Joe Mateo’s Blush Is an Emotional Apple TV+ Animated Short About Love and Loss

Love is a beautiful thing, and it can become devastating when you lose someone you really care about. Apple TV+’s Blush is an animated film that touches on heartache, and it’s loosely based on director and writer Joe Mateo’s personal life but on a more fantastical scale. Blush tells the story of a horticulturalist-astronaut who crashes on a tiny and deserted planet. He meets a being from another world and finds love in the most impossible of places.

Blush is a sweet little film that is heartwarming, sad, and hopeful. It definitely ranks up there with other Disney and Pixar shorts, all while tackling themes like love, loss, and hope, and it’s now available on Apple TV+.

Joe Mateo has worked as an animator, artist and writer on Disney features including Ralph Breaks the Internet, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Tangled, and more. Nerd Reactor had the chance to chat with the director as he shares his inspiration, what made him want to tell his story, and how Blush helped him cope.

Nerd Reactor: What was your inspiration for Blush?

Joe Mateo: I lost my wife four and a half years ago to be exact. And after I lost her, I suffered. I think on the same night, I couldn’t breathe. I was so scared. What’s going on with me? I didn’t know what was happening, and it was the first time experiencing it. I had to call a doctor friend of ours to let me know that, “Joe, you’re having a panic attack.” And it was so scary. Eventually, time helped, and I struggled a little bit to go back to work. Animation has always been my outlet, and I thought maybe it’ll help me get back into work mode if I think about tying this into what I do. How do you visualize that? Like, struggling for air kind of thing? How do you visualize air and the lack of air?

NR: And then you thought of space?

JM: Yep, exactly. The first thing I thought about was work and I said, “This story, I really want to keep it charming and intimate, and almost like you didn’t expect the thing that happens towards the end. You’re so caught up in the charm, and how lovely everything is, because, to be honest, that’s kind of like how it happened to me. Just when you think everything’s going so well in your life, you get hit by something like that.

It’s pretty much like the short could be an embellished autobiography.

Exactly. It’s so inspired by a real-life event that it’s just natural for me to just start from, like, how we met and towards the end. The short is like a snapshot. Each sequence represents a moment in our life together.

The main character is the astronaut, and then you have the other as an alien from somewhere else. Did you have any conception of both being astronauts from different places, or did your mind just went all over the place? Like, “Oh, let’s just make it like two completely different species.”

Yeah, when I was conceptualizing, it was like that. Because it’s important for that being to be able to give him air to breathe, right? And it’s so easy to explain this. Have an alien. And that’s her power so that we don’t have to worry about how she is able to do that. To be honest, I always look at Mary Ann like this being that’s special who’s able to inspire me throughout.

One thing I want to share with you is that plant in the dome, initially, it was just, “Hey, that’s something that the astronaut can look at and see that he’s going to be that plant soon.” Because of the lack of air, right? But it’s more than that.

I met Mary Ann when we were in college. And I know I had this gift, but I didn’t know what to do with it. And having the same interest, Mary Ann is a super fan of animation, and we started watching animation and really getting into that. And so she’s the one who helped me nurture that gift. That’s pretty special.

With Blush, you’re just really bringing a story out from your life. I don’t know how hard it is for you, or how challenging it is. Did you ever have a feeling like, “I don’t know if I can do this?” Or to bring it out there to the people?

Yeah, there were moments. I was like going back and forth. How do I really want to tell this story? It just became apparent that I want to tell the story. I was fortunate to have my kids around me when I lost Mary Ann, and I found hope and healing by surrounding myself with them and the people I love. And that’s why I want to hopefully share that message. When you lose someone special in your life, you surround yourself with people you love, and that’s a good way to get through it.

Can you talk a bit more about the title Blush? There’s like a double meaning with it.

I’m happy you asked that. Because, as I said, when I look back to when we met, that’s exactly where the title came from. I had to take you back in on our first week of college in the Philippines. I remember hearing just loud laughter coming across from our classroom. I was attracted to it. I went over there, and it was Mary Ann just talking to our new classmates. You would think they’re friends already like they knew each other from a long time ago. Anyway, I introduced myself, she turned around and said “Hi.” And the moment she did that, she blushed. She changed color, man, like, turned red. It was very concerning, like, “Are you okay?” kind of thing. I was so charmed by it. I thought that she was into me, and I soon found out that that’s her thing. She blushes easily. Her nickname back in high school was ketchup. And I think it’s the best I can think of to really represent her. I’m giving this tribute to my wife.

And with the animated short, there are some really deep messages. I’m not sure if certain kids will understand or pick up on that, especially with some of the subtle cues.

Yeah, and I love that you picked up on those because if you step back and look at Blush, it’s really a very basic simple story. As you said, there’s a lot of hidden subtle messages in there, and I think it’s kind of designed that way so that kids can enjoy the surface of it. And as they get older, they can find the depth of it, or it can promote conversation. It can be a good tool for parents to talk about with their kids when they experienced a loss of a loved one.

How has all of your background in animation helped you in pushing forward with this?

I never imagined myself being a director or directing something. I just found this story that I feel like I really need to share and tell, to get that message out there. It was during quarantine when we started production. I think we started production a week before the quarantine. And then we all did everything from home. This is all made from home. We knew that hope and healing was the message that we want to send with the short. For me, it became like therapy, thinking and talking about all the scenes. That’s what I love about this format, each scene has a very special meaning. Just working from home, for me, was very helpful for making me feel a sense of normalcy during that time and something to look forward to every morning.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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