AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH PIXAR STORYBOARD ARTIST ENRICO CASAROSA
Recently GhibliWorld.com had the chance to sit down with none other than Enrico Casarosa. With over ten years of experience in the animation industry, Casarosa is an amazing storyboard artist working at Pixar. Having completed his work on Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, he’s currently storyboarding on their newest animated feature film Up, which is being directed by Pete Docter and set for release in 2009. While spending his time at Pixar by day, Casarosa further releases his creativity publishing lovely art books and comics at night. Like he says himself, he’s forever stuck between the gravitational pulls of his home country Italy and cultural passion Japan. Bringing us to one of the several reasons of our pleasurable talk with him.
Some people might wonder what an interview with a Pixar storyboard artist is doing on GhibliWorld.com. Friendly as he is, Casarosa helps us out.
“Eh… good question, I should ask you that (laughing). Well, I guess Miyazaki Hayao and Ghibli have been a huge, constant and key influence and inspiration on my storyboarding work and my comics. I grew up in Italy in the late seventies on a diet of Japanese animation. The ones that I absolutely loved were series like Heidi (アルプスの少女ハイジ, Arupusu no Shoujo Haij), Mirai Shonen Conan (未来少年コナン, Future Boy Conan) and Rupan Sansei (ルパン三世, Lupin the 3rd) and I found out later that they had all in common one man: Miyazaki-san. So since discovering his movies in the early nineties I've been a huge and avid fan of all that is Ghibli. I started studying his movies and e-conte and still do. I have been also very lucky to have met Miyazaki on a couple of occasions. Once at Pixar, John Lasseter and him are good friends. The second time I met him at Studio Ghibli, which I've had the luck of visiting more than a couple of times in the last few years. Meeting him there was absolutely memorable*. In brief, he is the major reason I find myself where I am doing what I am doing.”
*: details about Enrico Casarosa’s personal Studio Ghibli visit can be found here:
- blog post 1 (scroll down to May 11)
- blog post 2 (scroll down to June 20)
That explains itself… Actually, Enrico Casarosa has frequently mentioned before that Miyazaki is one of his biggest influences. It’s something he doesn’t hide when talking about his work and passion. Of course I’m curious to hear how Miyazaki, Miyazaki’s films and Miyazaki’s manga reflect in his work.
“In many ways and layers through the last dozen years I guess. I absolutely fell in love with Miyazaki’s “imageboards”, the way he uses watercolor to quickly convey mood and setting. It struck a cord in me, I have no patience and I love immediate kinetic sketches. I found the way he used watercolors to be similar to a sketch in pencil, quick and direct, no flourishes. I love that, I try and aim to achieve that in my watercolors, be it for a comic or a for a drawing observed from my surroundings. I want that immediacy and roughness, which I believe reads truer than carefully calculated rendition. Even in my storyboarding work, I hate tight drawings, if I trace over a sketch something gets lost. Miyazaki’s e-conte (note: storyboards) are amazingly inspiring to study … there is such a beautiful immediacy to his staging and posing, even just his pencil line.
Then the rest is about his stories and the way he tells them, he somehow has been able to tap into his inner child all these years. Miyazaki has this uncanny ability to add a childish sense of wonder to his stories. He’s able to make us feel like little kids again. To tell stories with such a power, for me is most certainly an unachievable goal to reach, but it’s worth looking up to and aiming for. Why not right?”
As a Pixar storyboard artist Casarosa is currently working on Up, a movie that has been announced several months back, but he has been working on it for almost 2 years now. Interestingly, it’s being directed by Pete Docter, who also directed the voice talent for the English version of Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (ハウルの動く城, Howl’s Moving Castle).
“He’s a huge fan of Miyazaki-san as well, so we have some nice common ground (laughing)!”
