Augusto Schillaci’s 3DCG short, a passion project nine years in the making, tells the story of a beloved Calesitero, whose selfless work over decades at a small-town carousel in Argentina impacted the lives of people he touched in untold ways over untold years.
For the past 15 years, Augusto Schillaci has worked as a CG and visual effects supervisor, helping to enhance the captivating visuals of films like Enchanted and The Book of Life. And since 2017, Schillaci has also been directing the YouTube animated shorts series Best Friends. But throughout all of this, Schillaci was also hard at work on a passion project focused on the heart and soul of his home country, Argentina.
La Calesita is his CG-animated short film about a merry-go-round operator who, after bringing so much joy and fun to his community, is forced to give up his profession. Years go by and the former merry-go-round operator is now an old man who has watched his town transform into a concrete jungle, leaving behind the days of simple carnival rides in grassy, sun-filled parks. But the man soon discovers the lasting impact on the people who frequented his merry-go-round and how memories of the past can still fuel a brighter future.
The story - written and directed by Schillaci and produced by Reel FX Animation associate producer Oliver Benavidez - had its world premiere screening this summer at Annecy International Animation Film Festival. The film is inspired by, and dedicated to, a real merry-go-round operator named Don Luis, who Schillaci met back in 2007.
“He was the merry-go-round operator of my wife's town,” explains Schillaci. “At the time I met him, he was 93 years old and still operating the merry-go-round. He didn’t have a wife or kids. But it felt like he was the grandfather of the town. Everybody loved him. And I saw the different generations of families who were impacted by his operating this merry-go-round for more than 60 years. It shows how one person will affect and bring together the whole community in a town.”
Originally, the Annie Award-nominated filmmaker wanted to create a live-action documentary on Luis. But sadly, he passed away before Schillaci got the chance. But animation gave the director an opportunity to immortalize his friend.
“I thought animation would be a perfect way to pay homage to him, as well as pay homage to all merry-go-round operators,” says Schillaci, who currently works as a creative lead and director at Dallas, Hollywood, and Montreal, Canada-based digital studio Real FX. “Even though the story is fictional, the inspiration of him was very personal to me, and the themes of the story are very personal to me.”
Schillaci explains that, in Argentina, merry-go-rounds are the “heart of the town,” and their operators, who are called “Calesiteros, play a big role in the growth of the community and the town’s kids.
“New friendships are created there, you meet the love of your life, and parents talk while their kids play,” says Schillaci of the merry-go-rounds. “It’s a hub that brings people together. It’s not just an object that you use to have a little fun. If you lose it, it could have a big impact on the community around it. I saw how these people connected that way and that's what I wanted to show in the short.”
He adds, “We are in these times where there is so much technology around us that, if you think about it, this is a very simple object that just turns around and has these very inanimate rides, like a horse or a dog. But kids go crazy over it.”
Rather than the large, fancy carousels, which can be found at amusement parks around the world, La Calesita focuses on the small, wooden merry-go-rounds that have become quite rare. But it’s that intimacy and magic of seemingly ordinary things that is the foundation of Schillaci’s film.
“Similarly, to teachers, there are people in the background of our lives every day and we forget about their impact,” says Schillaci. “I wanted to shine a light on that in this story and show that, while this isn’t a story about a person who is a giant in the public, this everyday merry-go-round operator is special in his own way, and he does inspire change in his own way by building a community through individualism and selflessness.”
For a long time, it’s been an important story for Schillaci to tell for Schillaci. But several factors pushed the production schedule much longer than expected. Besides the fact that Schillaci was creating this film alongside his everyday work at Real FX, the director says the short in and of itself was an ambitious project, with a total of 52 characters and different versions of those characters as they age and transform from the past to present.
“And things had to change with the town,” he notes. “We’ve got different years, different seasons - summer, fall, rain, sunshine - it was very ambitious. We had to create so many assets and all in this specific style that I wanted.”
The characters are designed by On/Off’s Nicolas Villareal and, in true carnival form, look like caricatures. The kids have large heads, big eyes, and tiny arms and legs. The adults are either slim as twigs or, like the main operator, pear-shaped with high-waisted pants. Noses are either large or tiny and hair is massive or non-existent. But while these characters are certainly fun to look at, their faces also had to be expressive and convey believable emotion.
“Because there's no dialogue, it was very important for me that the facial expressions on the main character showed his emotions clearly all the time, and for that you have to make these facial rigs that are very complicated to do all these very small adjustments on,” says Schillaci. “We really took our time with this animation, because we had to.”
Immense detail was also paid to the environments and backgrounds of the short. Though designed in 3DCG, Schillaci also wanted the film to look like a painting, working with Nelson Luty on the town’s design.
“CG is what I do,” explains Schillaci. “I’ve been doing it for 30 years. But I wanted to have these hand-painted textures with watercolor and pencil lines to get away from that very computer graphic style. Almost like the 101 Dalmatians artwork. That's where we started and that’s another part that took a lot of time. We had to hand-paint every single object because the metals and other materials were specific, and specific to the time where they were being shown.”
He adds, “But we also didn’t want it to be too busy looking for the audience. It’s very easy to start over painting the textures. Finding the right balance was important.”
The lack of dialogue also lent Schillaci the opportunity to incorporate his beloved tango music into the film, adding even more color and warmth to the visuals.
“There is nothing more Argentinian than tango,” says Schillaci. “It’s very instrumental and beautiful but, sadly, it has not been seen too much in movies.”
Schillaci is hoping to change that trend and includes in his short the music of Jose “Pepe” Colangelo, one of the biggest tango piano players in the world who just happens to be his wife’s uncle.
“Sometimes music is just used for background noise or ambiance, but in a movie with no dialogue, we had to rely on the music to say the things that these characters couldn't,” says Schillaci, who also included music by Yazmina Raies, Argentinian pianist, composer, and arranger. “I remember when we started getting the first scores. It changed the movie so much. And when we got the full orchestra, it totally makes you feel and see the story in a different way.”
In total, Schillaci says production took around nine years. The process was long, but worth it.
“No matter how long it took, I wanted the audience to meet this person, to know about this person Don Luis,” shares Schillaci. But, more than anything, when you tell stories, you want to try to impact the audience in different ways. I want them to take away how important these places and people are. Especially after the pandemic, we live in times where people have been separated too much. And our communities are still important and coming together as one is so important.”