Now that we’ve wrapped the film, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the production process that went into this two-year journey. As I look back on this experience, I am deeply grateful for the collaborative spirit of our core staff–Jen, Mollie, Songyi, and Sam–as we pushed ourselves to create a film we can all call our own.
Research & Script
We started work on Azúcar in 2019 as I watched a deepening crisis at the border. Meanwhile, I was horrified by xenophobic rhetoric that was being weaponized for cheap political gain. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Central and South America, and the dehumanization broke my heart, so I wanted to find a way to humanize this experience, to create some kind of countervailing force against hate.
The story deepened as I started working on this idea with Jen Sanchez, our art director. The immigrant experience of her family and loved ones was vital, and they provided crucial feedback about the concept.
Meanwhile, this story would not have happened without executive producer George Bard’s friend, Luís, who bravely recounted his own experiences. He provided many of the salient details that influenced me as I wrote the treatment and script.
We found additional inspiration from a detailed report released in 2019 by the U.S. Commission on Human Rights, “Trauma at The Border,” which gave us a more nuanced understanding of the issues at stake.
In the early going, we knew that the success of the film would hinge on a crucial river sequence, and so Jen and I looked for inspiration from photographs and artwork to guide the visual language of the film.
The film began to really take shape with Jen’s detailed storyboards. We went through many, many iterations of these until we felt like the story was coming together coherently. Even so, we had to backtrack in the animation phase and re-board several shots when we realized things weren’t working quite right.
Next up, Jen started creating designs for our main characters, Ana and Marcelo. Particular care was taken to make them look and feel integrated into the world of the film. It was especially important that Ana and Marcelo’s designs were an accurate depiction of people who face the issues we explore in the film on a daily basis, so we went through several iterations until we settled on a design that felt right.
A duo of incredible illustrators helped us create all the backgrounds and props, as Jen gave detailed feedback along the way. A huge thanks to Jessica Mao and Rachel Howell for their contributions.
While it may be consciously imperceptible to the viewer, much of the story is told through the progression of color, as shown in these panels. The color story is Jen’s vision and she had a heavy hand in designing the progression: As we open on dusk, the colors are rich and golden, but gradually darken as it begins to rain. Meanwhile, the Honduras shots are bright and oversaturated.
When it came time to animate, it was all hands on deck, and then some. Our internal team–Jen, senior animator Mollie Davis, and designer Songyi Park– took on several scenes, while much of the character motion heavy lifting was done by three incredible animators, Camille Vincent, Hannah O’Neal, and Kim Hui. In addition to taking on several crucial frame-by-frame shots, Mollie was in charge of compositing many of the shots into final form, as well as adding effects. Meanwhile, Songyi took on a lot of the lighting effects, as well as animation for the two 3D sequences in the film. All the while, Jen was touching every shot with her meticulous attention to detail.
The film is comprised of roughly 160 shots. Once we had them all in a form we were happy with, the last step was to assemble them and apply David Reiffel’s incredible sound design, as well as Brian Amador’s atmospheric music. The soundscape is immersive and evocative; adding David’s work brought this film to life. Meanwhile, Brian’s music gives the film a sense of place and emotional power.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure the film was working until all the shots were assembled in sequence. I’ll never forget seeing the first assembly and declaring, “Oh my gosh, we have a story.”
Now, we’re excited to share the film with the world. Stay tuned…