Walt Disney Feature Animation’s shorts have always pushed the envelope. From the earliest Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts, they’ve been places where Walt and his animators were allowed to experiment with new technology and test out cutting-edge storytelling techniques. This tradition has continued, and in recent years short films like “Feast,” “Paperman,” and “Get a Horse!” have showcased technological breakthroughs (particularly when it comes to the mixture of 2D and 3D animation), alongside a beautiful, often wordless storytelling verve. The latest Walt Disney Animation Studios short form marvel is “Inner Workings,” which just premiered at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France. This is a short that takes you inside the human body, where all of the organs have a mind of their own.
In “Inner Workings” we follow Paul, a straight-laced everyman who, on his way to his dreary job, passes by experiences that could potentially make him happy. Unfortunately, in the tug-of-war between his head and his heart, his head always wins. (When Paul goes by one of these potential experiences, we zoom in and see his organs at work, who have personalities and are really, really cute. Yes, even the stomach.) Leo Matsuda, a story artist on Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, directed the film. He pushes both the visuals and the storytelling to the limit, weaving a highly stylized tale in a dazzlingly economical way. The movie sings.
Matsuda told me that “encyclopedias from the ‘80s” largely inspired him, especially the opening of the short, which features the different “layers” of Paul. “I always imagine what it would be like to shoot in that kind of style,” he explained. “And I pitched it to John and he went for it.” Producer Sean Lurie was “lucky enough” to be involved in the process of selecting the short, as well. (Lurie also told me that his grandfather was a “company man” who worked in post-production for Walt Disney from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s, on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Fantasia.) “I got to hear a lot of the pitches and Leo’s short was the most quirky and unusual of the bunch,” Lurie said. It seems everyone in the room was instantly pumped, even in the short’s early form. “Some of the ideas he was pitching early on, was this guy in the elevator and this woman walks in and he smells her Coco Chanel. Then it cuts to his silhouette, and then all his bones drop down into his legs,” Lurie explained, laughing.
The inspiration for the film is varied but instantly recognizable when you watch it—when developing the project, Matsuda looked at the films of Wes Anderson (“because of the theatrical feel”) and French comedy auteur Jaques Tati (he’s got the director’s Blu-ray box set in his office for handy reference), previous Disney projects “Mars and Beyond” from Ward Kimball, veteran Disney animators like Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair and, of course, the Muppets. During the Annecy presentation, in fact, Matsuda showed stills of the production team meeting with Muppet performers and test footage where the organ characters were rendered in a fuzzy, felt-like aesthetic. “We wanted to convey that feeling that’s almost like The Muppet Show inside his body,” Matsuda told me. Ultimately it was abandoned because the organs had to have a slicker feeling, while still remaining cute.
But more inspirational than any external influence was Matsuda’s life; he is Japanese-Brazilian. And both aspects of his heritage are on display in the film. “I guess it’s the duel between the heart and the brain, like, my Japanese side is very logical and very organized. I’m very systematic and I was also brought up in Brazil, so my soul’s Brazilian and I understand that side,” Matsuda explained. “Even though my Japanese side is prominent, my Brazil side comes out sometimes.”
Part of what makes “Inner Workings” so special are the character designs, by character design supervisor Ami Thompson, who, Lurie said, “recently joined the studio as a trainee.” In addition to overseeing character design, Thompson animated the majority of the “brain visions,” wherein the brain imagines what would happen if Paul indulges in his heart’s flights of fancy. These visions were mostly done with traditional 2D animation, continuing in the tradition of “Paperman,” “Feast,” and “Get a Horse!” which gleefully combined animation principles. ”Leo and I just wanted to style it more like a children’s book,” she explained, again referencing the simple style that also inspired Matsuda.“The animation was really challenging, because it’s a style I’ve never tried before,” Thompson said. “We went with an animation style that was really limited and very graphic.”
Helping her with those brain visions was legendary animator Mark Henn, known for creating most of Disney Animation’s female protagonists in the late-‘80s through ‘90s (for movies like The Little Mermaid, Mulan, and Pocahontas) and an acclaimed short filmmaker in his own right (his award-winning “John Henry” is really stunning). Of the experience, Thompson said it was “amazing.” “It was part of my biggest dream to someday work with him and I never imagined it would happen like this early,” she told me. “It was such an honor.”
Production designer Paul Felix was enamored with Matsuda’s pitch and the short’s off-kilter sensibilities. “I loved the initial artwork I saw,” Felix said. He was inspired by the art and style that had initially inspired Matsuda, and brought that appreciation to the production design of the short. Of those earlier works he said that he took “just the graphicness of it.” Felix leaned heavily on this during production. “I looked to that really strong use of silhouette and things like color.” But the main thing he tried to emulate? “Just the simplicity of it,” Felix said.
While he didn’t initially set out to work on “Inner Workings,” he was still thrilled to be a part of such a magical short. “Yeah, I think in talking to Leo early on with what they wanted to do … Those things came through in the end,” Felix said. One of the biggest contributions that Felix made was suggesting that the film be set in a beach town. ”Leo and the story team really took it and made it something amazing. I just didn’t want to do the usual city/street setting. So that’s why I suggested the California setting. It really made it a whole metaphor.”
Matsuda is blown away by the finished film, which, it should be noted, features an incredible score by composer Ludwig Göransson (and an impossibly catchy, Miami Sound Machine-like song with vocals by Este Haim from HAIM), and credits the hard work that everyone contributed to making it feel so unique and amazing. “The big challenge came when they had to take my stick drawings and make them reality. So that was hard,” Matsuda said. “You know those posts you see on Facebook where the kids draw sticks and then the parents build a real thing out of it? That’s how I felt.” And that’s what’s so amazing about “Inner Workings”–while it may be a short about organs, it really makes you feel.