Perhaps the only thing Pixar has a better track record of than the films they’ve produced is documenting how they’ve produced them, something that anyone who’s watched the behind-the-scenes documentaries on any of their home entertainment releases knows well by now.
In recent months, this has spilled over from Blu-ray bonus features into a series of appearances I’ve seen, first at the Austin Film Festival where John Lasseter was honored with an Extraordinary Commitment to Film Award and gave a public interview to Elvis Mitchell that was akin to this hour he did on Charlie Rose this past Friday, though fun facts such as how John Ratzenberger’s parental instincts inspired a rule for no cursing in Pixar films (a “damn” in the first “Toy Story” was replaced by “blast” when the actor said he wouldn’t let his kids say that word) and the fact that Wolfgang Puck “really wanted to do the role of Heimlich” in “A Bug’s Life” were restricted to the Texas capital.
Pixar story development chief Mary Coleman had also been onhand for a few panels at the festival, detailing the animation studio’s story process, which on average takes three or four years before ever thinking about committing to a frame of film. There were some exciting tidbits about future projects – Coleman described “the brain trust” that helps shepherd every Pixar film through the development process, comprised primarily of the directors who’ve previously helmed Pixar films such as Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, mentioning that Brad Bird is staking out the lead position of that 12-person group for yet-to-be-titled Henry Selick film for 2014. She also talked about how anyone in the company (including security) is offered the chance to pitch three story ideas to be made into films, dishing how Lasseter couldn’t even pronounce the name of the director of Pixar’s next short, who had an added strike against him since rarely directors hail from the technical side of the studio. Nonetheless, he had a great story that audiences will see before “Monsters University” in the summer of 2013.
As for the short film audiences will see next summer in front of the Scottish adventure “Brave,” director Enrico Casarosa appeared in Los Angeles over the weekend to give a sneak preview of the film “La Luna” at Cinefamily during their Animation Breakdown festival as well as an hour-long making-of presentation. It wasn’t unusual that the film, which had been shortlisted for a Oscar nomination the day before, required at least 10 times its seven-minute length to discuss what went into making it. However, what was unusual was the way it was presented, with Casarosa presiding over a Powerpoint presentation that was nearly as artful as “La Luna” is on its own.
Which is saying something since “La Luna” may be the most romantically artistic film Pixar has produced, a short with few punchlines, no actual words and free of computer animation’s often sharp edges in its style, which could be more accurately described as painterly. Casarosa suggested that if he had a bit more time and money, he might’ve investigated a way to make “La Luna” appear as if it were a moving watercolor painting, but instead he was limited to using his brushes to tell the story of how he made the film, a deeply personal project about growing up and being placed in the middle of arguments between his father and grandfather. [Minor spoilers ahead] As a result, “La Luna” is about a young wide-eyed boy nicknamed Bambino who accompanies his Papa and Nonno out to the sea to get his start in the family business – sweeping up the fallen stars that wash up on the moon. While the older men can no longer see the wonder in the work they do (a point made literal by their bushy beards and eyebrows), Bambino is enthralled by the hundreds of glowing stars and eager to corral them. [End of spoilers.] A short clip is below.
From the first “napkin Bambino” to the finished product, Casarosa took the crowd at the Cinefamily through the six steps of production for “La Luna,” told primarily in watercolors Casarosa had done himself of not only the concept art that would become the film, but all the moments along the way such as developing the idea with Coleman, Kiel Murray and Karen Paik in Pixar’s story department and eventually when Lasseter proverbially gave him the keys to the car (which the Italian preferred to imagine as a seaplane in his painted scenario).
Lasseter wasn’t initially sold on Casarosa’s concept for the dialogue – inscrutable gibberish like in the cartoons the director was weaned on such as Osvaldo Cavandoli’s “La Linea” series, preferring audiences to train their attention on the adults’ gesticulations, which he said was influenced by “Il Postino”’s Massimo Troisi, and the boy’s eyes, which were influenced by Giulietta Masina in “La Strada.” (The Fellini influence didn’t end there – Casarosa “bombarded” composer Michael Giacchino, whose parents apparently still speak some Italian, with Nino Rota and 1920s and ‘30s Neapolitan folk music as a point of reference for the film's score.)
Still, Lasseter gave his blessing after offering two suggestions to guide Casarosa along. The first was to start the story on Bambino’s first day of work and the second was to curve the grandfather Nonno’s beard in the shape of an upturned broom, a remnant from the Pixar chief’s days of sweeping up at Disneyland and needing the bristles bent on the edge to suss out cigarette butts. (To contrast, Bambino’s father’s mustache and broom are flatter, signifying the character’s interest in just getting the job done and not caring about finesse.) Casarosa also talked Lasseter into allowing his crew to study the pond in Lasseter’s backyard to get the ripples of water just right.
Casarosa shed light on two interesting aspects on the attitude towards shorts at Pixar now. They are no longer primarily designed with the intention of innovation as they once were in the studio’s early days, instead focused solely on telling a good story, and the competition for the best animators amongst the feature directors leaves the shorts…well, short-handed.
“Staffing, sometimes, is an art in and of itself,” said Casarosa, who was delighted when an influx of Spanish animators who were largely unknown to the Pixar higher-ups came in to work on “La Luna,” adding to the European feel of the film. He was less pleased when one of them created a marinara that bested his pesto in a staff pasta sauce competition.
Yet there’s nothing but love between the opening and closing credits of “La Luna,” and appropriately enough, Casarosa ended the afternoon discussion with an anecdote about his father’s first time seeing the film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France.
“As you can tell from the film, he’s not a patient man,” Casarosa said of his father, who was especially on edge the evening of the premiere since he had left his pet dog with a weak bladder back in the hotel room. The festival’s programmers had scheduled “La Luna” to play earlier in evening, but had to move it back to the very end and when the short ended and Casarosa looked over for his father’s reaction, he was gone. When Casarosa turned to his wife, she signaled that he was crying as he ran back to his room. “And the dog didn’t pee.”