Last Friday, LUCA was made available on Disney+ for subscribers. Making his feature-length debut, Director Enrico Casarosa takes us on a journey through the seaside of fictional Portarosso, Italy, where viewers will be introduced to the titular Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster feeling like there’s so much more left to explore outside of the sea in which he inhabits. All things change when he encounters Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea monster who introduces him to the world above water and jumpstart the young monster’s summer adventure of self-discovery, questioning, and – of course – all sorts of turbulent emotions when he must confront challenges he never thought possible. And, of course, maintain his secrecy as a sea monster from the humans on land.
Nightmarish Conjurings attended the press conference for Pixar Animation Studios’ 24th feature film, LUCA. While attending the press conference, we learned about how Casarosa’s childhood experiences came to influence the story we see onscreen, how he came to develop the look and visual textures of the characters and Portarosso onscreen, and the challenges that the production faced in trying to record while in quarantine.
One of the most essential components of any film is the story, and Pixar Animation Studios has established a reputation for strong stories that sink its claws into the heart and soul and never letting go. In the case of LUCA, the story itself came from a more simple place, and a simpler time. For Casarosa, the story came from his childhood experiences growing up in Genoa. Almost developing into a reflection of fond memories, he explained to us the relationship between Luca and Alberto onscreen was heavily based on how he met his best friend:
“I was a shy kid, a little bit sheltered by my family. And, when I met my best friend at 11, my world opened up. He was a bit of a troublemaker; he didn’t have a whole lot of supervision. [laughs]And so, in those special kinds of summers when you’re growing up and kind of finding yourself, I was following him and getting dragged into troubles. It really made me really think about how much we find ourselves with our friendships, or how much friendships help us find a bit of who we want to be. And those days of summer on this wonderful, it’s a very specific coastline. It’s rocky. There are mountains and sea. So, most towns are really hanging on for dear life on rocks, and then there’s a lot of cliffs. So, I kept on thinking about the literal and the metaphor of someone who pushes you [laughs] off a cliff. And there was a lot of diving into these beautiful waters when I was a kid.”
Once establishing the general premise of the story, and the location, one of the most pressing things became the visual flavor of LUCA. First, there were a couple of trips purely for research purposes to Italy. The first trip, as was revealed by Producer Andrea Warren, was mostly the foundation of both the story and look of the film began to develop. Following trips began to look at more minutia, taking into things like how paint peeled from building structures or the stucco wall corners the team would come across while walking around. While strange, these details were important for the teams to capture the authenticity and feel of the type of portside Italian town that they would end up constructing as Portarosso.
When it came time to start tackling the visual look and feel of the characters, Casarosa fell back a bit on what he did from his short film La Luna, where he would tap into the essence of the character and try to convey it through the character’s appearance:
“For example, for Luca, the sense of curiosity and him wanting to take in the world was the first most important thing for me. So, actually, the basic shape of a lollipop-like head and big eyes was something that I guess, it was in my pencil, and I reused it again. Then we think a lot about, for example, with Alberto, right when we design Alberto as a sea monster, we looked at actually more of a fast swimmer, sharper lines, so he’s actually someone whose tail is inspired more by a bluefin tuna. While Luca, who was a little more innocent, a slightly more rounded shape. So, we really think of our shape language, and then we looked at all these wonderful, all the maps that we would bring into the sea monster, some of these cues, and then we kept on drawing them.”
When it came time to construct the world of LUCA, Casarosa really wanted to lean into something less perfect, with more textures and a dash of expressionism. As many viewers might notice while watching the film, especially when we’re below the water where Luca and his family reside, the textures and colors start blending together, almost creating a watercolor-like effect. That was intentional per the director.
“I love watercolors, and I think we wanted to bring some of that feeling of a sketch, so then that transformed in the textures. In many ways, the setting was similar. How do you go to the essence of a place? I remember one thing that when we sent our set team over…they ignored us. Everything is a little wonky here. It was like a house attached to house attached to a house. There’s no straight lines. It was okay, but let’s push it further. So, we wanted to find the essence and then push it, and keep on putting the hand of the artist, the imperfection for the artist to make it as warms as possible.”
The final and crucial element for a film of this nature is, of course, capturing the performances in a booth in order to fully complete the characters viewers will see onscreen. Unfortunately, as we all came to learn last year during 2020, COVID-19 had completely different plans. As California went into shutdown mid-March of 2020, that meant that Pixar Animation Studios had to close up their campus until the go-head was given on high. This meant that any and all work had to be done at home, including the voiceovers. This meant the team needing to figure out an entirely different process and method in which they would capture everything they needed to bring LUCA together.
Warren explained how the team started to re-calibrate their approach as things began to shut down, mentioning that the recording process was one of her biggest concerns as the pandemic hit. However, she credits the quick thinking of the group and Pixar for how everything came together. However, as she would reveal, not all the cast members’ experiences in figuring out the tech went according to plan.
“It involved sending iPads and microphones, and everybody testing out spaces in their houses where the sound would be baffled. I’ll never forget Jack, especially in [his] mom’s closet. [His] arms hitting the hangers, and we’re all trying to press the right buttons at the right time. I mean, it’s tricky to be acting and be your own tech, and all of us trying to sort it out. And even Zoom is tricky because sometimes it cuts out and somebody’s just performed something, and you’re like, well I bet it’s good. So, you’re trying to respond and it was definitely tricky.”
However, as many viewers will soon discover, all of the team’s hard work has paid off. The vocal performances shine, with no one being the wiser of all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that took place in order to capture those moments. And, as childhood innocence and summertime memories take hold of the individual viewer’s senses, hopefully, many will just be able to sit back and relax. Remembering simpler times pre-pandemic, heck, pre-adulthood when our problems were a lot less complex, and remembering that first major dip into self-exploration when we were children.
All images courtesy of Disney and Pixar.