In the beautiful animated short directed by Enrico Casarosa, LA LUNA, a young boy finds his own way within a family full of star sweepers. Some of you may have seen it when it ran with a few of the other Academy Award Nominated Shorts Program back in February, but now mass audiences will be treated to this sweet delight when they see BRAVE. And the two films hold some similarity to each other.
We (along with a few other journalists) sat down with the poignant animated short’s director at the film’s press conference to discuss animation techniques, story inspiration, and what the Pixar experience has been like for him.
Is this based on a folk tale or an idea you came up with or stories someone told you?
“It’s a little bit of a mixture of all of the above. But there isn’t really an actual folktale prior to my interest in going this idea of going after the moon came from a few different stories that inspired me. One of them is actually Italo Calvino, an Italian writer. He’s written INVISIBLE CITIES – I don’t know if you’ve heard about him. He’s a wonderful surrealist and he has a lot of short stories based on these short stories called Cosmic Comics. They were based on scientific data and then he’d go off on his own and do his fiction over it. The scientific data is that the moon is getting further away from us every year a certain amount of inches, for real. This is true. And so you can imagine a time if the moon keeps on going, it must have been really close. And you can imagine a time where you could go up on it. In his tale, he had people go on the moon and get milk, of all things. I don’t know if you remember there are some shorts from Aardman, like A GRAND DAY OUT where Wallace and Gromit would go get cheese. I love these kind of stories that take the moon and give it a strange myth. So I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to come up with something of my own.” I went on my own direction of what could be a job on the moon. And the other part of it was my memory of my childhood. My dad and my grandfather never got along. So the relationship with the boy and them are a little bit my dinners where my dad and my grandfather would be by my side. They wouldn’t talk to each other, but they would talk to me. So there was tension. The memory of that started to be an interesting story to them go off to where it’s a coming of age story.”
Is LA LUNA being developed into a Spanish feature or a longer short? Any particular audience?
“Not at the moment. A few people have asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you have wanted to do a longer story?’ Nothing has really completely cleared in my mind. I always kid around and figure they go back to their village and it’s a big revenge story but that doesn’t seem quite right. Gibberish is also a little bit of a limitation to do something with long feature with language. So I’m thinking of other ideas. This doesn’t really turn into something longer at the moment. You never know. But as far as the Spanish speaking, we love how universal it is. LA LUNA, is Italian but it’s exactly the same word in Spanish.”
Expanding on the gibberish and your own father and grandfather, was that something you always knew in the beginning or was that something that came out of working on it?
“The gibberish I really did have in my mind. Mostly because I love a lot of animation of animation that have it. There’s an Italian animation called LA LINA which is worth looking up if you’ve never seen it.. or looking up on YouTube. It’s a simple little line where a hand would come in and draw a character made out of a line. The character would be always talking this gibberish, gesticulating a lot. So that was always the inspiration. That was the example and inspiration that told me there was something very universal about gibberish that would be fun, but also very Italian because we could do gesticulating. So we could have a lot of interesting flavor to that. It was hard to convince John Lasseter for it because at first he wasn’t quite on board with that. We do always in our story reels temp voices – we call it scratch. And it was me and the editor doing those [mimics gibberish]. And it was kinda annoying and I think JL was right about that. It took us awhile to find the right tone of gibberish so it wouldn’t be too overbearing. You want a little bit of pressure from these guys but not too much. And a little bit to find the right performers. We had to look for a grandpa. We tried someone younger and it was sounding like someone wasn’t grandpa. We found this wonderful 75-year-old. Phil Sheridan is his name and he did a great job. The first day he came on he says, ‘Do you want me to do this with my teeth or without my teeth?’ We were so impressed! We said, ‘Let’s try it without!’ and everything you hear is without his teeth.
And it’s gotten the reaction you were hoping for then?
