Q&A: How Does A Pixar Short Film Get Made?

Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about how Pixar develops and produces their feature animated films, but we’ve learned very little about how the beloved short films get created. So I decided it was time we find out. I shot a message over to Enrico Casarosa, the director of Pixar’s next short film La Luna, who was happy to shed some light on the process.  “How Does A Pixar Short Film Get Made?” Find out, after the jump.

While most people won’t get to see La Luna until its released in June 2012 attached to Brave, the short has been playing the film festival circuit and already short listed for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival, and I loved it so much that they used my quote in their “For Your Consideration” advertisements.


A Very Brief History of Pixar’s Short Films

Pixar was not initially designed to be an animation studio. The company started out as a part of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division, developing a image computer system which was primarily sold to government and medical agencies. Pixar’s first short film, Luxo Jr. (a character which is featured in the studio logo shown before each film), was created in an effort to drive sales of the computer system. The rest is history, Steve Jobs led the company to produce the world’s first computer animated feature film (Toy Story), and the company has gone on to gross over $7 billion at the worldwide box office, win 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammy Awards. Along the way, they’ve continued to produce short films — earning nine Academy Award nominations and three Best Animated Short Film Academy Awards.

At first the short film program was used to help push the boundaries of the software, part of research and development. Today the short films are used more as a testing ground for new talent. For example, Mark Andrews was given his shot with the short One Man Band (nominated for an Oscar in 2005) and is now the director of Pixar’s 2012 feature Brave. Casarosa joined Pixar on Ratatouille after working as a storyboard artist at Blue Sky Studios on the original  Ice Age. He has since worked on Up, but La Luna is his first time in the “director’s chair.”

While the interview touches on La Luna, there are no spoilers, and the majority of the talk focuses on the process.

Question: Do they work on shorts at Pixar Canada?

Enrico Casarosa: Not original shorts at the moment. They have been focusing on the franchise shorts right now, so that’s the setup right now and even story is still at Pixar in Emeryville. Right now they are doing production work, so they start from layout on to finishing. The rest is still at Pixar, so…

La Luna’s producer Kevin Reher and production manager Aj Riebli with SupTech Daniel McCoy and Casarosa in the Pixar atrium.

Question: Your film was produced entirely in Emeryville?

Enrico Casarosa: That’s correct, yeah. Unless you want to count music. So a little bit down here [Los Angeles].

Question: How did you come up with the idea for LA LUNA?

Enrico Casarosa: It’s a little bit… The heart of it is certainly the memory of living with my dad and my grandfather and them not getting along and me kind of feeling stuck between one guy kind of talking to me and the other guy talking to me and they never really talked to each other. That uncomfortable-ness, I thought it would be interesting to kind of explore and also in a way of kind of saying “Well if you are a little kid, how can you find your own way when someone is telling you to do it that way or do it this way?” I thought that would be an interesting thing to have as a core of a kind of a bit of an emotional core. Then the fantastic side of this was kind of a little bit inspired by all of the things I love, Miyazaki or Saint-Exupery with his LITTLE PRINCE, you know the tiny little prince on the tiny little planet always fascinated me, the visuals of that. Then there’s also Italo Calvino who’s an author I always bring up, because he is a master. He is an Italian writer and he’s written some books that are also popular here, like INVISIBLE CITIES and he has a lot of short stories that are very much about the mundane and the fantastic. So in a specific one of them he had people going to the moon and getting milk. They were milking the moon kind of and then even just A GRAND DAY OUT from Aardman Animation where it’s made of cheese. They go and have cheese and crackers on the moon. I was always fascinated by these things, so I thought “I would love to come up with my own strange crazy myth about how the moon works or what’s on the moon, what makes it glow, or what is it?” So that was a little bit the things that I thought would be fun to put together and I knew that I wanted them to have a job, you know a trait that the kid had to be kind of introduced to.

Question: What is the process of going in and pitching this idea? Is there an event every year where employees go in and pitch short ideas? How does that work?

Enrico Casarosa: They don’t. Yeah, some studios do. I’ve participated in one at Blue Sky that was called “Pitchfest.” At Pixar it’s a little more informal. You kind of go like “Hey, could I pitch something?” And they are like “Yes, this is not a bad time. Go for it.” I think it’s luckily a studio where they really value your ideas. Now probably the fact that I was there for a few years and they new me certainly doesn’t hurt. So then when you have to pitch you have to pitch three ideas just like for features. The feature directors are doing the same kind of process. You pitch three ideas in front of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull and Jim Morris. They are kind of the three heads of…

Question: …The brain trust?

Enrico Casarosa: Well they’re not… It’s an interesting thing. The shorts are slightly more in the hands of John. He is the executive producer on them. The brain trust does come a tiny bit into play when you are more making it and we pulled it into play as much as we could, because we wanted to get people’s feedback. The great thing about the brain trust is you have different people, so John has great feedback, but you want somebody else’s eyes on it too. But for the shorts, he very much loves them and he loves to mentor people through and it’s really him that will give you the green light. So I pitched the three ideas and it’s a little bit of a dog and pony show. I pitched through one and one I did with cards and you act out and you just try and give your best show that you can.


Question: So you brought in some art and showed them?

Enrico Casarosa: Yes, I did a lot of drawings. I should mention that. I did maybe 30 images for LA LUNA in watercolor and pencil that then ended up being our main skeleton of the story. I did probably another 15 or 20 images for a second idea just to mix up. One I did more on boards to mix it up and a third one was even simpler, it was just a couple of boards with images and inspirational stuff with some drawings and some photos. So it really varies a little bit from person to person, but what you want to do it to still give an idea of the potential, but it doesn’t have to be fully and completely realized. You don’t want to do story reels. It just doesn’t make sense, because there’s a process of sculpting it and making it. It needs its time.

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