Up is announced to be released in 2009 and Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson are preparing this "coming-of-old-age story". It’s about a 70-year-old man who lives in a house that "looks like your grandparents' house smelled" and befriends a clueless young Wilderness Ranger and gets into lots of alter kocker altercations. Our hero travels the globe, fights beasts and villains and eats dinner at 3:30 in the afternoon. As it’s still far from being released, Casarosa mentions that there’s not a whole lot he’s allowed to say. While noting that Up is an adventure movie and its main character is unlikely one: an old man, some more details unfold.
“It’s a pretty unique tale and that’s what I’ve been really enjoying and valuing while working on it. I can also tell you that my good and über talented friend Ronnie del Carmen is the head of story on the movie, we are used to collaborating on our own projects so it’s been really fun to work for him. As far as the actual storyboarding goes, it’s not very different from my work on Ratatouille, of course every movie has its own feel but that is exactly what is refreshing and needed for most of us story artists.”
Rewinding time, we go back to the previous project Enrico Casarosa worked on: storyboarding Ratatouille. We at GhibliWorld.com were rather awestruck by its animation and visuals and combined with its good story made it a really nice film. Casarosa tells me a bit about his diverse job as a Ratatouille storyboard artist.
“As far as Ratatouille goes, I am glad to hear you enjoyed it. I storyboarded on it for almost 4 years. The job shortly put entails helping making the director’s vision come to fruition. It can vary quite a bit in spectrum… ranging from visualizing already scripted pages to brainstorming gags or exploring certain beats or action scenes. Ultimately we wreck our brain together with the Director to try and tell the best, heartfelt story possible and to tell it in the best way possible. Typically here at Pixar what that means is going through several screenings in which we put up the film on reels and look at it still in storyboard form (roughly drawn but with temp voice, sound and music). We call that an animatic or a storyboard reel (like Miyazaki’s e-conte drawings in film version). That gives us a chance to sit back and look at the whole movie. What works, what doesn’t, what can be better? After one of those screening we regroup, sort through the feedback here in the Studio and get back to the drawing board to try and make the movie better. That’s how storyboarding works in most Studios in the US. It’s a gradual and teamwork oriented process. Very different from Japan’s studios.”
Talking about the differences between Pixar and Studio Ghibli, we end up discussing Casarosa’s fortunate position of having been able to visit Studio Ghibli. In one of his related blog posts he mentions* he and Miyazaki were discussing story and the different ways in which Pixar and Ghibli find their stories to tell.
“Well, as I was just saying, the process here is very much one of doing and redoing, making things better step by step. It involves a willingness to pick apart the movie and its themes. This constant editing and refining can be frustrating at times. The huge difference is that at Ghibli storyboards are done by the director and they are followed without exception. So you find a very different way of doing things there, the studio and its artists are following the leader’s vision without deliberation, editing or feedback necessary. Incidentally it sounds like Suzuki-san might be the only person at Ghibli able to have a discussion with Miyazaki-san regarding the story or characters of the movie they’re producing. In this setting though Miyazaki is free to go on his own journey finding the movie he wants to tell, bit by bit. The result are stories that are more fully personal and hold an authenticity and uniqueness which is close to impossible to achieve in the US, where a story, in the best case scenario, is well crafted by several gifted people while in the worse case scenario is made by committee. I think that’s what is great about many projects coming from Japan, with their own merits or faults, they possess an unwavering will to stick to their director’s vision. The stories are allowed to be more idiosyncratic that way and that is what I personally find inspiring and refreshing.
The whole reality of making animated movies in the US seems quite different. These films are expensive and thus need to appeal to a wide audience. That in itself tends to make many studios and their managers tense up. That is the unfortunate catch 22, the bigger the budget the more the results need to appease a huge audience and usually have a blander the flavor. Pixar overall is a wonderful exception within those terms but it still works with high stakes at hand.
