It’s Oscar season in Tinseltown and when the nominees were announced, it surprised no one that Pixar once again snagged a nod in the Short Animation category, this time for La Luna. Pixar’s longest short film to date, the heartwarming tale that accompanied Cars 2 in theaters is now getting its own moment to shine. More specifically, La Luna director Enrico Casarosa and producer Kevin Reher are taking their turn in the Short Animation spotlight. Both Pixar veterans, Reher has been at the company for 18 years, as executive producer of Canadian ancillary projects, as a casting director and more recently, shorts producer. Director Casarosa has been at Pixar for almost ten years as a story artist and now head of story on an upcoming feature for 2013, having worked at Blue Sky and elsewhere in the industry for 15 years prior. AWN caught up with the busy “moon men” to get their take on the making of La Luna as well as Pixar’s short film program, idea generation and how less can mean a whole lot more.
Dan Sarto: Enrico, first off, how does it feel to receive an Oscar nomination, joining a prestigious list of previous Pixar nominees and winners?
Enrico Casarosa: It's simply amazing. It made for quite the morning. I actually loved how early the nomination announcement was - 5:30 am. I was sitting in my kitchen, just one small light on, my wife and daughter still asleep, I had my laptop and a nice cup of coffee. It was so still and quiet, almost lonely, and then I started getting this wonderful deluge of messages from all over the world. Family, friends, colleagues and strangers reaching out and congratulating me. I loved that contrast, it's such a sweet memory.
What makes our nomination really special ultimately is that I think it means La Luna is resonating with audiences, the story we told is touching people. That brings the biggest smile to my face.
The nomination also makes me very proud of the artists at Pixar who poured their hearts and souls in this film. We had such a great crew on La Luna, I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to work with all of them.
DS: We’ll jump onto La Luna in a moment. But Kevin, I want to start with you. I know the shorts program at Pixar represents several things to the company, especially as a proving ground of sorts. Can you tell us a little bit about the program, its genesis what it’s designed to accomplish?
Kevin Reher: Well, Pixar’s first films were short films. John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] are committed to shorts as an art form and don’t want to lose that part of Pixar’s history. We tend to do shorts in the dips between productions so that we’re not competing for the same resources. Our development department has three development executives who field all the shorts and help with getting them ready for pitching. They get them in front of what we call the storyboard group, which is [currently] filmmakers Pete Doctor, Bob Peterson, and Pete Sohn, who directed Partly Cloudy.
They will be the first people to see the pictures of a short film. The shorts can come from people within Pixar who want to have a short. Sometimes we target people and say, “You know, we think you’re terrific and you’d be a perfect person to do a short.” [As development you] put that on your radar. Then, once the short goes past the shorts board, it goes to John Lasseter for a final review.
DS: Do shorts provide you with a window into whom may be right to helm a feature film? Is it also a testing ground for technical problem solving or technological innovations?
KR: Short films have traditionally been everything. They’ve been director proving grounds. They have [also] been about technology, everything from the skin in Geri's Game to the roiling clouds on Partly Cloudy, to feathers on For the Birds. But it also is an opportunity for some people who may not ever get a chance to direct a feature, but have this brilliant idea for a short film, to get an opportunity to be supported by the company and get a short made. Some of them rise to the occasion and become co-directors, or they become heads of story, sort of working through the maturing process to becoming a feature director.
DS: Enrique, let’s shift over to you for a minute. You mentioned that you work on story. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done at Pixar, and what brought you to the attention of the shorts group?
EC: Yeah, certainly. I started with the Pixar in 2002. I was the first story artist on Ratatouille, which was in development at the time. I worked for many years on Ratatouille, I worked on UP, and a little bit on Cars on well. Those were kind of my main three features. More recently I worked for a little bit on Cars 2, then took almost a year and half full time working on La Luna. So, I’ve been in the trenches of story there for almost 10 years now. And before I was a story artist on the East Coast, working on Ice Age at Blue Sky Studios.
DS: Tell us a little bit about what a story artist does day to day within the feature film production pipeline at Pixar. How does your work translate onto the screen?
