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How ‘Vivo’ Managed an Animated Oner With the Help of Roger Deakins

TheWrap magazine: Director Kirk DeMicco explains how the Oscar-winning DP consulted on the Netflix film

A version of this story about “Vivo” first appeared in the special animation section of Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

There is so much vying for your attention these days, especially in terms of animation, that it’s important to grip the attention and imagination of the audience as quickly as possible. For “Vivo,” the animated musical conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda and co-written by his “In the Heights” collaborator Quiara Alegría Hudes, the approach was simple: envelop the viewer in the world of a singing kinkajou named Vivo (Miranda) who travels from Cuba to America to fulfill his master Andrés’ (Juan de Marcos González) last wish, with a big, brassy, cannot-look-away musical number.

Easy enough, right? But what if the same number covered a huge amount of storytelling ground and emotional real estate? Oh, and it was captured in a single fluid take?

As director and co-writer Kirk DeMicco tells it, the sequence wasn’t initially staged as a showstopping single take. That idea came later, from choreographer Calvit Hodge. “At first, it was really just an idea of figuring out the dance reference,” he said. “It was more about the authenticity, the cultural representation of the background dancers — so when the tourists and other folks in the plaza were dancing along, there would also be locals there and we could see how each one would dance. Calvit and his team had gone into a studio to choreograph and they had done it with their cameras and had choreographed most of it as one shot.”

A moment in Hodge’s video when one of the bystanders takes a selfie sparked DeMicco’s determination to make the sequence a single take, but the animators who’d have to execute that idea were taken aback. “They were all like, ‘One what? One shot? Who’s going to do that?’ It’ll take a year,’” DeMicco said. (Kevin Webb, the head of animation, said that the shot had 1,500 frames, which DeMicco admits is “unheard of in animation.”) Also important was the amount of storytelling they had to get across: The sequence is braided with mini-flashbacks, and it encompasses almost an entire day. 

“Vivo” had a secret weapon up its sleeve, though: the involvement of Roger Deakins, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who had just made “1917,” a film that mimicked being a single continuous take. Deakins was tasked with “understanding how we could feel all the excitement and that immediacy of being in a one-shot opening.” Also, like “1917,” he would have to identify where separate shots could be “stitched” together to appear seamless.

“The super cool thing of working with Roger, especially in animation, is when Roger shows up as a DP, his brain does not think of camera and lighting being in two separate departments,” DiMicco said. “It’s his department.”  

DeMicco, Deakins and the rest of the collaborators soon gave the shot even more narrative importance. Since we’re introduced to Andrés and Vivo as a busking act, the single shot would put the audience in the shoes of the tourists that happen upon their show.

“The idea of that one shot felt like we, the audience, showed up and were watching it,” DeMicco said. “If we had shown up with a camera and followed one busking act around, you wouldn’t be doing lots of different cuts. You would be with them and then just carrying the phone with you and videoing it. I think it was a really cool way of making us have the opportunity to have the audience right there as if you had just shown up in Cuba and you were filming this act.”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Tessa Thompson Cover of Awards Preview Magazine
Photographed by Matt Sayles