“She was the air I breathed.” Emmy Award winning animator Joe Mateo takes that heartfelt concept and in “Blush,” his directorial debut, delivers what must rate as one of the most personal yet still resonant films at this year’s Annecy Animation Festival.
The inaugural short from Apple Original Films and David Ellison’s Skydance Animation, bowing a multi-year partnership between the studios, “Blush” world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 13 as part of its showcase of Animated Shorts Curated by Whoopi G. It begins with a fresh-faced astronaut whose spaceship is knocked off course by an asteroid. It crash-lands on a benighted dwarf planet, made of lonely hard grey rock. A horticulturist, the hapless astronaut hopes to create just a weany bit of oxygen with a plant he has. It withers.
Just as he is running out of oxygen, another ship careens onto the planet. Out of it steps a comely female alien, her face a deep pink, as if suffused by a permanent blush. She saves him and gives him a new life.
“Blush” will be released on Apple TV Plus. At Disney Animation, where he worked for 25 years, rising to head of story on “Big Hero 6,” Mateo started out as a clean-up artist and 2D animator. It shows. “Blush” is 3D but has the quaint, natural pictorial tones of 2D, yoked with Hollywood’s frequent focus on core human relations.
Made by Skydance Animation out of the U.S. and Spain, “Blush” is produced by Heather Schmidt Feng Yanu (“Toy Story,” the “Cars” trilogy), and executive produced by the legendary John Lasseter (“Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Cars”) David Ellison and Dana Goldberg.
“Blush” is inspired by Mateo’s wife, Mary Ann, who lost an eight-year battle against breast cancer in 2017.
Variety talked to Mateo before “Blush” screens at the closing ceremony of the Annecy Animation Festival this Saturday June 19.
What were the two or three key decisions in making “Blush”?
After I lost Mary Ann, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, it was a scary moment. I had to call a friend who is a doctor and ask him: ‘What is going on with me?’ He said: ‘Joe, you are having a panic attack. I realized that Mary Ann was my air. I was struggling to breathe because I lost my air.
So that became the film’s central conceit. You also chose to set the story on a minute planet….
I just loved setting it on something really intimate and small, to capture the intimacy of the story, to contain it and focus on the characters. Also, Mary Ann and I both went to college in the Philippines and then moved here to the U.S. like a month apart. The setting represents that: Our moving to a new place and then building our lives together.
You’ve held senior creative positions on big Hollywood animated features. But they weren’t your own totally. Nobody could say that “Blush” isn’t your film…
Yes, exactly. And that’s the reason I had the confidence finally to direct something. Because it’s something that I know I can tell from the heart. It’s all coming from experience, real emotion that I’ve been through.
The short is a clean, lean 10 or 11 minutes with no digressions. Everything advances the story, or illustrates character and theme…
Being a story board artist, clarity is really important. What I love about the story is the short story format. There is not a lot of space for unnecessary scenes, no shoe leather. What’s there is there to support the story, the message and moment and the sentiment.
How was production affected by the pandemic?
We started production a couple of months before lockdown. We knew we wanted to make a short with a message of healing and hope, but I didn’t of course expect the pandemic to happen in the process of making it.
Healing was more about sharing my story. 2020 was a rough year but I was very fortunate to have “Blush.” Waking up every morning looking forward to it. It provided me with a sense of normalcy. Now it’s about getting the message out there at a time when we need it the most. It will be great if it can be a source of hope and healing for a lot of people.