Leaning into the Curve

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A rare and talented kinkajou. An odd girl out with a passion for life. Together, Vivo and Gabi embark on a quest to fulfill the last dream of Andrés, Vivo’s beloved musical companion who has just passed away. Here, Director Kirk DeMicco discusses the making of Vivo—a journey that mirrors the movie’s own story.

CG girl with purple hair and a kinkajou. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.
Photo by Michael Lewis.

Take us through the four distinct locations that are used to tell Vivo’s story.

The initial story that Lin[-Manuel Miranda] had been working on since 2009 included a journey from Havana to Miami, and it had a detour through the Everglades. Then when I came onboard and we started talking about it with [writer] Quiara [Alegría Hudes], we wanted to bring in this girl character, Gabi. She’s a downtown kid in the suburbs. How can you do that in Florida? Key West!

The four visual resets of Havana to Key West to the Everglades and Miami were really an opportunity also for us to showcase that part of the world in CG animation and the amazing tropical Caribbean lighting, [and to tell] the journey of Vivo through the colors and the lighting. I think one place where it really shows is the idea of taking Vivo from that warmth, his home, in Havana, and blasting him into Key West with this blown-out lighting and kitschy colors—for his character, that was the first shock. 

CG man and kinkajou singing

And transitioning into the Everglades. Vivo’s a kinkajou, but he grew up in the city … and we wanted to play that out. It was really fun, knowing Lin’s personality. Lin’s a city guy, too. So that idea that he would not be comfortable in that swamp—how could we make it more and more claustrophobic? Then Miami, which became our sort of Emerald City. We took a complete license with skyscrapers and midcentury architecture. It’s like Brickell [Avenue] and Ocean Drive came smashing together, [plus] LED screens went up everywhere.

[Finally there’s] the return, into Miami’s Mambo Cabana Theater which [takes Vivo] back into the lighting of Havana—as companion lighting and a companion feel to his time with Andrés growing up in his apartment.  

CG girl with helmet and kinkajou on bike

How did Vivo’s themes evolve as the movie was being made?

The original sort of alpha theme that Lin had in the beginning, of the song … “One of a Kind,” was this partnership between two performers who played the same show 20 times a day, seven days a week. Then they lived together, too, and they had a routine there. Their whole life was one of routine and love, and what would happen if you lost your partner? What would [happen] when you’re completely out of step? When you’re adrift? 

I think that idea of moving past loss, moving through loss, overcoming grief, got more crystalized when Lin wrote “Keep the Beat,” the song in the second act, which he wrote last summer in lockdown. It was the idea of pressing on and keeping on in light of big change, and you never know what’s around the corner. It was crazy. We all became Vivo last March. We had animation schedules. We had everything planned to the minute of all the things we were going to do, and then everything went up in the air. Everyone went home, and we became Vivo trying to deliver this film. 

It sounds like the pandemic had a significant impact on the film. 

“Keep the Beat” is a time capsule of last summer, and it will forever be for me. When Lin wrote it, that scene [had already] existed for two years—the scene between Gabi and Vivo on the raft in the Everglades. It was fine. No one had a problem with it. We loved it. [But] last summer we watched a screening, and he said, ‘Listen, there’s just one thing Kirk. This isn’t about your movie. This is me talking musically. I believe architecturally this movie could use a song in the middle of the second act between the two character intro songs.’ He’s like, it might not matter to anybody else but me.

There was this moment with Vivo and Gabi, the first sparks of a friendship … when you are going through something difficult. He’s going through the hardest thing in his life. He just lost his best friend. That idea was paired with the mood we were all in. And when that song came through with Lin’s vocals on his demo, about keeping the beat and leaning into the curve, I felt like the whole crew looked at that as the life raft, the anthem, of getting the movie done. No matter what came to us, we were leaning into the curve. 

Girl with purple hair and kinkajou in Everglades

What inspired the dramatic visual shifts for certain scenes?

When we first started, I had this idea—there’s going to be all these different songs, and we’re going to do a different look for every song. But that was not production-friendly, nor was it artistically smart. So what was organic, what was earned? In [the song] “Mambo Cabana,” the first influences of that 2D style came from Carlos and the art direction’s team of really building a world where it’s Andrés’ memories of the place he thought Miami would be when he [was planning to go there]. And it was the world that Vivo had thought Miami was because he grew up in an apartment with only record albums from the 1950s with Jim Flora designs and travel postcards and nostalgic looks at a world that was from the past. 

Animated man woman dancing

The second time was in the “My Own Drum” sequence where we meet Gabi. That design and that idea came from, how can we really blow the doors off Vivo’s world? What could we show him that he could not be prepared for—a little girl who’s like, welcome to my bedroom, this is gonna be great! And he’s like, no—no no no no! I do not want to be part of this crazy world that you’ve inspired! 

I think the fun part for all of us was the original idea of trying to make this a musical that was told with songs throughout the entire picture. The idea that it was a theatrical presentation. That’s why we have curtains opening at the beginning and curtains closing at the end. 

CG girl in helmet and kinkajou in suitcase

What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of watching Vivo?

Like I said through our own production, you can’t prepare for everything and you have to take it as it comes. But if you have an open heart, and you’re open to friendships or relationships, you can find your way. And Andrés is not gone. He lives on in Vivo’s heart. The music lives on. The love carries forward. I think that was the story Lin wanted to tell. I hope that that’s what people take away.

CG man playing guitar and kinkajou