How Pixar created Luca’s adorable, transforming sea monsters

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Luca, the next feature film from Pixar, is a coming-of-age story about a pair of unassuming young boys who carry a big secret, as they’re actually sea monsters. Luca and Alberto appear as human on land, where they explore a quaint Italian seaside village. Normally, though, they’re iguana-like sea creatures covered in scales. For the team at Pixar, one of the key questions was figuring out what exactly causes that transformation. And instead of relying on a magical or emotional catalyst, they chose something much more fundamental: water.

That was just the start. Sorting out the transformation also meant ensuring both versions of the characters were linked in some way, as well as ensuring that the process had some kind of emotional weight. With all of these considerations in mind, water turned out to be a perfect fit.

“Because the sea monsters are underwater, and the humans are on land, there has to be some component that’s about the water,” Beth Albright, a character supervisor on Luca, tells The Verge. “So then it just became: ‘Is it literally the water? Or is there something else magical going on?’ And for our story, I think it’s important that Luca is making choices. He’s choosing to be up on land, he’s choosing to go back in the water. And those things are transforming him. Those choices that he’s making are transforming who he is.”

That focus on natural elements is a major element of Luca. The film features a unique art style that almost looks like stop-motion, and helps separate it from other CG animated art. According to character supervisor Sajan Skaria, the goal was to get away from colder and more technical elements in the art and animation. “It was important for us to give our modelers and our artists complete freedom to hit the appeal and the charm,” he says.


Main character Luca transforming from sea monster to human.
Photo: Pixar Animation Studios

Part of that meant pulling inspiration from nature. The underwater movements of the sea monsters was based in part on the way iguanas swim, for instance, while the team looked at chameleons for clues on how to tackle the transformation from human to monster. “We looked at a lot of references just to see what our options were,” says Skaria. “Especially with nature, it’s such a great place to go looking for things because it’s organic. We wanted to get away from the mechanical as much as possible.”

Image: Pixar Animation Studios

One of the biggest challenges was ensuring the two versions of each character still felt like the same person, despite essentially being entirely different species. There are some big differences: a sea monster doesn’t have a nose, for example, and they only have four fingers. That said, there are some facial landmarks that remain consistent. In the case of Luca, his big eyes were designed to be familiar no matter whether he was human or sea creature.

To keep some similarity, the models for both versions of each character were handled by the same 3D modeler. But it was also important that they weren’t just one-to-one recreations of each other. “We didn’t have to worry about ‘this point needs to match this point,’” explains Skaria. “That would’ve been more mechanical and more logical. But we were going more for feeling.”

That process of change was particularly important, not just from a visual standpoint, but also in terms of character development. I was able to watch the first 30 minutes or so of the film, and watching Luca and Alberto shift from human to sea monster, or vice versa, was pivotal in many of the scenes. Skaria says that this was intentional. “We could’ve hidden this, we could’ve done it off-screen,” he explains. “But we really wanted to show it in slow motion, on camera, because it’s such a core of the movie. It’s the thematic center. We didn’t want to hide it at all.”

The challenges of creating Luca and its shape-shifting cast were only compounded by the pandemic, as the production team was forced to work from home instead of the studio. (The pandemic is also the reason the film will stream on Disney Plus when it debuts on June 18th.) As a supervisor, Albright says that one of her main jobs was to make sure everyone had enough space to breathe and take care of themselves while working on the movie.

“We had to find a way to give everyone context, but also to give everyone space,” she says. “We couldn’t rely on ‘well everyone’s going to come to a meeting at this time, and then do this,’ because everyone has so many things going on right now. It was really important to Sajan and I that we gave everyone some space to do their work when they can do their work, and take care of their family and their lives.”

Skaria adds, “One of the things we realized quickly is that even though we’re physically apart, mentally and emotionally everyone was in a shared experience. I think that brought a lot of meaning to the film because suddenly we were getting insights into people’s lives, and that just really brought everyone closer, and the team bonded much better.”

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