EC: We feel that we’re there to support the director finding his story, the story he wants to tell. It varies in many ways. It can be as detailed as the director or the writer giving us 10 pages of the script with full dialogue and descriptions. In that case, we’re visualizing [the film] in the best way possible, so we’ll take that from the beginning!
DS: Could you elaborate on that?
EC: I’ll start from the beginning. As I said, in broad strokes, a story artist is really there to support the director in finding the story. The range of input varies, [sometimes] just visualizing and drawing a sequence that has been fully scripted, where there would be a very specific job to visualizing, finding the camera setups, determining the acting, the pacing, thinking about cinematography all around. So, there is that side of the job.
The other side that’s even more important is being there to brainstorm ideas. When we put these clips and stills together as story reels, once we storyboard everything, we look at them with some temporary score, temporary voices. It’s about trying to figure out what’s working and what’s not working, looking at how to make it better.
The story team is really there to support the director in those decisions. We do a lot of iterations of looking at this movie in storybook form. Hopefully, from the beginning [of the process] to the end you start getting to a movie that’s doing all that you want. The beginning is always a little bit broken up but you find your gems, tent poles, if you will.
DS: Let’s jump ahead to La Luna. Where did the story idea originate?
EC: I would say it came from two basic ingredients. One was finding an emotional, personal story. I looked at my youth growing up in Italy, in Genoa, with my dad and my grandfather, who lived with us. The two of them never quite got along and I always felt a little bit in the middle of those two strong personalities.
Being the boy that’s feeling the pressure from both of them was something that I thought of trying to explore. So, I put that together with something that was more about the things I love in movies and in literature, more of the fantastic. Specifically for La Luna two influences I always mention are Antoine Saint-Exupery with his wonderful Little Prince and the writings of Italo Calvino, an Italian writer who masterfully weaves together stories that are at once mundane and surreal. So I thought of representing those three generations in a very fantastic setting. I have always loved the moon and I thought it would be really great to invent my own myth about what the moon is. Why is it bright, why does it change shape, you know? Those are the things that came together at the inception of the idea.
At Pixar, when you start thinking about pitching some shorts, you start talking to development, which is, of course, headed by Kevin. And we have – we call them the development ladies - there are three ladies, Mary, Karen and Kiel, who I think are the greatest for just listening and giving some good feedback.
You start pitching ideas to them and developing ideas with them. You hear what’s working, what’s not, and you slowly build three ideas for an eventual pitch. Given that I’m a story artist, I wanted the pitch to be very visual. I made beat boards, fully kid’s book-like, with small illustrations of the key moments.
Out of the three we pitched, John really reacted to this specific one. It was certainly my favorite. From there it was really about figuring out when the production could happen, and get ready to produce it.
DS: Kevin, How did this project come on your radar and how is the decision made that “this is the film we’re going to move forward with”?
KR: At one time, we have at least five or six people who I want to pitch ideas for a short film to John, and one tends to rise to the top. [This time] it was clearly La Luna; we changed almost nothing from the beginning, what actually came out.
When we presented, John said, “Of the three ideas I like this one the best and yes, go make it.” Then we got a budget together. This film was sort of the gauntlet that had been thrown down by finance to say, “This is a simple elegant little short film, let’s try to do it for a reasonable amount of money,” and so we did. It wasn’t like Day & Night where we had to find 2D animators and clean-up people, and it wasn’t like Partly Cloudy, which had rolling clouds and talking clouds and lots of little characters and stuff. It worked with only two sets and three characters, so it stayed very confined
DS: Even though you say that it may have been simpler than Day & Night or Partly Cloudy, I’m sure it wasn’t simple to make. Can you walk us through the production? What were some of the main challenges?
EC: After being simply elated, I sat down and started storyboarding the whole thing. I didn’t have the idea 100% figured out in my mind. But I had a simpler version of the storyboards in my head and I knew exactly what to do with it.
[Of the three we pitched], this one was fuller, had more to it, and I think the choice to do it is to John’s credit. There was a little bit of figuring out, sort of “Okay how do you make this work?” One of the first challenges was trying to figure out this language, this made up gibberish that I really wanted these characters to have. We always do the scratch voice, and it was me and the editor playing the two characters, trying to make up this [nonsense language]. People were not sold on the idea right away, but I grew up with a lot of great cartoons that had gibberish, and I thought it could have a great flavor, that it would go very well with that specifically Italian way of gesticulating.
