Pixar’s Luca: Bringing Sea Monsters to Life in the Italian Riviera of the 1950s

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Luca, Pixar’s newest film, tells the tale of a young sea monster whose restrictive family won’t allow him to go ashore. But his world opens up when he discovers he is able to transform into a human boy when on land—a trick he learns from an outgoing new friend, Alberto. 

To capture the film’s setting of the Italian Riviera in the 1950s, director Enrico Casarosa wanted to give the film a stylized look that would convey a sense of warmth and nostalgia. To that end, he drew on 2D animation and hand-drawn art techniques like Japanese woodblock prints, hand-sketched illustrations, and the films of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki. “The tools of the trade are getting better and better at capturing realism,” Casarosa explained during a press event that IGN attended. “We wanted to work on stylization, beautiful shapes, and lyricism.”

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Cutting down on details in favor of lyricism in a feature film is a radical departure for Pixar. The studio is famous for emulating real-world physics and photoreal techniques in even the most challenging of animated environments—with 2001’s Monsters Inc. demonstrating the studio’s ability to animate fur, and 2003’s Finding Nemo showcasing the studio’s sophisticated lighting models that could even work in underwater environments. These advanced tools lend a sense of reality that makes even their most esoteric stories feel grounded.

“It’s Pixar—we have amazing tools, we have amazing technology with art—so I always felt there was a way to make something even more special by the meeting of these two things,” said Casarosa. “I did not want to lose immersiveness and there’s something about the 3D world that I find a little bit more transportative.” It’s also a perspective Casarosa is known for. His Pixar short “La Luna” was also inspired by Miyazaki’s work, along with the bold style of cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli, whose television show La Linea starred a character drawn in a single line.

For Luca, the Pixar team had to rethink the way they approached animation. Their existing technology would create a detailed, realistic look that the animators then edited with an eye for exaggeration. “Stepping towards stylization in our effects work was a hard left turn away from everything we knew,” said effects supervisor Jon Reisch. “Our instincts as effects artists—all the techniques that we’ve perfected and relied on, even our toolset, which relies very heavily on physically based simulations—all of those forces were pulling us back towards layering on detail, defaulting us into this photorealistic look.”

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Animators and designers dissected environmental elements, isolating layers that would offer the visual impact Casarosa was looking for. This was particularly important for depicting the Mediterranean Sea. To animate the cliffside waves with a more artistic lens, without losing the realistic look entirely, Pixar had to create new tools. “We have these very sophisticated statistical models, all based on oceanographic research, that allow us to create detailed water surfaces,” Reisch explained. “But they don’t offer a lot of artistic control.”

Reisch had a breakthrough when reflecting on his time as a guitar player. “I had this thought about controlling the ocean and the different frequencies in the ocean like a graphic equalizer controls your stereo,” he said. The team built sliders that allowed them to control the size and frequency of individual waves and wave patterns, allowing them to achieve the “beautiful synchronous reflections that we were chasing from the Japanese woodblock prints,” Reisch said.

Casarosa’s artistic vision also extended to Luca’s buildings on the piazzas of the Italian Riviera. He felt that the hand-drawn style would help convey the nostalgic feel of 1950s Porto Rosso, Italy—that the imperfections would give it a clear human touch. “Designing a stylized world is really challenging,” said production designer Daniela Strijleva. “Computers are really good at making everything straight, even, and realistic. Enrico [Casarosa] and I wanted everything to be caricatured, imperfect, and where you feel the hand of the artists. So when we draw too realistically, when we get stuck, we have to think a little differently. We change our perspective. We use a new medium.”

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At such times, they turned to other forms of art for inspiration—leaning on sketches done on site, and paper collages created by in-house artist Don Shank. To give Porto Rosso a lived-in feeling, the team also added in hundreds of hand-drawn signs—street signs, posters, and others—some of which included references to 1950s Italian cinema. Some of the classic films depicted on these signs even served as inspirations for the feel of Luca.

Character design was also conceived in mixed media—with art pieces created by hand inspiring everything from character proportions to the final render textures. The team used a combination of paper models and watercolor brush strokes as reference points for Luca’s scales when he’s in sea monster form. The scales have a paper collage feel to them, and the actual coloration has a watercolor look—even Luca’s eyes have a hand-painted texture. 

“Luca has the biggest eyes out of the entire cast of characters because he’s curious, he has a big imagination, and he takes in the world through his big expressive eyes,” said Strijleva. “Just like the paper model Don [Shank] made of the buildings, collages made by Deanna Marsigliese helped us to get away from realism, because she used these beautiful textures that are exaggerated.”

Playing with character proportions allowed the film to take bigger swings with visual comedy. Character designers animated Luca and Alberto’s mouths in cartoonishly large or small ways, with “very little respect for anatomy,” said animation supervisor Mike Venturini. The animation team frequently portrayed characters in profile to highlight these contrasting shapes—a framing decision that most Pixar films avoid. They also drew on classic 2D character motion techniques like “multilimb,” short for “multiple limbs,” which according to Venturini is “a 2D animation trick that’s often used in fast actions. … Alberto has two extra feet—using the transformation rig we were able to load in extra Alberto feet and transform them from human to invisible.”

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Multilimb creates that hyper-speed leg effect when characters are in motion. The final look is reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, particularly the Looney Tunes style where characters dash away so quickly their legs blur—think of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner speeding down hills. This specific melding of 2D and 3D technique only became plausible thanks to the technology Pixar developed to animate other parts of Luca.

“This would have been too difficult and time-consuming on previous films to attempt,” said Venturini. “But with this new technology we were able to have some fun with it.”

Pixar’s Luca begins streaming on Disney+ on June 18.

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