Editor's Note: This article contains movie spoilers.
Aurora is a world away from the made-up, Italian-inspired landscape of Pixar’s latest film, “Luca,” but both director Enrico Casarosa and animator Earl Brawley spent parts of their childhoods among the Rockies.
For Brawley, those childhood memories in Colorado directly influenced the sunny adventures of the movie’s main character, Luca, a shapeshifting water monster who befriends a like-minded free spirit named Alberto. The pair defy the wishes of Luca’s overprotective parents and venture out to the coastal town of Portorosso, where even more escapades await.
“Me and my best friend [were] kind of nerdy types and we would always kind of have these kinds of silly adventures,” Brawley said of his past in Aurora. “One time, they were building houses and they just had the driveway paved, and we dug a hole underneath the driveway and had a little cave there.”
Brawley also traced the start of his animation career back to Aurora. At Smoky Hill High School, he experimented with his first computer animation programs. “I always loved playing on the computer at home, and I think we did something like CAD [Computer Assisted Design] or something where you could build your own house,” he said. “The assignment was to build a dream house, but just being in this virtual world was just kind of mind blowing to me.”
His mother encouraged Brawley to pursue his interest in graphic design, which led him to Aurora’s Platt College. The graphic design program there at the time allowed students to go into either web design or animation. Brawley chose the latter and made a student film about foosball players. “I could animate the camera going in and I had music edited to it,” he said. "Yeah, I can actually create something!"
Eventually, his career took him out of Colorado, first to the Vancouver Film School in Canada and then to Japan for work as an animator. Even early on, Brawley had his sights set on joining Pixar.
“I remember applying after school, I'm thinking, ‘I probably have no chance, but I have to try,’” he said. “I ended up going to Japan and that was a whole new adventure, and I kind of got comfortable there, but it was still in the back of my mind that I wanted to get to Pixar. Then from there, I ended up going to Sony Image Works in Vancouver and that was kind of the next step, getting into feature film. I was able to be in a lead role, but it was still in the back of my mind, like, ‘Ah, but Pixar. I have to be at Pixar.’"
Brawley said he had almost given up on his dream of working for Pixar when Pixar finally offered him a job.
“I had actually bought a condo literally one week before I got the offer from Pixar. I talked to my wife, I'm like, ‘What are we going to do?’ And she's just like, ‘Well, we have to go,’ because that's been my goal from the beginning.”
As part of his first movie for Pixar, Brawley helped animate certain scenes and gestures for some of the main characters of “Luca.” He pitched ideas to other animators that would then make it into the film if they liked it.
“One of the best kind of acting ideas I had was Luca and Alberto are in the hideout and he's regretting being there. He wants to go home [underwater]. And he's like, ‘Well, thank you. But.’ And then I just had this picture in my head of him doing a little bow, almost like a Japanese bow. I kind of did that in my blocking and that came across really well. Everybody really liked it,” Brawley said.
Brawley said some animators get assigned to animate a certain character, but many get assigned a number of shots to draw.
“It's nice to have a chunk of shots because sometimes you're building up something emotionally in the characters and you can kind of work that in through your chunk of shots,” he said.
In the film, Alberto teaches Luca to conquer his fears and doubts with a definitive motto, “Silenzio, Bruno!” Bruno being the voice of doubt inside one’s head. Brawley said that many animators deal with doubt.
“I think animators in general, we're always doubting ourselves, especially when you come up against something very challenging and you'll start struggling with it, and then you'll start to doubt that you can do this job,” he said. “Like, ‘I can't. This is it. I can't do this anymore. I'm not good enough.’ But you just have to kind of rely on the people who are there to help you and kind of get you through that.”
Whether in Aurora or elsewhere, Brawley had advice for other aspiring animators.
“I think when you're looking for a job, cast a wide net, especially in the beginning,” he said. “Getting that first job is pretty tough. The more open you are to relocating or working in whatever medium, the easier it's going to be. Wherever you go, you're going to be able to learn something there.”
He also has other advice, something that resonates with the film.
“The other thing is don't wait on things,” Brawley said, channeling the adventurous spirit of “Luca.” “You have to live your life and things will just play out as they do.”