By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 12, 2012 at 11:51PM
Pixar, of course, cut its teeth on shorts, winning its first Oscar for "Tin Toy" (1989), which paved the way for "Toy Story." Since then, Pixar has continued to regularly leverage its shorts program as a training ground for directors and incubator for technology. But this year, coinciding with its 25th anniversary, Pixar has been even more active than usual, releasing four shorts, including two legacy projects related to "Cars" and "Toy Story" -- "Air Mater" and "Small Fry" -- made at the new Pixar Canada facility in Vancouver.
However, the real Pixar Oscar contender is "La Luna," a wistful coming of age fable from Enrico Casarosa (promoted to head of story after working on "Cars 2," "Up", "Ratatouille," and "Cars"). Inspired by Italo Calvino's story about building a ladder to the moon, "The Distance of the Moon," "La Luna" concerns a young boy who rows out to sea in an old wooden boat with his bickering Papa and Grandpa, unaware that they are about to embark on an exciting lunar adventure.
"La Luna" is also a very personal story about Casarosa growing up by the sea in Genoa, in which his father and grandfather rarely spoke to one another. "I can remember being 11 or 12 and getting caught in the middle at the dinner table with these very uncomfortable conversations," the director recalls. "My grandfather lived with us, which probably had a lot to do with it."
But once Casarosa read the Calvino story, he wanted to create his own myth about going to the moon, with a little boy stuck between these strong personalities and finding his own way around a very strange and fantastic place. He says the setting seemed right with these peasant characters from the '30s. And he added lots of gibberish to go along with the Italian-like gesturing, which was inspired from which was inspired from the animated TV series, "La Linea," by Osvaldo Cavandoli.
Yet unlike previous Pixar shorts, there are no sight gags in "La Luna" -- it's completely character-driven, and at 7 minutes, it's also the longest Pixar theatrical short. It was the film's gentleness and visual splendor that sustained Casarosa's interest during its two-year making, and got "La Luna" greenlit by Pixar and Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter.
"John embraced the uniqueness of this and there was never talk of adding humor," Casarosa relates. "He kept saying, 'I want to be there!'"
Lasseter, in fact, went so far as to suggest that this should be the boy's maiden voyage to the moon, when he discovers the family's honored responsibility: sweeping stars that light up the moon like millions of bulbs. Indeed, the lovely illumination motif harkens back to "Luxo, Jr."
The little boy even looks a bit like Boo from "Monsters, Inc." The director says he wanted him to be completely round and all eyes like a light bulb. But he had to pull back on the size of the eyes so he would have more of a family resemblance.
Well, if the father resembles the dad from Sony's "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," it's purely accidental. Casarosa's actual inspiration was the miner from Hayao Miyazaki's popular "Castle in the Sky." He thought he'd save time by not having mouths and accentuating the father's moustache and the grandfather's beard when they argue. But it didn't work out that way: the hair was very challenging.
But the visual design has a definite pastel style. "We worked very closely with effects to find the right kind of waves to give us a feeling of depth and still be very graphic," Casarosa adds. "They're real reflections into the water of the moon, which is a watercolor that we painted. We tried to use as much real media right on the screen. All our backgrounds are real pastels that were done by Bill Cone, the 'La Luna' production designer. The Milky Way is pastel; the sky is pastel. I wanted to keep it tactile and textured. It started with my watercolor image boards. The boat, for example, has watercolor planks that are mapped onto the model."
As for the moon, the glows around it are moving textures made by panning different watercolor papers with little particles of color. Glows are not uniform but textured gradients. The director insists there's nothing groundbreaking other than perhaps a desire to use real material that isn't CG.
As a parting shot, Casarosa recalls a quote from cartoonist/novelist Lynda Barry: "In the digital age, we shouldn't forget to use our digits."