“Yeah. John totally got on board with it and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it. There’s also another factor of gibberish that I love. It’s of childhood. My daughter makes up languages all the time. It seems that kids just right away get it and accept it immediately. It’s a little bit of the world of childhood.”
VeryAware: What has this experience been like for you. First of all to produce something for Pixar and then secondly to be nominated for an Oscar this year too?
“It’s been quite a ride. I’ve been a story artist there for many years so you’re kinda in the trenches. This is a tiny bit more rarified air. You get to travel with it. You get to go and share. I made a little making of talk that we took to festivals last year. So I enjoy that a lot. It’s really fun to go around the world to talk about the thinking behind it, the artwork behind it that helped you make it. And then it was really great to then get the nomination on top of that. It was kind of a strange adventure that you kinda can’t quite understand if it’s happening for real or not. And then this feels like even further satisfaction because I can’t wait for kids to see it and everyone to see it.”
Was Aardman Animation an early influence for you?
“I always loved Wallace and Gromit. Specifically A GRAND DAY OUT. It’s just one of those things that how silly the concept of going to get some crackers and bring some crackers with cheese on the moon. To that extent it really kind of was. I love how mundane and mythical things can be juxtaposed. That was an insipiration from them too.”
At Pixar, in general, what’s their approach to the thinking behind the shorts? What are they hoping that internally is happening? Are they trying to spark new creativity in that thing or is there also a commercial agenda? What’s the checklist?
“I don’t think there’s much of a commercial agenda. We’re not really making money with shorts but they’re a wonderful place for people like me and everybody in the small team for a short gets to do a little more. So everyone takes on a little more responsibility. It’s a great place for everybody to get a great learning experience and taking on leading roles. I think then as far as the creative side of it, it’s a wonderful place for us to take some chances. They are shorter in form. They can be stylistically different. They’re not necessarily a research and development place they used to be a little bit. We can’t try to do them lean and mean on the storytelling side. But the wonderful thing is, in this balance between art and commerce, they can be closer to art. And that’s what’s great about it. The last thing is really, John Lasseter and Pixar really love and believe in having a little appetizer in front of your feature. The short, as it used to be, in the golden era as a pre-feature.”
One of the key things about this short is technically you have a lot of different light sources with all of the stars. Is this something that could have been rendered even just a few years ago? And does that lighting change how you stage the shots?
“It doesn’t change much of our staging. I was asking for a lot of cheats to our lighters. They were willing and able to use our tools but cheat around it. A lot of the textures and glows were 2D cheats. For example, there’s a certain glow emanating from the big star and also from the surface of the moon. I envisioned that as a moving texture. That was attained by taking watercolor paper texture and then two or three of them, scanning them through each other. So again, they didn’t really do particles. Another way to do it was to have little tiny specks of something be lit. But that was actually a 2D version trick. If you look at the specific shot where the kid was out to kind of touch this big star, you see it kind of emanate – coming out of the star. That’s the kind of thing I was really excited about. Trying to find different ways to do stuff. A lot of our glows are pastels that we really wanted to have texture. We wanted to have a big glow around the moon that was really handmade. The philosophy behind the textures was trying to bring some of the warmth and imperfection that we have – what we make with our hands. Within our old software, we were trying to get something different.”
You’ve talked about the very lengthy process. From concept to completion, what has the process been? And what brought John Lasseter around on board?
“We pitch to John to begin with. You come with two or three ideas to John. So there’s a pitch day. When he saw a lot of it, he was on board and immediately liked LA LUNA. Then it was a little bit about waiting for the right timing. There’s a little bit of waiting time to have enough people for me to work on. We’re so busy with features, there’s peaks in production where no one would be available. I had to wait a few months. The actual production was nine months and I was on it a few months before story boarding. Being a story board artist, the nice thing was being able to do that myself.”
So was it a verbal pitch?
