I didn’t know at times to laugh or cry.” The laughing came because Lisa, the person the film is based on, is also a stand up comedian and she followed up the screening with a live stand-up performance that had the kids continue their roller coaster of emotions.
A few Christian film festivals have picked it up. Not too many other film festivals, though. Perhaps because I include the good news of Jesus and steps to salvation. I included this because I wanted to provide hope to that kid who was asking God, “help me feel unalone.”
I hope you get to connect with that kid in Heaven one day, will be quite the conversation I’m sure. I know you don’t have much time left so I’ll wrap things up….. any advice for any other filmmakers out there that are thinking about tackling an animation project like this?
Count the cost.