A bit on a tangent here, but I was listening to a Jerry Seinfield interview on the radio this morning, mostly regarding the animated movie he’s been working on. It was a fun listen and something he said really connected for me. He mentioned how stand up comedy is about making people laugh and how that is what he really loves to do and will always go back to. So making a movie ultimately has the same goal: to make people laugh. Of course the reality of movie making is that of a huge infrastructure that costs billions to run, requires hierarchy and delegation and it’s thus way more difficult to maneuver. So for all of this he had a really nice analogy: it’s as if you absolutely love water ok? Adore it. Now, would you rather be the captain of huge ship or a surfer? Pretty obvious right? I thought that was a great way of putting it. You could apply the same analogy to Pixar and Ghibli. They’d probably be respectively a biiig ship and a small ship and while their captains have the same worthy goals, they would be ships run quite differently. Anyway, ultimately the great and important thing is that, whatever the means, both studios care about telling personal, heartfelt and meaningful stories. That I feel very fortunate about.
Wow, I was like the king of tangents in this one … ah well … hope I somewhat answered your question, Peter (laughing). Oh wait, actually I have one last tangent! Many storyboard artists in this business seem to seek different forums to tell their own personal stories (I certainly do), like comics or short films. I think it totally has to do with wanting to be the surfer … right in the water … and not just a captain’s helper on a big ship.”
*: Some frustration must have inadvertently come out of me (regarding storyboarding process in the US and the long and tough process of doing it and redoing it and redoing it again till you find it) since at that point he put his hand on my shoulder and told me to hang in there and to ultimately trust John (Lasseter) as "he has a good heart and cared about the right things". (Enrico Casarosa, blog post June 20, 2004)
Coming back to my question on the differences in the ways in which Pixar and Ghibli find their stories to tell, I ask Casarosa if he can add something more about that.
“Well, I guess I pretty much just “over answered” this question in my previous answer. I think there’s another interesting difference between the stories directors choose to tell here and at Studio Ghibli. At Pixar directors often look for something personal from their own lives for inspiration. Andrew Stanton used some of his own anxieties of being a father to make Finding Nemo more authentic and true, that is the core of the story. You can pick every Pixar movie and connect it to some personal experience of its director. And that is a good rule in any kind of writing I’d say, the interesting thing though is that these experiences are mostly from adulthood. I think Miyazaki does something different: he puts on his “Super secret think like a 10 year old helmet” (he can switch age to younger and older too) and he’s going to tell a story from and for that point of view. It still baffles me that he’s able to do that, but it’s exactly that wonderful feeling of childish wonder that brings his movies to a whole other level. That ability seems to be also fueled by his nostalgia for those times.
There might be a big difference in viewing audience between the two nations to consider as well. I get the feeling the adult Japanese viewer doesn’t mind and actually wants to be transported back to feeling like a kid. I don’t particularly see that willingness in the US, where I think animated movies are in average more likely to be avoided or ignored by many adult viewers.
Lastly, Suzuki-san shared another analogy for Ghibli’s filmmaking when we visited Ghibli a few years back. He told us about Edo period “house building”. What he said, sketching on paper a simple square room, is that houses would be built one room at a time and that all details would be fully finished (and possibly even several years pass) before building a second room maybe adjacent to it. The result of all the building, after room after room is added on different sides of the house, is of an overall shape that would have been impossible to foresee or plan to begin with. A shape that used to have western architects baffled, how did they reach that kind of overall shape?? The truth is that a builder in those times never thought of the final shape the house might take, they just built bit by bit and added parts to the house when needed. So the western filmmaker looks at a Miyazaki movie and doesn’t understand how its finished shape was achieved. There’s no formula to it, the usual filmmaking structures hardly apply, because the way Miyazaki finds his story is organic. He doesn’t know where he’ll end up or weather he’ll take a left turn here or there until he is at the bend in the road and that I think is one of the major reasons we all love Ghibli’s movies and find them refreshing.
The danger here in the US is making stories that, while solid or even perfect, might slowly become more and more predictable and safe given the structure and formulas we are getting used to and by “we” I mean all sides: both storytellers and consumers.”
Unfortunately, quite a part of the regular movie audience might have (unconsciously) already sneaked into that habit. The Pixar storyboarding process, being a long and tough road of doing it and redoing it and redoing it again till you find it, must be one of Pixar’s ways to avoid making dull movies trying to prevent this. What does one do to keep it fun and inspiring?
