Like many fantasy stories involving sea-dwelling people who work up the courage to explore the land beyond the ocean, the young heroes of Pixar’s Luca have the ability to pass as humans thanks to a magical transformation. It’s easy for Luca and his platonic buddy Alberto to pass once they step out of the water and dry off, but whenever the fishboys’ bodies get wet, they reflexively shift back to their scaled appearances, something that could easily expose their secret.
When Gizmodo spoke with Luca character supervisors Beth Albright and Sajan Skaria, they explained how, in addition to developing a visual language for the transformations that worked well with the movie water’s external presence, one of their big priorities was to use the effect to highlight Luca’s larger message about change from within. In an era where 3D animation houses like Pixar have become shocking good at creating depictions of water in movement that are truly gorgeous, Luca’s animators took care to develop a specific style for the movie’s water that struck a visually pleasing balance between the realistic motion physics of actual water and the slightly exaggerated principles of animation typically used in two-dimensional animation.
In the same way that avoiding water is a challenge for Luca and Alberto as they set out to figure out a way to obtain a Vespa of their own, figuring out a way to depict the transformations was one of the big challenges facing the movie’s creative team. While Alberto introduces a whole slew of unexpected changes into Luca’s life, because their species’ transformations are a natural part of their biology, the team looked to different elements of nature like the wind and waves, as well as actual sea creatures as guidance for how the transformation would leave Luca and Alberto in their scaled forms. “We quickly concluded that the sea monster transformation shouldn’t be creepy,” Skaria told us. “The look should be bold and graphic, to fit into the title of the movie. So we looked at these chromatophores — these dancing chromatophores on squid — and this came from one of our artists, Daniel Lopez, who said transformation should really come from the inside.”
Chromatophores are the types of pigment-containing cells found in a variety of amphibious animals as well as cephalopods, some of which able to manipulate their chromatophores in order to change colour as a form of defensive camouflage. After shading art director Jennifer Chang created an initial test loop of what a more heavily nature-inspired transformation could look like, the team developed a number of different rules of thumb for how the transformation should work.
Though Luca’s transformations often bear more than a passing resemblance to Mystique’s in 20th Century Studios’ live-action X-Men movies, the animators quickly learned that they could get away with bending the rules a bit more when it came to giving Luca and Alberto’s fish forms appendages that their human versions don’t have. “We knew we needed some kind of a ripple to move through the body, so we started working with effects to get scales moving over the surface,” Albright said. “In the beginning, we weren’t sure if we would be able to hide things like the tail retracting or toes and fingers disappearing, or turning into more toes and fingers. Then we saw this early animation test, and even with this very rough, very early character model, we had kind of an ‘a-ha’ moment like, ‘this is actually going to work.’”
In order for its stylised aesthetic rule-breaking to work, Luca’s animators also needed to adhere to a set of rules that needed to be followed, and in the case of the transformation, it was ultimately decided that it made the most sense and presented the most interesting story for it to be triggered by exposure to water. “It’s not like a magical poof, just changing into something else,” Albright described. “Even with those rules, though, we knew that we would need to adjust the speed of the transformation in response to the emotional support story needs of a scene, so that led us to develop different kinds of transformations.”
By establishing the fish-when-wet rule, Luca’s animators were given the licence to devise all sorts of different ideas about how Luca and Alberto might discover how messy life can get on land by almost blowing their covers. To make the animators’ ideas technically possible, the movie’s engineering team was tasked to develop a rig meant to simulate a wide range of ways the transformation “ripple” would cascade over a character’s body. “Our technical team engineered a transformation rig to work for most scenarios like raindrops, water levels, a glass of water being thrown at the character, and for water spit takes,” Sajan said. “And in the end, when the animators acted with Luca, what they saw was mostly what they got in the final renders. This meant they could iterate faster and create more refined and cooler transformation effects.”
What’s most impressive about Luca’s way of showing viewers its heroes’ shapeshifting is how many of the fine details in each frame are the result of handcrafted digital art painstakingly added to moments that are often meant to be over in the blink of an eye. However, in the wider scheme of things, Luca’s transformations are only a small part of its fairytale-like story that becomes even more visually exciting as the story progresses.
Luca hits Disney+ on June 18.