“Luca,” the latest animated feature from Pixar, sounds straightforward enough. The title character and his friend Alberto live near Portorosso, a seaside town near Genoa. It’s the late 1950s, which accounts for the film’s Italian neorealist look and why the boys think Vespa scooters are “just the greatest things humans ever made.”
That’s a sensible enough view for 13-year-olds to take back then, but why specify “humans”? That’s an odd thing to say. Well, it isn’t if you’re a sea monster. That’s what Luca and Alberto are, except when they’re out of the water. Then they look and act human (assuming humans eat spaghetti with their hands).
The boys change back into fish when in the Mediterranean. Also when they get wet on land. You think you don’t like rainy days? Imagine how Luca and Alberto feel.
“Luca” starts streaming on Disney+ June 18. Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer provide the voices of Luca and Alberto. Other voice talent includes Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan as Luca’s parents, and Sacha Baron Cohen as his uncle. Enrico Casarosa directed. He’s best-known for his Oscar-nominated Pixar short “La Luna” (2011).
“There’s a balance,” Daniela Strijleva, the film’s production designer, said in a Zoom interview earlier this spring, describing how “Luca” combines realism with the fantastical. “A lot of our films at Pixar have two worlds. You have rats and humans [’Ratatouille’]. You have monsters and you have humans [’Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Monsters University’]. You have sea monsters and you have humans here. So making this place really believable then, in a way, gave us permission … to have a world with sea monsters, which is completely invented.”
Mike Venturini, the film’s animation supervisor, discussed “Luca” in a separate Zoom interview. For him, the balance issue took a very specific form.
“The success of this film really hinged on the ability to create a usable technology for transforming [the characters] from human to sea monster. We were heading into production before we totally figured that out. That was not an easy problem to solve.”
“Luca” begins at sea, but the animators began with Portorosso. Venturini described the style of those scenes as “playful and bold, a little bit more pose to pose. When we got into the sea monsters, being underwater we wanted it a little more graceful and fluid. Which created an opportunity to depart from what we were doing with our characters on land. Which actually created a nice contrast. In some ways, the style of animation underwater was a little bit more what we were used to at Pixar: thinking about the resistance of the water, the drift, the poetry of the motion.”
Both on the surface and beneath the waves, the look of the sea is universal. The look of Portorosso is highly specific. What Strijleva called its “color script” is done in pastels. “Enrico and I had a very specific vision of bright color, to represent a summer feel.”
Further contributing to that specificity is what Strijleva called “the Pixar tradition of paying attention to all the small details.” Did that tradition cause her more grief or joy?
“I’m now a recovering perfectionist,” she laughed. “Art is imperfect, and humans are imperfect. That’s important to keep in mind, because the computer makes everything too perfect.”
Casarosa grew up in the area where “Luca” is set. “It’s very much inspired by real people, real towns, a real place that we wanted to honor,” Strijleva said. “I do think the more specific and exact you are about your observations of the world — these details — the more believable this place becomes for your audience, the more universal. I just went through thousands of photos every single week, designing different aspects of the town: the church, the cinema.”
The same sort of research would have gone into making a live-action feature. How does production design differ for animation?
“It’s different in the sense we have to build every single thing that you see on screen. We have to imagine it. We have to build it. We have to build our actors. We cannot shoot actors, because they don’t exist. We have to build our sets. We don’t have the luxury of going on location. So everything has to be created from nothing.
“It’s similar in the sense that I work with story, first and foremost, with the director. Visually and emotionally I have to execute the vision in the storytelling and enhance it. That doesn’t change; that’s the same. And I work with set decorators, set builders, costume designers. It’s just that their work is all virtual, 3-D in the computer. And also it’s a much longer process. I’ve been on this movie for four years.”
Did Strijleva get tired of her job?
“Not on a film where I get to stare at the beautiful Mediterranean every single day. I never got tired of looking at a reference, of dreaming of this world. I am not tired of Italy.”
Strijleva has been at Pixar since 2010, starting on clean-up animation for the short “Day & Night.” Venturini has been there since 2000, working as an animator on “Monsters, Inc.” How much has Pixar changed in that time?
“Its strength has always been collaboration, and that’s never changed. We’ve gone from a small studio to a giant studio, and certainly needed to find new ways to be collaborative. As you grow in population you’re challenged.
“Artistically, it’s grown in the sense that in the beginning none of this existed,” Venturini said, meaning various individual animation technologies and techniques. On “Monsters, Inc.” animators had to figure out how to simulate hair. With “Finding Nemo,” it was water. “The Incredibles” was the first Pixar movie “to do really detailed appealing and stylized human beings.
“Every film’s added opportunity [for animators]. So the things that used to be challenging long ago are less challenging now. So when you get to a film like ‘Luca,’ and you want to depart from realism a little bit and be more graphic and designed, the technology and the tools have gotten so powerful. We can start pushing the boundaries of our films in different ways. Each film just opens the door to a new artistic frontier and we try to capitalize on that.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.