How Pixar film ‘Luca’ weaves Italian folklore and childhood friendship together

How director Enrico Casarosa and his team of animators and artists used memories of the Italian filmmaker’s childhood in Genoa to weave an otherworldly universe in upcoming animated feature ‘Luca’

Creatures of the sea morphing into humans to dwell on land? At first glance, Pixar film Luca seems to be Italy’s answer to The Little Mermaid, but this upcoming release goes deeper — pun intended — than that. For director Enrico Casarosa, it is an amalgam of an empowering childhood friendship, Italian folklore and inspired Pixar magic.

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Luca follows two boys — titular character Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Glazer) — emerging from the sea and then turning into humans. Subsequently, they enjoy a memorable ‘human’ summer in a fictional quaint town called Portorosso on the Italian Riviera.

The film is the baby of Enrico Casarosa, a storyboard-turned-director who has worked on Coco, Up, and short film La Luna. During a virtual interaction, MetroPlus speaks with the makers of Luca — production designer Daniela Strijleva, animation supervisor Michael Venturini, visual effects supervisor Jon Reisch, character supervisors Beth Albright and Sajan Skaria, along with Casarosa — on characterisation, visual nostalgia and storytelling:

For Italia

Luca is centred on unforgettable friendships, fitting in, culture shock, and the concept of home. Casarosa was inspired to tell the story of Luca because he had his own ‘Alberto’ growing up, a friend upon whom he relied and who was adventurous; he even brought a pet python to school! He was “really about being willing to scrape a knee and being out there and taking some chances, and very much about embracing his fears,” laughs Casarosa.

So, why sea monsters? Genoa-born Casarosa was fascinated with sea monsters growing up and it worked its way into his lyrical storytelling. Children were forbidden to play near the shores of the Italian Riviera and were warned of kid-snatching monsters. For Luca, Casarosa turns the concept on its head and says, “We hope that sea monster could be a metaphor for that moment where you feel odd, like being a teen or pre-teen.”

Grinning, Casarosa admits he also did a deep dive into other mythologies and their monster folklore. “I was always fascinated by changelings being able to look human; for example, in Japanese folklore, kitsune foxes, and in Irish folklore, the selkies. The ‘more than meets the eye’ is the draw.” Integrate these myths with the familiar visuals of Hayao Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films (such as Spirited Away) and Aardman films such as Wallace and Gromit, and Luca was born.

For many of us, watching Luca is the closest to Italy we will get in 2021. The team had a blast creating Portorosso, says production designer Daniela Strijleva (Coco). Back when travel was a thing, the makers travelled to the Cinque Terre for research. Months later, Portorosso would become a love letter to the Liguria region, focussing on the rich foods and earthly architecture of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Strijleva – who recently watched Raya and the Last Dragon and “nerded out” over the mystical worlds created – points out “while these production trips were exciting to see Enrico’s hometowns through his eyes, it was meeting the people who were kids in the 1950s and 60s, and them talking about the energies of these places back then. It’s a huge responsibility to work with people in this authentic way, to help audiences inhabit that world.”

The vibrancy of Luca was a focal point for animation supervisor Mike Venturini who explains they watched not just films under the Disney umbrella but those out of it as well as “we don’t want to be repetitive but rather progressive”.

He adds, “It’s a playful challenge, as with Luca, we also focussed on the past. With Enrico and his youth, he was influenced artistically by certain styles where there were certain technological limitations being two-dimensional animations, and we were trying to bring that into the modern era to create something specific and unique. I hope Luca is inspiring to other animators out there.”

Predictably, Luca has a lot of water in it. So much so, that it became its own character. Visual effects supervisor Jon Reisch says finding the “expressive language” of the water in Luca was “the biggest challenge, especially taking the cutting edge technology to create a simplified elegance that Enrico wanted. We looked at it as a children’s storybook with these stylised shape language. Water is already one of the hardest things to do in visual effects because audiences have so much familiarity with it, but adding a layer of art was a huge challenge.”

Still from Pixar feature film ‘Luna’ | Photo Credit: Pixar

Characterisation was powerful in ensuring the people of Portorosa had their own soul. Character supervisor Sajan Skaria says they analysed the people of Cinque Terre in their walk, their gestures while talking, the way they lounged around, even the way they ate — and they had to make this come across on screen naturally.

Albright adds, “We also were really interested in specificity in background characters. In a lot of animated movies, background characters do not require this. But in this small town, we took the time to design these individuals who may have their own stories. This was really important to Enrico and art director Deanna Marsigliese.”

Limitation as power

‘Limitation’ was a key concept for Venturini and his team, who says technology can be so powerful and limitless that one has to self-impose limitations to render a specific look. He explains, “When we looked at old films, we realised there’s a style to Studio Ghibli films because they animate physicality with fewer drawings and less information. It is more caricature, so we had to bring that forward with Pixar technology. There were a lot of failed attempts – too wooden, too simple, or too far back at some points – when we were trying to craft our animation style. We had to stop ourselves to avoid falling back into what comes easily to us, we had to take the harder path with Luca.”

Reisch agrees, calling limitations “liberating” as it allows one to be even more creative. “When you see it as a finished film, it all looks very cohesive, but when you’re working on it, all of these different aspects – characters, settings, etcetera – are going through trial-and-error at the same time. It all has to fit the stylistic look and feel of the film.”

Strijleva concludes, “When you have these parameters, you get thinking in how to use artistry to challenge the technology. When you simplify these different elements to get to the essence of a story, it shapes how audiences see these places — however fictional — differently. And Luca is about embracing difference.”

Luca streams on Disney+Hotstar Premium from June 18.

 

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