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“Blush,” the debut short from Skydance Animation and Apple Original Film, is a semi-autobiographical work about love, loss, and healing from former Disney story artist Joe Mateo (who was behind the Emmy-winning “Prep & Landing”). A horticulturist-astronaut crash lands on a desolate dwarf planet and struggles to survive, only to be saved with the arrival of a bright, outgoing creature, who makes the planet bloom with succulent plants. All goes beautifully until tragedy strikes.
“I lost my wife, Mary Ann, four and a half years ago from breast cancer, and I struggled to go back to work,” Mateo said. “But that same night when I lost her, I couldn’t breathe. I had to call a doctor friend of ours about this panic attack, which I’d never experienced before. And I’m fortunate that I had my kids around me.”
That panic attack and his inability to breathe got Mateo thinking creatively about dealing with his grief through animation and his life with Mary Ann set in outer space. After leaving Disney, Mateo rejoined John Lassetter, who’s head of animation at the fledgling Skydance Animation, a division of David Ellison’s Skydance Medi. They are partnered with Apple, and acquired their own animation studio in Madrid (formerly Ilion Studios and rebranded as Skydance).
“I had a meeting with John before moving to Skydance, and during that meeting my short idea came up, and I only told him my reason for doing it,” Mateo said. “He said we had to make it and we had a follow-up meeting to discuss the story. John reinforced the story I wanted to tell and helped me elevate the core idea, being really clear and effective.”
In terms of design, Mateo played with the small scale for the planet and the characters, emphasizing youthful innocence. But he gave the male astronaut stubble so he’d look more adult. The pink female character, meanwhile, had hair that was a nod to the iconic breast cancer ribbon. As for the significance of the title, that was a reference to the fact that Mary Ann always blushed, including the moment the couple first met in college in the Philippines. Additionally, Mateo included such personal touches as mangos (her favorite fruit) and colorful succulents inspired by their garden.
Mateo gathered a team of artist friends that used to work with him at Disney (including “Tangled” director Nathan Greno, who will make the animated feature, “Pooko,” at Skydance). The short’s producer was Heather Schmidt Feng Yanu (the “Cars” trilogy). The collaboration was nearly all done through Zoom during the pandemic. “It was a very different experience, but it was good to happen in a time when we were all stuck in our houses,” Mateo said. “It provided us with hope and a little bit of normalcy that we were still doing animation.”
The story artist is glad to have a fresh start at Skydance, co-run by Lasseter and President Holly Edwards. The first two features set for a 2022 release are female-driven and directed by women: “Luck,” about the unluckiest girl in the world, directed by Peggy Holmes (“Secret of the Wings”), and “Spellbound,” a fantasy musical and uniting a divided kingdom, directed by Vicky Jenson (“Shrek”).
“Skydance is creating a space that’s very inclusive,” Mateo said. “And, for me, to make a short like this, I needed to feel safe, and Skydance provided that safety net for me. I’m in a happier place now and it’s part of the process of moving on and I liked sharing that. I hope this short can be a tool for families to talk about this grieving process.”
“Blush” is available to stream on Apple TV+.
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