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TRENDER: Academy Award Nominated Animator Daniel Sousa

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


RISD alum Daniel Sousa's animated film Feral is nominated for a 2014 Academy Award.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today's Trender is Daniel Sousa, a nominee for Best Animated Short Film at the 2014 Academy Awards for his work on Feral.

Daniel Sousa is a Providence resident and a 1994 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who has been teaching at this renowned New England arts college since 2001. He has also been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, The Museum School, and The Art Institute of Boston.  

Since 1994, Sousa has created and produced six animated shorts including Minotaur (1999), Fable (2005), and Feral (2012). He has been featured at a number of festivals such as The Sundance International Film Festival and The Hollywood Film Festival. Sousa’s films have also earned him a multitude of impressive distinctions including a Moving Image Fund production grant by the LEF Foundation in 2005 for Fable, and another production grant from the Creative Capital Foundation in 2008 for Feral. Most recently, he received one of the three MacColl Johnson Fellowships which are granted yearly to local artists by the Rhode Island Foundation.

Along with his personal projects, Sousa has also worked as a director and an animator for Cartoon Network, Duck, Global Mechanic, and Oliver Jar Studios. On top of all this, he is also a founding member of Handcranked Film, which acts as a filmmakers’ collective. Sousa’s various animated short films can be viewed on his Vimeo page, and he can also be seen at the 2014 Academy Awards which will take place on March 2nd at 7 pm on ABC.

A conversation with Daniel Sousa

What inspired your original passion for art?

I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. It was always a primary mode of communication for me, sometimes even more so than language. It's the only way I have found to externalize my thoughts and feelings about my place in the universe, the complexity of human existence, and a way to connect with others who have done the same, whether through the visual arts, poetry, music, or dance. 

What motivated you to pursue a career in animation rather than another field?

I majored in Illustration at RISD, but during my sophomore year I took an Animation elective with Yvonne Anderson. That class made me realize that animation wasn't just a vehicle for children's entertainment, but a legitimate art form in its own right that harnessed several disciplines into one. It was like alchemy, adding all these disparate elements into something that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And the true subject of animation is the motion itself, which only exists in the viewer's mind as they experience it in real time. There was no turning back after that.

How have your experiences in the state of Rhode Island and at RISD influenced your work?

RISD is an amazing crucible for creativity in that it challenges you to think differently about everything and follow your instincts. It also teaches you how to be resourceful and find ways to keep learning even after you graduate. Art-making is a life-long pursuit, and you have to stay flexible and allow yourself to change while keeping a strong core and work ethic. I will always be grateful to RISD for giving me the opportunity to take advantage of what it has to offer. Rhode Island has been incredibly supportive in helping to fund my films, not only through The MacColl Johnson Fellowship, but also through several RISCA grants in the past. 

How do you plan to use the stipend awarded to you by the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual MacColl Johnson Fellowship?

Mostly the stipend will allow me to take time away from commercial work and teaching, so that I can devote my full attention to starting a new film. It will also help pay for studio rental and the hiring of assistants.

How have you developed and perfected your craft over the last twenty years from Minotaur to Feral?

I feel like I am always reinventing the wheel every time I start a new film, since every project requires its own visual language. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing because it keeps the creative process alive. Unless there's a sense of discovery, I don't really get much enjoyment out of making things. So I like to give myself challenges that test my skills and hopefully make me learn something new in the process. At the same time, I have done a lot of commissioned and commercial work. Although this work is not as creatively stimulating, it does offer me the opportunity to hone skills that I already know and perfect certain techniques that I can later apply to my personal work.

The word “feral” means a wild beast that was originally descended from domesticated beings. Your most recent animated short which bears this title deals with a human boy who grew up in the woods, is discovered by a hunter, and is returned to civilization. The contrast between the film’s title and the content of the production seems to take the aforementioned definition and turn it on its head. What is behind the creation of Feral? What served as your inspiration for the plotline and the images in this film? Is it based on anything historical? What commentary does this animated short make on society? What is the main idea that you would like your viewers to take away from watching this film?

Feral started out as a retelling of the Kaspar Hauser story. Kaspar had spent his entire childhood devoid of human contact, chained in a basement. He was found—already a teenager—in Nuremberg, Germany in 1828. He could barely walk and spoke only these words: “I want to be a rider like my father.” He was taken in by villagers and was gradually taught to communicate. He never fully adjusted to society, and he was treated as a sort of curiosity by others.

As I started developing the story, I came across many other accounts of feral or abandoned children throughout history.

In a parallel story, a young child of about thirteen was found in post-revolutionary France, in the town of Aveyron. He had been abandoned in early childhood and had since been living alone in the woods. He was naked and his hair was long. In every sense, he was like an animal: he avoided eye contact and often bit other people when provoked. He came under the care of Jean Marc Itard, a young doctor, who saw in him an opportunity to test out Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts concerning the ideal innocence of childhood and Etienne Condillac’s theories, which viewed language as a prerequisite for conscious thought and memory.

These stories give us glimpses of what a human being might be in a vacuum, without the influence of society or language. I decided to create an amalgam of true accounts, as well as myths and fairy tales. But at the core, I wanted to explore a few fundamental questions: Is the wild child an angel or a demon? Or is he neither, a blank slate waiting to be programmed? How did these children conceptualize their world? How did they react when they were finally introduced into human society? And how did we react to finding them? I wanted to examine the wild child’s experiences and memories, and to reflect on our culture’s views of this phenomenon.

