Joe Mateo on the Foundation for “Blush”

You wouldn’t need to know that Joe Mateo has some unruly facial hair to understand how personal “Blush” is to him, but when he began outlining the animated short about a horticulturist dispatched to a potentially hospitable new planet for human life, he made the rare move of adding a new stray hairs under the astronaut explorer’s faceguard.

“It’s actually based on me, I have all this stubble,” laughs Mateo, stroking his chin. “But the reason for doing that [is that] we have these charming characters, but I want to be clear that even though they’re cute, they’re not kids.”

There was always going to be something going on underneath “Blush,” and although it’s a charmer made for all ages, its inspiration is rooted in tragedy for its writer/director whose wife Mary Ann passed away from cancer in 2017. A longtime veteran of the animation industry in various capacities from working as a co-writer on “Meet the Robinson” to heading up the story department on “Wreck-It-Ralph,” Mateo makes his directorial debut with the film that flourishes into a grand romance between the horticulturist and the native inhabitant he discovers on the foreign planet while looking for signs of life, making him oblivious to the fact that he’s actually operating in zero gravity when he feels he’s walking on air. While the laws of science apply, their chemistry has a way of changing the environment around them, enabling flora to thrive and eventually a family to grow around them, all able to breathe without the need of protective space suits, though there are still unavoidable potential perils ahead as a part of life.

The film isn’t only Mateo’s first film with his name above the credits, but it is also the first for Skydance Animation, a division of David Ellison’s production company shepherded by former Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, and “Blush” makes an auspicious introduction, not only ushering audiences to another part of the solar system, but imagining space as a place where the camera can truly go anywhere as it revolves around the mini-planet it’s set on. While presenting the film at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, Mateo took a moment to talk about the deeply personal project that is making its way onto Apple TV+ today and how he poured his heart into the love story and went about making something otherworldly.

How did this come about?

The idea came about when I lost my wife four-and-a-half years ago now, to be exact. I struggled to breathe after it happened, and I was like, “What’s going on with me?” It was so scary. I’ve never had panic attacks. So I had to call a doctor friend of ours to let me know if that’s what I’m having and [I thought] when you get to that situation, how do you deal with it? I just wanted to share this [idea] that you surround yourself with people you love and that will help you breathe again. I’m fortunate that I have my kids with me and when you go through something like that, where you find hope and healing is to look towards people you love. And for me, it was therapeutic because it forced me to look back to how Mary Ann and I met, and all the great memories that we had. And then working at Skydance, we really wanted to create a world where people want to go and visit, so it’s super charming.

It’s the maiden voyage for the entire studio. Was that an exciting prospect for you?

It is. I just pitched a short, not intending for it to be the first thing that comes out of Skydance, but everyone over there is so supportive. Because John [Lasseter, the head of Skydance Animation] and I worked together back at Disney, my first meeting with him, I told him about what had just happened to me and then the reason why I wanted to make the short and I didn’t even pitch any details of what the short is, just my reason of wanting to make it. And John was fully on board. And then after I pitched it to him when I started working at Skydance, he really liked the idea of virtualizing air and it started with just a small crew and then it progressively grew. Now, we’re realizing that this is the first thing that’s coming out and I love that it’s so supported by everyone at Skydance and Apple.

The idea of space is really interesting in this when it feels the camera can be completely untethered at times and you can film from angles that seem impossible. What was it like figuring it out?

I thought we could just build that mini-planet and put everything that we need there and just move the camera around, but there were a lot of challenges because things are disappearing from that small planet when you move the camera. It was a good challenge because you find ways to make it exciting. I loved doing those complicated shots and I wish I can do more of that.

This is your first time directing. Is that a different experience for you?

It is. I have a great appreciation of the process, even though before doing this, I’ve had like 25 or so years of experience working in animation, but just diving into all the different departments and realizing the importance of each step is special. There was so much I didn’t know about, and every time there’s a layer added to it, I’d get so excited. For example, the tree, I’d seen just the CG, and already it looked amazing and then they showed it to me with the texture, and how it’s moving, and how it’s growing and I’m like, “Oh my God.” Then after I saw that, I [thought], “This is still going to get better?” And then they added the lighting. It was such an exciting process. I had people who guided me through all of that, so I was very grateful for that.

It also has such a lovely score to it. What was it like to put music to this?

Our composer Joy Ngiaw is such a big blessing and she really grasped onto the the emotional message [of the movie] right away. When we first talked to her, we were like, “We’re looking for a really catchy theme,” and then she did a sample and you know it’s an awesome theme when you start humming it after you’ve listened to it. So that’s what happened. That was her first take, and we tried improving it, but no, we kept going back to her original tape. It was that powerful.

The illustrations that accompany the end credits are quite lovely. How did that come about?

I’m a big fan of Annette Marnat. She’s a storybook illustrator and she does animation work too, and I was thinking about her when we started talking about those credit images, [believing] if we can get her, that would be so awesome. I’m a bigger fan now. She’s so sweet and I just love all those pieces that she did. It’s just amazing.

What’s it like seeing the reaction to it so far?

It’s crazy. And because of personal nature of it, it’s really exciting just getting it out there and hopefully my reason for doing it was to really share that message of hope and healing, especially now when I think a lot of us need it. And when you get something so personal out there, you’re taking a risk, but it’s so rewarding.

“Blush” will premiere on AppleTV+ on October 1st.