O'Neil, Founder of Bonfire, on Recovery, Animation, and Mascot Cats

We recently chatted with Brendan O'Neil, founding partner of Bonfire and person in long-term recovery. Bonfire is the animation partner in our “Start with Connection” campaign to raise awareness about the importance of personal connection in addressing our country’s addiction crisis.

What drew you to this project?

As a vfx artist (creator of photo-real, digitally-generated imagery) and the founder of Bonfire, these are the types of projects I dream of. There’s been an excitement and an energy in the air unlike other jobs we’ve done. The level of passion with my team is already very high, but this project lit a fire I can’t explain.

Myself being in recovery for four years and having Bonfire teammates also affected by addiction, I knew we were perfectly positioned to tell a beautiful and sincere story, which I felt was paramount to the project.

Beyond that, I really wanted this opportunity to help guide people to a reliable resource for addiction information and support. It’s something I wish I’d had and something I have seen friends and family struggle to find for my whole life. The lack of organized help around addiction is shocking, and I really wanted to help people navigate those waters. I felt like Partnership to End Addiction was the right resource to do that.

Would you share with us a bit more about your journey with addiction and recovery?

I’ve been struggling with addiction since I was 19. I found alcohol early in college as a way to cope with an anxiety disorder and deep depression.

After experiencing a traumatic event, my alcohol use really took off and after numerous dangerous experiences, my family stepped in and suggested treatment. I embraced it, and at 19 went to a treatment center for 30 days.

I stayed sober for a year after returning to college. I began to slowly drink again and despite some contentious moments along the way, I seemed to moderate my drinking enough to live a normal life, or so I thought.

Like they say, addiction is a progressive disease. As I got older and life became harder, addiction began to fill in the voids of unhappiness and discomfort. Eventually, the habitual nature of my use became a part of my personality, and that’s when consequences began to become real and life became unmanageable. There’s a quote by Will Durant that I am reminded of: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

As a self-insured freelancer at the time, I struggled to find help for my addiction. Through sheer luck and $20K in savings, I made my way to Florida for my second treatment attempt at 29. My recovery lasted about a year before I slipped and relapsed.

The concept of your disease accelerating even while not active couldn’t be more true with me. It was as if I had never stopped. Within four days, I was in the hospital and in a coma. Gratefully I was able to recover. With the help of my then girlfriend, now wife and Bonfire producer, Kait, and my recovery program, I have been able to maintain recovery and grow my life and my company.

Is there anything from your own experience that helped you craft the situations and scenarios in the PSAs? If so, how did you tap into those?

Definitely. For myself and my team, perfection is always top of mind with our projects. For this especially, I wanted to make sure we told a story that properly represented addiction from a non-stigmatized and sympathetic perspective.

We wanted the emotions to be real and relatable on a universal level from afflicted to affected. When working on the style frames and look development, I used Unreal Engine to create custom characters and environments that represented not only myself and my wife physically, but also my relapse as a metaphor from the script and creative we were developing with DiMassimo Goldstein. I was also able to create much of the look using custom, real-world textures that I connected with and which symbolized addiction and recovery on multiple levels to me.

What’s been the impact of this creative undertaking on you?

There is definitely a sense of pride behind this work and it’s close to my heart. I sometimes find it difficult to not over analyze some of the creative choices along the way, but my amazing team and creative director Aron Baxter have helped guide the story by my side the whole way.

It’s also gotten me a bit reflective of my own experience and that of my family and friends. I have many people in my life who are recovering or still struggling from addiction and they are certainly top of mind these days.

How does the “Start with Connection” message resonate with you?

I think this is so important and a message I wish I’d heard before. With addiction, historically it’s been said the person addicted to substances will “reach out for help,” “ask for help” or “when they are ready, they will seek it.”

While I do agree with the sentiment that those experiencing addiction personally need to be ready to accept help, it’s often overlooked that many people don’t even know help exists. For so many suffering from addiction, they feel hopeless. They and their families have no idea where to turn for recovery resources let alone how to live without drugs and alcohol.

The simple idea that there is a path to recovery and a place to go where you can find some structure to help you crawl from the darkness and into the light is massively important. Awareness is the first step. We need families and parents impacted by the disease of addiction to know that there is a place they can get help. When you make the connection, you open the door to recovery.

Given your experience, what advice would you give to parents who currently have a child with addiction?

Be kind. Be patient. Take care of yourself. Addiction is a disease and many struggling are experiencing things much deeper than they appear on the surface. It’s important to react with kindness and love instead of anger and frustration — as hard as it may be at times. It’s also important to remember that there are no guarantees in the journey of recovery and no matter how hard you may try to help, sometimes, nothing works.

You need to take your own stress level and needs into consideration. If you are not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

On a lighter note, tell us about the community at Bonfire.

Well, my wife and I live above the Flatiron office in New York City and we have five cats between us who rule the roost and often visit the Bonfire office to assist in tech repairs and artist duties. We have Poppy the Calico, Cheese the chonky orange tabby, Mulder the tomcat, Gravy the longhair food thief and Big Boy the ragdoll mystery pooper. Cheese has become somewhat of the unofficial company mascot as he enjoys being carted around outside in a stroller for adventure time.