This past Sunday, the Japan Society in New York City held a one-day animated short film festival titled ‘Films for Hope’ in order to benefit those affected by the devastating earthquake on March 11. The centerpiece of the festival was a joint presentation of Dai Soto’s Five Numbers and Disney/Pixar’s La Luna, which is the short that will open alongside Brave on June 22, 2012. A presentation and brief Q&A session with La Luna writer and director Enrico Casarosa was also offered following the screening.
According to the official synopsis, La Luna is the timeless fable of a young boy who is coming of age in the most peculiar of circumstances. Tonight is the very first time his Papa and Grandpa are taking him to work. In an old wooden boat they row far out to sea, and with no land in sight, they stop and wait. A big surprise awaits the little boy as he discovers his family’s most unusual line of work. Should he follow the example of his Papa, or his Grandpa? Will he be able to find his own way in the midst of their conflicting opinions and timeworn traditions?
Even though the film was screened at a panel during the 2011 Disney D23 Expo, I was unable to attend it and so this was my first time seeing the short and the only thing preventing me from saying it was worth the wait is the constant nagging, desire to see it again and wishing I had seen it again before and can see it again now — I can only assume those of you that have already seen it know what I’m talking about. It’s a visually stunning, enchanting piece that delivers its message quickly, clearly and quite sweetly, in a way that will make you want to watch it over and over.
Casarosa, who grew up in Italy but lived in New York City for many years, has a strong connection to Japan, who he says inspired the film along with Italy, where it takes place (although it quite literally could take place anywhere). As a child in Genoa, he was able to watch much of the animated shows being produced in Japan on local television. Although it took many years to realize it, he credits Japanese animation and Hayao Miyazaki in particular amongst his influences in the medium. There is even an homage, or ‘love letter,’ to Miyazaki in the short, where gravity temporarily loses its old on protagonist Bambino.
Via a presentation laden with hilarious sketches, photos, footage, concept art and more, Casarosa took the audience through the process of directing his first film at Pixar, from conception to completion. With his directorial debut being a short, he said the go-to analogy for most is to say to him ‘so they’ve handed you the keys to the little car,’ to which Casarosa counteracts with ‘it’s still your first car,’ although he noted he much rather prefers sea planes, so he switched the analogy to that and took us through the sea plane construction process as it applied to a Pixar Animation Studios short.
For Casarosa, who set out to create a modern fable, the story began with heart — a personal and emotional story, that’s ‘fantastic.’ For Enrico, it was memories of growing up in Italy with generations in his family being in disagreement with each other (demonstrated in sketch form through the use of perennial visual aid, minestrone soup). For the fantastic element, Casarosa found inspiration Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and the books of Italo Calvino in addition to Miyazaki. The goal for his story was to create a ‘Moon myth, rooting it in something personal and familiar.’
Once the idea is formed, the first step is to pitch it to Mary, Kiel and Karen, the development team at Pixar Animation. Then the idea progresses as ‘you tell it on your way to work, then on break, then at home — too much.’
From there, it progresses to the storyboarding process which starts with image boards in watercolor. ‘I don’t write on the computer,’ he later explained, ‘I write with images.’ A sketch showed Enrico frenetically pitching the story to a completely calm and relaxed Lasseter (in truth, traditional storyboarding has been replaced with a proprietary package known as ‘Pitch Docter’ — a nod, to Monsters Inc. director Pete Docter). Lasseter had but a couple of notes, the primary one insisting that this would be the boy’s (Bambino) first time with his father and grandfather at work, so that the audience experiences it with him, a plot point that Casarosa had not originally considered. Lasseter also influenced the character design, but I will address that later on.
Casarosa talked about how scratch (temporary) voices are generally used alongside the story reels, but quickly moved on to the actual casting process and the struggles they had with the use of gibberish in lieu of dialogue, even though the film would arguably have worked just as well without any vocals at all. They first called on John Gilkey of Cirque du Soleil fame; Gilkey had worked with Pixar before on Ratatouille to work out some of the pantomime. Showing footage of Gilkey performing opposite Pixar’s Bob Peterson, Enrico explains that it wasn’t living up to his expectations, but after considering passing on the idea on gibberish altogether, they found animator Tony Fucile to ‘voice’ Papa and actor/storyteller Phil Sheridan to voice Nonno. Casarosa recalls Sheridan’s initial offer: ‘with teeth or without?’ They went without.
