Luca, the new Pixar movie that arrives on Disney+ today, presents a postcard vision of the Italian riviera – earthy terracottas, lush foliage, and the otherworldly blue of the sparkling sea.
But it was the last of those that presented the biggest challenge for the animation studio. Its technicians and animators have spent decades building computer models and powerful simulations aimed at perfectly recreating the way water moves and behaves in the real world. But to make Luca’s oceans really sparkle, Pixar’s visual effects artists had to forget everything they’d learned – and the result is a hybrid that’s somewhere between science and art.
The animated film, set in the fictional town of Portorosso in the mid-20th century, follows the budding friendship between Luca and Alberto, two teenage boys with a secret. They’re sea monsters, who flit in and out of the water, changing form as they go.
Portorosso is a version of Italy plucked from the memories of director Enrico Casarosa – childhood summer holidays and ice cream down by the harbour wall, and watching the fisherman haul in their nets. He pushed the animators towards an aesthetic inspired by classic Italian design and 1950s travel posters.
It filters through the whole movie, even the way the water is designed – in contrast to previous Pixar movies such as Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, where the water is designed to be photo-real, in Luca it’s much more stylised. “That was a big departure from where we’d been in the past,” says effects supervisor Jon Reisch.
The effects team treated the water around the town like a set piece – and opted for elegant simplicity over photo-realismPixar
Rather than treating each of the 400 or so ocean shots as a new problem to tackle, his team envisioned the water around the town almost as a set piece in itself – with different traits depending on the different areas: calm and placid in the harbour, with sinuous reflections inspired by Japanese woodblock prints; choppier and more turbulent further out to sea, with sharper edges to the waves. “Water is such a hard problem, visually,” Reisch says. “People are very familiar with what it looks like, it’s very heavy to simulate, it takes a lot of specialised knowledge on the effects end, and the way it interacts with the lighting of the scene means it’s always one of the hardest things to tackle.”
In the past, Pixar has used statistical models that tell its animators how ocean waves should behave – how they form and change shape depending on the structure of the underlying coast line or how far the wind has blown across open water. But this approach is very time and resource intensive – it requires a huge amount of processing power to animate areas more than the size of a swimming pool or a small stretch of coastline. So, for larger swathes of ocean, the animators fell back on procedural techniques – instead of simulating an entire ocean, they used this shortcut. “We can jump around to any frame and get something that’s plausible, and that’s coherent,” he says. “You’ll see the waves move in a coherent way across the shot.”