‘Luca’: The real Italian town and Studio Ghibli film that inspired Pixar's stunning new film (exclusive)

A still from Pixar's Luca which will stream exclusively on Disney+ from 18 June (Disney)
A still from Pixar's Luca which will stream exclusively on Disney+ from 18 June (Disney)

Luca, the latest feature from Pixar, moves in a completely different direction from the last film to come out of the animation house — Soul — not just to a new country, but toward a smaller, more insular setting.

That would be the fictional Italian coastal town of Portorosso, which director Enrico Casarosa imagined as a portmanteau of multiple towns in his home region of Liguria in Italy; he invented a sixth coastal town for the region's Cinque Terre (“five towns”).

In the film, sea-monster Luca tries to assimilate into human life in Portorosso while struggling with fraternal and familial bonds.

Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in June

We spoke with director Enrico Casarosa and producer Andrea Warren about the film’s inspirations and the challenges in creating it.

Your personal journey from Italy to New York feels like it overlaps with Luca’s story. How much of your own story did you want to express with this film?

Italian filmmaker Enrico Casarosa of the nominated animated short film
Enrico Casarosa's Pixar short La Luna was nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2012 Oscars (REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

Enrico Casarosa: Yeah, I feel there is a lot of overlap. There was the inspiration of myself and my best friend growing up and our relationship, what we had to go through and how we helped each other grow up, that was in the first pitch.

I also relate to the way that there is this insecure voice that Luca has in his head, so we were also trying to make a movie that felt very relatable and very true to how we think. You know, we're sometimes our own worst critics. So we need people like Alberto to tell us “Don't worry, we can do this, you know?

As he says, “Silencio Bruno!”

A still from Pixar's Luca which will stream exclusively on Disney+ from 18 June (Disney)
Alberto (r) encourages Luca (l) to ignore his inner voice with the phrase 'Silencio Bruno!' (Disney)

[laughs] Yeah that line was really fun, apologies to the Brunos of the world. But yeah, within the full journey of the movie, there is something that I wanted to capture – with a little spoiler alert here – but like wanting to capture with the sense of airing this bittersweet sense of having to carry your home and your friends and your family into the world.

Because you have to leave them behind, but you also have their hope toward the future. I definitely experienced that kind of complex emotion many times. So that was something I was really chasing to try to convey. It's difficult, but it's wonderful.

A few people picked up on the town name ‘Portorosso’ as a reference to Studio Ghibli’s Italy-set Porco Rosso the father’s design reminded me a little of Kiki’s Delivery Service too what elements of those films, if any, did you have in mind when making your own?

EC: The inspiration for Portorosso first came from melding towns that really exist. So it was our wish to kind of say there's Portofino there's Portavenere near Cinque Terre, and one of the towns in Cinque Terre was Monterosso. So it's a mountain instead of a port.

Cinque Terre means ‘five towns’ as there’s just five beautiful towns in Liguria. We made our own one, that was trying to take everything in, we wanted it to be the summation of the towns in the area, we were making a sixth town.

I'll say though that of course that Porco Rosso is a movie I absolutely love so that was just a wonderful extra reason to, to name it that way. It had a nice ring to me.

Did you know a cat like Machiavelli?

In Disney and Pixar’s “Luca,” a sea monster and his newfound best friend venture beyond the water where they look like regular boys, experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. Directed by Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”), “Luca” opens in U.S. theaters June 18, 2021. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Alberto and Luca have the power to transform into humans on dry land (Disney)

I didn't know a cat like Machiavelli! But there's a lot of cats in the street in most of Liguria which is as a big part of why we ended up with Machiavelli.

How did your collaboration on the film begin?

Andrea Warren: Yeah, I joined this project right when the first screening was happening so and Rico was on for a little bit about a year or so. And then I joined. And, you know, I was just so excited to I love and Rico short La Luna if you've seen it, it's just this beautiful, poetic, short, and I was really excited to bring that filmmaking sensibility, you know, to a feature film at Pixar and just It feels like it's just something different and something new.

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 10:  (L-R) Director Brian Fee, producers Andrea Warren and Kevin Reher attend the premiere of Disney and Pixar's
Andrea Warren (centre) with filmmakers Brian Fee and Kevin Reher in 2017 (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

And just a really fun story about kids and friendship and, and even if some of us didn't grow up on the beautiful Italian Riviera, I think there is a lot to relate to in this film.

With their different forms you essentially had to have two designs for each character what were the challenges in rigging and animating these?

BELOW THE SURFACE – Jack Dylan Grazer and Jacob Tremblay lend their voices to  Alberto and Luca — two sea monsters who meet one summer off the coast of the Italian Riviera. With a shared fascination with all things human, Alberto and Luca venture to the seaside town of Portorosso together, where they experience gelato, pasta and the power of friendship. Directed by Academy Award® nominee Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”), “Luca” debuts on Disney+ on June 18, 2021. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Jack Dylan Grazer (IT/Shazam) and Jacob Tremblay (Room/Wonder) lend their voices to Alberto and Luca (Disney)

EC: That was very tricky. The transformations were a whole project for us the technical project because you're absolutely right, you have two different things that need to happen at the same time.

It took us a long time to figure out exactly what it should look like. Of course real sea creatures were inspiration, we looked at octopuses and squids. And then we had to give the controls to the animators. It was really hard, there’s was a whole rig that made for them to be able to control areas and zones because we realised the timing [between human and sea monster] needed to keep on shifting.

Watch a trailer for Luca

We also realised these transformations should be supported by emotion, as well as a bit of pragmatism — by the middle of the movie, you don't want to see a transformation takes 20 seconds anymore, right? You want it to be quick, for the the comedy and other fun bits. So we realised we need a lot of flexibility.

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We needed to do it as the animators were moving and making the performance. So that took a long time. It was very technical! It got really hard when, for example, they stayed half transformed onscreen. It was really painstaking, our amazing team really took it on.

Luca will stream exclusively on Disney+ from 18 June.