What are you most looking forward to about the Academy Awards?

I'm trying to not have any expectations, but just enjoy the ride. It's all a little surreal, and very different than what I'm used to. But it's fun to play dress up.

What is your biggest fear about your Oscar nomination and walking the Red Carpet?

Being tongue-tied. I prefer to communicate through images.

Would you ever consider adding dialogue to your films or do you believe that the animation speaks for itself?

It would depend on the project. So far I haven't found a need for it, and it's been much more challenging and fun to use body language and other visual cues to get ideas across. But I might try dialogue in the next project, just to try something new.

After March 2nd has passed, what are your plans for future projects?

I'm hoping to keep doing what I'm already doing. It's been pretty great so far. My wife and I are also expecting our first child, so I can't really predict how being a father will affect my work. But I can't wait!


Related Slideshow: 25 Movies Filmed in Rhode Island

Prev Next

Moonrise Kingdom


Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray Frances McDormand

This Oscar nominated film features many local landmarks including Fort Wetherill State Park, Bayfield Farm, and the Conanicut Lighthouse.

Prev Next

Mr. North


Director: Danny Huston

Cast: Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall

Shot in Newport, this comedy-drama features Anthony Edwards as a con man attempting to break into the 1920s Newport social scene. 

Prev Next

There's Something About Mary


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Ben Stiller

Filmed partly in Providence, this movie was the highest-grossing comedy in 1998. 

Prev Next

Federal Hill


Director: Michael Corrente

Cast: Nicholas Turturro, Anthony DeSando, Libby Langdon

Set in Providence's Federal Hill neighborhood, the movie marks the directorial debut of Pawtucket native Michael Corrente.

Prev Next

Age of Innocence


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

This Oscar winning drama was partly filmed in Portsmouth.  

Prev Next

True Lies


Director: James Cameron

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold

The ballroom scenes in the movie were filmed at the Rosecliff Mansion in Newport.

Prev Next

High Society


Director: Charles Walters

Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra

Nominated for two Academy Awards, the movie's opening shot features a flyover of Newport’s oceanfront mansions. 

Prev Next

Thirteen Days


Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp

This docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis was partly shot in Newport. 

Prev Next

Little Children


Director: Todd Field

Cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley

Shot partly in Providence, this critically acclaimed drama received three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Lead Actress nod for Kate Winslet.

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Director: Peter M. Lenkov

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon

A car chase for this action-comedy was filmed in downtown Providence.

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Dijimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey

Shot at the Rosecliff Mansion in Newport and the State House in Providence, this drama received four Academy Award nominations in 1998. 

Prev Next

Outside Providence


Director: Michael Corrente

Cast: Shawn Hatosy, Amy Smart, Alec Baldwin

Filmed in multiple locations throughout Rhode Island, this movie is an adaptation of Peter Farrelly's 1988 novel of the same name.

Prev Next

Me, Myself & Irene


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Jim Carrey, Renée Zellweger. Chris Cooper, Robert Forster, Richard Jenkins

Filmed in Newport, Narragansett, Jamestown, and Galilee, this comedy centers on a Rhode Island State Trooper played by Jim Carrey. 

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Director: Lajos Koltai

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Meryl Streep

The film was primarily set in Newport and included large portions shot at Gooseberry Beach.

Prev Next

The Great Gatsby


Director: Jack Clayton

Cast: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, Bruce Dern

This Academy Award-winning drama was filmed in Newport at the Rosecliff Mansion on Bellevue Ave.

Prev Next

Self Storage


Director: Tom DeNucci

Cast: Eric Roberts, Jonathan Silverman, Michael Berryman, Tom DeNucci

Filmed in a self storage facility in East Greenwich, this horror-comedy marks the directorial debut of Cranston native Tom DeNucci. 

Prev Next

27 Dresses


Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Malin Åkerman, Ed Burns

Shot throughout Rhode Island, locations included the Rosecliff and Marble House mansions in Newport and a beach in Charlestown. 

Prev Next

Dan in Real Life


Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill

Filmed primarily in Jamestown, the movie also features the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett.

Prev Next

Hachi: A Dog's Tale


Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Richard Gere, Joan Allen, Jason Alexander

Filmed primarily in Bristol and Woonsocket, other locations included the Columbus Theater in Providence and the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. 

Prev Next

The Education of Charlie Banks


Director: Fred Durst

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Eva Amurri

Shot partially in Brown University in Providence, the movie marks the directorial debut of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst.

Prev Next

Meet Joe Black


Director: Martin Brest

Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani

Warwick's Aldrich Mansion served as the residence of Anthony Hopkins' character in the film. 

Prev Next

Reversal of Fortune


Director: Barbet Schroeder

Cast: Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Ron Silver

Jeremy Irons took home the Oscar for Best Actor for this drama, which was partly shot in Newport.

Prev Next



Director: Frederik Du Chau

Cast: Jason Lee, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Warburton, Amy Adams

Shot entirely in Rhode Island, filming locations included Hope High School on the East Side of Providence.

Prev Next

Tanner Hall


Directors: Francesca Gregorini, Tatiana von Furstenberg

Cast: Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson

Shot in Providence and Newport, the film marks the the directorial debut of Brown University graduates Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg.

Prev Next

Dumb and Dumber


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly

Scenes from the beginning of this comedy were filmed on location in Providence, including a shot of the Big Blue Bug.


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