Luca's Diverse Cast of Characters
Karen Moltenbrey
September 16, 2021

Luca's Diverse Cast of Characters

Disney•Pixar’s Luca — about two young teens and their summer of exploration and fun on the Italian Riviera — has a wide range of characters, some of whom live underwater and others on land.
Luca’s family are sea dwellers, creatures inspired by depictions of sea monsters found on old maps from the Renaissance, as well as scientific illustrations of fish from the region in addition to Japanese dragons and serpents. In fact, different types of fish were used as reference for the characters in different ways. For example, a larger silvery fish, like a big tuna or barracuda, was used as a reference for Alberto. A more colorful species, such as a reef fish, was used for Luca.

“We looked at marine iguanas because of the way they swim underwater and use their limbs, and their tail is really interesting and different from the way another type of reptile might move or swim,” says Character Supervisor Beth Albright. As a result, the sea monster versions of the boys are more creature-y and less humanlike when they swim. “We combined all of these different influences to make our sea monsters really unique,” she adds.

The artists also had to ensure that the underwater animation illustrated drift and water resistance. “The characters couldn’t stop too abruptly in the water, so they would hit a pose and then float a little, letting the energy dissipate into the water and slowly come to a stop,” Michael Venturini, animation supervisor, explains.

The creatures, which are hardly monsters, are appealing and expressive, each playing a stereotypical family member role. Daniela is Luca’s overly cautious mother, whose number one rule is not to go near the water’s surface, where land monsters supposedly live. Lorenzo, Luca’s dad, is often distracted by his hobby of raising prize-winning crabs. Grandma, meanwhile, understands Luca’s yearning for something more and secretly supports his adventurous ambitions.

The people in the human town of Portorosso are representative of those found in a typical small town. In all, the artists created 56 individuals for this film, some main characters and others relegated to the background. “This is one of those movies where we’re not literally just populating the entire place with a bunch of characters. We know them,” says Albright. “It’s like each one was handcrafted. We spent time with them, and that quality shows on-screen.”

Ercole, a blowhard, is the town bully who likes to target Giulia. He also owns a shiny Vespa and is the repeat champion of the town’s Portorosso Cup race, which Giulia longs to win. Giulia is friendly and adventuresome, though she does not have many local friends since she is a summer resident who lives there with her divorced fisherman father. So, she quickly befriends the two strangers — Luca and Alberto — who suddenly appear in town.

Monster Mash
The main characters in the Disney•Pixar film, Luca and Alberto, presented an even bigger challenge for the character artists and animators than the rest of the cast of Luca due to their ability to shape-shift. In some shots, these characters appear in blended form. “It took us about a year to figure it out,” says Character Supervisor Sajan Skaria of the transformations. The goal was to make the transformation bold and crazy, but not creepy.

The group began by looking at various character transformations that have occurred on-screen, such as Mystique’s transformation in X-Men, which involved feathery, scaly textures. Yet, Pixar wanted something that was more exaggerated and stylized look-wise, as their character scales needed to be much bigger to fit into the style of this movie. The team also was inspired by the ripple that runs through Gigi the cat’s fur in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The artists used its 3D pipeline to achieve the desired look, which includes tools that have evolved from previous shows, such as a silhouette sketching tool used on Inside Out. Also, there are new tools that were built for this film, such as robust controls to make the eyes more graphic, as well as the transformation rig used to shape-shift Luca and Alberto.

During the transitioning phase, both the human and sea monster rigs are present, along with a third, the transformation rig. As parts of that rig are turned on, those elements from the two rigs (human and sea monster) are revealed. “It’s like a magic trick where we’re kind of just showing parts of the human and parts of the sea monster, but we give that control to the animators so they can slide things and turn things on and off, and show bits and pieces of each character,” says Skaria. “We literally have two Lucas in the same space and show parts of each.”

Typically such transformations would be hidden off-screen or would be obscured by adding smoke in front of the character, for instance, due to the effort involved. However, the director was very specific about this occurring on-camera in Luca. “It’s the core of the movie, it’s about Luca as a human emerging out of the sea monster, and we want the audience to see it,” says Skaria.

When the character becomes fully human or fully sea monster, the transformation rig was not needed and the shot was animated normally. 


Transformation and Animation
The transformation occurs in and around 50 shots, so the artists spent a good deal of time and effort on it. Mostly, though, the characters appear in one form or the other. “We wanted to feel the hand of the artist in every-thing we did on this movie,” says Albright. For instance, all the sea monster scales were hand-painted by an artist. Those paintings then were used to derive the geometric scales the artists used as part of the transformation process. In total, the sea monster Luca has 3,436 scales on his body.

Luca’s animation style is inspired by 2D animation. “For animation, we wanted to incorporate the bold, illustrative choices and stylized timing of 2D animation, while preserving the richness we’ve come to expect from a Pixar film,” Venturini says.

In all, the film features 1,500 shots, but artists produced an average of 10 drawings per scene (amounting to about 15,000 drawings) to help the animators stay true to the illustrative design with their poses.

According to Venturini, the facial rigs were especially different, particularly in the mouth area. The characters have fun, graphic mouth shapes that can be especially small or large. To get the consistent round corners of the mouth, though, required new rigging.

“To be more illustrative, we had to come up with new controls, particularly with this design language that Enrico wanted, and to be able to move the mouth all over the face and go into profile,” Venturini says, noting there are 221 and 223 individual controls in Luca’s and Alberto’s mouths, respectively, to help animators create the rounded mouth expressions used throughout the film. “Most of our characters in an average Pixar film have a narrower range of movement, so the rigging doesn’t have to be as robust or versatile. Immediately when we started to do some of our early animation tests, we were just breaking the technology that we had out of the gate. Then we started building the new pieces that we would need in keeping with the design language.”

Typically, the animators avoid having characters move into profile, but on Luca they embraced it, focusing a lot on the silhouette and design of the poses. Here, the silhouette is clean and round. There is not a lot of anatomy; the designs are simple, bold, and graphic. So they would not break the silhouette when the character is in profile, the artists would turn the head while keeping the mouth inside the silhouette and then popping it into the profile. Custom controls and sculpting let the artists adjust the silhouettes, profiles, and the shape of the mouth and the eyes to allow for the desired versatility. “It was more like a hand-drawn quality in 3D because we were literally sculpting in space with the camera,” adds Skaria.

With the squash-and-stretch style came some fun design departures, including some multi-limb animation, popular in the 2D world, to illustrate fast action. This was done using a variation of the transformation rig, only in these instances it used two human rigs, for example, as opposed to a human and sea monster rig.