'Vivo' Director Kirk DeMicco On The Film's Evolution, Roger Deakins' Involvement, And More [Interview]

In the wake of the success of his stage version of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing songs for Vivo, a movie he pitched to Sony Pictures Animation in 2010. A changing of the guard at the studio meant that the film essentially slipped through the cracks, but after Hamilton became a mega-hit, the new guard at Sony gave it a second look and hired filmmaker Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) to direct. I had the chance to speak with DeMicco over Zoom about finding the movie's visual style, significant changes made during the production, how Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins contributed to the movie, and much more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

I attended a press event recently where you explained that the scene with Gabi and Vivo on the raft in the Everglades was reworked and a song was added instead of traditional dialogue. Are there any other examples of that level of change happening during the making of this movie?

Yeah, that one was particular. It was a scene we had written and recorded with Lin many times, and it was fully boarded. It wasn't animated, but it was pretty set up, even in layout. But it was musical-ized. But then the other songs, like "Own Drum," that was written for our story by Lin as we were going, and then we boarded to it. The other area was where he took a big chunk of real estate and musical-ized it was at the end of the second act and into the third act, where they're going from the Everglades into Miami. The whole run-up from the boat to the Mambo Cabana was a sequence of scenes. It was all sort of an action montage of them going. We had always had this little [musical bit] from a previous melody Lin had as sort of like an underscore, but as we were doing it, he just took all four scenes and musical-ized it with lyrics, to that same melody. Which was really cool, because it gave a chance for Zoe Saldana to have a singing part, and Leslie David Baker [now] has a singing part. The amazing thing for me was watching him be able to compress so much real estate into this song. You realize, "Gosh, there's a lot of fat on these things." It takes the best things and pulled it all together.

I'm so curious about the development of this project and the timing of how it all worked out, because I know Lin was working on this in 2009, and then you came on around 2016. Were you able to actually begin the animation process before Lin completed writing most of the film's original songs?

We were boarding all the time, and we would always have placeholders in. Sometimes, like Marta's song, we had a Latin pop song that was tonally correct for that area for a long time, while we're working out the story so you're not writing songs that will get cut from the film. So when "Inside Your Heart" came in, that's the mission of the movie, delivering that love song. "One of a Kind" had been there from [Lin's] earliest works. It changed a little bit – there's the backstory and the flashback is different – but the style and what it was, two partners working together, perfect rhythm, perfect cadence, that was there. But there was no endpoint. There was no goal song. So that one took longer, but while that was going on, we were always boarding and doing other layout. If we thought there was going to be a song, we wouldn't animate without them. But "Keep the Beat" and that last going to Miami song, those came last summer, during COVID. He didn't turn the table over – it wasn't new assets or new characters, it was using the materials. He's made enough animated musicals now that it's nice to have a pro who understands our process and can work within our limitations.

Can you talk about how you decided on the look of the film? There's a really interesting blend going on: some parts look photo-real, but the characters are super stylized, and there are these beautiful sections where it changes to a more 2D aesthetic.

In the very beginning when I first heard the songs – I love Miami, I've lived there in South Florida – I thought, "Oh, this is something new for CG. I haven't seen this in CG." The idea that first came was crude, but I had old travel postcards. Mid-century, old-school travel postcards. So there was that idea, and then the other part was sort of the mid-century LPs, like graphic album cover art. So Carlos Zaragoza, our production designer, we started working and talking about that, and then I was lucky to work before with Roger Deakins and the same head of layout, Yong Duk Jhun. So together, that lighting with our visual effects supervisor, they could pull the idea of what this lighting could be.

The fun part, I always felt, was this idea that there are four visual resets that could help us tell the story – Cuba, Key West, the Everglades, and Miami – at first, I was like, "Oh, there's ten different songs. We're going to do ten different visual animation styles!" And everyone at the table was like, "Because you don't have to do it." They have to actually make it. It also didn't make sense. But what it did do was kind of unglued the idea of what that 2D one became. Because that one kind of organically told the story. That was one to work for. It was something that Carlos and his art department team and Roger got it to feel like it was part of our world. It wasn't just a stunt or a gimmick.

The other one that leaps out is Gabi's song, "My Own Drum," which, what we wanted to do was scare the heck out of Vivo when he got there. Before, he's in his style, he's been raised by an elderly man, and all of a sudden he's thrown into this tween American's [room]: stickers and backpacks and all this stuff that comes alive and scares the heck out of him. I think that took a giant departure from the look of the film. Part of what excited me about a musical, and you've seen it in great movies like La La Land and Moulin Rouge, it's an alibi to open up. The song is your alibi. I felt like if we didn't go for it...but they wisely pulled me back from going for it every time. It has to be emotionally grounded.

So in your initial vision, was that 2D animation going to be appearing in a larger section of the movie and then it ended up being cut down into the current section? Were there any other parts of the movie that you envisioned being in that style before it evolved?

