Q&A with Director and Storyboard Artist Enrico Casarosa
Published on October 7th, 2011 | by Janna Hochberg1
Enrico Casarosa worked as a storyboard artist for more than ten years before debuting as the director of the short film “La Luna,” set to screen before Pixar’s next animated feature “Brave” in 2012. He has spent time working at both Pixar and Blue Sky Studios and is the founder of Sketchcrawl – a drawing marathon that has evolved into a worldwide event.
Early last September I met Casarosa at the New York Japan Society while covering the “Films for Hope” one-day festival. The event was held on the ten year anniversary of 9/11—which was also the six month anniversary of the major 3/11 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. The event served as a fundraiser for those still recovering in Japan. Casarosa presented the New York premiere of “La Luna”, a sweet story about a young boy discovering himself while trying to live up to the conflicting standards of his father and grandfather.
After finishing a sound check of the film on the morning of the screening, Casarosa sat down with me for a short interview. We talked about Films for Hope, his personal inspirations, his experience at Pixar and his outlook on the future of the animation industry.
Lets start with today, the Films for Hope program; can you talk a little bit about it as well as your own effort in terms of relief for Japan?
My participation in Films for Hope was the result of Justin Leach and I chatting. We have been friends for a long time; we worked together at Blue Sky Studios more than ten years ago. He used to live in Japan and I had visited him many times. We’ve always had this connection through work, but also in a love for Japanese culture. He mentioned he wanted to do this and said it would be great if we could show “La Luna.” I was happy that Pixar supported the offer, they’ve been very supportive of it, which has been great.
The nice part about the animation community is that we have so many friends and a lot of those friends are Japanese or have grown up there or lived there—So many artists whose work we love. So, in March when the earthquake and tsunami happened, we all wanted to do something. We had done art auctions before and knew with our artwork we could raise funds. It is this wonderful feeling of coming together for something meaningful by drawing, painting, doing what we love. We put together an auction in San Francisco with a lot of the artists around Pixar. Dice Tsutumi is a good friend of both Justin and I and he’s been very active so I’ve been there helping as much as I could.
Can you talk a little bit about your film and the inspiration behind it including any animators you grew up with?
I mainly bring up Antoine de Saint-Exupery and “The Little Prince.” Originally I was influenced by this tiny little planet with a boy walking around it. Miyazaki is what I grew up on. In Italy we had tons of Japanese cartoons on television, so, in the eighties when he was really becoming a director, I was already kind of watching him. I love that kind of work—bringing the fantasy side and the more realistic side together. I also need to mention a really famous writer in Italy, his name is Italo Calvino. We read him in high school and he’s wonderful, he puts together the mundane and the fantastic.
I looked at my childhood, growing up with my grandfather at home. We lived with him, and it didn’t make for the most comfortable dinners. My dad and him didn’t get along so well, so I just try and use some of that: a little personal story that I knew quite well to keep an emotional core to the story.
In terms of short films, I was wondering if you could speak to any creative freedoms you’ve found working in shorts as opposed to in your feature work?
It’s quite wonderful. I worked storyboarding for so many features—you have a big structure; the feature length is a much, much harder puzzle to put together just by length and by virtue of what it is. There’s this wonderful freedom in shorts that Pixar embraces. I’m very excited that they can be more personal; they don’t have to go out in the world and make millions. It was cheaper to make—you have maybe a few less resources. But we feel like a little ragtag independent studio inside a bigger studio and that makes it fun. It is kind of freeing because we feel we don’t have the kinds of pressure a feature has.
You mentioned it doesn’t need to be the kind of thing to make millions to exist on it’s own.
And animation as a form is pretty limitless, but it has real creative restrictions culturally. It seems to be locked into markets—comedy I guess is the most broad. Do you feel there are any limitations in your own work, both in shorts and features due to this? Do you feel you’ve struggled against or thrived within these constraints?
I think the short has definitely been one of the first places where there were very few constraints. The needs that we have while working on a feature are the needs of our business. These movies are expensive and need to be interesting to a wide range of people. I think, by virtue of the kind of productions we are part of that it can be a little bit of a limitation. But ultimately our day to day is about what we want to say with the story and what we care about saying. Even on a feature you know those are important things. We still need a strong heart of a story, and that’s what I think Pixar’s been really successful in doing. The commercial side is still really interesting and entertaining for a wide range of people. Still, having some authorship and something personal for these directors is something we are all proud of at Pixar.