Casarosa then moved on to the character design and showed several pieces of concept art from fellow artists such as Robert Kondo, Katy Wu and Daisuke ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi. Dice, who had worked with Enrico at Blue Sky on films such as Robots, was ‘such a friend,’ that he began creating illustrations for the short before it had received the green light.
Seeking a 1920s-1930s feel of Mediterranean peasants/fisherman, Casarosa explained his intent for Bambino to have a large head with large eyes, so that he is open to the world, ‘looking around’ with child-like wonder. Papa, however, is physically opposite, set in his ways. Italian actor Massimo Troisi was used as reference for big, over-the-top gestures while actress Giulietta Masina served as the real-life inspiration for Bambino.
Not wanting to place an emphasis on facial features, Casarosa felt using facial hair would be a simpler, less expensive way to animate the film — something he learned quickly wasn’t the case. ‘We had Toy Story 3 technology, we wanted Brave technology,’ he half-joked, referring to the technological advances made since the short was animated. He showed test footage of grandfather/Nonno from when they were ‘about 70% there’ speaking with his eyebrows and beard moving rather dynamically. With the idea of facial hair, Casarosa saw the opportunity to make a successful visual gag involving the older generations’ tools. It was Lasseter’s experience as a sweeper at Disneyland that influenced the specific look of broom-bearded Nonno whose broom (and beard) have a distinct look as a result from constant use.
For the look of the film, Casarosa looked for ‘stylized reflections, naturally simple and naturally beautiful,’ using texture as the key word (Casarosa later explained that ‘a glow is never just a glow — I want it to have texture). Support came in the form of watercolors by Greg Couch and a pastel by Bill Cone that operated as the film’s backdrop (Cone also provided the color script for the short). They went to shoot reference video for the moon’s reflection upon the water on a lake at John Lasseter’s home. The moon was full, but was not visible from where they were, so they walked away with no footage, but ‘it was great team building.’
For the boat, the team went to Genoa in Italy to visit a boat building company called Cantiere Navale Topazio, where Casarosa recalled hearing an older, traditional builder complain about how newer boats made of fiberglass lacked soul. Casarosa wanted the boat to feel as it had been handed down through generations, so he decided that it had received at least three coats of paint through the year and they mimicked the real world process they had seen by painting each plank individually before mapping it to the boat, a process that worked so well, they applied it to other elements in the film. For the stars in the film, Casarosa envisioned they were frosted candle lights, each dimming with age, and the overall sensation that they were effectively tiles as they moved around, producing noise.
Another crucial element in the production is, of course, the crew. Casarosa gushed over the group of animators and filmmakers he worked with on production of the short, using a company pasta sauce competition, inspired by the film, as an example of the camaraderie, though he fell short attempting to explain how a Spaniard had won. Casarosa offered a special note of thanks to film composer Michael Giacchino, who was ‘very patient’ and ‘bombarded with strange, Neapolitan music.’
Casarosa closed his presentation with the film’s message, which he hopes will deliver a positive influence on children: ‘Trust your inspiration. You can stand on the shoulders of tradition and still find your own way;’ for adults, he hopes that it helps remind them of what it was like to view the world with the eyes of a child; and as for his own family, he just wants to let his father and grandfather he doesn’t want to pick sides and loves them both.
One interesting note to close on is just how personal the film truly is for Enrico Casarosa. With the hopes to inspire to find one’s own way in the world, it wasn’t until his early 20s that Casarosa decided to enter the field of animation; until then, he was an engineering student.
To enter the giveaway, please visit our sweepstakes page on Facebook. The contest will run through September 30, 2011, after which one person will be chosen at random to receive the poster. The contest is open to residents in the United States, aged 13 and up.
And if you look hard enough, you just may also catch a glimpse (or two) of the moon in it as well.