Pixar is no stranger to the challenges of animating underwater worlds. The animation giant pioneered many of the technologies that made it possible to do at the level of veracity available today. They’ve painstakingly recreated everything from the vast, colorful density of tropical waters in Finding Nemo to the contained aquarium exhibits of Finding Dory. These films set the bar for aquatic animation, both in terms of faithfulness to underwater physics and also in capturing the rich biodiversity found within the ocean—all without losing Pixar’s signature sense of humor. Scenes like Marlin and Dory surfing on the backs of turtles riding the East Australian Current have become iconic.
And now the studio’s latest film, Luca, also largely takes place underwater—but in a different region of the world. And that presented the artists at Pixar with a new set of animation challenges.
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Luca is set in the Italian Riviera, both in the piazza of a coastal town, surrounded by beautiful, roiling cliffside waves, and in the depths of the cobalt blue Mediterranean waters. The film tells the story of Luca, a timid sea monster whose protective family forbids him from going ashore. But he comes out of his shell after meeting the outgoing Alberto, another sea monster who shows him the fun he can have on land—including his abilities to transform into a human boy.
Director Enrico Casarosa (who previously directed Pixar’s short “La Luna”) wanted to tell a story grounded in his own childhood in Genova, Italy, and in the friendships that helped him grow out of his own shyness. Casarosa thought the mythology of sea monsters in Italian fishing towns created the perfect opportunity to tell a story about an outsider searching for a sense of belonging: “What if there was a chameleon of a sea monster that had the ability to transform into a human, and hide in plain sight?” Casarosa said. “Maybe there is more than meets the eye.”
The design of these sea monsters—Luca and Alberto, as well as Luca’s family members—was based on urban legend and artwork from vintage Italian maps, with the aim of creating something that felt authentic to the region. “We were really inspired by old sea maps,” said production designer Daniela Strijleva. “Some design details that carried through to the final film are things like the shapes of the fins of the sea monsters, how decorative their scales are, and the curves of their tails.”
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Pixar’s animators and artists worked hard to create character designs that felt realistically aquatic and culturally specific, while still full of Pixar personality. “We didn’t want our sea monsters to look like real fish,” said Strijleva. While never deviating too far from the swirling fins of the original map iconography, character designs were modified to fit each sea monster’s personality or home—like in the case of Luca’s deep-sea dwelling uncle, whose skin is more translucent, and who has an angler fish’s dangling head bulb.
One of Pixar’s greatest technical challenges with Luca was the transformation from sea monster to boy—a metamorphosis that occurs anytime Luca (or his friend Alberto) touches water. These transformations are a pivotal part of the film, with closeups that let audiences see Luca change in real time, iridescent scale by iridescent scale.
The team looked to specific examples in aquatic life, like chromatophores on squid, with the aim of creating something that looked organic—rather than mechanical—while also not feeling uncanny. “We looked at lots of imagery from the natural world, things like reptilian and fish scales,” said character supervisor Sajan Skaria. “We looked at wind and waves, lots of natural things, and quickly concluded that the sea monster transformation shouldn’t be creepy. The look should be bold and graphic to fit in with the style of the movie.”
The team then had to master the technical challenge of making sure this animation fit the film’s greater emotional story. Though Luca’s change back to sea monster is literally triggered by coming in contact with water, the actual speed of his metamorphosis is dictated by key emotional moments in the film. When Luca first trundles onto the shore, for example, his transformation unrolls more slowly and deliberately, conveying his feelings of trepidation and awkwardness—his sense of being, quite literally, a fish out of water.
“We knew we needed some kind of a ripple to move through the body,” said character supervisor Beth Albright. “In the beginning we weren’t sure if we would be able to hide things like the tail retracting or toes and fingers disappearing or turning into more toes and fingers. Then we saw this early animation test, and even with this very early character model we had an ‘aha’ moment, like this is actually going to work.”
The animation team also had to design a transformation that could scale in speed, where the switch from boy to sea creature could be immediate. “We knew that we would need to adjust the speed of the transformation in response to the emotional story needs of a scene,” said Albright. “So that led us to develop different kinds of transformations.” Quick transitions are put on display in a scene where Luca dives in and out of the water in dolphin-esque movements—he quickly flashes between sea monster when underwater, and young boy when soaring through the air above the waves.
In creating the underwater environments, Casarosa wanted to accurately capture the feel of the Ligurian Sea. In contrast with the studio’s past aquatic films, which animated the colorful Great Australian Barrier Reef, Luca’s feel is very specific to Mediterranean waters. “The coastline goes deep, it’s a lot of cliffs, not a whole lot of beaches,” said Casarosa. “The color is so deep: blue, cobalt, greens. We wanted to make sure this did not ever feel tropical.”
Animators also worked with a different sense of scale. Rather than the sprawling setting of Finding Nemo—which, in addition to being technically accurate, also reflected Marlin’s intimidation and fear of leaving his home to find his son—Luca’s underwater environments are a little more closed, with murkier waters. “It’s a beautifully colorful murk,” said Casarosa. “The underwater world doesn’t enable our protagonist to see far, and we love that sense of sharpness that happens once we’re out on the surface. Since this journey is about seeing more of the world, we thought this represented how the world is not as spacious down there.”
It matches well with the emotional arc of Luca, a young boy who feels stifled by his family and who finally breaks out into the sunny world on land, all thanks to a new friend.
Luca will debut exclusively on Disney+ worldwide on June 18.
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