In the 2D, I think it was pretty much that one. What we were looking at was more in some of the subsequent sequences. The one thing about the 2D which I really love, and it came late when we really knew what was going on, was reprising it at the end when he sees Andres. There's a way of making it evocative: you want that Field of Dreams moment, but it's not a ghost. In [Vivo's] mind, that's how he saw it. So bringing that back was not part of the plan. Reprising that style for that moment was a really nice find.

You mentioned Roger Deakins earlier, and I was surprised to see his name in the credits here, because last I checked, I was under the impression that he was a visual consultant on DreamWorks Animation movies. Can you talk about his contributions to Vivo?

We had worked together on The Croods. When we first started talking about this, he had just finished up over at DreamWorks and he was available. So I called him and James, his wife, and they came in to talk about it, and I pitched them an early version. He was excited, because it was getting away from the photo-real. There has been this movement towards the photo-real in CG animation. And [he was excited about] the musical thing, which I believe he's never done. So the idea being to have these alibis to do these kind of things and push the animation. We talk about the lighting, but it's also that camera, and what I learned so much from Roger, was Carlos had this idea of making it very theatrical. I always said I wanted it to feel like one of those big stage studio musicals. Everything's lit, nothing has to feel real, every puddle is lit and designed, you know? There were times during the musical numbers where we were like, "It'd be really fun to get that eye candy with the camera really going around," but then it was like, "Well, he's singing, so let's bring it back." So it was an interesting push and pull between shooting it for the cinematic eye, and then what you would do stage-wise, following the singer with the spotlight. It was a challenge, and it took some time to get used to, but that's what we were trying to do.

From a writing perspective, there are certainly ideas and themes that land in this film, but Vivo didn't strike me as a big "lesson" movie in the same way that a lot of animated movies do. For example: Gabi doesn't end the film learning that her mom was right and she actually should be part of that scout troop. Were you actively trying to avoid having a big, overt, Disney-style moral in this movie?

Yeah, you know, it's a harder thing to do. [laughs] The thing about Gabi was, we wanted the [scout troopers] of the world to get a little Gabi-fied. She found partnership and she connected with her mom, and she opened up about something that she never was going to open up about with her dad. So that was where the meaning was, and having her have a friend was where we wanted to see her. She didn't need to change for them – and I'm not saying they need to change for her.

And then on the Vivo front, it was always an interesting thing because Vivo has found his life, he's in a great place with Andres, and this is a noble mission movie. He has got his heart in the right place, and this is an offering, a gift. A lot of times, we'd have the conversation: "What's in it for him?" Right now, it's about grief. It's a kid's movie, so we didn't want to be too much on it, but he's just trying to get through the grieving process. So we would look at the steps of the grieving process more than we looked at the hero's journey and the Joseph Campbell stuff. It wasn't about, "How do you seize the sword?" It's more like, "How do you survive death? How do you get over losing your dad, or losing your best friend?" And this happens only a few days after. Not everyone goes, "My uncle's dead. I'm going to go fight in the Rebellion." Most times, it's like, "My uncle's dead. I could very well sit in this corner for a year and not do anything." But [Vivo] can't. Him taking the step to just get out of that funk is, to me, the hero's journey for him. And then his reward is that tip of the hat [from Andres at the end]. It had a little of that Field of Dreams thing. It's a crazy idea. He's a kinkajou. He shouldn't be doing this. And he wasn't trying to get there to become a star. That wasn't it. It was, "This guy saved my life. I'm doing this for him." We used to have a lot more about it [in the film], but even Dancarino says to him, "What are you going to do now?" and he's like, "I don't know. Go back?" He had no plan. It wasn't like there was an alternative.

Given the cultural authenticity in this movie and the discussions being had about representation in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood right now, did you ever have any conversations with anyone about whether you were the right person to tell this particular story?

Yeah, when I started talking to Lin and Alex [Lacamoire] about this, the thing that was the most important to me, that I could do and help, was – I felt like I was a steward of this film. Do you know what I mean? Because it was Lin's music and the idea, that part was baked. The impression of going through it when I was working with [co-writer] Quiara [Alegria Hudes], it was interesting. One thing that meant a lot to me was casting [real-life musician] Juan de Marcos [to play Andres]. I always wanted to make a musical about these musicians, and I wanted it to be musicians. You could have [sought out actors first], right? But our casting director, when they got Juan de Marcos, talking to him and knowing what we could do, my thing was I wanted to bring as much as I can to that part of the party. It was a story about this love and the music, and that was something that was put on the map for me by watching Buena Vista Social Club or listening to "Conga" by Gloria Estefan, and we got both of them in the movie. It was more like, "I want to put this music on the map for kids." Because that's the idea. That's why we take ideas that have real roots, to open and show some people.


Vivo is streaming on Netflix now.