Inner Workings

Go Inside Disney’s Inner Workings

By Courtney Potter

It’s a tradition almost 100 years in the making, and one that helps illustrate one of Walt Disney’s most famous quotes: “It was all started by a mouse.” Well before any of their animated feature films ever hit the silver screen, Walt and his brother Roy began spinning fanciful tales through the animated short. From Mickey’s first appearance in 1928’s Steamboat Willie to Pixar Animation Studios’ most recent short, Piper (debuting earlier this year with Finding Dory), this powerful animation heritage continues with Inner Workings—Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest short, which premiered on November 22 with their newest hit feature Moana.

Directed by story artist Leo Matsuda (Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph) and produced by Sean Lurie (Moana, Zootopia), Inner Workings is the story of the internal struggle between a man’s pragmatic, logical side and his free-spirited, adventurous half. Created by a small team at Walt Disney Animation Studios in an adorably fast-paced style that blends CG and traditional hand-drawn animation, the short explores the importance of finding balance in daily life. Recently, D23 was lucky enough to sit down with the filmmakers for an “inner” look at bringing this colorful story to life.

Leo Matsuda director of Inner Workings

Much of the short’s unique outlook is directly due to its creator; a native Brazilian of Japanese descent, Matsuda felt some struggle between the two sides of his personality. “I have a Japanese side in me that’s very disciplined and logical,” he says, “but I also have my Brazilian side—which loves Carnaval and parties. I feel I’m always in this tug-of-war between these two extremes in my life, and I think this short portrays a little bit of that.” Viewers of the short may even notice a resemblance between Matsuda and the short’s lead character, Paul—but it wasn’t intentional… at least initially. “At first, Paul was not the main character. He was just a ‘vessel’ for the short,” he explains. “I didn’t want him to be distracting, but then the crew would come to me, ‘Leo, what if he kind of looked like you a little bit?… [Ultimately], I thought, let me give it a try… I always show my fiancée everything, so I showed her. I remember her eyes widened, and she looked at me and the drawings and said, ‘You look just like Paul!’ I thought, well, I think she has a point. So I decided to go with this direction. It was some sort of coincidence, but it landed well.”

Inner Workings follows along as various parts of Paul’s bodily functions (including his heart, lungs, stomach, and brains) react to a not-so-typical day in his life. As a child, before the Internet made information instantaneously available, Matsuda was fascinated by his family’s set of Encyclopedia Britannica—“I’d order them and it was the greatest thing ever,” he admits—especially the pages dedicated to the human body. As he remembers, “It was the eighth volume, on biology. I would open the book and it’d have all these incredible extra pages—the human body—and you’d connect them and see how the systems inter-relate with each other and how they work. For me, that was just fascinating. That always stuck in my mind. I always wanted to do something with that.” Animating the organs themselves brought a few challenges. “Organs are kinda gross and disgusting,” jokes Matsuda. “We had to find a way to make them adorable. First, we tried actually a 2-D route. [We used] similar technology that was used in [WDAS shorts] Beast and Paperman, but it didn’t really work. Then we decided to look at real life. We decided to watch life in the aquarium; we looked at a lot of fish—because fish, they’re organic, but they are also beautiful… That opened up a whole new direction for us, and we were really happy with this path that we went down.”

Inner Workings

As for the visions and dreams inside Paul’s brain, explains producer Lurie, “We were trying to figure out, ‘How do we depict what the brain is thinking in its own mind?’ Initially, we went with some complex CGI—but then we found that a more ‘graphical’ style actually seemed like it delivered the best humor and was the quickest ‘get.’ We wanted to make sure that we were conveying the idea of the story visually as much as possible.”

Mastuda was one of 73 hopefuls who pitched ideas to the Walt Disney Animation Studios Story Trust; the group was narrowed down to 10, then four, and Matsuda’s short was ultimately selected for production. “This short is special to me because it directly reflects a theme in my life that many people can relate to,” he explains. Continues Lurie, “The film’s lead character, Paul, realizes at a certain point that if he doesn’t live his life a little bit—taking some risks and following his heart—that he’s not going to be living life to its fullest. [But] he comes back to work, an idea which I credit Leo with. We’ve got to figure out how to find that balance in life, and I want to say that the crew that we worked with exemplified that. Leo and I had so much fun making this short—with just a small, incredibly talented group of people. It’s an honor to be able to work with such amazing talent at Disney Animation.”

Inner Workings is now playing around the country, ahead of Moana, in a cinema near you!