By Courtney Potter
Pixar Animation Studios’ SparkShorts program gives Pixar’s up-and-coming animators the chance to bring fresh new storytelling to the screen—and that’s exactly what happens later this week when SparkShorts’ latest, Nona, debuts on Disney+ on Friday, September 17.
Directed by Louis Gonzales, Nona follows a colorful grandmother who plans to spend her day off by shutting out the world to watch her favorite TV show, E.W.W. Smashdown Wrestling. However, when her 5-year-old granddaughter Renee is unexpectedly dropped off, Nona is caught between her two favorite things. Renee wants to play, while the normally doting Nona wrestles with wanting to watch the Smashdown—leading to a decisive showdown between the two, and a loving compromise.
D23 recently attended a virtual presentation about the short, given by Gonzales; here’s some inside scoop on this hilarious and heartwarming SparkShort creation:
On how it all started for Gonzalez, as an artist and animator:
“I grew up in Southern California, in the San Fernando Valley,” explains Gonzales, “and I loved four things, for the most part: I loved comics, I loved cartoons, I loved wrestling, and I loved to draw. And the love for drawing never stopped. As I grew up, I still loved drawing, still loved wrestling and comics, still loved cartoons—but as I became a teenager, I fell in love with graffiti. And the reason is, when I was young, I would draw alone—and it was fun, but you’re just always alone. And then I found this graffiti thing with other artists, and all of a sudden I was in this community of artists! It was a beautiful thing, to share ideas, talk about art, and what we want to do. And that sent me on this path to try and find a job drawing for a living… I didn’t have the greatest grades, so I didn’t make it into [art colleges] that train for animation. Instead, I met a guy who worked at Disney. He saw some talent in me and said, ‘Hey, I’ll help you put a portfolio together.’ I did, and I got a job at Warner Bros. feature animation… After a while working, my career grew—and I get a call from Pixar: ‘We’d love for you to come interview.’ And they hired me!”
On how he got involved in the SparkShorts program:
“As an artist, I’ve always wanted to tell my own stories,” the director admits. “[As my career continued], I made the choice to say, ‘All right, I’m gonna put my personal stories aside, and I’m gonna invest in my career at Pixar and in my [growing] family 100 percent—coaching baseball for my sons, making sure I’m always there for [them and] my daughter. And I don’t regret that. But kids grow up and they become teenagers… and I have this space again. Is this the time? Am I too old? But just like life does, it drops an opportunity in my lap. I have a couple of Pixar executives say [to me], ‘So Lou, what do you think about SparkShorts? We love for you to think about it. Maybe you want to make one.’ But here’s the weird thing: I don’t know what my problem was—but [while I] didn’t say no, I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ Then I had a friend talk to me; she pulled me up and said, ‘Why are you pushing back on this? Think about it this way: It’s six months for production—super short. You have a small team, about 30 people. You have limited executive oversight; no one’s gonna tell you what’s a good or bad version of your short because it’s yours.’ You can tell any kind of story, which is unheard of when a corporation or a company is giving you money to make your own personal thing. Usually, they have something to say about it, right? SparkShorts, not so much. So here I am, [and ultimately] I say yes.”
On how Gonzales chose what story he should tell:
“I could tell any kind of story—but I had to decide… so I looked for inspiration, something that I can start with, something that was calling to me right now. And I had this character—this older grandmother, who probably is the supervisor or the manager of an apartment building. Y’know, stuff like I’ve seen before in my life. She’s hands-on and likes to fix things. Already I have a grandma that I like, because she’s not like the grandmas I see on TV, right? She’s a little bit more like the grandmas I know. I had this granddaughter character, real quiet and sweet, but as soon as you turn your back, she’s gone—a ball of energy! So, I had this concept, and I had these characters that I liked. What I needed to find was that thing that I understood. I looked to family and friends, the people I love and honor—and immediately I realize that this [grandmother] character is a lot like my grandma Pearl. She’s a big personality, a strong individual—I love her to death. But here’s the important part: She loved wrestling. That was what she and I would bond over. So, now I have a truthful version of that character. But I need an opponent, and it dawned on me—my daughter, Lola would be a good one to ‘cast’ as a little girl. She’s known what she’s wanted since she came out of the womb! Now I have my two opponents and my conflict, but this is a wrestling match and now I need a referee. And I figured, ‘You know what? I could put a person there, maybe a friend—but what would be a better friend than a dog?’”
On the challenges—and even some blessings—of creating Nona during the COVID-19 pandemic:
“We have my great producer, Courtney Casper Kent, and the team is growing,” says Gonzales. “But then we move out of the studio—this is during the pandemic, and now we’re figuring out the Zoom thing. I have this first proper pass [of the short], with about 15 people. We’re showing it to everyone, and it’s not good,” he adds, laughing. “The grandma’s mean and neglectful; it was everything we didn’t want it to be. But the team was very helpful. We talked about it, and we came up with this great idea of ‘maybe it’s just about imagination,’ and that excited us. We all said, ‘Yes, great idea; let’s go.’ I think, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this version in two days.’ It ends up taking a full week. And I tell Courtney, ‘I’ve taken too much time on this and I can’t get it to work; I just dug myself in a deeper hole. We need to stop. I like the other version, [and] I need to tell the team.’”
“And Courtney was like, ‘That’s okay.’ I go back to the team and I let them know I liked the other one… and here’s what I love about this team: They start asking me questions. And by the time we’re done, all of a sudden that version that I [couldn’t] really make work now works with the version that we originally had. We started combining it—which was so exciting. And then we brought together our first ‘brain trust,’ friends and peers from Pixar that can be pairs of fresh eyes on your story. They gave us their notes, and by the end of the day, I knew where we needed to go with it.”
On seeing his idea fully realized:
“I just love the way it came out,” the director says. “And it’s not a cocky thing; I’m not saying, ‘Oh, it’s the greatest thing ever.’ I’m just really proud of it. And the reason why I’m proud of it is because this was an opportunity to make a short at Pixar and it’s my own thing—and that’s not lost on me. When I watch the short, I don’t really see me or what I’m trying to do. I actually see ‘we.’ I see Team Nona. I see what we made. And despite being my first short—made in the pandemic, working from home—it was a blessing every day. I was surrounded by passionate and brilliant people I was happy to call [my] team. And I’m forever thankful for the opportunity to write and direct a SparkShort.”
Pixar SparkShorts’ Nona debuts this Friday, September 17—only on Disney+!