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Interview: Story Supervisor John Hoffman and Character Art Director Deanna Marsigliese Talk Pixar’s ‘Luca’

June 14, 2021Ben MK

It's human nature to be afraid of the unknown. But what if the unknown was equally scared of us? In Pixar's Luca, that sums up the premise, as the residents of the seaside Italian town of Portorosso have shared myths about mysterious sea monsters for centuries. Little do they realize, however, that those very same sea creatures also have their own tales about the land-dwellers above. And when a young sea monster named Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and his newfound pal Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) venture beyond their home beneath the waves, they find not only friendship — they discover that just because something is different doesn't mean it should be feared.

I caught up with Story Supervisor John Hoffman and Character Art Director Deanna Marsigliese to chat about the making of Luca, their favorite characters, and how the films of Studio Ghibli inspired the movie.

The end credits of Luca has a note that says the film was "dreamed up at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California and produced in our slippers around the Bay area." How did working remotely during the pandemic change the way everyone at Pixar approached the movie?

Hoffman: It was tricky. Working in story, luckily, we didn't have the technological barriers that a lot of the other departments of the studio did, so we were relatively unaffected. But the thing for us was just figuring out how to keep the team connected and how to find ways to make sure that everyone feels like they're really involved in making the same the same movie. And just keeping spirits up in pretty rough times. I think that was the the biggest challenge, from a story perspective.

Marsigliese: I know that it could have been quite the hiccup, but I think we made it out really beautifully. It's very common to have 10, 20 artists in a room when you're having a discussion, and to then be forced to work individually from home really puts a damper on the spontaneous collaboration. The thing I missed the most was having those casual chats in the hallway where problems would be solved on the way to lunch. But the crew was really loved the film and we all just really worked so well together. So even though [we had to rely on] Zoom, we were able to keep going and have fun with it, and I think the end result shows that for sure.

As the Story Supervisor and the Character Art Director for the film, what was the collaborative process like with director Enrico Casarosa and writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones?

Hoffman: It was really great. This is my first time being a story supervisor, so was it was really fun to be in that room with the director and the writers, and all of us just trying to figure out how we're going to make this movie better, how do we tell this moment, how do we land this emotional beat. The beginning of the movie was really challenging, just because you're bringing the audience into this new world that they haven't seen before, so you have to set up the rules of what that's like, but then you also have to set up the needs and the wants of your of your main character, Luca, at the same time. But it was a really great, satisfying collaboration.

Marsigliese: It was amazing. Because I'm on the art side, I was mostly collaborating with Enrico. For me, it was about trying to understand the tone he wanted, what he wanted to communicate, and the feel. But I was very much inspired by Enrico's natural sensibilities and his drawing style, which is loose and textural and playful but also very sophisticated. That was a huge jumping-off point for me, to design both the sea monsters and the humans.

Speaking of the sea monsters and the humans, the look of the movie and its characters strongly reminded me of some of Studio Ghibli's films. Were you inspired at all by Studio Ghibli, and what other movies, books, etc. did you draw inspiration from?

Marsigliese: Ghibli was a huge inspiration for Enrico. [He's] a huge fan of Miyazaki and his films. One in particular was an early series of the Miyazaki called Future Boy Conan. I had actually never seen it before working on this film, and it completely changed the way I was approaching this film. But I was looking at everything from Carta Marina, which are the antique maps where sea monsters are decorative elements on, to Japanese block prints, because you have a lot of really strong shapes with super intricate patterning. I looked at folk art from all over the world, especially anything hand-carved, because you really feel and see the hand of the artist. And I also looked at a lot of scientific illustrations, because they're so rich in texture.

Hoffman: Absolutely. I also love Studio Ghibli, and when I started on the movie I watched quite a few of their movies — Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service — just to try and find that vibe. And then, as a team, we also watched a lot of Italian films and a lot of films about friendship.

Who's your favorite character in the film, and what was your favorite scene to work on?

Hoffman: Alberto's probably my favorite character, just because he's really funny and I like how much trouble and shenanigans he tends to get the pair into. Machiavelli Massimo's cat is a favorite as well, just because he was always fun to work with. [Picking] a favorite scene in the movie that I worked on is a little tough, because I worked on a lot of different sections, but I'm really happy with how the back end of the movie turned out. The landing of the emotional beats and the excitement of the race was all pretty satisfying.

Marsigliese: I love Nona, the grandmother. She's very cool. I love that she's this old sea monster, so you have this atrophied, knotted tail and the barnacles. I love Alberto, [because] he's just so charming. And I have a very soft spot for Julia, this redheaded Italian girl with an attitude. I really relate to her a lot and I find her very inspiring. [As for] favorite scene, Luca learning to walk is probably one of my favorites. I also really adore the montages. I love these clips of just beautiful, playful fun.

Luca is ultimately about friendship, acceptance and being true to oneself. What do you personally want viewers to take away from the movie?

Hoffman: As we all do, I have really important friendships from my from my childhood, and that's really great to take away. Just remembering those times and how important those friends were to you and also, like Alberto is to Luca, how important that friendship was in shaping the person that you became. And maybe it makes you pick up the phone or send a message or an email or something to that friend that you haven't seen in a while.

Marsigliese: The theme of friendship, for me, is what resonated the most. The fact that you can meet a person and they can have such an impact on your life — that they could open the world up to you and give you the strength and the courage to pursue what you want and find your place in the world. This idea that a true friend is also someone who's willing to let you go and to move past them is [something] very poetic and very beautiful.

Last but not least, what kind of advice would you give to someone looking to break into the animation industry at this time?

Marsigliese: I'm very old-school, so I would say, especially if you want to become a character designer for animation, definitely consider learning the art of animation itself. And when I say that, I'm really referring to 2D — the classical style of animation — because it involves so much drawing and it's very gestural and very quick. I feel like these are skills you're going to really want to have, especially when you're designing a character.

Hoffman: There's two levels of advice. One is obviously working on your craft. So if you want to be a story artist, it's working on your drawing, working on understanding how to tell a story, and how you can combine those two to tell a story. But overall, I think grit is the biggest thing. If this is an industry that you want to get into, you have to keep working on your craft and know that that practice and that work you put in will eventually create an opportunity for you. But you need to be tough and you need to keep aggressively pursuing your goals. You can't lean back and just hope that something's going to come your way.

Pixar's Luca premieres June 18th, exclusively on Disney+.

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