“Don’t get me wrong it never gets boring, at least not for me, since it is always challenging that’s for sure. The key to keep it fun and “inspired” can have different facets at different times. It could be as simple as a good brainstorm with all the other story artists (it can really get juices going and people excited about new ideas), watching some key sequence from a specific movie for inspiration and mood or sometimes (at least for me) just spending twenty minutes paging through Miyazaki’s e-conte books: looking at his staging choices and wonderful easy quick drawings, that always gets me excited if I am ever feeling uninspired.”
In the way that Miyazaki makes all his e-conte as a one-person-only job, the Pixar storyboarding is a process involving many people. You’d perhaps wonder about what Ratatouille has that is “solo Enrico Casarosa”.
“Well, it really is a hugely collaborative process, there is so much bouncing ideas around that it really becomes hard to tell what exactly came from whom and when. Also as you know the editing process is such that often a lot of work doesn’t make it to film. That said there is one little gag that I remember adding to a sequence I boarded. Brad Bird liked it enough to keep it in there, which certainly made me happy. It’s a sequence halfway through the movie where Remy the Rat is heading to work at the restaurant all happy and confident and he’s walking down the street like he’s the king of the town. He gives a flick and nod with a “heey!” off screen right. As he keeps on walking we see that it was directed to a man on a bicycle who is staring at the rat dumbfounded. Of course he’s not looking at where he’s going and he hits the parked car in front of him hard. A lot of words for a short little gag, it’s not rocket science but it gets a laugh … that feels good I must admit. It’s one of the pleasures of this job, when you hear people around you laughing at one of your ideas on screen.”
I remember that John Lasseter once noted that "At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration and it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Miyazaki." As Studio Ghibli was founded by Takahata Isao as well, I ask Casarosa if there’s any noticeable influence of his work on that of Pixar’s like Miyazaki’s films have.
“I know that several of my colleagues especially loved My Neighbors the Yamadas (ホーホケキョ となりの山田くん, Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun) and have looked at its stylistic approach for inspiration, but I can’t see much more from Takahata’s other movies as far as noticeable influences.”
Of course I can’t help myself to find out what more Casarosa has to say about Takahata Isao…
“I love his movies as well, though I find some of their pacing more challenging. My favorite of his is My Neighbors the Yamadas (ホーホケキョ となりの山田くん, Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun). Its simple and stylized drawings still contain so much subtlety. I think it has had an influence on my autobiographical comics, as far style and tone.
I really enjoyed most of his other movies and found them to be rewarding experiences, especially if you stick with them. The pacing can be slow but it pays off in the end. I love Omohide Poroporo (おもひでぽろぽろ, Only Yesterday) for exactly that reason. I really hope he makes more films.
On the subject of non-Miyazaki Ghibli films, I also have a special fondness for Mimi wo Sumaseba (耳をすませば, Whisper of the Heart). Love that movie. I love its calm pacing and simple story. Mimi just has a lot of heart, you really feel for Shizuku’s dreams, hopes and anxieties. It’s amazing how much Miyazaki and Kondo make us completely empathize with her. Isn’t it pretty amazing that middle-aged men can have the sensibility to capture the complexities of a fourteen year old girl’s world? It still baffles me that they are able to connect so honestly to such a different reality from their own. There’s also something wonderfully subtle about Mimi, I think Kondo had this slightly more realistic and subtle take on filmmaking, almost smack in the middle of Takahata’s and Miyazaki’s. So very sad to loose him so soon, Kondo has been and will be missed.”
While not only a friend of Miyazaki, some consider John Lasseter to be biggest “Miyazaki fan” there is. Considering Casarosa’s shared passion for the works of Miyazaki and the fact that he is working at the same studio, I ask him about their “working relationship”.
