Frank E. Abney III remembers rushing home every day and watching “The Lion King.”
The Disney classic became an after-school ritual for him as a young boy. Abney knew all the words and could draw the characters free hand.
“No exaggeration, it was like every day I had to watch it,” he said. “I didn’t know why at the time. It was just I really liked it and it was something that captivated me. But I realized that I was connecting with it; and that was the first piece of animation that I connected with on that deep of a level.”
It took years for Abney to realize he was drawn to the film’s main character. Much like the fictional Simba, Abney lost his father at a young age. He was five when his dad died from a heart attack.
It was only a few years later that his obsession with the movie took root because subconsciously he felt a kindred experience with the antagonist.
“Simba kind of coming into those responsibilities as an adult and pushing that away out of fear,” he said. “I was feeling that fear as well with my dad being gone and being the next man of the house, basically. I saw myself in that.”
The movie introduced Abney to the power of storytelling. He grew up in San Francisco’s Bay Area with a passion for drawing, movies and dreaming up stories of his own. That passion propelled him to a profession in movie making.
Now Abney is revving up for one of the biggest conquests of his career.
“Canvas,” an animated short film that he wrote, illustrated and directed, makes its worldwide premiere on Netflix today, Friday, Dec. 11.
It’s a project five years in the making. Abney was part of a team of writers and artists that collaborated across three different continents, working after hours to breathe life into the film.
“I’m overwhelmed,” he told Atlanta Black Star. “We were just working on this in our spare time, and you don’t know where these things are going to go…But I’m just I’m so thankful to be partnering with Netflix and being able to share it with a broad audience. My ultimate goal is I just want people to be inspired by it and also just understand that there are Black filmmakers out there.”
The film depicts a grandfather struggling with depression after a loved one passes away. The main character, a retired artist, loses his will to create and puts down his paintbrush. But he finds new hope that pulls him out of his spiral and inspires a return to the easel.
A former animator for Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, Abney has worked on box-office smashes like “Toy Story 4,” “Frozen,” “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Coco,” “The Incredibles 2” and “Boss Baby.” But “Canvas” is his first professional foray into directing.
More recently, Abney executive produced “Hair Love,” an Oscar Award-winning animated short starring Issa Rae. He also worked on “Soul,” a film about a middle-school band teacher voiced by Jamie Foxx that’s set to be released Christmas Day on Disney+.
Abney said three generations of his family’s experience served as inspiration for “Canvas.” He wondered about the backstory of his own grandfather, who was a very quiet and reserved man. He also noticed his mother’s artistic talents and reflected on her dreams that may have been lost.
But it was Abney’s niece who served as the creative spark for one of the film’s main characters.
“When I was trying to push through the industry, I was going through a pretty rough patch creatively,” he explained. “But I was around my niece a lot when she was little. And just thinking about how she would navigate the world as a kid. Kids are not burdened by any kind of responsibilities that we hold on our shoulders. Seeing that and just thinking about how kids have that free spirit that they run around with, that was really inspiring for me. It kind of helped me to just not worry about all this extra stuff. Melt away a lot of those things I was worrying about — my place in the industry, making the right choices, all that kind of stuff — and just like focus on creating.”
“Canvas” is one of three animated shorts launching on Netflix during the holiday season that highlight diversity in filmmaking through emotional stories.
“If Anything Happens I Love You” premiered on the streaming app Nov. 20. The award-wining film chronicles the journey of two grieving parents after the emotional loss of their child. The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African American orchestra in the nation, performed and recorded an original song for the short.
Jada Pinkett Smith is the executive producer of “Cops and Robbers,” a film that debuts Dec. 28. It’s a visual adaptation of a poem written by Broadway actor and activist Timothy Ware-Hill, who penned his evocative opus as a response to shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 in Southwest Georgia. Ware-Hill performed the poem in an Instagram video that went viral in May and inspired filmmaker Arnon Manor to turn it into an animated movie.
Abney had the humbling experience of being ignored by studios as he sought to break into the industry as a young filmmaker. He’s also gone through the uphill climb of trying to tell and sell layered stories about the Black experience to Hollywood. According to the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” study, more than 83 percent of the top 100 grossing moves in 2019 had white directors.
“It was tough for me. I mean, working on all these projects has been great, but then it’s like when can I work on something that represents where I come from,” he said. “When can I see myself reflected in these characters?”
In addition to untapped potential, “Canvas” also delves into mental health, a topic that remains somewhat of a taboo across the board. Just 50 percent of Black Americans with a serious mental illness received the treatment they needed in 2018, with cultural stigmas partly to blame, according to Mental Health America.
“Just thinking about how we are in the Black community when we go through these traumas and we have these these tragedies that happen around the world way too often,” Abney said. “It seems like we don’t really have time to grieve. We don’t have time to deal with these things. Similar to in the short, he has all these paintings and artwork locked away in this room and closed off. That’s kind of how we have to deal with these things in real life.”
Before breaking into film, Abney was a video game animator for Crystal Dynamics, helping to create the storylines for games like Tomb Raider. But with a passion for storytelling, his goal remained on creating animated movies.
“Ultimately, storytelling is that connecting fiber,” he said. “With storytelling I feel like it’s the experiences, I think, that are the connective tissue. With storytelling, it’s about capturing these experiences and capturing them in a truthful way. As different as we are as people in the world, we are very much the same as well. And I think we all have these similar experiences.”