Okay, I’m getting a bit pretentious with the faux Italian title (translated it means “A Beautiful Preview of Pixar’s Luca“). But English words just don’t do the beauty of Pixar’s animation proper justice; particularly for their upcoming film Luca, set to debut on Disney+ this summer! Luca tells an adorable story about two close friends from Italy who set out on an adventure to make a life of their own in a superstitious seaside town along the Italian Riviera. The twist? They’re both actually sea monsters from underneath the coastal shore.
Recently, we were lucky enough to see a 30 minute preview of the film, and hear from many of the filmmakers who brought the stunning and charming world of Luca to life, including Pixar veteran and director of the film, Enrico Casarosa, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated short film, La Luna. Casarosa worked with a team of highly skilled Pixar animators, including Production Designer Daniela Strijleva, and Character Supervisors Beth Albright and Sajan Skaria. And together they discussed the inspirations behind the film and its story, as well as how they crafted the world, and their approach to bringing the film’s characters to life.
Prior to the presentation, we were shown a portion of the movie that introduced us to the central characters of the story. The protagonist, Luca (played by Jacob Tremblay), is a young and innocent sea monster, who has been warned by his very strict, anti-surface parents (played by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) to keep away from all things pertaining to the Human world. One day he meets another rebellious sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who frequently goes up to the surface (where he transforms shape into that of a regular human boy), collecting Human artifacts for his mancave in an abandoned tower on the shore. Alberto encourages Luca to get out of his comfort zone, and immerse himself in the Human world as he’s done on his own growing up, and the two quickly begin to form a bond by (poorly) building makeshift Vespas out of rocks and wood and random junk Alberto’s collected. After getting caught between his trips back and forth to the surface, Luca’s parents punish him by threatening to send him away to live with his bottom-dwelling uncle, so Luca and Alberto conspire to run away to the Human world before Luca can be shipped off to the bottom of the sea. They arrive without money, but with dreams of buying a Vespa and living life on the road, so they team up with a spirited young girl named Giulia to participate in a triathlon to win some money and pursue their dream.
The footage was adorable with that vintage Pixar charm and humor we’ve come to expect over the years. From there, Casarosa and his team began to share with us some details about the making of the film and some fun secrets that showed how the story was brought to life.
STORY AND INSPIRATION
Casarosa based the film on his experiences growing up with his best friend Alberto in Genoa, Italy. In the towns where they’d spend their summers, they’d run into artwork and stories about myths regarding sea dragons and monsters. And Alberto would be more adventurous than Casarosa himself, which would help him grow as a person.
“So those ideas really made me really wonder what if there was a community of sea monsters that had the ability to transform themselves into humans and hide in plain sight?” Casarosa stated. “But what’s really at the heart of the story — we always think of personal relationships — we wanted to tell something deep about friendships… My best friend Alberto was a bit of a troublemaker. I was very timid. I had a sheltered life until I met him… We couldn’t be more different. And it was the kind of friendship where opposites attract… And we were also a bit of losers and outsiders. So we used the idea of being sea monsters as a way of expressing that we felt different and uncool as kids. Alberto got me out of my comfort zone… I wouldn’t be standing here chasing my dreams if not because of him. So that is the type of friendship I wanted to talk about [in the film]… The friendships that help change us and help us find ourselves.”
“I was drawn to it right away,” stated producer Andrea Warren. Warren joined the project in 2017 and was a fan of Casarosa’s since La Luna. “The next phase was to build the team… One of the things we wanted to do we wanted to make sure everyone could connect to the film. So we wanted to talk about our own friendships… We got together and started telling everybody’s stories. Some people would say ‘I had an Alberto too!’ And as we talked we realized how important these friendships are in our lives, and we wanted to make sure we captured that in the film. Another thing that’s so important is the setting of the film – Italy. It was our goal to transport audiences to Italy… We wanted to make sure the team was inspired by the setting… So we ate a lot of pasta, we ate a lot of gelato… And some folks in our team went to Italy… but we also enjoyed watching Italian films from the period the film takes place. One of them was Big Deal on Madonna Street.” Warren went on to state how they even do a small homage to it in the film.
Warren and Casarosa began to speak about the casting process of the film as well.
“Speaking of the kids, when it came to casting the kids, we wanted acting skills… we also wanted actors who were willing to play, improvise, make mistakes, and have fun,” stated Warren. “We wanted to capture the nature of kids that wasn’t overly polished. We auditioned over 1,200 kids to find the three kids who went on to play Luca, Alberto, and Giulia. We’re so happy with where we landed.”
