What makes the animated “Vivo” (from Sony Pictures Animation, streaming on Netflix) refreshingly different is its use of actual locations — Havana, the Everglades, and Miami — to chart the colorful road trip of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s singer-musician kinkajou title character. He’s on a mission to deliver a secret love song to retiring Miami legend, Marta (Gloria Estefan).
Thus, production designer Carlos Zaragoza (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and visual consultant Roger Deakins (the Oscar-winning cinematographer of “1917” and “Blade Runner 2049”) joined together with the rest of the Sony Imageworks team in constructing a heightened real world with contrasting color, light, and shadow to convey Vivo’s emotional arc. He goes from the grief of losing his best friend and musical partner, Andrés (Juan de Marcos), to the joy of fulfilling a last request.
“These were places I’d never been and so I was looking at Havana, the Everglades, and Miami with the same fresh eyes,” said Zaragoza, who went on research trips and consulted with experts. “We wanted to extract what was most iconic about each of the places and then caricature them,” he continued. “Havana is a little more subdued [with its warm pastels] in terms of the caricature than Miami. In the Everglades, we pushed a very stylized version of it.”
For Deakins, who previously consulted with DreamWorks on the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy and Pixar on “WALL-E,” “Vivo” was a departure because it was embedded in the real world and was a musical containing big, swirling movement. “The Havana section is old-worldly and has a more traditional ’50s look,” he said. “You contrast that with the bright sunlight and almost washed-out colors of Miami, so it’s great to play with those elements. Then, of course, there are the Everglades, which go from being vibrant and green to dark and foreboding.”
Zaragoza was particularly inspired by vintage Cuban travel posters, as well as the animation of German-American expressionist Oskar Fischinger (“Fantasia”). During his research trip he soaked up the local architecture, music, dancing, and color. “This was immensely helpful to understand things in context,” he said. “Some aesthetic choices in the movie are based on those specific realities: the why of the colorful patchwork facades of the Old Havana, or how an old palace was subdivided into multiple small apartments.”
With Havana, they set the tone with the illustrative look of the city. There’s a handmade quality and you sense the brushstrokes everywhere, and, as you pull back, it becomes even more stylized like a painted backdrop. “Havana is a combination of Hispanic and African cultures that created the music, but, when you get there, you see the architecture and the sense of scale of the buildings is mind blowing,” added Zaragoza. “It’s rich in colors and textures and layers of history and specificity.
Sony Pictures Animation
“In animation, we’ve been pushing for many years to get a photoreal look to make it more believable,” Zaragoza continued. “And I am so happy now that Sony has done ‘Spider-Verse’ and ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ to experiment with more 2D-looking styles.”
Andrés’ apartment, in particular, required lots of attention to props, colors, composition, and lighting (in conjunction with cinematographer Yong Duk Jhun). “How do you light an interior?,” Deakins said. “The same approach as you’d do live-action. You want it to feel natural but you’re not creating something that’s naturalistic. For instance, the interior of Andres’ apartment. There was a lot of discussion about lamps and what they would look like and how they would light. There is a general thing that I bring to animation, which is contrast — the idea of deeper shadows.”
And then there was the shot construction, especially when Vivo finds that his old friend has passed. ” I mean, that’s a difficult sequence to bring off in a film like this,” added Deakins. “The camera choices on that — what you see and what you don’t see.” The apartment was lit at night by a Tiffany lamp primarily in a wide two-shot for the somber moment.
Sony Pictures Animation
Vivo’s most dangerous part of the journey occurs with energetic tween Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo) in the Everglades, where they encounter Lutador (voiced by Michael Rooker), a noise-hating Burmese Python. “We wanted to make a whole progression with the feel of the Everglades and the lightning,” said Zaragoza. “At first, it’s inviting and beautiful, but eventually it turns into a representation of a snake’s shape: curvy and linear. And we end up with [the look of] a cage that’s very much like a labyrinth.”
Miami, the final destination, offered different looks, from pastel green and blue during the day to neon pink and blue at night. “The fun of ‘Vivo’ in many ways was the opportunity to change stylistically from one scene to another and from location to location,” Deakins said.