Meet Luca’s Canadian character designer, Deanna Marsigliese

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | June 21, 2021

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Disney Plus

When Pixar tackles coming-of-age stories you get classics like Inside Out. Luca isn’t as conceptually ambitious as that modern masterpiece, but it’s charming and poignant all the same.

Luca is a sea monster with chores and responsibilities who lives in an underwater Italian villa. A chance encounter with a rudderless teen named Alberto teaches Luca two things: you become human outside the water, and you can get away with lots of fun stuff when there are no parents around. Cut to two teens spending a dream summer on the Italian Riviera behaving like you’d expect. Alberto and Luca become obsessed with getting a Vespa. Luckily for them, the local village has a bizarre competition that presents the opportunity to win one… if they’re not discovered first.

Luca is an amiable and freewheeling romp that (literally) uses the fish-out-of-water premise to show the teenage experience with all its discovery of abilities and personality traits. It’s a great movie (even if too many critics have hyperbolically compared it to Call Me by Your Name).

Luca’s character art director, Deanna Marsigliese, is a Pixar veteran (2012–present) and Torontonian who has contributed designs to most of the Disney subsidiary’s films in the last six years, including Inside Out and Toy Story 4. We spoke about her work and the importance of effective collaboration.

You’re not just Luca’s character art director, you’re also an animation sketch artist. Is it normal to have both roles?

It’s more on the unique side. I started my career as a 2-D animator, and I moved to character design because I wanted to keep drawing and CGI animation didn’t have enough of it.

When I started designing these characters, I was always thinking of them in terms of movement. You want the animation style to inform the look of the characters: movement and shape have to work together. When the designs were finalized, I was already working with animation and they invited me to be part of the department. I spent 10 months developing the animation style, drawing over poses and collaborating.

Can you pinpoint a specific contribution that you’re proud of?

Being able to take a style — a very nebulous concept — and articulate it clearly so it can be applied. At some point, you step back from the character on the page and start seeing patterns: bold shapes, lots of texture, no straight lines or sharp corners. I could go to the animators and tell them, “This is what we discovered in art [direction]. I’m going to give you this information to keep everything fun and beautiful and cohesive.”

How did you develop a working relationship with director Enrico Casarosa?

It takes time. My job as the character art director is to reach into the director’s brain and his heart and pull out exactly what he wants. You gradually build a rapport and a trust. It’s something you get comfortable with over time. I worked on Luca for four years. By the end of it, I’d like to think I intrinsically knew what Enrico was after.

What can you tell me about the visual references you used?

We looked at a lot of Italian film and thousands of historical photographs of mid-century Italy. We also did a research trip to Cinque Terre. On the character side, I was looking at hand-carved folk art from all over the world, medieval depictions of sea monsters, scientific illustrations and Japanese woodblock prints.

What was the biggest challenge your department faced?

Transformation. Going from sea monster to human and human to sea monster. That could have gone very wrong because we were dealing with scales, fingers splitting and tails retracting — all stuff that could be creepy if not done right. We did a lot of iterating, but I believe we found a way to make it look beautiful, lyrical and charming like the rest of the film.