So, we did a bit of searching, we tried a few different people. Things were still not quite working out. Then, we finally found [actors] that embodied these guys, like Tony Fucile, who is the voice for our Papa. And he’s a big Papa, really feels like the guy. We found out he’s also a gifted improviser of gibberish!
Then, for Grandpa, we did a few tests and we found a wonderful 75-year old that, again, felt like the real person. The first time he came in, he said, “you want it with teeth or without teeth?” And he proceeded to take his teeth out! And we were like, “Oh my god, let’s try it without teeth.” So, the gibberish finally worked.
One of [the challenges was] was that we usually try and do shorts that are a certain length. Throughout the production this short got longer and longer and longer. I was very thankful to Kevin for standing behind me on that. We started with story reels which were 4:40 and we have a 6:51 short. But I really felt that it needed time to breathe. And luckily we were able to still do it, still within the same price. We were proud of that.
DS: Are the longer shots easier to do?
EC: Yes. And the pacing was such that the amount of shots was actually relatively short. I think we have 71 shots. There are shorter [films] that have more shots.
DS: Looking back at when you started Day & Night versus starting on La Luna, do you inherently know that one film is going to be much easier than the other, or do these things become apparent only when production starts rolling?
KR: With Partly Cloudy, for instance, we had people in the technical world who said, we need at least a year of R&D, we’re never going to be able to do this. We managed to do it because we found a guy who had done clouds as his PHD at Cal and got him in to consult.
Day & Night was tough just from the standpoint that it had 2D and we’re not known for our 2D work. We had to find animators and cleanup people that could do that kind of work, because most of our animators are trained in CG.
With La Luna, I think the biggest challenge was trying to get the right team together. We had Dan McCoy who is the supervising tech and he is a shader maven. He was really awesome for the look and the feel. We got Justin Pearson who did the sound, and he was awesome. We were lucky to pull in people from the art world, like borrowing Robert Kondo. That’s the hardest part, trying to get a team to work on the short films at any given point because everybody has a full-time job somewhere else.
EC: Yeah, before being pulled by some production.
KR: Yeah, so we’d get two weeks of Robert Kondo, who did some character designing. And then, we’d get a month of Dice [Daisuke Tsutsumi] who would come in and do some paintings, and Bill Cone who did the color script. That’s it, you kind of beg, borrow and steal, that’s probably the biggest challenge. Because it’s not like there is just a bunch of people sitting around waiting to come work on your short.
EC: Especially people like Dice, who had just come off Toy Story 3 and everybody was trying to grab him. They’re very much in demand. Bill was an interesting scenario because we were trying to work with Robert Kondo and Dice who were whisked away to a main production, so it’s “Well, who have you got?” Bill Cone is your plan B. I was like, “Wow, that’s best plan B I’ve ever heard of.” We were pretty lucky with that.
DS: Was there any point in this production where you said “This is in trouble, it’s nott going the way I want?”
EC: I can say we never had real serious panic. There were specific things that you’re trying to do in a specific shot. The slightly different look that we were trying for, “Well, can we put this 2D effect on the water.” That’s a good example of something that we tried. For example, the wake of the boat, from my watercolors, that I wanted to be a slightly Miyazakian kind of wave. It’s not very realistic. Of course, the computer is not so good at doing not-realistic. I animated it. We couldn’t get it. We kept on trying. It wasn’t working. It kept on feeling like some sort of cob web stuck on the water. So, I tried animating it by myself in 2D. Then we gave it to one of our effects guys. It took a lot of iterations. There were moments like, “That’s not right…this is not quite there yet, [but] we have to show this to John tomorrow.” You’re trying to make a call of, “Do I really stick up for this little subtle thing, or just give up on it?” That’s the closest that we got to it [panic]. We found a way that worked out but it was a close one. It felt great when it finally was there.