“I made a lot of water colors. In fact a lot of those water colors ended up inspiring this look. I made roughly 20 water colors and scanned through key note telling the story. I had my little remote. You try to change it up. The actual story I had printed on boards. I liked the physical look of the old story teller in the street – card by card. It’s actually a fun process. You were very comfortable with it as a story artist as that’s what we do normally. We have to draw a scene and pitch it to the directors. So you need a tiny bit of showmanship. One of my ideas was a sock puppet and I made a sock puppet. I made a sock puppet come out of the table surprising people. So it was a lot of fun.”
Who chooses the shorts that get shown before the features?
“We don’t necessarily choose which short goes with who. It’s not like the BRAVE short needs to be chosen. We pitch the shorts that John Lasseter is executive producing. The ones he feels have potential, they get going. So we already have one or two shorts in the making for the next movies. Which one goes with what we don’t really think too much about. In fact, if you look at our record, sometimes there is a similar flavor. Sometimes there’s a good contrast. We thought it didn’t matter if they are both good. I don’t know if you remember BOUNDING? It was this very sweet song, very friendly and then with INCREDIBLES with some good shooting guns left and right. It was an interesting contrast. This one has some more similarities with BRAVE. They’re both coming of age stories.”
I was curious about the way you used the tools to look like the characters. Was that something you used to show the different generations and technology of what they were going through at the time?
“At first it was just one is saying one thing and the other is saying the other. One says, ‘push’ and one says, ‘pull.’ For a little bit, it was as simple as that. Then when we started really designing them and drawing them we came up with this idea of wouldn’t it be cool if they looked like their tools. Then we ended up with a push broom because of the moustache. Honestly, that started making a lot of sense. A push broom felt effective – more modern than just the broom. And the broom for Grandpa started really working wonderfully too. Honestly John Lasseter had a specific note about curving it. He remembered sweeper days, when he used to be a sweeper at Disneyland, how that everyone would be really jealous of their broom as it would get beat up just right. It had this hook to get cigarette butts. Then we used that. We recorded our animators using hockey pucks. The wonderful thing about that we find this contrast about Papa wanting to be done and Grandpa more specific precision and taking his time. Slowly it came into view. Animation ended up being a wonderful contrast even in rhythms. That was a wonderful sculpting of it that wasn’t right away in my mind. It slowly happened.”
Was it always your intent to get Michael Giacchino to score this or did he just offer his services to you?
“It was a bit of searching for us. John kept on saying to us, ‘You know we we’ve got someone with an Italian last name who could do a great job.’ I was listening to a lot of Nino Rota from Fellini movies. A lot of Italian composers and Italian folk music. I think Michael was so open to reach for his roots. It won me over immediately. Sometimes you’re not sure if you can afford everyone for your feature and for your short. So it wasn’t clear right away. Once Michael was into it, we figured maybe we can do this. And it was wonderful. I’m so happy Michael did the soundtrack. It did capture a little something…it does feel a little Fellini-esque moment.”
VeryAware: The sound of the stars is very interesting because nobody thinks what stars sound like. Were they tiles and how did you come up with a tangible sound?
“We worked with a wonderful sound designer, Justin Pearson. He’s a new guy at Pixar. You get lucky sometimes with the new people because not everybody knows about them yet. Otherwise, they’d be on a feature. My direction was this: I wanted it to be as mundane as possible. Especially when Dad and Grandpa were just shuffling through them like they didn’t care. I was looking for contrast to have a more magical sound when they were attached by the boy. There are a lot of tiles. There are pebbles. They’re a mixture of a lot of things. We tried to lean towards the most mundane as possible. John Lasseter has a little pond in the backyard. Whatever we could try to do for research was put a boat in it. We tried to record in the full moonlight. The full moon didn’t come out. It was all cloudy. We didn’t get a whole lot. There were wonderful pebbles on this beach. Some of them are that sound that we got. We got some sounds from the boat. We try to do our homework for realism, but honestly, this one, we didn’t use any of it because we wanted it more stylized. It was team building, I think.”