Fifty years after Neil Armstrong’s “small step” on the moon, a new animated short film is taking on a story about another kind of step toward space – and this one’s heading for the Oscars.
“One Small Step” tells the story of Luna, who dreams of becoming an astronaut. With the support of her father, who runs a shoe repair business out of his garage, the young Chinese-American protagonist grows up with ambitious dreams and eventually heads to college where she faces a series of challenges and setbacks.
The 7-minute short film, which is up for Best Animated Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is the first film produced by Taiko Studios, a production company founded by former Disney animator Shaofu Zhang. “One Small Step,” which premiered last May in California, was co-written by Zhang and fellow Disney alums Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas. The three worked together previously on films including “Big Hero 6” and “Moana.”
To craft the story, Chesworth said he and Pontillas were particularly inspired by astronauts such as Chris Hadfield, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping. The production team’s research for the film included trips to the California Science Center in order to ensure they were accurately portraying various aspects of space exploration, and they even used NASA audio in the public domain of the 1969 liftoff to the moon at the start of the film.
Chesworth and Pontillas worked closely with the Taiko team based in Wuhan, China, to make sure the film’s themes were truly universal while still getting the cultural aspects of the story as accurate and genuine as possible.
"We would get notes [from the Wuhan team] that the acting choice this character is making doesn’t feel Chinese enough, whether it was body language, or the way a character would react if their parent or child did a certain thing,” Chesworth said.
“We had to be receptive to all of the insights and things we didn’t know culturally while essentially putting this American girl on the screen that we could identify and relate to,” he added. “That was an exciting journey for us as well -- learning about each other and telling a story that everyone on the crew, both in the U.S. and in China, could relate to.”
Pontillas, who is Filipino American, said he drew inspiration for the film from his own experience being raised by a single mother who was an immigrant, like the protagonist’s father.
“Her father has a very calm, stoic and more zen-like personality whereas Luna is a firecracker and more headstrong and impulsive because she’s just so passionate about what they want to do,” Pontillas said. “Sometimes that makes relationships a little awkward when you’re so tunnel visioned into reaching a goal that it affects everyone around you, and we wanted to talk about that stuff too. Not just the cultural, but the generational aspect as well.”
Chesworth said when they showed the film to their first audience, there were many Asian-American girls in the audience who came up to them afterward to tell them how much it meant to them.
“They had tears in their eyes saying they finally felt their own childhood experience celebrated in a film in a way that wasn’t judgmental, stereotypical or condescending,” Chesworth said. “They said it was like watching their own family experience on the screen, and it felt authentic to them. That was one of the most touching things because we wanted to tell an empowering story, and we want people coming away from this film feeling like anything is possible.”