Steven Clay Hunter was not prepared for the outpouring of love he'd receive after the Pixar short he wrote and directed, Out, debuted on Disney+ in late May.
"We're just overwhelmed by the positive response from people. It's just ridiculous," said Hunter, who has never spent more time on social media than in the past few days following the film's release.
It's easy to see why it means so much to so many. Out made history as the first Pixar film to feature a gay lead character. It follows Greg (Kyle McDaniel) as he comes out to his parents about his relationship with a man — with a little help from fairy god-pets, who transfer Greg's consciousness into his dog's in order to give him a new perspective on life.
Out is "inspired by a true story," read the film's opening text. Although Hunter did not have a magical dog and cat, he, like Greg, did not come out to his parents until he was an adult, age 27 (he's 51 now).
Hunter — a longtime animator with Pixar whose credits include A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, and The Incredibles — told his mother and father on a phone call while he was at work. And as with the supportive parents in Out, his story had a happy ending.
"They were wonderful. They embraced me like their son," Hunter said. "My dad had to go for ice cream. But otherwise, he called back an hour later and was like, 'You're my son, I love you no matter what.' So, kind of similar to the dad hugging the boyfriend at the end. But every story is different."
Out was one of the films released on Disney+ as part of Pixar's SparkShorts series. Hunter began work on it two years ago, and as he brainstormed ideas for a topic, his mind kept coming back to coming out. "I needed to process, you know. But it means to hide who you are. That lingers," he said.
In creating Out, Hunter looked outside of his own story. He spoke with friends and other gay men about their experiences. He was struck by how different they all were.
"There's so many positive ones, there's so many negative ones, there's so many right in between," Hunter said. "There are people that are still struggling with it, even at my age."
Thus, Hunter began envisioning his film as a means to start a conversation for LGBTQ+ folks and their loved ones who are dealing with this issue at every level.
"I'm really I'm thankful to have parents that were accepting," he said. "But I think I wanted to make a film that people could see themselves in, families could see themselves in, and it would be a way to get people and families talking."
Moreover, Out is not only relatable for queer people, said Max Sachar, a straight ally and a producer of the short.
"Even folks on the outside of the LGBTQ community can still look up on-screen and find some connection to the true human experience that comes with revealing truths about yourself," he said. "And in this case, the entire crew and audiences from all different walks of life have been inspired by the story that Steve chose to tell."
Coincidentally, Out premiered on Harvey Milk Day, which honors the assassinated gay politician. It was Sachar who first noted this significance. He grew up in San Francisco, and his father owned an ice cream shop across from Castro Camera, Milk's store where he organized for LGBTQ+ equality.
Milk's message of coming out's vital importance to progress — "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," he famously said — resonated with Sachar, who was greatly impacted by his story in The Times of Harvey Milk.
"Learning in the documentary how, after his passing, it inspired so many people to come out of the closet and the impact that that has — that really moves me to the core. Unfortunately, it took his passing to kind of trigger that reaction and that emotion," Sachar said. It is now heartwarming for him to see "folks reaching out to us, saying how impactful this film is on their lives," he added.
And then there's the animation process itself. Hunter wanted to create a human-canine body-swapping in part because he thought it would be fun to animate — a maxim he learned from working with Pixar director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille).
Growing up, Hunter was also a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, which inspired both Out's fantastic elements and format, in which a talking dog and cat introduce the story and conclude it. "[Twilight Zone host] Rod Serling would begin and end the show and something magical would happen in between for that half hour. I loved the idea of setting up the magic really briefly, really quickly with these two characters," Hunter said.
As for Sachar, he "didn't hesitate" when Hunter approached him with an offer to produce and be part of conveying this message. The pair had known each other for 14 years through Pixar, although it took a decade before they were first able to collaborate.
"He's a great storyteller, a great animator, and a great director. I was honored to be part of it, to be honest," said Sachar, who described his job as being Hunter's "second set of eyes and ears, and making sure that we were protecting the integrity of the film that he was trying to make and his vision," in addition to helping recruit crew members and keeping the production on budget. Hunter described him as "a good work husband."
Did Hunter and Sachar have to "protect" Out from Pixar executives who may have wanted to de-gay or shelve the production? Historically, there were no obviously LGBTQ+ characters in Pixar films until the release of this year's Onward, in which Lena Waithe voiced a minor lesbian character. Out marks the first time the story has centered on a queer character and theme.
"I know it's not the most glamorous, juicy story full of conflict. But, you know, that's the truth: that we really didn't run into any obstruction or questioning regarding the subject matter of the film," said Sachar, adding, "The studio was fully behind it."
Hunter recalled the "fantastic" pitch meeting with Pixar's president, Jim Morris, and Pete Docter, the studio's chief creative officer. Hunter had shown them a rough cut of his concept.
"They watched it and just looked at each other and go, 'Looks great. Keep going,'" Hunter recalled. "And we were like, 'Wow, OK.' I didn't realize I was holding my breath the whole time."
Hunter characterized his workplace as very accepting. When asked about the reason for the former absence of LGBTQ+ characters in Pixar productions, he pointed to a historical lack of out directors in the studio who could advocate bringing those stories to life.
"There just hasn't been a queer director yet until this chance came along, and then I was able to tell it," Hunter said. "But hopefully, this isn't the end of it. Hopefully, it'll be more of us telling stories. Lord knows, there's a lot of queer stories out there to be told."
Of course, members of the right wing will still balk at every step Disney takes toward greater queer inclusivity. On the same day The Advocate spoke with Out's team, One Million Moms had called for a boycott of the film. Hunter refused to comment. "I don't like giving groups like that oxygen," he declared.
However, Hunter did have a message for all haters who would protest LGBTQ+ inclusion in children's entertainment. "We are part of the human story, and we're not going anywhere. And we deserve to be seen and heard," he said.
Watch Out on Disney+ and see a teaser below.