Currently at work on Disney’s Frozen 2, a follow-up to the wintry 2013 smash, Leo Matsuda is among those individuals who have made the leap from Disney story artist to the writer and director of his own animated short. The film is Inner Workings, a charming 3D animated film with 2D interludes, depicting one man’s conflict between heart and mind, logic and emotion. Speaking with Deadline, Matsuda discusses the film’s unique conception of human anatomy, the experience of opening a short before the lauded Moana, and the encouragement and guidance he received from John Lasseter and other mentors.
Where did the story of Inner Workings come from, for you?
First is because of my heritage. I’m Japanese, Brazilian, so I have a Japanese side that is very disciplined and logical, but I also have a Brazilian side that likes parties and Carnival, so I have this tug of war in my life. I think a lot of people can relate to that on some level. Everyone came from a different culture, at some point, and I think even in their own lives, there’s always something going on inwards. I also was born in the ’80s. We didn’t have the internet. I remember the way I found entertainment was through books and reading, and I remember there was an encyclopedia.
They’d come in these really big editions with 24 volumes, and I remember there was the eighth volume, it was the one about biology, and it really fascinated me to see how those aspects of the anatomy, how they connect, and how the circulatory system would work with the respiratory system and the nervous system. That, for me, was probably one of the most endearing memories of my childhood.
What is the process of getting a short off the ground at Disney, and how did you make the transition from story artist to writing and directing your own film?
The process of having a short made at Disney started with this shorts program that they do annually at Disney, and it’s open to all the employees. Two years ago when they had this opportunity, there was probably like more than 50 people that pitched a few ideas each. We go through this selective process where the development team, along with directors, work together with whoever is trying to pitch their ideas, and then they start narrowing down. From there, one person selects the director.
As far as your second question, it’s very cool already to direct a short because that’s what we do already. Usually when you’re the story artist, they hand you a sequence, so in a sense, every sequence has a beginning, middle, and end, so it becomes almost like a short film. I think I always loved story structure. I love telling stories, so I think for me it was an easy transition.
How did you arrive at the visual style of the film?
When I started working on this idea, at first we wanted to almost have a very illustrative feel, in a way they did in other previous shorts, almost like a 2D look. But then the more we started developing, we realized the short was very different. We decided to go the CG route because it just felt right for the project, but the 2D aspect of it came because we want to create a fun way to tell what’s going on inside of the mind, the brain.
At first, actually, we had an approach that was very complex, because the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, so you would think that whatever goes on inside the brain should be very complex, but at the same time that wasn’t funny enough, so we wanted to do something that was funny and something that you understand immediately. The best way to do that for us was through 2D animation. We felt it was something very fun and whimsical, and to evoke almost this Golden Book style illustration, with pictograms. They’re very clear, and you read and you understand the joke.
You don’t see 2D animation much in studio films anymore, but there are several films this season that experiment with mixed formats of animation. Is that something that excites you, artistically?
Yes. I believe that 2D animation, the same way as stop motion or collage or any type of art, I think it’s never really something that goes away. I just feel it’s a choice and it depends on what the film requires. I used the 2D because I think my short asked for it, but I wouldn’t use it if I didn’t have to. I think it’s very exciting, but I don’t think 2D is ever going to go away because it’s just a form of art, and I think as long as you want to tell a story through 2D animation, I think that’s great. I think in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The medium you’re using is supporting the story you’re trying to tell.
One of the interesting things about animation is that every animated film seems to have its own approach to visualizing human anatomy—in your film, the characters have a more cubic facial structure.
Absolutely. That choice actually was made because it’s just a short film, and we wanted to be as clear as possible, so we want to make sure the world of Paul, it’s very boring, and everything is square and rigid, and whenever Paul goes outside, his world is very organic and fun and round. I think for us to make this statement very clearly, we tried to use these graphic shapes. We tried to use these tools to really tell the story, but that’s the reason why we went square and round. I don’t know if that would work in a feature, but we wanted to push as much as we could.
Were there specific inspirations for the piece? The short’s office sequences are reminiscent of dreary desk jockeying scenes in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Yes, absolutely. We were looking a lot to Jacques Tati, who is a French filmmaker. We just love how he always builds sets and his work is always in pantomime, and there’s never much dialogue. Everything is based on the physicality, and I really like how playful his work is. There’s something very cartoony about the way he approached reality, and also Wes Anderson, because I like how he approaches everything through a more theatrical standpoint. It feels almost like you are sitting in front of a play when I watch Wes Anderson’s films. That’s what we tried to evoke in this short.
As you see, the camera is always flat. There’s never camera movements, except for the ending of the short, but we always tried to keep the camera still and centered because we wanted to convey that more theatrical feel to it. Those are probably the biggest influences that we had. We also love Terry Gilliam a lot. I just like how there’s something very real about his work. Even though it’s so fantastical, there’s something that everyone can really relate to on a deep level.
Did you take inspiration from video games, in terms of certain visual or sonic elements?
I guess we could say that, but I think it’s more we tried to evoke something that was more from the ’80s, because that’s the time I remember seeing those encyclopedias, and that’s the time I was born, and I think it’s a very nostalgic period for me.
We wanted to convey that Gloria Estefan kind of feel, something very fun and vibrant. We wanted to keep the sound effects very cool. I guess that’s why video games come to mind because a lot of those kinds of noise come from that era, the ’80s.
What did it mean to you to have your film placed in front of Moana, the major Disney animated film of the season?
It was a big honor for us to be in front of Ron [Clements] and John [Musker]’s film. I’m such a big fan of their work. For the studio to let me be in front of Moana, that’s a big honor. Even though the short, for me, it feels so personal, I’m glad that John Lasseter gave me this chance to do this short. It’s so personal to me and it looks so personal, but it’s still playing [with] such a big film like Moana, so I’m just really thrilled with the opportunity.
What was the biggest challenge you confronted with this project?
I feel that the biggest challenge was to really listen to my own voice, because I think the tendency is, you have an idea and then you try to just to go back to what is aesthetically beautiful, or what is Disney. Disney already has a very particular way that they approach their films and their look, but at the beginning I was swaying from my personal style because I was afraid of going all the way.
It was great because I had guidance from John Lasseter and many other directors that kept telling me, “No, Leo, you have to do what is yourself, and you have to be yourself.” They kept reminding me to go back to that, so that was great, and I think in the end we got something that was very me. When you watch the short, even though it was a Disney short, I think you can tell that there’s something different about it.
What’s up next for you?
Right now I’m helping with Frozen 2. That’s coming out in a few years. I hope to continue directing, too.