Pixar tends to be more thematic and story heavy than a lot of its modern contemporaries. I was wondering if this is at all due to a sense of sort of corporate or brand auteurship? And if so, does this effect the number of sight gags or pop references in your work?
We have a pretty wide range of filmmakers, and some of them are really good at funny stuff. Some of them are not, and are really more about action. We feel each movie needs a good balance, so we’re pretty aware. We want to make something that is timeless. I wouldn’t want to make something with too many pop references; that would date it quickly. We try to be careful with that. Ultimately, it really goes back to a group of directors with their own different flavors. We all have someone who is a little more comedic or a little more serious, but they all really care about something that can give you some emotion and can give you a real core. The film is not only making you laugh, it should also make you feel something. That is, I think, maybe the difference. What we’re lucky about is this connection: great directors that care about similar things.
You made a brief reference to making a film timeless. What to you gives these films this timeless quality you aspire to?
That’s a pretty good question. Ultimately, I think you need to make something pretty specific and personal to achieve something that can be a little bit universal and a little bit timeless. I don’t think you can really tell yourself in the process of something, “I’m going to make something, a timeless fable.” You have to find the details, the little things that make it feel true and make it feel right.
Luckily I was given a green light on a story that I knew. I wanted it to be Italian. I wanted them to be sort of 1920‘s-1930’s, old kind of peasant characters and hopefully that makes it feel timeless. But it’s really about the specifics and being able to make something that is very detailed and very right, and I think it’s an interesting thing: by being something specific it can become something more universal.
As far as pitching this idea, was it something you were approached to do, or was it something where you came up with a few ideas and said hey, is this something you are interested in?
I wanted to pitch something and they were able to fit some time for me to pitch to John Lasseter. He’s kind of the main person to pitch ideas like that to. There’s also a little development team, they work with you to get ready for that meeting. It is actually a great process; you just meet three, four, five, six times before you pitch these ideas. That’s how it normally works, very often for features as well. It was kind of about going, “Here is some idea, and it’s sort of like the bud of a plant.” By the end you say, “Here’s my little flower and it came together.” You can see what they react to; they’re good shepherds in getting you ready. Once you pitch, it’s all up to if they believe in these stories. If you have a great idea, they’ll hear it. They’ll find a way for you to be able to pitch it.
Through the entire process, from conceptualization through pitching and production, did you take any particular knowledge away you’d like to share—more philosophically rather than practically?
In this huge new thing you feel like you’re learning at all times throughout, because you’re going through a lot of new processes. It was a little bit about trusting your guts, and strangely, it’s very much in tune with the message of the short. I read this quote from Billy Wilder that says, “trust your instincts.” I’ll paraphrase because I don’t remember it quite correctly, but it’s, “trust your instincts, and the mistakes will be yours and you’ll learn from them.” That’s what this little boy is doing: he is trusting his instinct and believing in his point of view. You’ve got to trust your gut and be right sometimes and not others. From those mistakes you really learn yourself.
I don’t want to keep you too long because I know you have a million things to do so I just want to ask – because you have been working for so many years, have you noticed any distinct changes in either approach to story or in the general view of your target audience as it ages? Have you seen the kind of work you’ve been producing change at all over the past few years?
I think I probably have, with all the kinds of tragedies in our minds today. Also, becoming a father in the last three or four years has certainly changed me. I think about kids a lot more and in making this short I thought of kids more than I ever would have ten years ago. I feel like it’s so important to talk to them and give some inspiring messages to them. I won’t say I’m going to make a movie for adults and kids are going to love it. I’d actually love to make a movie for kids that adults can connect to by just feeling like a kid. Miyazaki does that a lot; somehow he is able to connect to this childhood sense of wonder. Even for us adults, there is nothing more magical than connecting to a nostalgic feeling of our childhood. There are so many things that are connected to these great moments in childhood. That is something worth giving to adults and it’s super important to give to our kids good messages.