Korean animators enjoy challenge of bringing 'Luca' to life
What makes Disney and Pixar animated films special is their ability to craft a personal story fusing it with fantastical elements that can touch audiences in different ways as they reflect back on their own childhoods and memories.
The upcoming animated film “Luca,” slated to premiere in local theaters Thursday, is another beautifully depicted tale of two sea monsters, Luca and Alberto, on an adventure to a seaside town on the Italian Riviera where they must keep their identities hidden. During a local online press event in May, director Enrico Casarosa revealed that the story was adapted from his own childhood in Genoa with his best friend Alberto.
The film is set in summer in the 1950s, and instead of peering into smartphones, children spend time playing soccer out in the town square, enjoying gelato on the streets, or riding bicycles. The nature and the sea surrounding the town are exquisitely depicted as if they are drawn in watercolors, and the audience can enjoy the sheer vivacity of the bright and warm colors the film brings to the screen as Luca and Alberto embark on their adventure.
Behind-the-scenes are two Korean animators, layout artist Shaun Kim and lighting master Joh Sung-yeon, who were respectively in charge of camera directing and lighting for the film.
After graduating from department of printmaking at Hongik University, Joh joined Pixar in 2000 and was behind films such as “Monsters, Inc” (2001), "Finding Nemo" (2003), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Ratatouille” (2007) and “Inside out” (2015).
Kim, on the other hand, graduated from the department of film & animation at Hongik University and worked in Korea as an animator for five years before he joined the studio in 2012, while he was studying abroad at graduate school. He worked on “Monsters University” (2013), “The Good Dinosaur” (2016), “Finding Dory” (2016), “Coco” (2018), “Toy Story 4” (2019) and “Soul” (2021).
The two animators met up with local press online last week to explain a little more about their roles and work in the Pixar studio.
Lighting an animation is all about color, Joh explained.
“I was in charge of coloring the sky and the sunset in a scene where the two boys are talking at the top of a tower during a sunset,” Joh said. “To depict that scene, I repeatedly watched numerous videos about how the sun sets on a town in the Italian Riviera and what color the sun is when it sets and how the town shimmers when the sunlight hits from a specific direction. When the boys are talking they lit up a campfire. In that case, the lighting means the light that flickers upon the boys from the fire.
“To put it simply, you should think of our department as similar to coloring when drawing a picture,” Joh said. “After you finish everything with drafting, you make it pretty with coloring, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that follows that.”
While Joh is focused on color, Kim looks at how the movie fits together.
“I was in charge of the overall opening sequence of the film and there’s a part where the sea monster slightly go in and out the surface of the water, or scenes where the shadow of a hand is glimpsed next to a boat,” Kim said, explaining in detail for people who may be unfamiliar with his role. “I decide the lenses, the position and the movements of the camera and deliberate over how to naturally connect the scenes together, like from a character’s reaction to the next scene.”
According to Kim, the layout artists are given a sequence to direct the overall design of the scene, adding their own creative touches, similar to making a short animated film.
The monsters in the movie have the ability to change into human form when they step on dry land, but the minute water hits even a part of their skin, it changes back to their original scales. Joh says that this physical transformation was one of the trickiest parts to depict in lighting.
“They need to transform as water hits their skin,” Joh explained. “We went through a lot of revisions until it was approved by the director. And when the characters change, their eyes change into a monster form as well, and we deliberated a lot on how it can look alien but not scary. We tried to find the right tone and shading to portray the wet scales too.”
Joh and Kim also discussed the different working styles of Pixar directors.
“Directors have very different preferences and styles when it comes to animation,” Kim said. “For instance, Brad Bird, director of the ‘Incredibles’ series, wants backgrounds with a combination of straight lines like a graphic novel, and Lee Unkrich, director of ‘Coco,’ focuses on the loveliness of the characters. All the close-ups in ‘Coco’ were shot on 50mm lenses to accentuate the very best of how the characters could look.”
“Casarosa is actually a very good artist,” Joh revealed. “He’s really good with watercolors, and he also published a book about watercolors as well. From what I know, he wanted to make a film like a storybook. In the case of the lighting, we brought in the watercolor textures and adapted them to the screen, such as how the water and the ink fuses and spreads out on the paper.”
Joh and Kim are both very happy to be working at Pixar, the dreamland for many aspiring animators across the globe.
“I do feel that the studio is trying to fairly give a chance to all the workers here,” Kim noted. “And since we’re a studio based on films, even though we work in the same studio for years, it seems like we’re entering a new world, filming and studying new things every year based on whatever new projects we’re given. So it doesn’t feel like we’ve been working for a long time even if we did.”
Joh added that the studio was a multicultural environment in which she felt no particular inconvenience working as a Korean animator.
“What’s more, our results, the films that we created, are beloved by audiences all over the world, so there’s a huge satisfaction in that,” she said.
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]