“I’ve worked very little directly with John, only for a short stint of a couple of months I did on Cars. At that time we did indeed chat about Ghibli and Miyazaki I remember John being very excited about the Ghibli Museum, he hadn’t gotten a chance to see it yet at the time (he has since of course). John also told us of the first time he visited Studio Ghibli with his family and how Miyazaki San immediately took them all to the Edo Tokyo Tatemono Bijutsukan. He showed them around the museum (one of Miyazaki’s favorite places) and then they had a bowl of Udon at the excellent noodle shop there. I’ve had a chance of visiting the museum a few years back and the noodle shop still has a nice sketch by Miyazaki and Lasseter.”
The marketing and promotion of previous Miyazaki releases in the US has been criticized by various people and media, like for example FPS Magazine. With John Lasseter’s “moving up in rank”, that might change and positively influence the US release of Gake no ue no Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, Ponyo on a Cliff) and other future Studio Ghibli releases.
“Well, I don’t have any actual information regarding that but if I had to speculate I’d say John will certainly give Ponyo all the support he can. I have good hopes for that, I also can’t wait to see the upcoming French animated movie Persepolis, and the release it’s gonna have here in the US. That will be an interesting theatrical release to keep an eye on given that it’s an off the beaten track animated movie with Oscars’ ambitions. Furthermore Persepolis is also being submitted in the Best Foreign movie category by France, which I think it’s great. It’s about time animated movies get the same consideration live action ones do. So I hope it gets nominated and I hope to see Miyazaki’s movie do the same in the future.”
Though mostly discussing Enrico Casarosa’s work at Pixar in relation to that of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, I also talk with him about some of the mighty interesting personal projects he worked on. From his global drawing marathon project SketchCrawl, to his collaboration illustration work Three Trees Make a Forest (love that name) and the various comics he has drawn. Casarosa tells me what motivates him to do these side projects, though already having a full time job at Pixar.
“The motivation … well that goes back to my first few answers. It partly has to do with the nature of our work. Like many story artists around me I end up having a wish to craft a story on my own. Something more direct, that I can have full control on, something unlike what we do in our 9 to 6 job, which is more about helping a director tell his story. As I mentioned storyboarding entails a lot of layers of doing, redoing and rethinking, so I think many of us yearn for something simpler, more “straight ahead storytelling”. So going back to the water-story analogy I mentioned, it’s because we love the water and we don’t want to be always up there helping the captain steering his big ship, sometimes we want to get our surfboard and get in the waves ourselves. Together with that element I think there are also other passions and interests that pull me this or that way. I really enjoy designing and producing books, so self-publishing comics and art books has been really satisfying. SketchCrawl specifically came out of just loving drawing and traveling … and loving journaling and sketching what is around me.”
The influence of Miyazaki on Casarosa’s comics The Adventures of Mia and Venice Chronicles is clear, but even his ultra cool Haiku 5-7-5, which kind of reminds us of Fukasaku Kinji meeting MindGame (マインド ゲーム) meeting Tarantino, shows some Miyazaki flavor with the butas in it. What would the artist Enrico Casarosa look like without Miyazaki? His inspiration seems to be quite diverse and highly resembles my taste.
“That’s a really good description of Haiku! In fact it kind of answers part of your question, since some of my other inspirations certainly come from that neighborhood.
I absolutely fell in love in MindGame and its director Yuasa Masaaki, the movie just blew me away. To me that’s the best animated movie of the last few years. It’s challenging, gutsy and stylistically ahead of its times. I’ve also loved Yuasa’s latest tv series Kemonozume, dark but really good. Than you mention an iconic director of Yakuza movies, Fukusaku Kinji to which I’d add the genre’s bad boy Suzuki Seijun. Those are both great inspirations for Haiku, Suzuki’s Branded to Kill is a stand out among those films, it’s amazing and certainly ahead of its times. There’s many more I still need to see from those two. I also love some modern yakuza movies like Ishi Katsuhito’s Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Woman. I like their silliness and cartoony characterizations. So I guess you could say I take a lot of inspiration from Japanese and Asian film in general. In my job we tend to be more or less film nuts, so I could go on with directors whose work I’ve loved for years: Fellini, Kurosawa, Coen Brothers, Wong Kar Wai and many more.
