Challenging the Misconceptions of Down Syndrome in a New Animated Music Video

In December 2020, Michael McDonald received a phone call from singer-songwriter Jordan Hart. Hart was preparing to release his debut E.P. He needed a music video for his leading track called “Freedom” and he was looking to collaborate.

“He wanted the story to highlight the life moments so familiar to those of us in the disability world, but so rarely depicted on screen and perhaps never before depicted in the music video genre. I was in the car at a red light when I first heard his song “Freedom.” I’ll never forget it. I didn’t have my phone connected to Bluetooth, so his song was playing through the phone’s speakers amplified by the plastic cup holder. Even then, it transported me to another world entirely– tears in my eyes, chills down my spine, the music pulled this story out of me. Four stoplights later, I knew we had something beautiful and important. After countless hours working on the script, raising the money, reaching out to studios, we are so proud to share what might be the world’s first animated music video featuring a protagonist with Down syndrome!”, recalls McDonald.

Michael McDonalds is a National Communications Director at L’Arche Canada. L’Arche Canada is one of 150 communities in 38 countries that celebrates the gifts of people with and without intellectual disabilities. They encourage people to build friendships and belonging, by demonstrating those with and without intellectual disabilities can live, work, learn, and grow together. L’Arche shows that when those with intellectual disabilities take their place at the table, they contribute to a more just, compassionate, and vibrant world for all.

Award winning studio Tonic DNA was approached by L’Arche with a script for the live action film. However, with the pandemic going on, they felt it too high of a health risk. So they needed to rework the script from live action to animation. As part of L’Arche’s ‘Free to Be’ campaign, the film’s narrative was built on years of oral histories from those with Down Syndrome, highlighting moments familiar to those with the disability that are so rarely depicted on screen. During the short timeframe to bring this animation to life, the team made sure the film challenged the misconceptions surrounding Down Syndrome by asking the question, “Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”

Far too often, the media portrays stories of those with disabilities with fear and pity. With help from actor and LGBTQ activist Nicholas Herd, who was born with Down Syndrome, and was creative director of the film, the team purposely stayed away from the stereotypical plot devices.

With animation references and real-life stories given by L’Arche, Tonic DNA worked to find a style that would preserve the emotional and character-driven aspects of the story while ensuring there was no distraction from the narrative — finding strength in simplicity, while also working around Jordan Harts song ‘Freedom‘.

Written and directed by Joe Bluhm and Michael McDonald, Freebird is the coming-of-age story of a boy with Down Syndrome who learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush.

“In an industry so captivated by CG and 3D, what if we were to ‘disable’ the aesthetic to the bare minimum?” said Michael McDonald. “In our initial search for style references, we were really drawn to the minimalistic tradition of abbozzi; the preliminary sketches for great works of art. People with Down Syndrome are often treated as such, as under-developed, rough sketches of what should have been a ‘full-fledged’ human being. Could we explore that through the tradition of the rough sketch and come out on the other side with something whose beauty would be deepened by its simplicity, by the fact that it refuses the flashiness of artistic sophistication?”
McDonald continues, “From our first meeting, Joe [Bluhm] has taken the animation in such incredible directions. Bodies with Down Syndrome have different proportions than those without Down Syndrome, and Joe and Tonic took the time to get these dimensions right — the gestures, the expressions, the non-normative proportions — and it was all done with such integrity. It’s one thing to dream about the perfect aesthetic to tell this story, it’s another to make a flat world feel round or to match the 42 muscles in the human face with the expressive power of a well-placed line, and yet, once Joe said ‘yes’ and Tonic sharpened their pencils, that’s exactly what they did.”
According to Tonic DNA director Bluhm,Although the timeline was challenging, the concept and narrative was amazing. I was completely moved by the script and the cause, instantly envisioning something free and loose. Knowing that this was a robust story, with half a lifetime of narrative, we couldn’t cut out any of it, yet couldn’t build every detail of the world. Fortunately, my gut feeling was to do something that felt light, familiar, and loose enough to evoke an idea that the story is still yet to be written for many of the people that the narrative speaks to. Tightening up and constraining things is not the answer – letting things be loose and open is. So, a light, slightly vintage style felt right. And letting colors flow, letting textures flow, and getting glimpses of these memories being told to the viewer through an ephemeral form seems fitting.”

Watch the music video here:

And according to Michael, “The 45-year-old secret handshake between the mother and son in the animation–that came from Amir–he showed me that!”

Be sure to stay after the song ends. There is something extra at the end that brings home the message that is intended.

With all the violence, anger, and destruction going on out there in the world, we could always have some brightness and love in our lives. Even from those who society deems a rough sketch of a human being.

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Sarah Leone

An independent artist who loves to mix things up between traditional and digital art. She has a love for all things anime, animation, and manga. Oh, and cats. Can't forget the cats.

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