“We also found talent that embodies perfectly our characters… Jacob Tremblay is earnest, open, curious, just like Luca. Alberto, Jack Dylan Grazer, is so confident, fast-talker, a little bit of a troublemaker, but also vulnerable. And lastly, Emma Berman, Giulia, she’s a newcomer who lives in San Francisco. We just fell in love with her voice! She’s passionate, genuine, full of energy. Her chuckles from the first moment she shook our hands, she was chuckling away. She really won us over.”
“It was a dream come true to work with Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan,” continued Warren. “They’re both immensely funny, and great at improvisation. We really had a good time. They also both happen to be the parents of five kids, so they definitely have a lot of experience. Maya really connected to this role in that aspect of being a mom. Sometimes you have to be stern and draw the line, but you’re also swooping in with that immense love. And that’s part of how Danielle, as a character, comes across… in this film… And of course Jim, he’s such a dad. For his stand-up it’s part of what he talks about. He’s loving, and sharp. He improvises so much. He’s pretty goofy. But he captured Lorenzo.”
“Then we have our Italian cast,” stated Casaroso, “our villain is Saverio Raimondo, he’s a very funny satirist from Italy. He just has comedic flair… Marco Barricelli is our very low-voiced Massimo. He’s a theater actor here in California. We fell in love with how strong and low and effortless and menacing his voice is.”
They then went into detail about how it was working from home during the pandemic.
“When we walked out of our offices in March 2020,” began Warren, “We had no idea we wouldn’t be back for over a year. And we’d end up making this film, every shot of it, from our homes. And in some way it feels like a miracle, but it’s not quite right… I’m in awe of this incredible team that showed up every day to make it happen… It was an incredible effort and it’s a part of this film that we managed to do that together. We are very proud of that, and proud we got to keep going.”
One of the bigger challenges they faced was having the film’s musical composer, Dan Romer (Beasts of Southern Wild), record during the pandemic. Romer had to record different instruments separately on separate days from one another. Then Casarosa and Romer have had to mix each of the different recordings together to produce the music heard in the film. The workarounds were endless, but the team managed to get them all done.
PRODUCTION DESIGN AND STYLE
Casarosa stated that one of his goals was to make the film look different from other Pixar movies. So the challenge he posed to his production designers was to capture a period look for the film inspired by 50s Italy, spliced with a playful children’s storybook. He then introduced the film’s production designer Daniela Strijleva to discuss the specific look and style of the film.
“As a kid I lived in Italy around the exact same age Luca is in the film,” began Strijleva. “I feel like my understanding of Italy gave me a shared experience with Enrico which was helpful… When I joined Luca in 2016, the story wasn’t fully defined, but there were a few things we knew for sure. One, it was about Italy, and two, it was about sea monsters… We set out to go to Italy. We went a couple of times. Once in the fall of 2016, and once in 2019, in the summer, pre-pandemic times.
“When we go on these trips, it’s also a place where we bond together, and start imagining the movie. As we walk through the narrow streets and take in the scenery, we imagine where certain scenes could be taking place and how to use the setting of the film,” Strijleva continued. “We also went on fishing trips… and it’s really important to do that because we wanted to capture what makes the Mediterranian so unique. Especially the colors. The depths of the blues and the green. It’s just such a beautiful and unique kind of place… So we’d come back from the trips and start sorting through thousands and thousands of photos and inspirations. Many of them inspire these early drawings and paintings of the film.
“Now designing a stylized world is really challenging. Computers are really great at making everything straight, even, and realistic. Enrico and I wanted everything to be imperfect, where you can feel the hand of the artist. So when we draw too realistically, and get stuck, we have to think a little differently. We change our perspective. We use a new medium.”
Strijleva then showed an image of a paper model by Don Shank.
She continued, “In this kind of medium, we break our way of thinking. We can only put so many windows and we get the caricature more. And Don captured the spread of the buildings, but made it more playful, which inspired the final look.
“So with all of these elements put together, the piazza [in the film] starts to come to life. We intentionally opened up the space into a trapezoid shape, so that in the water you can see all three sides at the same time, like a stage. So when we Albierto and Luca see it for the first time it’s like the curtains lifted up for them, and they’re sitting in the audience of a play, and they instantly just fall in love with this place.
“In contrast to the human world, which is warm and sunny, the sea monster world is more like the deep blues and greens of the Mediterranean. So life under here is quiet. The visual language is very organic. There are no straight lines. And everything is moving.”
Strijleva then went on to discuss the look and feels of the characters in the movie.
“The designs are of working class people. Something that I feel like defines all of Enrico’s stories. We gave everybody a specific job… Because Luca and Alberto are literally fish out of water, we wanted them to feel intimidated by the town. So notice how big Massimo is. And that was an intentional choice, not just for caricature. But to emphasize the stakes for the boys.
