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With a gay protagonist, Pixar short 'Out' makes history

NEW YORK – In Steven Clay Hunter’s 23 years as an animator at Pixar, he has drawn a seven-armed octopus, a Canadian daredevil and a wheezing toy penguin. But there were scenes he never expected to animate until he began working on his short, “Out.”

Hunter wrote and directed the nine-minute Pixar film, which recently debuted on Disney+. It’s about a man named Greg who, while packing up to move, temporarily switches bodies with his dog, Jim. While frantically trying to hide evidence of his boyfriend, Manuel, Greg discovers the courage to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents.

Greg, who’s loosely based on Hunter, is Pixar’s first LGBTQ protagonist. And while “Out” includes some more typically Pixar material (a pair of rainbow animals, a cameo from Wheezy of “Toy Story”), it features images never seen before in the 25 years of the studio, or in the longer history of Disney. Like when Greg and his boyfriend, Manuel, hug each other.

“The first time I drew Greg and Manuel holding each other in the bedroom, I was bawling my face off,” says Hunter. “All this emotion came welling up because I realized I had been in animation for decades and I had never drawn that in my career. It just hit me.”

“Out” is a small movie on a streaming service, not one of Pixar’s global blockbusters. But it has already had an outsized impact and been celebrated as a milestone for inclusion in family entertainment. GLAAD called it “a huge step forward for the Walt Disney Company.”

“‘Out’ represents the best of Disney and Pixar’s legacy as a place for heartwarming stories about finding one’s own inner strength in the face of life’s challenges,” said Jeremy Blacklow, GLAAD’s director of entertainment media.

From his home in Oakland, California, Hunter, a 51-year-old animator making his directorial debut, has humbly taken in the warm responses. He managed to meet his producer, Max Sachar, for a celebratory, socially distanced glass of rose last weekend. But he’s been reluctant to talk about such a personal film.

“I felt like this was something I had to do,” said Hunter in one of his first interviews. “I didn’t come out until I was 27 and I’m 51 now, and I feel like I’m still dealing with it. You can’t hide who you are for half of your life and then not carry that baggage around. You’ve got to process it somehow. I got lucky enough to process it in the making of this movie.”

It’s part joke, part truth that “Out” is labeled “based on a true story.” The first shot is of a magical dog and cat jumping through a rainbow. Hunter has had a dog named Jim but, naturally, hasn’t experienced a canine “Freaky Friday.” But the central story is autobiographical.

“The relationship of Manuel and Greg is something I went through,” he says. “I wasn’t out to my family and I was in a relationship but they didn’t know about him. It took a toll on our relationship and we ended up breaking up because of that. And that break-up led to me coming out to my family, over the phone in a conference room at Pixar.”

Hunter first came up with the idea of a coming-out film five years ago. But it was the Pixar SparkShorts program, which is meant to discover new voices and experiment with different techniques, that presented Hunter with an opportunity. After working on the Spark short “Purl,” he pitched “Out.” It was greenlit and finished by December.

“It was cool that he was telling this coming out story but he was doing so while coming out as a filmmaker,” says Sachar. “It was really wonderful for everyone to be a part of and witness.”

LGBTQ characters have been increasingly appearing in Disney films but often do so fleetingly. Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) was suggested to be gay in 2017’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” Pixar’s “Onward,” released earlier this year, featured what many consider Disney's first outwardly gay animated character: a police officer voiced by Lena Waithe who refers to her girlfriend. Some Middle East nations banned the film.

“Out,” finally, is far more straightforward. It includes, for example, a tender kiss between Manuel and Greg. To animate it, Hunter approached Wendell Lee, the only other gay animator still at Pixar from Hunter’s early days with the company.

“I just went to him and said, ‘You’ve got to animate this.’ And he was like, ‘Heck yeah,’” says Hunter. “I said: I want a kiss. I don’t want a peck.”

Hunter recently watched “Out” with his family, who live in Canada, over Zoom. It was a moment of connection that he hopes plays out similarly for others during quarantine. For young and old, gay and straight, “Out” is about being proud of who you are, whoever you are.

Reflecting on the film’s significance, Hunter on Thursday noted the passing of playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer. “Out,” not coincidentally, came out on Harvey Milk Day.

“We’re just an extension of that. We’re moving toward more visibility. It doesn’t mean we’re taking over. We’re just trying to tell our stories like everyone else,” says Hunter. “And we’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP