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

Question: So how long ago was that pitch? How long is this process from the pitch to it being finished?

Enrico Casarosa: It can really vary, because then we waited for a while for there to be the right timing for production. What happens is there’s a lot of big peaks into production where everybody is really busy because of the features, so you have to go and get the valley when you can have some people to make a short, because otherwise there’s nobody. So you are kind of the last guy that gets to say “Hey, could we have a couple of people for this?”

Question: So it’s not a dedicated short team, you are using some of the people that are working on the feature, but when they’re not needed?

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah, absolutely. So staffing… You need a good producer on this, because it’s juggling and you are last in the pecking order. It’s an interesting thing. You have to do with a little less, but it’s part of what’s fun. You have a small team. You are like “Let’s do this!” You are hands on and doing a little more. Everybody has to do a little more, because of that. But timing-wise let’s say if you don’t consider that time where I was actually kind of a little bit waiting. I was still working on another movie, but in the meanwhile doing a little storyboards, but I had pitched in February 2009. I think I started off actually being full time in October, so that was just waiting. For me it was roughly a year and the team for the full production, because at first it was only me and then I would say for production it was roughly eight to nine months. Then it’s a little bit kind of a mix, because we were all done, but then we didn’t get the music for another three or four months. It can be a little tricky to tell.

Question: How many artists and animators work on a short compared to a feature?

Enrico Casarosa: We had, for example, ten animators. In art [dept] it was such a different thing, because we would get one person for two weeks and you would go “Help me design the characters.” So I mean I designed the characters, but then I wanted someone to kind of come in and kind of add to it and make them a little more three-dimensional. I do art, but it’s a little bit 2D and so you would be able to steal people for one week, two weeks, three weeks. There were like ten lighters… Animation and lighting are probably the biggest teams you are dealing with. Layout, one guy laid it all out. I mean in the middle of production probably the most you would find on the short would be 30 or so people. The biggest crew we had was when animation was finishing and lighting was starting. That’s kind of the biggest.

Question: What is that compared to like a feature at Pixar?

Enrico Casarosa: Oh man, that’s got to be at least 400 or 500 people I would think.

Question: I think everybody knows a lot about the feature process and that’s why I wanted to talk to you about the short process, because we know that it’s like four or five years of development with the feature and they remake it four or five times. Nine months of production is a lot shorter of a process. So are you remaking the story over and over again like the features, or is the development different?

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah, there’s a tiny bit of that. For LA LUNA it didn’t… Well here’s the other thing, the story team was me. I didn’t have to communicate what I want since I’m a story artist and I boarded the whole thing. I mean, that’s how I wrote it. I didn’t really sit down and write a script, I just drew it and that’s what was wonderful.

Question: So with that, you put the boards on a wall?

Enrico Casarosa: No, we storyboard just like in the feature. We storyboard right now on tablets a lot. And we then put it in a story reel with scratch voices. Me and the editor were dad and grandpa and that I think gave us a little bit of promise, because at first John Lasseter didn’t want the gibberish. He wasn’t in love with the gibberish, like “That’s annoying” and I was like “Well that’s because it’s me and the editor”

[Both Laugh]

Enrico Casarosa: But that took us a while to find the right flavor… I wanted a little bit of the gesticulating with the gibberish, so I fought for it and I’m glad we made it. So you work with an editor, so I give him the boards and he puts them all in timing and he puts even temp music. We put the whole thing out and at a certain point you get an “Okay, you’re locked for production,” which means “Your story reel is what it needs to be. You can start going to layout.” In the meanwhile, you’ve built your characters and your sets and then you really start setting camera in the 3D world. So the process was a little smoother.

Animators Juan Carlos Navarro and Javier Moya record themselves sweeping to help capture the right movement.

Question Along that process how many times do you meet with the Pixar brain trust and show them what you have?

Enrico Casarosa: Good question. I think with John we probably met two times… By the third time he was like “Alright, go with this.” Or maybe it was the fourth if you count the first time. So you are showing him the reels, showing a little bit of your art, you get some notes, in the meanwhile you are making characters and you are kind of figuring it out.

Question: Do you have an example of something that John might have suggested that changed your film?

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah, he had one great suggestion to begin with. He had several. He’s very, very sharp. I think like ninety percent of the stuff he suggested to us we loved and ten percent we agreed maybe we would change it, but not with the solutions, so we found our own solution. One great suggestion he said was like “This should be the boy’s first day. He’s never been here.” In my first pitch it wasn’t quite clear and I thought “That’s great.” I immediately embraced that, because as an audience now we are in the boy’s shoes. We are just like “What is happening? What’s going on?” So that really made it really, really great. Andrew Stanton saw it pretty early on and he was like “This is great.” He loved it right away and he’s like “Well you know you should have them fight a little more even in the beginning” and I was like “Okay…” and that’s when we figured out the hats for example, so I mean not everyone was already there. You start putting all of these things that feel right. There are suggestions and you kind of pick and choose. I have another interesting example, we showed it to Brad Bird and he did not… This is a spoiler (invisotext – highlight white area to reveal), but he did not understand that they had never seen a big star, when this huge star lands. It wasn’t clear in the story reels. I thought that the pantomime of like “Have you seen anything like this before?” would help and certainly could sell it, but his suggestion was for example for them to look at a manual and be like “It’s not in the manual.” I didn’t like the idea of the manual, but I liked the idea of trying to strengthen this, so we put some broken tools on the ground after we cut. We were trying to strengthen the idea like they are trying to do something, they don’t know what to do with this. So there are these interesting areas where you get a note with a solution and you don’t like the solution, so you have to find your own solution. Probably the note is good, but the solution might not fit your sensibilities. That was an interesting one.

Question: It’s pointing out something that needs works, but maybe the solution…

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah.

Question: One thing I love about the short is it feels classic, like I said in the review, but also it feels like the most personal Pixar short that has been released. Usually they are fun, but this seems personal. Even the name, it’s not in English and the film is 6 minutes and 51 seconds — the longest Pixar short in the history of Pixar, so are any of those things battles?

Enrico Casarosa: The personal side wasn’t and I was so happy to see them completely embracing the flavor, the Italian flavor, and the personal side. I think we make features thinking about those connections and knowing that a director needs to find these connections to his stories. That’s really important, that’s what gives it heart. So I was very, very happy to see them completely embrace that. There were some battles, but there was never a battle about the title. The title was there right at first, because it just seemed right and I was just surprised actually that it legally cleared. It wasn’t a problem. There are some shorts with similar… Actually there was a short named LUNA, but we didn’t know about that. The only battle was the length, because we kind of tried just out of budgetary reasons they tell you “Let’s make a four and a half minute short” and our reels were four and a half minutes, but I knew that I wanted to let it breath more, so what we slowly did is get our space slightly and give room to breath to every shot that it needed and I think because we did it carefully and with the same budget it flew. If I was at first to say “No, I want to make a six minute fifty one” they would have said, “You are crazy. We are going to go over budget,” but luckily because they are long shots, so in production if you have a high shot count it’s expensive, but we had a long short, but a low shot count. So that really helped us and the fact that I think we slowly did it and we made it all work, that was nice that it worked out.

Question: The Pixar shorts program was started to give a chance for someone who hasn’t directed to direct, but also to advance the technologies in certain ways.

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah.

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