Paul is just like you, probably. He’s got a job, but maybe doesn’t get everything he wants out of it. He’s pragmatic and sensible, but maybe wishes he wasn’t so. He thinks outright and often of the future (particularly of all the ways simple missteps can kill him) but dreams of spending more time in the now.
He’s the animated star of Inner Workings, the new six-minute short film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, which will debut before its upcoming feature, Moana. Like the movie it precedes, Inner Workings tells the story of the ceaseless pull of the human heart — even as it works against the very stoic realism of the brain.
Veteran Disney animator Leo Matsuda, whose credits include Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, stepped up to the plate as director and writer of the short. It’s set in a surreal ‘80s version of California, inspired partly by Wes Anderson and partly by Matsuda’s own experiences being raised in a Japanese-Brazilian household.
EW: This short was inspired by old anatomy textbooks. Why were you reading them? Just a nostalgia stumble?
LEO MATSUDA: I was born in an age when we didn’t have internet, so you actually found entertainment through books. I remember my favorite books were the encyclopedias that would come in this giant collection, and I remember specifically there was a biology volume. I remember going through the pages and seeing how the different systems of the human body work together: the nervous system, the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and how they all combine. It was fascinating to me and became one of my most enduring memories from my childhood. So I wanted to share that, somehow, and I found this short as a way to do it. And also, the fact that I’m Japanese-Brazilian, so I have a Japanese side that’s very logical and disciplined, but I also have a Brazilian side of like Carnavales and parties, so I am divided in this internal tug of war.
What did your initial pitch look like compared to the finished film?
The essence of the idea was always there: this concept of a brain character that’s the very Japanese kind of side, and the heart was more like the Brazilian. We had that idea, and we had the concept of how we would traverse from the external world to the internal world of Paul.
You focus on a few organs: Brain, lungs, heart, bladder, and stomach. Were other bodily functions considered?
Oh, yeah, but we had to be very surgical as far as what story we wanted to tell. At one point, we had the skeleton system be a big part of it. And at some point, the appendix was a big part of it. He would never do anything — he would just hang out. The film would just cut to him and he’s not doing anything.
What’s the primary message you hope folks take away from Inner Workings? To be more spontaneous in their general life, or to never have fallen into a rut in the first place?
It’s a good question. In a more broad scope, I think it’s a balance, but really the message we’re trying to say is that even though I think we have to follow our hearts, we also need to be realistic of our reality. We have to really dream to have hope, but at the same time, we have to be realistic. But realism can also be optimism. Life is a balance. In the beginning, the brain is very fearful of taking chances; he’s comfortable with the status quo. I think a lot of people in society, especially in Hollywood, can relate to that. Everyone who comes to Hollywood at some point wants to become a director or a screenwriter, and a lot of them end up working jobs that they don’t want to be working just so they can have a paycheck. But there’s a tendency to lose track of what you wanted to do in the first place, or feeling like you live in this fearful mode where you don’t want to take risks because fear dominates. I think that’s kind of the message.
You utilize hybrid animation in this short. Is there any uncharted territory here?
We didn’t actually use any new techniques, like the technique you saw in Paperman, but in this short, we tried to use CG animation and push it. The style of the short is extremely graphic, and that was a big challenge for us. There’s a hybrid with 2D — we had the help of some incredible animators at Disney. We thought that would really help tell the story in this Golden Book direction. All of the pictograms in the short ended up very funny, because the simpler they are, the funnier they are. At some point, we thought of the brain in a more sci-fi direction, because it’s the most complicated organ in the human body, but going more complex wasn’t funny. So we chose to go this 2D route to really play the comedy out of it.
There’s an obvious parallel here to Inside Out. What’s that relationship like?
Inside Out, I think, is an incredible film. When we started working on this, we knew that Pixar was working on something similar. But [Disney and Pixar story chief] John Lasseter knew that this short was going to be different, something on its own. Even John was on board, and he knew the idea. Even though they cover similar subjects, they’re completely different. Also, it’s based on my personal story. It’s very much based on the ‘80s and my heritage.
You developed this entirely in a vacuum from Moana, but it actually fits pretty nicely with the film’s story of following what you feel in your heart. Was that a happy accident?
The short was actually supposed to go in front of Zootopia, but they needed all hands on deck, so our short had to wait a little. That’s why we ended up in front of Moana. It was really just a coincidence. Usually when we make short films at Disney, there’s not necessarily an intention of pairing up one short with a feature itself. But it’s great that they complement each other. We’re very happy, and also very honored to be in front of Moana.
Moana — and Inner Workings — arrive in theaters Nov. 23.