When production designer Daniela Strijleva joined Pixar’s “Luca” in 2016, she knew two things — the saga was set in Italy and it was a fantasy. With 3D animation informed by director Enrico Casarosa’s cartoony 2D drawings, the movie, available June 18 on Disney Plus, is the story of two teenage boys having a carefree summer at the Italian seaside. And they just happen to be sea monsters.
Having lived in Italy as a child, with fond memories of swimming in the warm Mediterranean, Strijleva felt she had a deep understanding of the country. Casarosa’s coming-of-age-meets-monster-out-of-water film is a love letter to his own childhood summers.
To nail the details, Casarosa, Strijleva and the production team scouted locations in Italy, taking in the narrow streets and the picturesque scenery of the Cinque Terre region where the fictional town of Portorosso is located. “We went on fishing trips and took dips in the sea. I wanted to capture the colors and depths of the blues and greens of what makes the Mediterranean unique,” Strijleva says.
While there, she took thousands of photos and drew sketches. “We have to make our actors, and we have to build everything because we don’t have the luxury of real sets and humans in our features,” she explains.
The elaborate backdrops immerse the audience in a charming, sunny world of gelato shops, Vespa scooters and fishing boats that contrasts with the monsters’ undersea habitat. When creating the town square, she modeled the piazza based on a stage design. “We opened it up in a trapezoid shape so you could see all of it at the same time,” she says.
Casarosa and Strijleva fell in love with the colorful people of the area. Characters like the three older women who sit on a bench, the men playing cards at a table, a shop owner, a restaurant owner and the fishermen were all based on working-class people, and everyone had a specific job with a backstory. For influences, Strijleva says, “We looked at Italian neorealist films. We also looked at Jacques Tati films because there is so much charm and humor to them.”
Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, had a gentle design. “He’s curious and has a huge imagination and peeps at the world through his big expressive eyes,” she says.
Getting the distinctive character of the sea just right was one of the biggest challenges. “That was the hardest part to design. The color is so rich, we wanted to preserve that,” she says. “I wanted that world to be moving and feel organic, with no straight lines.”
In true Pixar style, there are Easter eggs galore. Viewers should note the street names that pay homage to a filmmaker or an author, for example. “We had lots of fun in the graphic design,” says Strijleva.”