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Creating the Stylized, 2D-Inspired Fun of Pixar’s ‘Luca’

Director Enrico Casarosa used his cartoony sketches and storyboards to lead a ‘less is more’ move away from 3DCG realism in the studios’ upcoming tale about a life-changing summer for two teenage sea monsters living on the Italian Riviera.

Fresh on the heels of Soul’s incredibly successful 2021 awards season run, Disney and Pixar are set to release their latest animated feature, Luca, which opens this coming June 18. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, who charmed audiences with his 2011 Oscar-nominated short, La Luna, and produced by Andrea Warren, Luca is a stylishly fun, heartwarming story about friendship, and a life-changing summer, for two teenage sea monsters living in the waters off the Italian Riviera. A tale that’s part coming-of-age and part monster-out-of-water, the film, according to the director, is “a love letter to the summers of our youth - those formative years when you’re finding yourself.”

Set in a beautiful Italian seaside town, the film tells the story of a young boy, Luca, his new best friend, Alberto, and their unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta, and endless scooter rides. But all their fun is threatened by a deeply held secret: they are both sea monsters from another world just below the water’s surface.

The film’s unique visual style eschews many of the usual photoreal sensibilities we see in so much 3DCG. It all started with Casarosa’s drawings, his cartoony, exaggerated 2D-inspired designs, and the question of how the essence of that visual style could be captured in the sophisticated, precision-guided 3DCG pipeline that drives Pixar’s feature film productions.

“I just love sketching,” Casarosa shares. “And I just love travelogging. I come from drawing comics, and watercolors. When I pitched La Luna with a presentation using watercolors, I remember someone asking me, ‘But you want to do it in watercolor?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I mean, you know, we're at Pixar and I think we should use our tools, but how do we bring in some warmth and imperfection...’ The thing I don't always love about computer animation is there's a certain sheen, a certain perfection to it. Now it's gone past that toward realism. But I come from loving sketches; I'm not one to love a perfectly painted picture that is realistic.”

So, in the earliest days of Luca development, to determine the viability of his artistic vision, as the director said, you “start with boards and see where it takes you.”

“The style of the film, at the beginning, really started with how I draw, to be completely honest,” he says. “We have an amazing team, but I felt like there were a couple places where I could still storyboard. I wanted to do it myself. So that sketchiness, that cartoony expressiveness, was part of our early story reels. And they were the part that made us laugh. It felt unique, these connections to kinetic and comedic moments.”

Casarosa’s artistic sensibilities stem in part from the animation he loves most. “I love Miyazaki movies,” he shares. “I love Wes Anderson’s stop-motion. I love Aardman’s stop-motion. Some of that ends up in my drawings, that sketchy and expressive style. We wanted to bring that to the film because it felt like this is a kid's world. This is a playful world. And it felt true to the story to go in that direction. I love the immersion of 3D, but I sometimes I feel it can go towards coldness. So, I wanted to bring the warmth of imperfection. That’s why some of the silly drawings made us laugh when we started boarding them and then put them on a screen.”

“We wanted to capture some of that in our animation,” he continues. “Which meant, we needed to inspire the animation team to embrace it. And they took it and ran with it, literally and figuratively, in a wonderful way. I didn't know where it was going to exactly go, but it was really fun because some of them were showing more limited animation, with these snappy, kind of wonderfully held poses.”

Animation supervisor Mike Venturini began working early with Casarosa on investigating and testing how to capture that 2D sensibility. “Enrico, as a director and as an artist, was inspired in his youth largely by Miyazaki's film library, starting with one of his first projects, a TV series called Future Boy Conan,” he explains. “That was one of Enrico's favorite things as a kid. So, initially, we watched a lot of episodes of that show. And they use a multi-limb style; it's boys being silly with a really broad physicality. He really liked that and hoped we could be influenced by that in some way. Then we kind of expanded our universe into the rest of Miyazaki’s film library, which a lot of the animators on the show were already familiar with. So, on a larger feature film scale, we were looking at what were some of Miyazaki’s characteristics. That’s what inspired us to try things.”

Wanting to inspire the animator and let them stretch their creative muscles, Casarosa and the team began testing new animation concepts, hoping to bring playful silliness to the characters by taking away some of the typically large amount of detail. Areas of immediate focus were using a more 2D pose style, wider mouths with rounded, rather than angled corners, and multi-limb motions that brought a sillier feel to character movement.

“In the first animation tests, I could see something special that was still working with the beautiful textures of our characters,” Casarosa says. “So, with characters, and even in rough animation, we started making tests that felt interesting and different, that reminded you of 2D and the lean towards less is more. But, still in an immersive way. There was a moment of like, ‘Well, if you only go by less is more, this could end up feeling like Saturday morning cartoons.’ We wanted to make something special but needed to find a hybrid that was exciting.”

