When we look back at all that has happened in 2020/21, there are going to be a lot of troubling memories. Reading the news has become somewhat of a trial in recent times, something you need a certain level of energy and a certain mindset to do. With that in mind, it makes a refreshing change to present a real feel-good news story, as short filmmaker Patrick Osborne (Pearl) helps a middle school drama class bring their play to life, in the midst of the pandemic, with animated short film Drawn Closer.

With a plot centred around a group of determined theatre kids struggling to present a play that looks destined to fail, the storyline of Drawn Closer was obviously heavily influenced by the real-life struggles of the drama students at Thurman White Middle School. With Covid-19 restrictions meaning the original plans for their school play had to be scrapped, in stepped Cox Communications and Academy Award-winning director Patrick Osborne to help.

Described as a first of its kind production, Osborne ensured the pupils were still an integral part of the production by employing a creative production process which meant they could voice and puppeteer their own characters in the short. Using facial recognition technology, the students were able to act out their parts over video call, with their digital counterparts mirroring their movements and expressions in real-time on-screen (you can see the process in action in the BTS video below).

“We wanted to make this as connected and inclusive of an experience as possible”

“Using the face capture tech is a way to engage the students’ performance in a much deeper way than simply voice recording them”, Osborne explained to Short of the Week when we asked him about employing this technique over a more traditional route. “We wanted to make this as connected and inclusive of an experience as possible. Plus it’s pretty neat to see yourself performing as an animated character. I wanted to see the young actors experience that”. 

Osborne admits that the decision to adopt these specific production methods were very much “pandemic inspired”, but hopes the use of this technology will carry on long after the current situation we all find ourselves in. “It’s so portable and friendly to everyone’s schedules”, the filmmaker reveals, before adding that he can “100% see uses of this in future projects”. 

Though on the surface Drawn Closer doesn’t feel that innovative – playing like an eye-catching, but conventional 3D animation – this is one of the rare instances where the story behind the short elevates the film itself. The lengths Osborne and his team go to in ensuring the students still get the same performative experience is truly impressive (I’m sure they could have created the film in a more traditional fashion and it may have been an easier process) and the result is rewarding, as the short is brimming with the youthful energy you would expect to find a school play.

“Working with these kids was easily the best part of the project”, Osborne tell Jyni Ong, in an interview on It’s Nice That. “They were endless wells of enthusiasm and natural performers. Each student brought a unique sensibility to the characters that elevate the story to a hugely entertaining and emotional plain.” 

Drawn Closer Short Film Patrick Osborne

Thurman White Middle School student Ava Betancourt interacts with her digital counterpart on screen

We often laud short film for the freedom it allows in production and the openings the format provides for filmmakers to innovate and experiment, but Drawn Closer wasn’t just a chance to test out a new technique, it was also an opportunity to do something good and make the dreams of these middle-schoolers come true. And as we mentioned at the start of this article, it’s refreshing to be able to share a positive Covid-19 story in these testing times.

Patrick Osborne is part of a Nexus Studios roster that includes fellow S/W filmmakers including; Conor Finnegan, Factory Fifteen, Felix Massie, FX GobyJohnny Kelly, Jonas Odell, Kibwe Tavares, Marc & Emma and Nicolas Ménard.