Other inspirations and influences, let’s see … I love Murakami Haruki's books and also Yoshimoto Banana’s. While in the comics area … let’s see … I am a huge fan of Matsumoto Taiyo (which sadly is getting close to no recognition here in the US, very few titles have been published). I’ve also been really enjoying Joan Sfar’s graphic novels (he’s the prolific author, among many things, of The Rabbi’s Cat) and Gipi (an Italian artist who’s been producing amazing comics like Garage Band and Notes for a War Story). They both have a certain immediacy to their work, it’s something I’m really aspiring to get to myself. I am not one to slave over a comic’s page for days, I want and appreciate a certain honesty and directness in the drawings. The challenge is to accept what one might consider to be mistakes and trying to retain the wonderful immediacy and quality of a rough and not loose it in the process of redrawing it in a cleaner version.”
Finally, while thanking Enrico Casarosa for his time and interesting answers, he shares me his goals and wishes for the future.
“Let’s see, I guess as far as Pixar goes, I am excited about finishing work on Up in the next year and see how it does out there in the world. Working with Pete Doctor has been (and still is) a pleasure, I feel it’s a wonderful story we’re telling and I can’t wait for people to see it. On the personal projects front I am trying to get Venice Chronicles published, which might not be all that easy. It’s a strange hybrid of a book, (part sketchbook, part travelogue, part love story) and many book publishers seem to want something more fictional. I am getting it read by a few editors right now, if nothing happens with that, I’ll be more than happy to self-publish it. Then I hope to keep a few of my other projects going, like Haiku 5-7-5 and SketchCrawl. Which I hope can slowly garner more and more participation from drawing artists all around the globe. I also want to keep on raising funds for different humanitarian causes, like we did for Emergency with the SketchCrawl/Art Auction benefit we organized this past May. It’s been great to see the artist community around here come together for good causes. So great that a next Benefit Art Auction is coming. My good friend Dice Tsutsumi and I are organizing a benefit event connected to Totoro, with the involvement of dozens of top notch artists and friends from all around the world. We are still in the planning stages but it's gonna involve an auction and an artshow in 2008. I'll be sure to keep you updated with news on this event.
Lastly, as far as plans for the future go, there’s a big one … I have a little daughter coming into the world in a few months. I am sure she will turn our lives wonderfully upside-down, I look forward to being a father and the inspiration that it must carry.
I also wanted to thank you for this nice interview, I certainly enjoyed chatting away with you about one of my favorite subjects: Ghibli!"
SPECIALLY MADE GHIBLI INSPIRED ART BY ENRICO CASAROSA: To finish this interview in a really great way, Enrico Casarosa specially made a stunning Ghibli inspired water color art piece to come with it. From a distance or when watching the small sized version below, you might think this art piece is “just a nice picture of an ordinary airplane”. However, none of that is the case. Up close you’ll notice something totally different.
Remember Miyazaki’s love for airplanes and Italy… The origin of Studio Ghibli’s name combines both of these loves. It comes from the word the Italians used for their Saharan scouting planes in World War II: Ghibli, or to be specific, the Caproni Ca 309 Ghibli. On their turn that name was derived from “Ghibli”: a hot wind blowing through the Sahara Desert, which was another reason for Studio Ghibli to use the name as they were to blow a new wind into the Japanese animation industry. Anyway, Enrico Casarosa not only made a beautiful water color piece of the Caproni Ca 309 Ghibli, it also contains all kinds of funny little Studio Ghibli details. Be sure to zoom in on it to discover them all, or better: zoom in even closer!
MORE INFORMATION ON ENRICO CASAROSA: Be sure to check out the following websites to find out more about Enrico Casarosa and his work:
- Enrico Casaroso’s Blog
- Haiku 5-7-5
- Venice Chronicles