I know a lot of people who wouldn’t consider trekking to their local cineplex to catch an animated flick (we all have “Eh, I don’t really like cartoons” friends). But, oddly, I’ve noticed these same people don’t think twice about catching the latest Pixar movie. Maybe because the Disney-owned studio isn’t in the “cartoon” business. Emotionally-rooted and presented with an elegant artistry, Pixar doesn’t churn out Saturday Morning-quality work. They make films—and people noticed.
Going to see a quality Pixar film in theaters comes with another treat, rarely appreciated by major studios: the short film. Thanks to an equal effort in making them spectacular, Pixar’s shorts are as memorable and acknowledged as their feature films. The rivalry of One Man Band, the troublemaking rabbit of Presto, the bittersweet solo chess match in Gerri’s Game or the abstract 2D of Day & Night—maybe they’re not branding backpacks like Woody and Buzz, but people know these characters too and that’s an amazing feat.
Enrico Casarosa is the next Pixar employee to slide into the director’s chair and his first film is the lovely, dazzling La Luna. The short follows a young boy as tags along with his father and grandfather on their nightly ritual of…well, you’ll see soon. The movie has a lot of imagination and while you may get a chance to see it early, as Casarosa tours the globe with the film, it’ll also play in front of Pixar’s next feature film Brave (which hits theaters June 22). I talked to Casarosa about everything that goes into creating one of these “smaller” films and what inspired him to make tell this heartwarming tale.
La Luna is this fantastical, whimsical short that isn’t as gag-first as some of the other Pixar shorts. Where did the idea begin for you?
I went back to thinking about my childhood. I grew up on the sea, in an Italian city, in Genoa. We lived with our grandfather. My dad and my grandfather didn’t get along so great. So, I was often the little boy, kind of stuck in the middle of these two strong personalities. It seemed like an interesting, kind of personal emotional core to a story of a boy having to kind his own way, not wanting to take sides…
Oh, so were the characters designed to look slightly like your father and grandfather?
Not at all. I really fell in love with the idea of dating this in a kind of 1930s, 1940s, very peasant-like…I wanted it to feel like a kind of folk tale, or fable. That definitely took it to a different kind of visual than what they would look like.
What do you find is the appeal of that visual style? There’s definitely something magical about that era.
That’s a good question. Probably, for me, it came from reading a lot of literature that roots it there. I’m a big fan of Italo Calvino. A lot of his writing has that setting. And it seemed like a good juxtaposition to then put something that is very mythical and fantastic. You put very simple people, but then they end up having this very mythical, fantastic job. It seemed like a good juxtaposition—even more so because they’re simple and beat up and old. I wanted everything to have a real age to it.
The film reminded me of a child’s storybook, the animation frames evoked a sense of illustration. Do you have any fascination with children’s literature?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad you felt that. The Little Prince is one of those books that really stands out as having an influence on me. Just visually, the idea of a small planet that you could just walk around I always found fascinating. Artistically and stylistically speaking, that was a real goal. It felt that this kind of story would be well-supported, but something that felt like a little kid’s book, in some way. A picture book, an illustration. We really try and bring some of that textual feel that an illustration would have with CG.
Is there any chance of a La Luna picture book or spinoff in illustration form?
Well, it’s funny you should ask that. No spin-off. But I have a watercolor illustrated book version of the short, which will come out next year, by Disney Press.
Oh, excellent! So, how did you get your start at Pixar? I know you did some storyboard work for a couple of their movies. How did you get the opportunity to step up to the plate for La Luna?
I started on Ratatouille in 2002. So, I’ve been there for a while. I had been at Blue Sky before that for a couple of years, working on Ice Age. The La Luna process was as easy as saying, ‘You know, I’d love to pitch some shorts ideas.’ They were welcoming, they said, ‘Yeah, sure. It’s not a bad time! We’re looking for some new ideas for the upcoming shorts.’ So, it’s a little luck with timing, and then it’s just coming up with something. They put you in front of John Lasseter and you kind of put on a show.
Is that a scary process? I mean, John is such a nice and welcoming, person, but I would also be terrified to be in that position to pitch to him. He’s a big presence.
It’s funny. That pitch day, I wasn’t too intimidated. The moments where you might feel a little more stressed—or at least where I did—is in the middle of the process. There would be check-ins, like, ‘Here’s where we’re at with the short.’ You’re maybe halfway [through] production and you’re showing them some shots finished. And if he doesn’t love something, you might have to redo a lot. When there’s a little more on the line, I definitely remember feeling slightly more tense.
But at that time, yeah, there’s a tiny bit of, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta put on a show!’ But you’re kinda put in that position pretty often in our job of having to pitch your storyboards. So it’s a muscle that’s pretty…it’s been used.
How long did it take, from the beginning to the end, to work on a short film like this at Pixar?
Production-wise, it was roughly nine months. Though really what happened was, at the beginning, we didn’t start for quite a bit—just to time it right for other productions. We needed to find the moments when features were really going crazy, needing everybody. So there was a little bit of a wait in the front, and a little bit of a wait in the back. We wanted to record the score at a certain time of the year. So it was an interesting process. I was already working on a new movie for a few months when we got the score and then were able to mix. That was kind of the finishing touches.
Were you pulling double duty at some point? Were you working on this, and then back to one of the features at Pixar?
That’s correct. I’ve been head of story for the 2013 Untitled Dinosaur Movie by Bob Peterson. I’ve been on that now for maybe nine, ten months.
Drawing dinosaurs. Is that a dream come true?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t have a past of being a huge dinosaur fan, but it’s been a lot of fun regardless. There are a lot of artists on our show who are totally geeking out. I didn’t have that—I wasn’t a huge dinosaur guy, for some reason.
What were you fascinated with as a child, if not dinosaurs?
I was more of a robots guy.
Did you work on Wall-E at all?
I did NOT! I did not. I was so long on Ratatouille, and then on Up, that many of our story artists ended up skipping production altogether. We were pretty busy.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Michael Giacchino? Did you have input into the score? What discussions did you guys have? He’s done so much work for Pixar at this point.
Michael Giacchino was awesome. He’s a real storyteller kind of a composer. Super easy, very quick, very fast. He comes from TV, so he’s really quick on his feet. Making changes, making notes, even while we were recording. And he embraced this kind of feeling of going back to his roots, his Italian roots. I gave him a lot of Nino Rota, a lot of Italian scores. My biggest ambition was to have something that could feel a little bit like a Fellini soundtrack. I think he really captured a little bit of that.
My quickie final question for you is, so it sounds like you’re working on the dinosaur movie. Are you moving onto something else? Are you now pitching full-length ideas to Pixar?
This movie right now is going to keep me pretty busy. We’re in the middle of it. Between La Luna—taking La Luna around the world—and the movie, and family, I’m pretty busy. But yeah, I’d love to. When I have a little more time, it would be great.