Oscar-shortlisted animation, One Small Step, is a beautifully crafted tale that pays homage to those who chase their dreams, and the people who show support along the way.
The short film tells the story of Luna, a young Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. With support from her loving father, Luna perseveres through the challenges of youth to pursue the impossible.
Shaofu Zhang, the Founder and CEO of Taiko Studios, joins us on Close-up Culture to give us greater insight into One Small Step.
Q: ‘One Small Step’ is such a moving tale about chasing dreams and those who support us along the way. What motivated you to put this positive message out there?
A: It really came from our own experiences. We were fortunate to meet and work with each other at Disney, a dream job for all of us. We worked extremely hard to get there, but wanted to show our gratitude to the people that encouraged and helped us along the way.
Q: I imagine aspiring astronauts face similar put downs to those who dream of pursuing art or animation. As animators, could you relate to Luna’s struggles and the pursuit of her dreams?
A: Absolutely. As students starting out in the animation industry, facing rejection and overcoming self-doubt are all part of the journey. Getting knocked down is always a part of it, but picking yourself back up is key. It never gets easy, but if you really want it, you’ll do anything you can to reach your dreams. Being persistent, working hard, and inviting self-improvement will get you there.
Q: I loved seeing an emotionally-supportive, tender father figure in the film. Can you tell us about constructing the two main characters in the film and any inspirations you may have had?
A: All of us were fortunate to have extremely supportive parents, which we drew a lot from. Andrew Chesworth (director) drew a lot of inspiration from the warmth and encouragement of his grandfather, who had a vibrant imagination and recognised Andrew’s dreams very early.
Bobby Pontillas (director) drew a lot of inspiration from his mother, who was a single parent and made every effort and sacrifice to support Bobby’s dreams.
Another major inspiration for the character was the Chinese actor Sihung Lung, who played a father figure in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman that bonded with his daughters through the meals he prepared. His calm demeanour in every situation was something we felt represented his cultural values, as well as our own experiences of people who supported us.
By contrast, Luna is a firecracker who knew that she wanted to be an astronaut since she was a child. She’s determined but impulsive, often rushing to get things done. We all recognised bits of ourselves in that. In order to fully achieve her dream, she learns to take a more disciplined and well-rounded approach to her journey.
We referenced the first two Chinese female astronauts Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, for their courageous and humble demeanours. Luna was also inspired by many of the strong women in our lives, many of whom generously offered their own experiences to the development of her character.
Q: I love the film’s opening image of Luna with a rocket reflecting in her hopeful eyes. Is there an image/moment in the film that particularly stands out to either of you?
A: Our favourite moments are that same image, and the final moment of Luna’s foot stepping down on the real moon, and the memory it triggers of her father’s endless support. We love that the story allows for showcasing both the initial spark and the payoff of a child’s dream.
Q: The film has no dialogue and is scored by Steve Horner (check out this wonderful video of Steve explaining his work on the film). What was Steve like to work with and what did he bring to the project?
A: Andrew and Steve had a professional relationship since 2006. They created several commercials and short films together at a studio called Make in Minneapolis, and reconnected years later for One Small Step. There was already a creative dialogue and comfort with each other, and both were eager to dive into the ambitious musical ideas for the short.
Steve is collaborative and nimble, and a chameleon with genre. He began scoring very early on, when the film was just rough storyboard drawings. Musical ideas were developed before there was a full rough cut, just to find a main theme to thread the story together and build up to for the finale. When roughly-timed storyboard sequences were given to Steve, he would take a pass. The music would be further refined independently of picture, and then picture would be re-edited to the revised music.
Before any CG animation was done, there was a full animatic with finished music. Only very minor adjustments had to be made to the score after final picture was completed.
Q: Pacing and use of colour also underscore the emotions of the film. Are those all mapped out in storyboarding or do you adapt as the project goes on?
A: The pacing was often driven by music, sound, and the clarity of iconic storytelling images. The colour is vibrant and saturated at the beginning and end of Luna’s journey, and is almost fully monochromatic at her lowest point. This was mapped out in a one-page colour script, which is essentially a simple comic strip of iconic moments in the film that can be taken in all at once.
Blue and white represent Luna’s dream, and orange and brown represent the presence of Dad. The way those colour signatures interact with each other should say something about that moment in the story.
Q: The film has received a lot of praise online. What do you hope young people take away from ‘One Small Step’?
A: We hope young people come away inspired by both the message and the medium. We both remember when we discovered animation, and knowing then what we wanted to do with our lives. Remembering and holding onto that initial inspiration can get you through some tough times.
We also want to encourage artists and filmmakers to go out and tell their own stories. Make them personal, so the connection to the material remains strong throughout the process. We talked a lot early on about our own personal experiences, and discovered just how much we had in common. We just tried to be as honest as possible, and put a positive message out into the world.
Q: What does the future hold for TAIKO? Any big dreams you are still chasing?
A: We would love to continue creating stories that are personal to us and resonate with others. We also want to help to push the animation medium forward with new visual approaches, and inspire young people to reach for their goals in the life-changing ways that we were inspired.