“We kept on saying, ‘We want to design it more carefully, but not take the richness away.’ So, in animation, once the lighting and the sets came together, that's truly when you knew we had something special. So much of the look is about texture and lighting, and those animation tests really got us excited.”

Testing potential multi-limb animation looks was one thing. Finding an efficient way to scale it for production was another. “The multi-limb testing started with, ‘Let's load a second character in, we’ll invis the parts we're not using, and leave the parts we are,’” Venturini describes. “What's weird about that, using Alberto running as an example, is you have Alberto with four legs, and they all attach kind of at his hips, and that almost looks creepy, like a four-legged kid. So, you want two dominant legs, but the secondary, multi-limb legs need to fade out. We used some simple draw-over tools to kind of paint the legs out, which gave us a crude representation of what we'd love it to look like. Then we tried some scenes to see in how many frames you should use it. What's the spacing like.”

“We warned our supe tech, ‘Hey, we're trying this, and Enrico wants to use it,’” he continues. “It's either going to crash and burn and you're off the hook, or he's going to love it. And then we got to figure out how to actually do it. Well, when we showed it to Enrico, he loved it. He was all in. So, then we were like, “OK, how do we do this efficiently and at a high quality?”

As luck would have it, the team that had developed the technology used to transform the boys into sea monsters, and back into boys, offered a solution. “Instead of transforming from human to sea monster, we transformed from human to invisible,” Venturini says. “What that allowed us to do was load a second Alberto in, invis him, transform him into invisible all the way down to his feet, and just leave the feet there. And with that new technology, we could pick where we wanted the invisibility to start and how much we wanted to fade it out over a big space. That allowed us to get really versatile from frame to frame, with some more faded out, and some less faded out. It became quite efficient once the technology was installed into the character. In the end, we were able to repurpose technology that didn't exist until Pixar built it for Luca’s character transformations.”

“It’s an old-fashion cartoon technique in some ways,” Casarosa says, referring to the multi-limb motion. “Like with Peanuts. It came out of the drawings, the essence of someone running extremely fast. We wanted to use the multi-limb technique in areas of the film where the characters were doing extreme physicality, where it would add to the personality of the silliness of the moment. There were only so many chances to use it. I wish there were more. But it was so much fun to use it when we could.”

Venturini goes on to explain how they also had to back away from their inherent instinct to move towards realism in the animation. “One part of our 2D inspiration is that in 2D animation, more often than not, you're animating on every other frame - on twos, as they say. And when you do that, you must be more descriptive in your shapes because you have fewer opportunities to describe the dialogue. Your shapes become a little more caricature, or a little more like graphically abstract art.”

“Our films are always done on ones,” he notes. “We use every single frame and in dialogue, it allows us to be incredibly rich and realistic in detail. So much so that we pride ourselves in the ability to turn the sound off and still be able to tell what a character saying. For Luca, we didn't want to be that rich in detail. Part of our 2D inspiration was to simplify the mouth shapes and try to animate only every other shape. Simplify it a little bit. That allowed us to be round in the mouth corners because we didn't have to do accurate phonetic shapes. We had to liberate ourselves from that level of realism before we could really consider doing round shapes and not wanting to be phonetically accurate.  The other thing was that in the Miyazaki film library, and in a lot of anime, is they get really big with the mouth shapes because they're being emotionally expressive. It's less about the dialogue being said, or the anatomical accuracy. So, we thought, ‘Let's be big and expressive. These are kids, the world's huge to them.’ And then, let's be as small as we can and just bring those corners all the way in and keep it round.”

“We watched a lot of Aardman animation where they go from a big toothy mouth to a little one with no teeth,” Venturini adds. “They'll go to these shapes where there's no teeth and we thought, ‘Let's do that.’ So, we also developed the ability to turn the teeth on and off over a single frame if we wanted. Those were some of the things that influenced us that we thought were playful, fun, more emotionally expressive, and less chained to reality.”

Another area where they moved away from established Pixar production methodology was in the animation timing. “We were able to use our toolset differently in how we timed the animation,” Venturini reveals. “Miyazaki films are sometimes animated on fours, so in those situations, they're using so few drawings that those drawings have to be incredibly descriptive. And so, we thought our poses just have to be more descriptive. We have to push the pose to be clearer, to have more storytelling. And then we have to spend more time in those poses. So fewer in-betweens.”

“At Pixar, we have dozens of timing charts,” he continues. “On Luca, we wanted to come back to a 2D terminology where there's one timing chart for the whole drawing. Put all your information back onto one timing chart. So, one of the ways we pushed the physicality of the animation was the timing. It started to break our simulations, which are built on real-world physics, which we were not using. It did present some challenges for our simulation department. When you hit a pose, you wanted to hit this pose, but not have the hair going all over, or the cloth flowing all over. You wanted everything to stop at the same time.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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