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Luca broke all of Pixar’s animation rules

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The challenge of using computers to render imperfection

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two sea monsters swim in the water. one is blue in color, the one in the back is green. they have scaly skin and fins for ears and long tails Image: Pixar

With exaggerated character expressions and cartoonish backgrounds, Pixar’s new movie Luca is an outlier for the studio. The movie tells the tale of two young sea monsters who venture to a human town for the first time and meet a fishmonger’s daughter. Pixar animators render the idyllic seaside town in loving detail, though it doesn’t replicate reality like the New York City streets in Soul or the pristine ocean waves of Finding Dory. As director Enrico Casarosa puts it, “The clouds are a little more puffy, a little more watercolor-y.”

When it came to crafting the look of Luca, Casarosa deliberately veered away from photorealism. Part of it stemmed from creating a playful world as seen by a child on summer vacation, but also the director’s own inclinations as an artist.

“I’m a drawer,” Casarosa says. “I love to watercolor, I love to make comics. Being a story artist, you come from a visual kind of point of view on something like this. And the way I draw is expressive and silly. It’s not refined. It’s not beautiful paintings — it’s like a caricature or something. You learn to be very expressive as a story artist, and there was something about those drawings that you fall in love with, because they’re goofy. They’re funny. They’re a little unusual.”

two boys stand on either side of a homemade moped. the shorter one evaluates it. the taller one, with poofy hair, gives a thumbs up. Image: Pixar

Through Casarosa’s eye, the traditional mold of Pixar animation takes on a quality closer to Ghibli or Aardman, studios known for tactile illustration or modeling. The human touch was always part of the director’s vision for Luca. “We wanted to bring our warmth and expressiveness to the computer,” explains Casarosa. “The computer does perfection really well. We wanted to bring some imperfection or less detail and more design detail.”

The Pixar “style” has slowly evolved in tandem with computer animation. But as Casarosa says, visuals are not necessarily what the studio has been known for, especially in the early days of computer graphics.

“I always felt even arriving at Pixar, that the strength of the studio was always in the story. Because they were working with huge limitations on the computer side, the visual wasn’t immediately the thing that they were just completely blowing us away,” Casarosa admits. “Now we’re at this place where so much has been conquered. Now it’s more about how do you use it? So it’s not like we have to make a completely new tool. It’s a little bit more: Oh, but can I actually not make it look realistic?

Veering Pixar’s animation away from realism was a challenge, says the director. If his team wanted to simulate a splash of water, the computer would render every single droplet in it — and that wasn’t the style. “We’re like ‘No, I would love it to be a beautiful line that is simple and poetic.’ That was harder because we needed to get control back.”

The result in Luca is water that doesn’t look like a photograph, but instead captures a rich blueness and warmth that evokes halcyon summertime days more distinctively. It’s an artistic choice that extends throughout the rest of the movie, one that the animators deliberately had to manipulate the tools in order to capture, and one that makes Luca a visual delight.

Luca premieres on Disney Plus for all users on June 18.