The Sea Monster to Human Transformation in 'Luca' is Partially Based on Mystique in the 'X-Men' Movies

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is able to transform into a human through a deal with a sea witch, in which she gives up her voice for legs. But in Pixar’s Luca, though it’s been compared to a riff on the Disney animated classic, there’s no such deal with the devil. The sea monsters of the upcoming Pixar coming-of-age film simply get out of the water and dry off, and they’re human. It’s a discovery that the titular protagonist of Luca (Jacob Tremblay) discovers, leading him on an adventure with his best friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) on the surface world. And it was important to character supervisors Beth Albright and Sajan Skaria that they get this transformation process right.

“[We had] this idea that there’s something in there, and we’re just exposing it or not exposing it, but it’s there all the time. It’s not like a suit that comes on,” Albright told /Film in an interview during a press presentation for Luca.

See how the Luca transformation works from concept art to final product, and why Albright and Skaria’s main direction was “don’t make it creepy.”

“From the beginning, Enrico was clear that he didn’t want it to be creepy or scary didn’t want any like claws sticking out or black with human being in very scary,” Albright said.

“Yeah, it it was all driven by…a childlike quality that Enrico wanted, and that’s something we hadn’t seen anywhere,” added Skaria. “[We saw] more of a horror, or detailed, or realistic transformations. It was really rare to find anything that was kind of like what Luca was doing, which was more graphic like cartoony in nature. And so that’s, that’s something I think we have successfully mended, on the show.”

So how did Albright and Skaria set about creating this transformation, when all previous examples of it were too horrific or monstrous to make it into a family-friendly film? They looked at the next best thing: Mystique in X-Men. Albright said that the Luca team latched onto the feathery transformation effect of Mystique in the X-Men films, first seen in the 2000 film X-Men and kept mostly consistent throughout the reboot films:

“I think in terms of all the stuff we’ve looked at, the closest kind of analog, or one of the closest analogs, was a Mystique’s transformation in the X-Men movies, because she had this sort of like feathery scaling thing.”

But it wasn’t quite there yet. The Mystique transformation was made to look deliberately sexual, and Albright said they didn’t want “a transformation like that where it just looks like it’s like wrapping on and wrapping off, like a bodysuit.” So they turned to a favorite source of inspiration for Luca: Hayao Miyazaki.

Albright said they looked at Miyazaki’s films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, less for any transformations, but for the rippling/shivering effect that goes through the entire body. Albright said:

“There’s another kind of inspiration that came from a Miyaziki film Kiki’s Delivery Service where the cat, Gigi, has these kind of like wind-like moments that come through, and there’s actually another similar and really interesting transformation in a Miyazaki film where…there’s almost this kind of like rush through the character when it happens. So that was something that was important to Enrico, that idea that it was like something happening physically.”

But were there any times when the character animation team accidentally stumbled into “creepy” territory during their process. Yes, Albright said, and it had to do with colors of the skin (note: fleshy colors on scales, always creepy!).

“When we were experimenting with the kind of intermediary stage, in between, there’s several stages between the human and the sea monster skin. There’s the sort of octopus spots at the scale splitting up and when the when the spots are either coming up or retreating into the human skin, they go through some different color iterations. And at one point we had the colors being more literal to the human skin colors and the sea monster skin colors, and we found that whenever there was anything, pink, or like a fleshy color that came into the scales that was super creepy and weird because it started to look like, like scales. We quickly realized that was a no-go and we had to keep all like either cooler greens and blues in there, maybe a little yellow but no orange.”

Luca arrives on Disney+ on June 18, 2021.

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