Earlier this year, The Nerds of Color was invited to see an extended preview and behind the scenes look at Pixar’s latest film, Luca. The film tells the tale of a young sea monster named Luca, who ventures out to an Italian seaside town with his best friend, Alberto, to experience life, danger, food, and fun during the best summer ever.
During the preview, we were introduced to many of the key geniuses who brought director Enrico Casarosa’s vision gloriously to life. In our previous behind-the-scenes look, we explored the story and inspiration behind the film, the production design, and the character movements and animation. However, for any Pixar work of art to make it to screen, much more work is required.
As you’ve no doubt witnessed with every gorgeous project Pixar dedicates love and attention to, animated effects play a huge part in upping the “wow” factor on every film, from the explosions and dynamic powers of The Incredibles, to bringing the stars to life in Wall-E. Luca is no exception, with the project requiring several shots dealing with elements like water and mythological transformations. During our preview, Pixar Effects Supervisor, Jon Reisch, was there to break down the craftsmanship behind bringing the deep sea effects of the film to life.
Reisch, a veteran at the animation studio since the first Cars film, started the walkthrough by saying this, “In the effects department we’re primarily responsible for providing all the natural phenomenon you see on the film. So on Luca it meant actually creating the scene itself that the story takes place in and around; the water, the beautiful splashes, as well as fire, smoke, rain, dust, and debris in the film. Our team even created the animation of the pasta, as Luca and Alberto stuff their faces at dinner with Massimo and Giulia.”
“So all this creative effects work gives the characters a sense of tangible reality,” continued Reisch. “They really feel like they’re interacting with the world. That’s an important part of what the effects department does on any Pixar film. But on Luca we really had a chance to do so much more. We really helped to view the film with a certain sense of fantasy through our effects work. Especially in the dream sequences that punctuate the film.”
Reisch went on to discuss how the water effects in Luca differed from those in films Pixar has previously worked for before (such as Finding Nemo and Dory). “The goal here was not photorealism. As you heard Enrico and Dani (production designer Daniela Strijleva) speak about, early on in the process, it was really clear that Enrico had this vision of a beautiful simplified elegance in the look of the film. And that elegance was leaning into 2D influences, but also delivering on all the visual richness and expectations we have on ourselves at Pixar. There were a few influences we kept coming back to. Certainly the artistry of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but also these Japanese wood block paintings with their suggestive details that guide the eye… all of which we wanted to capture in the look of our stylized format.”
“We wanted to our effects to… truly enhance the world that we were creating with their visual language, and ultimately support the storytelling in Enrico’s artistic vision in Luca… But it turns out an elegant simplicity is actually really hard to achieve. Why is that? Well it’s because in Pixar, especially in the effects department, we’re really comfortable with realism. We know how to achieve that look… but to be honest stepping towards stylization in our effects work was sort of a hard left turn away from everything we knew… all of the forces [we developed with photorealism] were pulling us back into layering of detail, defaulting us into a photorealistic look that we both knew how to achieve and that our toolset makes easier to achieve. In a lot of ways… our whole world was being turned upside-down. All the answers that had been right before, were wrong for this film. And the new look that we wanted to deliver on. So in a word we really had to grow as artists.
“So what was the answer? We still had to start with what we knew and what our strengths were, but we wanted to inject an artist touch in every stage of the process… that meant rethinking our approach to some tools and tool sets to give us the control we needed to hit this look. Let me give you two quick examples to make that real,” he stated.
“First off is the overall ocean itself. So when you look at the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of [Italy], you can see how detailed and high frequency the water surface looks. And again started with what we knew… we have these very sophisticated statistical models… that allow us to create these detailed water surfaces. But here’s the thing, they don’t offer a lot of artistic control. So how do we use the tool set to tame down all the extra detail we were looking for. One of the biggest breakthroughs was thinking of the ocean in adjustable frequencies…We split up our ocean tool and had direct control over frequency bands… We built in sliders to allowed us to mix more or less a certain size of wave.”
“One more example,” he continued. “With some controls over the overall look of the sea, we still had to deal with characters splashing in and out of the water. And this again is where we really had to challenge our instincts. Away from the hyper-reallistic looks… we came up with a separate workflow referred to as cartoon splash. Instead of allowing the physics of how Luca and Alberto collide with the water to dictate the shapes…of our splashes, we literally sculpted these clean graphic silhouette shapes we wanted, and injected our sculptural shapes back into our software at the exact timing where the boys would hit the surface.” Reisch then demonstrated a few animation tests of Alberto and Luca splashing back and forth in the water.
