By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In art, we expect some pieces of the artist. But we don’t expect the whole artist.
In the inaugural short from Skydance Animation and Apple Original Films, “Blush,” the whole artist is what we get. A first-time directorial effort by Emmy-award winning animator Joe Mateo, “Blush” is a tribute to his wife, Mary Ann, who passed from cancer. It is a tribute to love and the rebirth love brings.
The project was a rebirth of sorts for Mateo, who moved to Skydance after almost 30 years of work for Disney animation. He and Mary Ann had worked at Disney together—Mary Ann in consumer products—and it was she who had actually let him know that Disney had an opening for an animator back in the day. It is still she that motivates him today to try new projects, such as “Blush,” and to put himself out there, personally, in a way that is somewhat rare.
“Being a first-time director, there was a lot of ‘new,’” Mateo admitted to the Weekly. “It was scary.
I feel like Mary Ann has been inspiring me all through my career. I’m emotional to think about it.
Even now that she’s not here, she’s still inspiring me to push myself…I never dreamt about becoming a director, but I feel like this is a story that’s worth telling and it’s taken me out of my comfort zone, trying all these different things. It’s exciting.”
As a child in Dondo, Manila, Philippines, Mateo loved to watch 80s cartoons, such as “GI Joe” and “Transformers.”
“I remember wanting to be a comic book artist,” he said. But he never thought he would end up at Disney within a year of moving to the United States.
“You don’t even dream about that kind of stuff. That was too much to dream about.” Mateo’s family was supportive of his move into art and animation; and Disney, Mateo thought, was supportive of diversity throughout his career there, where he worked on such films as “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” and “Tangled.”
“Disney was pretty open and the animation [industry] in general was pretty diverse.”
In addition to his Emmy for the Disney short, “Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa,” Mateo has been nominated for an Emmy for “Bolt” and the follow-up to the first “Prep & Landing” called “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice.” He has been there with us, kind of like Disney, all this time.
Just like many Filipino animators that a lot of viewers are unaware of—and Mateo was himself.
“I remember back then thinking that there were a lot of unknown Filipino animators that I’d never heard their names before. When I got into animation, it was like, ‘Oh, there are these talented Filipinos that I didn’t know about….that have worked on all of the movies that I grew up watching.’”
Mateo added that the pandemic lockdowns and increased work from home have actually opened up the possibilities for working with more talent from around the world.
You may recognize a certain signature look of the human characters in “Blush” from the “Prep & Landing” franchise. Their cheeks are pink and round. The adults are almost more childlike than the children. In “Blush,” they inhabit a space world not unlike that of “The Little Prince”—a tiny planet that’s really just a rock (and when you throw a rock, it comes back and hits you in the face).
On this planet, after a crash landing, our hero meets a mysterious female with glorious pink hair who has the ability to create and sustain life.
Enter Mary Ann. The metaphor that is Mateo’s life with his wife and daughters is not hard to identify. There is no spoiler in acknowledging that the short describes the family’s tragic encounter with cancer and its aftermath. This highly personal and moving material is treated with dignity and infused with love. Love radiates like the life-giving light that the female mother figure gives to the people and the world around her. Mateo has said many times in interviews that the loss of his wife, who he knew since college, was like losing his breath. But that he, like the man in “Blush,” and the two children they engendered, discovered life goes on.
Tiny cultural touches in “Blush” give us a glimpse into Mateo’s upbringing, when his grandmother used to cut and serve mangoes precisely the way that the father does in the short, like an ice cream cone.
“It’s the Philippines’ national fruit. We grew up eating that,” Mateo told the Weekly. “The way he opens it from the top, I remember my grandma doing that so that there was a spot where we could hold and not get messy. But still, you can’t not be messy!”
We asked if there needed to be more tidbits such as this in movies, in art, today.
“I think so…There are so many different, colorful cultures and discovering all these new things—for me, it’s amazing…With Apple and Skydance, I think they’re very good at supporting diversity and the vision of the filmmakers and staying true to who they are, too.”
“Blush” debuts on Oct. 1 on Apple TV+, coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Filipino American History Month.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.