Fifteen million—this is so far the number of times the Filipino-made animation film from Pixar, Float, has been viewed on YouTube since it was uploaded a mere a week ago.
The film was written and directed by Filipino-American story artist Bobby Rubio and produced by Filipino-Japanese Krissy Cababa. It is Rubio’s directorial debut and also the first Pixar film featuring an animated character who is Filipino-American.
The seven-minute film tells the story of a father who discovers that his son is different from other kids—he floats. So in order to protect him from ridicule, the father kept him from the public eye. But when the child’s special ability somehow became known to others, father is forced to decide whether to continue hiding it or accept his son as he is.
The story is actually inspired by Rubio’s son, Alex, who was diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half years old. The emotional travails of the father in the short film was very much his, Rubio tells ANCX. After finding out his son’s real condition, he went through a bad time processing the information. “I actually went through a depression,” the California-born artist admits.
Before starting at Pixar in 2007, Rubio was creating comic books. He had his comic book series “Alcatraz High” and “4 Gun Conclusion,” and also drew covers for several Marvel Comics series. To help him process his complex feelings about his son’s autism, his wife suggested he make a comic book that will tell his personal story.
The cover of the comic he created showed a father and son in a field of dandelions. The son was shown floating, just like in the Pixar film. It was called “Alex” and it carried the tagline “A father’s journey and a special child.”
But being deep into his depression still, he didn’t get to continue the comic book. There were years when he didn’t touch it. “I was still trying to process it and accept my son for who he is. The short is great because the father accepted the son in five minutes, but it took me a lot longer,” he says, smiling.
It was only four years ago when Rubio decided to get the story out and create storyboards for it. He figured he can make a short film, since he is a story artist. He showed it to his friends, who suggested he show it to Lindsey Collins, Pixar’s vice president of development. “I did show it to [Lindsey] and she loved it and she said I was the perfect candidate for the SparkShorts program,” he says.
With SparkShorts, Pixar’s employees are given six months and a limited budget to develop animated short films that will be released on Pixar’s YouTube channel and on Disney+.
What made him decide to finally tell his story? Part of it was looking at his son, Alex, who was growing up to be a man. “I thought I have to tell the story because I felt it was important. Since this is the SparkShorts program, I felt like if I had only one shot to say something, I wanted it to be important. I’m glad it was Float,” he says.
Cababa, who has been working at Pixar for over 15 years as a production manager, says it was a huge joy working with a fellow Filipino on a project that allows them to somehow immerse themselves in their being Filipinos. “It was great to be able to sit with the artists, the character designers and try to figure out what does a Filipino face look like,” she says. She happily mentions that the father in the film somehow looks like her own dad.
Making a difference
The movie premiered on Disney+ in 2019. Rubio and Cababa share that they’ve gotten so much heartwarming messages since. Among which were from the autism community and from parents, saying they are grateful the film puts the spotlight on special needs kids and what parents go through.
But apparently, as can be gleaned on the comments on Pixar’s YouTube, the short’s metaphor cuts across various life situations and conditions. The moral of the story resonates with many more people because all of us have, at some point, felt different, unwelcomed, or unaccepted. “Even just being a person of color, an Asian in America, there are times when you’d feel that,” says Cababa.
Rubio says he hopes the film sparks conversation, not only about autism, but also on the wider issue of accepting and loving our children for who they are.
Being a person of color in a predominantly white workplace, Rubio admits his initial sketches and storyboards featured a Caucasian father and son. So he was grateful Pixar told him he should make the lead characters Filipino-American, since it is his story anyway. What surprised the artist even more was that the film has been well-received all over the world. One thing he realized is that “the race doesn’t matter, as long as the heart and the story are in there.”
Rubio has worked on several projects under Pixar Animation Studios—he was a story artist in Cars 2, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, and Incredibles 2. He also worked on Academy Award-winning feature films Up, Brave, and Inside Out. Rubio recently worked on Disney and Pixar’s Academy Award-winning feature Toy Story 4and is currently working on an upcoming Pixar film.
Asked what his dream project is, Rubio says it would be to create a Filipino superhero. In fact, he and Cababa are looking forward to seeing more stories featuring Filipinos from all across the globe. With Pinoy talent continuing to soar in the world of animation, the representation that films like Float spark is clearly only the beginning.
Photos courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios