The struggle to make Luca: How the team at Pixar made its latest animated hit

Pixar's films carry singular design sensibilities and art direction. Utmost care is given to writing, characters and emotional heft, which helps the stories stay with viewers long after they have watched the film. We take a deep-dive into making of the studio's latest film, Luca.

In many ways, Luca is a typical Pixar film. Gorgeous visuals, multi-faceted characters, an interesting and meaningful story — every staple is there. But it’s also the first movie from the illustrious animation studio that was made during the lockdown.

It centres around a sea monster, Luca, who dreams of exploring the world above the surface but fear of humans has been drilled into his mind by his parents. Simultaneously curious and apprehensive, he dithers until another sea monster, Alberto, practically drags him above the water.

In Luca, sea monsters have kind of adorable purplish or bluish skin , flat feet and large, inquisitive eyes. When not in contact with water, they lose their true appearance, and look like humans.

Judging by the reception, this is another win for Pixar.

Pixar’s first feature was 1995’s Toy Story. While its animation and character design appear dated today, back then it was nothing short of revolutionary, an absolute milestone of a movie, as influential for the medium as 1937’s The Snow White. It was also the first fully computer animated film.

Pixar’s films carry singular design sensibilities. Great care is given to writing and emotional heft, which helps stories and moments linger with you. To sum up, they are beautiful to look at, and tell stories with thematic resonance.

Pixar is the gold standard in animation. It has over the decades nurtured an excellent, driven, multi-talented creative team. Thus, the flurry of acclaimed hits like Up, The Incredibles and Coco, which are as much entertainment as they are works of art.

The process of making a Pixar movie, like anything creative, begins from an idea. For Luca, it came from director Enrico Casarosa, who drew plot elements from his own childhood spent on the shores of Italian Riviera. The sea monsters in the film are inspired from actual myths prevalent in the region.

In a roundtable interview, the director said this autobiographical touch helped lend authenticity to Luca. “To get at the heart of what you want to say, it helps when you look back at your life. It just gives you a little kernel of an idea, a goal. If I can’t tell this story about someone who’s an extrovert, I can tell this one,” Casarosa told indianexpress.com.

He added that a personal connection to the story gives you an internal compass. As even if the story keeps changing during the process, the core remains the same.

It helped that Luca had universally relevant ideas like the inherent sweetness of childhood friendships that the crew behind the movie could relate to. “We all had our different versions of childhood friendships and what they meant to us and whether we were Luca or Roberto. But something that everyone contributed was a little bit of their own piece of childhood, which made the story more emotionally rich,” he said.

After the pitch is accepted, the screenplay is written, and the film is ready to be made, it’s up to the production designer to visualise everything. In animation, a production designer, much like in live-action, is responsible for the overall ‘look’ of the film. They direct storyboard artists, animators, and VFX artists to ascertain that the product is to their liking.

Production designer on Luca, Daniela Strijleva, said, “Enrico wanted a more stylised look, with more hand-painted textures. Not real pores on the skin, but the texture that feels like the character has that detail. The challenge here is to take the technology we have, and to tell our technical counterparts, ‘Can you simplify this water because this is too detailed? It is beautiful, but we want something a little more poetic, a little more lyrical, more like a storybook, like a painting.”

While Daniela oversaw the look of Luca, animation supervisor Michael Venturini’s job was to monitor the quality and style of the animation and ensure that it blended well with the artistic vision.

He said, “We had 63 animators, and we had to help them understand the style of animation. It involved a lot of training. I was also responsible for casting out scenes. So, as a sequence came into our department, I had to find the right animator based on their strengths, and make sure that they followed through on the director’s notes.”

The most challenging aspect of Luca was the design of sea monsters and their transformation into humans. The reason was, the technology required did not exist.

“We had to build that technology from the ground up. The whole success of the movie was dependent on whether we can transform a sea monster into human,” says Venturini.

The artists ended up researching real-world creatures that possess the ability of altering appearance, like chameleons. “We thought what can we learn from nature? How can we apply that here? .”

One of the character supervisors on Luca, Beth Albright says, “It was exciting when Enrico came to us with his presentation of the artwork that he had made, other artwork that he derived from paintings, photographs, puppets, and stop-motion. It was also challenging to  bring all that together into characters stylised in a different way than other Pixar features.”

Animated movies also need visual effect artists, although here their role is slightly different. In live-action, they are charged with any non-human creature, explosion, smoke and so on, but in animation, their job is to deal with natural phenomena.

Water plays a huge role in Luca, which was a gargantuan challenge for VFX supervisor Jon Reisch and his team. “There’s just hundreds and hundreds of shots of the ocean or of the the kids splashing and playing in the water, and shots of water above the land. And water is always a hard thing for the effects team.”

There were Luca-specific challenges too. While most animation strives for true-to-life look of characters and environment, the goal of those behind Luca was to make it more artistic than realistic.

“In keeping with where we are going as a studio and industry, we like expressive languages, shape, color and lighting, that help support the storytelling. With Luca, we tried to achieve that sort of the lyricism and storybook look to it. Our instincts as effects artists is to add on detail to make, say, our water look more realistic. Enrico wanted to go the opposite way. If we could draw a picture of water with 15 lines, he wanted us to draw it with 3 and make that work,” said Reisch.

Many critics have singled out the painterly, textured look to some of the scenes in Luca for praise. It helps enhance the already unique visual style.

Venturini revealed that it was very much done on purpose and had a well-defined, creative goal. “There was a lot of exploration done to achieve that look. The painterly look is because of high color saturation. And that’s mostly done in our lighting department,” he explained.

“We explored different looks that had kind of a brushstroke, handcrafted look. Sometimes it had a negative effect. For instance, if it looked like a brushstroke, it’d make the set look like a miniature — small hand-painted model. Then we realised the color palette had a lot to do with it. Computers can do millions of colours. But an artist has a limited color palette that they mix and paint with. So we just limited the color palette of the water, and then it started to feel painterly and artistic,” he added.

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