She continued, “One of my favorite characters who brings a lot of life and character to the movie is Giulia. We really wanted to give her this surreal red hair that matches her personality and determination. And her outfit epitomizes the 1950s working class color palette that we were going for. And we did pay attention to the colors. Just like the town we wanted the humans to wear a warm palette that feels sort of nostalgic, like it comes out of a memory.”
When discussing the look and feel of the sea monsters, Strijleva had this to say:
“We were really inspired by old sea maps… And some of the design details that carried through to the final film were things like the shapes of the fins of the sea monsters, how decorative their scales were, and the curves of their tails. We gave Daniella the longest tail, because we really wanted her to feel impressive and authoritarian, like the matriarch of the family. Now Luca — his design is gentler, rounder… Luca has the biggest eyes of the entire cast of characters because he’s curious, has a big imagination, and he takes in the world through his big expressive eyes. We didn’t want the sea monsters to look like real fish. Enrico wanted to feel the hand of the artists in the designs. So again, think differently, think outside the box, like the paper model.”
“All of this artwork, and thousands of other drawings and paintings contributed to creating the final look of the sea monsters. And all of these beautiful details especially come to life in the transformation models.”
CHARACTER MOVEMENTS AND ANIMATION
The presentation then moved to a look into the gorgeous transformation sequences involving Luca and Alberto shape-shifting between their sea monster forms and human forms. For this Casarosa introduced Character Supervisors Beth Albright and Sajan Skaria.
“We knew from the start that the transformations were the core of the story,” began Albright. “It’s rooted in Luca’s self discovery and expiration. And even in the film’s major theme that friendships can be transformative.”
“We looked at lots of imagery from the natural world,” stated Skaria. “Things like reptilian and fish scales… wind, waves, among natural things. And we concluded the sea monster transformation should not be creepy. The look should be bold and graphic… one of our artists said, ‘transformation should really come from the inside,’ and that was a really big film moment for us, and made a lot of sense when you look at the movie.”
“With this idea in mind we started the pre-production process,” continued Albright. “Collaborating with effects, and art, and other departments to ask about how transformation would look and how it would work. We knew we needed some kind of ripple throughout the body, so we started to work with effects to get scales moving over the surface.
“In the beginning we weren’t sure if we’d be able to hide things, like the tail retracting, or toes and fingers disappearing or turning into more toes and fingers. And then we saw this early animation test. And even with this rough, early model, we thought we had kind of an ‘a-ha’ moment. Next we had to ask questions of Enrico. Is the transformation emotional, is it logical, is it magical? We needed to come up with rules about how and when this would happen, so we landed on the idea that it’s really driven by getting wet or drying out… even with those roles, we’d need to adjust the speed of a transformation for the emotional use of a scene.”
“How do we give the artist a great sandbox to play in,” queried Skaria. “So we built the sea monster and human models completely and independently, and only loosely constrained them to each other… we had to go line by line through all the details, the tail, fins, facial features, clothing, and make sure that everything could appear and disappear magically… they had to be carefully hand-crafted. In the end when the animators acted with Luca, what they saw was mostly what we got in the final renders. This mean that we could go faster and create more refined and cooler transformation effects… even with all of this there was still a lot of polishing once the animators were done with it.”
“With the technical approach figured out it was time to see how it worked on real shots, stated Albright.
She then demonstrated a “slow transformation” of Luca from a sea monster to a human and back.
“We were a little concerned that the transformation on the fingers, and toes, and tails could be distracting. But we soon realized that people weren’t noticing these details. They were able to just be swept away from these stories.”
Albright then talked about the challenges of a particular shot in the film, where Luca spits water on Alberto, and he ends up hilariously looking have sea monster, half human. “It’s really challenging to get a nice boundary between the human skin and the sea monster [skin], but with the help of all the tools we created we were able to make it work.”
“In the end the transformation shots fit seamlessly into the style of the film, and were crucial to telling the story. They’re a great example of how we were able to free up our artists to just express themselves and have fun, just like these kids having the best summer of their lives,” concluded Albright.
As a first look at the film, Luca is looking like another winner for Pixar. The hard work and effort that Casarosa and his team have put into the film, particularly with the challenges of the global pandemic that they unexpectedly had to face, have definitely paid off so far. The film exhibits a one-of-a-kind style that sets it apart from many other Pixar projects, but most importantly it does what so many other films, Pixar or otherwise, traditionally tend to overlook; it honors the hand of the artist! And as such, from the studio that built its reputation for thinking outside the box, and changing the game, I’m thrilled to say it looks like we’re witnessing the beginnings of something truly unique and special with Luca.
Luca hits Disney+ this summer, June 18. And we’ll have more coverage of the film, as that date draws near!
Grazie mille per la lettura! Thanks for reading! And stay tuned for more at The Nerds of Color!