For decades, Disney has been the de facto master of the animated animal orchestra — as seen in classics like Fantasia, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King. However, this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Maestro,” from animation collective Illogic, sets out to change the tune. The film features a photo-realistic rendition of forest animals belting out songs from a Vincenzo Bellini war opera. And it’s remarkable.

Best known for their 2018 Oscar-nominated short “Garden Party,” which features impressive amphibian animation, Illogic expands their animal exploration with “Maestro” to include birds, squirrels, hedgehogs, and deer. As in their previous work, the collective continues to explore the question of what animals do when humans aren’t watching, and the animations continue to be surprising.

In honor of today’s premiere, we got in touch with Illogic to learn more about the short and their new Montpellier-based animation studio, Bloom Pictures. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

On the setting:

“We didn’t want something too exotic in the cast or location. We wanted to keep it universal: a common forest with a lot of moss; a little pond; great visuals, and a large variety of sounds. We tried to organize the set to evoke the feeling of a theatre, with a tree stump as a music stand.”

On the animals:

“For the cast, we’ve been working with frogs since ‘Garden Party,’ and we thought they had really good potential as singers. Our first version of the film included frog singers only, but then we quickly realized that we needed more animals and instruments. So we added hedgehogs, turtles, and fish. It helped to recreate the picture of a choir, with all the different types of voices.”

On the animatic process:

“We tested various types of music, but opera had this ability to give real power to images. We immediately thought of a squirrel and its nervous mimics to play the role of the conductor, and the bird for the main female singer. From there, we created a first 2D animatic, and tried to go crescendo in the intensity, adding more characters through the process. We wanted to finish with a powerful ending.”

On picking the opera:

“We spent two weeks listening to opera songs and ended up with this track from the famous Bellini opera Norma called ‘Guerra Guerra,’ which is a war anthem. The track had the epic, explosive vibe we wanted, and a female singer, which was necessary for the bird character. So, if you’re wondering what these animals are singing, they’re basically preparing the revolution!”

On the challenges of making “Maestro”:

“When you work with a realistic universe, the main challenge is to be creative while staying believable. How can the squirrel use the stick to conduct the singers? Can we make him stand on two legs? Aside from these directing issues, basically all the technical aspects were challenging — especially the squirrel’s fur and the bird’s feathers. The last shots were really tricky to manage, with a huge amount of characters, props, and a length of 25 seconds.”

On advice for aspiring filmmakers:

“Connection with the audience is everything. Some filmmakers need to tell their own stories and experiences through their work, but one needs to be wary of not getting obsessed with their own message. Try to stay accessible. Meaning has to stay hidden in the action, and also, don’t underestimate the power of interpretation. Keep the narration simple.”

On Bloom Pictures:

“After the amazing experience of getting an Oscar nomination, we were more motivated than ever to make new films. We created Bloom Pictures because we wanted a structure that could give us the means to create quality content, and above all, give us freedom. ‘Maestro’ is the first short film produced by our animation studio.” 

On what’s next:

“Aside from ‘Maestro,’ Bloom Pictures is focused on feature film development, for our own projects and for other companies. We really enjoy the creativity that comes with building worlds, creating characters, and using CG. It’s been a year since the studio launched, and we’re really happy with the way things are going.”

Check out more Staff Pick Premieres