“We had to take a leap out of our comfort zone, and away from our instincts to deliver on something new,” Reisch concluded.
Casarosa then introduced Animation Supervisor, Mike Venturini, to discuss the stylized animation process of the film. Venturini started at Pixar in 2000, where he first worked on the original Monsters Inc., and has since contributed on a multitude of Pixar films including Finding Nemo, Up, Coco, and Onward.
“For Luca, we developed a custom style of animation that was a departure from what we would normally do on a Pixar feature film,” Venturini began. “We wanted to be inspired by some of 2D animation, that you’ve seen in some of the previous presentations. For animation, we wanted to think about how to incorporate the bold illustrative choices and stylized timing of 2D animation while preserving the richness we’ve come to expect in a Pixar film… In animation we always start at what’s going on in the art department.”
With that he began showcasing some of the character design art from the film.
“The first thing we notice are the fun graphic mouth shapes. Notice how the silhouette is clean and round. There’s not a lot of anatomy in these designs… We were noticing his [mouth corners] were nice and round. We didn’t really have sharp corners in the mouth. We had to develop new rigging to get the consistent round corners. Always graphic and illustrative was the goal.”
He continued on saying, “One of the fun things about working from home was we were able to record all of our conversations, which allowed us to create really fantastic demo videos to help inform our animators of our style of animation as they joined the show a little bit later.” And he played a video of himself and the animation team discussing the corners of Luca’s mouth.
“In a traditional Pixar film you wouldn’t see this range on a main character. You’d have the lips pinched together, sharp corners. This range was totally new for us. And it wasn’t entirely easy in the beginning. Another fun detail is we go into profile a lot. Normally we’d avoid this but in Luca we embraced it… the rigging and the mouth required incredible range to be this versatile. Something like this requires custom sculpting, and we’ve never really done that on a film before.”
He then transitioned from discussing the facial features of the characters to their whole bodies. “Again in 2D animation, you tend to be more illustrative of your choices. We really wanted to focus on the silhouette and design of our poses… It’s worth noting that our film has 1500 shots… [we had] 15,000 drawings to help make this movie, so we could stay truly graphic with our illustrative style… Now that we have some of the elements of our design figured out, we wanted to focus on the style of movement. How do we take those graphic and illustrative choices and infuse the Pixar richness of how the characters move in the world. We made specific timing choices in the animation to highlight those great poses… There’s a lot of other fun things we did on Luca. [For example] ‘Multi-Limb’ is another one of those… it’s a 2D animation trick that’s often used in fast actions. Using multiple limbs, it was another way to bring some of the personality of 2D animation into the 3D world in a really fun way. “
He continued on saying, “Our story department still work in a 2D medium. And this is a drawing done by Enrico in a storyboard portion of the film. And here’s an example of him using multiple limbs to describe a fast action… We were able to use the technology… for our transformations to create multiple limbs. You’ll notice in the image Alberto has extra feet. Using the transformation rig, we were able to load in extra Alberto feet and transform them from human to invisible. This would have been too difficult and time consuming to attempt very often. But with this new technology we were able to have fun with it.”
“So those are a couple of examples of the details that we focused on creating the style of animation for Luca that makes it unique to this film and this world. And it was very exciting for the animators. But what about acting… it wouldn’t be a film about Italy if we didn’t include gesticulation and talking with our hands. So working from home to provide us the opportunity to meet with our Disney Italy colleagues, and have a conversation about gesticulation and talking with our hands.”
He then played a short, but funny clip about Luca and Alberto observing an angry sailor curse out another speeding boater with his hands, and repeating his cursing to others on the shore… to unfortunate consequences.
Venturini concluded the presentation by passing the mic back over to Casarosa who then had this to say:
“I really am speaking for our whole crew, who worked so hard to bring Luca to life, that we really cannot wait for you to see the full feature film. It’s been a hard year on many levels, very complicated. But to be honest, getting a chance to bring these characters to life, and spend some time in Porto Rosso… has actually brought some joy to the crew. And we’ve been working together on something that has lifted our spirits. So my biggest hope is that we can bring some of that delight and joy to the world this June.”
And based on the incredible work and the charming footage we were treated to, I know Luca will definitely be bringing joy and summer fun to us all when it releases on Disney+ without any additional charge, June 18!
For more on Luca, including an in-depth Q&A session with Casarosa and producer Andrea Warren, stay tuned to The Nerds of Color! And check out the adorable new poster for the film below!