The same thing happened a little bit with grooming. The hair was a challenge. We had moments where it was, “Wow, we can’t control this hair in the way we want.” The animator doesn’t see that on his end usually. The animator is controlling topology. The hair is simmed. It’s what we call baked in. [When] all this physics got added to it, the hair was moving all over the place and the animators had no control of it. We had to find ways around some of those specific things. You could see it in some tests where you had very, very strange things happening. We have moments of, “Oh, how the heck are we going to do this?” But they were pretty specific to a few problems.
KR: I think from the producing standpoint, probably the biggest challenge was music. We went down a path with a composer that, it didn’t work out, scheduling wise. So, John said, “We’ve got this Italian guy who has worked on a couple of our movies. You might want to talk to Michael Giacchino.” And when Michael Giacchino came in, he was like, “No problem, I get it, I got it, I got it.” Enrico and I gave him this rundown based on the color script, of where we wanted the music to go emotionally. And Michael goes, “Wow, I was going to do this, thanks.” Literally, we did the scoring piggybacking on to the Cars 2 scoring. He did it in 45 minutes.
DS: He did it in 45 minutes?
KR: The whole recording. And he was like, “You want less mandolin? Hey, less mandolin over there.” This guy went, “OK” and did the section that had less mandolin in it. It was just amazing. But from a producer standpoint it was probably the biggest challenge.
EC: Yeah, Michael was pretty amazing with that. We really asked him to reach for his roots and we were hoping that he’d be game for that, and he did it. You know, what happens in lot of these animation projects is that you listen to the scratch music for a long time and you may get scratch love, which means, you kind of want the scratch back there somehow.
KR: Nothing is as good as the temp track.
EC: The temp track, we call it Frankenstein stuff, because it’s all pieces of lot of things. But you listen to it so much that it gets stuck in your brain and it’s emotionally doing exactly what you expect. So, it’s an interesting process to then work with a composer that will throw some curve balls into that because he might have a different take on the moment. Michael did so amazingly, he really is a storyteller, he thinks about it, very, very much from the story point. He appreciates the specific emotional descriptions of what a moment should do, and he really captures something that feels like something out of a Fellini movie, which is great.
DS: You made the comment that the heart of Pixar is short film. How does that legacy play a role in how you’re making creative decisions? Do you ever second guess yourself, wondering if this film will belong on the shelf alongside other Oscar nominated and winning films?
EC: I knew I wanted to tell something with a different feel. I was looking at the pressure of the past in a positive way, in a way that I’m going to stand right there, I’m going to be different from that. So, I felt in many ways, [that legacy is] the perfect sandbox to play around in because you have a little bit of pressure, but it’s nothing compared to a feature where I’ve been working for years.
Art and commerce, the meeting of the two, are always competing in production. With these shorts I think that we have this wonderful opportunity to lean on the art side. These shorts don't have to go out there and make millions, you know. So, I really took that as an opportunity to do something different because it’s a smaller sandbox. To me it felt very liberating and I was able to not second guess myself because of that.
In the middle of all that, I felt very thankful of the opportunity of going through that huge learning process. That’s the secondary thing, thinking, wow, I’m learning so much every day. I always say this but, as much as I’ve had great jobs through my career, there has not been such joy as in the last year of production on this short.
It would be Sunday night, I’d be, “Yes! Tomorrow is Monday morning.” That doesn’t happen very often, even at Pixar. But that year, it was so amazing to go back the next day and see another little piece that’s working coming into place. Or if it’s not working, figuring out how to fix it. It was really a joy and I’m very thankful for that opportunity.
KR: I’m glad for the gig. But also, the other thing about these [short film] teams, it may be animators that have never been animating on anything at Pixar, or somebody like a Dan McCoy as the supervising tech, who’s been a Pixar veteran and hasn’t been a supervising tech before, or A.J. Riebli, who was the production manager who got to be a production manager for the first time. We get to try out a lot of different people, stretch them. So, it’s also the team is fun.
EC: And really everybody gets to stretch their legs a little more and have more responsibility, which is what makes the small team so much fun. You know, we were very lucky to kind of…
KR: To get the team.
EC: Yeah. We always talk a lot about dips in production and we did find the best kind of setting, and, thanks to Kevin’s hard work, a lot of those pieces came together at the right time. They don't always. We really got a great team, we were quite lucky.
Dan Sarto is Publisher of Animation World Network.