Aurora-born animator creates love letter to Italy in Pixar’s ‘Luca’

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Disneyplus.com screen shot. Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Wherever you are — whether it be in the suburban sprawl of Aurora or on the Italian coast — there’s a special magic to summertime when you’re a kid.

That feeling can never truly be reproduced past a certain age, but its memory will be evoked in viewers of all ages in Pixar’s upcoming movie “Luca.”

Set in a seaside town in Italy, the movie follows Luca and his friend Alberto, who are both sea-creatures that transform into humans when on land. Luca is curious about the world above the ocean, but his parents are resistant to letting him explore it, knowing the danger that will come if his true form is discovered by humans.

Once he befriends the more-adventurous Alberto, the pair travel to the local town and meet Giulia, a human girl locked in a battle of wills against Ercole,  the local bully. Giulia is determined to beat Ercole at this year’s Portorosso Cup race, which Ercole has won repeatedly. Luca and Alberto join forces with her to take him on, while trying to evade discovery of their true nature by the townspeople or capture from Luca’s frantic parents.

A classic coming of age story, the movie has many of the same beats as previous Pixar films: the power of friendship, anxious but loving parents, loveable underdogs, outsiders who must hide their identities, etc. But despite being predictable at times, the movie remains charming. The best part of “Luca” is the animation, which beautifully and creatively renders both the undersea scenes as well as the Italian coast.

The movie is directed by Italian-born Enrico Casarosa, who called the movie “a love letter to the summers of our youth.”

Casarosa first drew acclaim for his animated short “La Luna” which debuted with the Pixar movie “Brave” in 2012 and was nominated for an Academy Award. This is his directorial debut.

It’s also a debut for animator Earl Brawley. Brawley grew up in Aurora and attended Smoky Hill High School, where he became enthralled with animation and graphic design. He aspired to work with Pixar for years before being hired in early 2020, and “Luca” is his first movie with the company.

Brawley studied graphic design and animation at Platt College before moving to Canada, where he received a degree in 3D animation from the Vancouver Film School. From there he spent eight years in Japan working for different companies as an animator, then moved back to Vancouver to work for Sony Pictures, “all the time hoping and trying to get into Pixar.”

His dream was finally realized in January of 2020, when Pixar brought him on as an animator. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Brawley only spent two months in the office at his new job before switching to remote work. The process went smoothly for the most part, since “we’re sitting on the computer most of the time” for the job, he said. However, learning how to use new software while alone in his room was more challenging than it would have been otherwise.

As an animator, Brawley said he put Pixar “on a super high pedestal.” So far, he said the job has lived up to expectations (pandemic notwithstanding).

“Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging,” he said.

His personal favorite Pixar film is “Toy Story,” which he said he can watch again and again and get lost in every time — though he acknowledged that technology has come a long way in the intervening 26 years.

Brawley said he always loved drawing as a kid, but never really expected it to go anywhere. He got introduced to graphic design and computer animation in high school and it felt like a natural fit.

He encourages today’s young people who want to work in animation to be patient, stay committed to their art and be open to traveling.

“It might take some time,” he said. “Keep working on your artwork and take any opportunities you can get.”

He credited his experience living in different parts of the world with broadening his perspectives and helping him be a better animator, noting the field is very international. Pixar was serious about making “Luca” authentically Italian, he said — one day they had a class where an Italian teacher came in and taught them how to realistically represent Italian gestures.

Though he’s never lived in Italy, Brawley said the film reminded him of his own childhood spending time with his best friend in Aurora.

“As a kid, no matter where you are, life is similar,” he said.

The movie will be released on Disney+ on June 18.

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