The original idea for the short was a magician who incorporated a rabbit into his act who suffered from stage fright. This was considered to be too long and complicated, and the idea was reworked. To design the theater featured in Presto, the filmmakers visited several opera houses and theaters for set design ideas. Problems arose when trying to animate the theater's audience of 2,500 patrons; this was deemed too expensive, and was solved by showing the back of the audience.
Vaudeville era magician Presto DiGiotagione is famous for a hat trick wherein he pulls his rabbit Alec Azam out of his top hat. A hungry and irritated Alec is locked in a cage, unable to reach his carrot. After Presto returns from eating a meal, he begins practicing his act with Alec, revealing that his top hat is magically connected to a wizard's hat kept backstage with Alec, so that when Presto reaches into the top hat, his hand appears out of the wizard's hat, allowing him to grab Alec and pull him out of the top hat.
He intends to feed Alec the carrot, but realizes that he is late for the show and rushes off to the stage without doing so, much to Alec's chagrin. Presto tries to start the performance, but Alec becomes reluctant to cooperate until he is given the carrot. Presto then spends the rest of the show trying to catch Alec through the opening between his top hat and the wizard's hat.
Alec cleverly turns the hat's magic against his master in multiple humiliating ways, each of which elicits increasing applause from the audience, who believe it is part of Presto's act. Presto's finger is stuck in a mouse trap and is hit in the face by an egg, caused by a backfired attempt to aggravate Alec. Presto responds by antagonizing Alec, turning the carrot into a flower.
An unimpressed Alec sucks Presto's head into a ventilation pipe offstage, which spikes Presto's hair and turns his face red. When Presto lunges at Alec through the hat, Alec directs Presto's hand into the podium's drawer and closes the drawer, painfully restraining the hand while he looks through Presto's sleeve for the carrot. Presto runs towards Alec, but instead is poked in the eye by his own hand. Presto drops his hat, and when he grabs the wizard hat, he accidentally strips his slacks down to underwear, to Alec's amusement.
Furious, Presto tries to attack Alec, but in an act to defend himself, Alec puts an offstage ladder into the wizard hat, and Presto is hit between his legs. Presto attempts to hit Alec with it, but it misses and hits a backstage door, and Presto ends up getting pushed across the stage. Presto antagonizes Alec again, covering the carrot with a cloth before smashing it into a pulp with a piece of the ladder. Alec furiously retaliates by aiming the opening of the wizard's hat towards an electrical socket which Presto's fingers go into, shocking Presto into dancing wildly to bluegrass music.
Now at his wit's end, Presto storms backstage to catch Alec, but he accidentally releases a weight holding down some stage props, and his foot gets caught in a rope that lifts him up to the fly space above the stage. When his foot comes loose from the rope, he falls, along with suspended scenery. Alec, realizing that Presto will be crushed, uses the magic hat to save him, earning the audience's wild approval for both himself and Presto. Presto gives Alec the apparently restored carrot, as well as second billing on the posters advertising the show, and they are rewarded for each show they do, with roses for Presto and carrots for Alec.
Doug Sweetland made his directorial debut with Presto. Sweetland provides the dialogue-free voice acting for both of the movie's characters. He pitched the film at the start of 2007 and began production late in the year, completing it in May 2008. Presto's gag based format was heavily influenced by classic cartoons. Looney Tunes cartoons directed by Tex Avery were a major influence, with Alec being easily compared to Bugs Bunny. Other influences include Tom and Jerry, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. The character design for Presto was based on William Powell.
The original scenario for the short involved a magician who incorporates an autograph seeking rabbit into his act after his previous rabbit leaves him. Complications arise as the new rabbit suffers from stage fright. Sweetland compared it to the plot of A Star Is Born. The idea was reworked due to being too long and complicated, taking an estimated three minutes longer to tell.
To achieve the highly formal environment, the filmmakers looked at the Royal Opera House in London, the Paris Opera House and classic vaudeville theaters like the Geary in San Francisco—which the crew took a tour through—for set design ideas. Animating the theater's audience of 2,500 patrons proved an expensive proposition, even with the help of the crowd-generating MASSIVE software.
Early suggestions were to show cutaways of just a small portion of the audience, but the full effect was achieved by only showing the back of the audience. To save time, most of the audience models were borrowed from the previous Pixar film, Ratatouille. Additionally, Presto's body (from the neck down) is Skinner's lawyer, and the carrot was one of the many food props from that film.
Reaction to the short film was positive. Carl Cortez of If called Presto a "winner through and through". Jake Coyle of the Associated Press found Presto to be "a delightful and cartoonish appetizer" which kept the tradition of short pre feature films alive. Darren Bevan of Television New Zealand thought that although WALL-E was a "delightful tale" and "truly gorgeous", Presto "very nearly stole Wall-E's thunder". James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette called the short a superb and hilarious curtain raiser, describing it as a Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes version of The Prestige. Presto was nominated for the 36th Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject. The short was also nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film, but lost to La Maison en Petits Cubes.