‘Luca’: How the Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature Helped Change Pixar’s Culture

"Luca" ushered in a new trend under Pete Docter of quirky, personal storytelling and more experimental, 2D-inspired stylization.
"Luca" Pixar

The significance of Pixar’s Oscar-nominated “Luca” has become more apparent with this month’s release of “Turning Red,” another film featuring personal stories of tween friendship, fantastical transformations, and bold 2D-inspired aesthetics. Additionally, recent revelations show that Disney’s suppression of gay content at the studio might’ve had a chilling impact on “Luca.” This came about as a result of the backlash to Disney’s support of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which helped facilitate the restoration of a previously cut same-sex kiss in the upcoming “Lightyear.”

To be sure, director Enrico Casarosa’s coming-of-age story — about two male sea monsters and their secret friendship as humans in a coastal Italian town — ushered in a more pronounced sea change at Pixar under the leadership of Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter (“Soul”). “Luca” not only offered a quirky brand of storytelling, drawn from autobiographical experience, but was the first Pixar feature to lean heavily into a hand-made, 2D aesthetic. Inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, stop-motion, and “Looney Tunes,” “Luca” appropriated 2D graphic shapes, bold expressions, soft and colorful textures, and multi-limb movement into a new CG look at the studio.

Meanwhile, Pixar continued unlearning some basic animation rules to pull off a more daring, anime-inspired 2D look for director Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” about dorky 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang), who transforms into a giant red panda as part of her sexual awakening. This marked the second film nurtured by Docter, who, as with Casarosa, encouraged Shi to unleash her quirky sensibilities and adventurous, nostalgic reverence for hand-made stylization.

“What’s wonderful about Pete is that he’s certainly a little quirky himself,” said Casarosa. “Watching ‘Soul,’ I loved how it’s a little bit nutty. He’s taken some big swings, and that’s a big thing in letting people bring their own flavor. And also he’s very mindful of giving notes. I loved his notes about fine tuning. The ones I cared about I would go and fix, and the others he was okay if I didn’t do them. But he’d certainly be more open to your own way of solving it or having a conversation about it.”

LUCA, from left: Alberto Scorfano (voice: Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca Paguro (voice: Jacob Tremblay), 2021. © Disney + / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Luca”©Disney+/Courtesy Everett Collection

The fun of making “Luca” for the director was having the freedom to explore a new style at Pixar. “The way it worked, first I think there is an embracing of your own voice that doesn’t have to be part of a Pixar house style,” Casarosa added. “It’s about finding something different yet still immersive. We threw a lot of textures at characters and the production design and the sky and clouds. Taking multi-limb from 2D was enthusiastically embraced by animation. When you galvanize a team with something different, they can bring a playfulness and offer you ideas. Let’s break it a little bit.”

However, the transformations scenes between sea monster and human demanded some new tech. “You had to give all the control to the animators, but [the transformation] had to happen slowly and wondrously,” he continued. “Our character team used two characters that were separate and combined them with layers of color.”

While “Luca” contains a fairly simple story about Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and the slightly older Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) soaking up the Italian Riviera summer reverie of Vespa scooter racing, swimming, pasta, and gelato, their secret identity as sea monsters served a metaphor for social awkwardness and puberty. “‘Luca’ was about my best friend, Alberto,” Casarosa said. “I was very shy and timid and sheltered by my family, and I met [Alberto], who was very free, his family wasn’t around a whole lot, and he was able to chase around and get into trouble. It got me out of my comfort zone, and I love how these friendships challenge us and help find us out who we are.

Luca Pixar

“The other side of being a kid is that you always feel like you’re the outsider. That’s where the transformation comes in. For me, feeling awkward and out of place and having something to hide, feeling like a nerdy kid. The difficulty was finding an engine that was kid-like and silly and fun but enough to drag us along with the friendship and the Vespa race.”

Initially, though, “Luca” was more complicated, with a backstory for Ercole, the town bully (Saverio Raimondo), and a larger subplot about intolerance with the introduction of a kraken sea monster. “We realized pretty quickly that the heart of the story was the relationship of the kids and we all agreed to prioritize that,” Casarosa said. “And then fighting for an ending where Luca and Alberto are separated when Luca goes away to school. I lived through it and that bittersweet emotion to me was really worth trying to capture: leaving the small town to a larger city.”

Yet Casarosa insisted that there was never any serious discussion about making “Luca” a gay allegory because the friendship was intended to be platonic and was a pre-romantic period in their lives. However, since the IndieWire interview, it has been reported that there was consideration of making Luca and Alberto’s human friend, Giulia (Emma Berman), gay, but that was scrapped because of the over complication of introducing a girlfriend for her.

For the director, the important takeaway from “Luca” and moving forward at Pixar is the opportunity to make “authentically felt, personal stories that embrace different genres,” said Casarosa. “There’s so much that hasn’t been explored and there are ways of making it wide enough. That’s the challenge.”

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