Coco: A Duet Between the Living and the Dead

We were at Pixar to get a behind-the-scenes look at Coco, their new film about the Day of the Dead.

Pixar’s upcoming Coco might be the movie Adrian Molina was always destined to make. While the picture is his first co-directorial effort—he previously worked on the animation studio’s Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur—Molina’s passion for the material and everything it represents is instilled into each frame we saw during a press visit at Pixar Studios. It’s an exuberance that also came across during the first of several interviews with the filmmaker when he summed up the potential beauty of Coco in a few words.

Sitting with lead story artist Dean Kelly, Molina and his collaborator walk us through the evolution of Pixar’s Día de los Muertos film. The movie was first imagined and pitched by Molina’s co-director and Pixar legend, Lee Unkrich, and story supervisor Jason Katz in 2011. However, as soon Molina saw it was on the slate of upcoming Pixar projects, he jumped aboard the film with enthusiasm and has worked on it from every vantage: storytelling, personal history, even its emphasis on music. And it was on the subject of music when the director encapsulated his movie.

“What could this duet across the living and the dead sound like?” Molina said about the movie’s first pivotal scene: a young boy worshipping his musical idol by mimicking the long deceased musician’s guitar plucking. Together, the living child and the long faded movie star of yore on the kid’s VHS tape—the past and the present—create a bridge that crosses the decades between those in the here and now, and those we’ve lost. Coco in a nutshell.

Reflecting on how this sequence taps into the true meaning of Día de los Muertos—Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday—Molina reflects, “Stories are meant to be told, and memories are meant to be passed on… we knew Coco couldn’t just be a story that took place on the Day of the Dead, but a story that could only take place on the Day of the Dead. And we needed these traditions to be embedded in the story somehow.”

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And what a story it is.

Having watched the first 20-plus minutes of Coco, the film is clearly a marked departure for Pixar, a studio that generally favors universal themes over distinct exploration of culture. By contrast, Coco is a buoyant celebration of Mexican culture, as well as its often mischaracterized Día de los Muertos holiday. Usually conflated in the United States with Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a time to honor family, and it is all about the challenge of doing that for young Miguel.

In the first act of the movie, Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is the descendant of a long family line of shoemakers. Due to an ancient tragedy, the one thing the family tree has been more passionate about than their successful family business is their disdain for musicians, as one such black sheep abandoned his wife and children to pursue a career as a mariachi. This is doubly troubling for Miguel since he too would like to become a mariachi guitarist, and must hide a worn out VHS copy of old school Mexican movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), in a secret room where he teaches himself to play his instrument.

It’s a scene somewhat inspired by Molina’s own youth, as he would similarly tape on VHS at 4am old Disney Channel reruns of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, which had its original run throughout the 1960s. It’s how Molina first embraced his interest as an artist, but for the onscreen Miguel, it takes a decidedly more fantastical direction when his family discovers on the afternoon of Día de los Muertos, before the very Ofrenda table on which they have all the watchful eyes of their ancestors, that Miguel wants to be a mariachi—even as they place on him the apron of a shoemaker.

“What worse place to express your individuality than a wall filled with your ancestors who toed the family line and kept in line?” Molina smiled. Indeed, Miguel’s literally being burdened by his family’s legacy. Which may be why he unwisely spends the evening of Día de los Muertos by breaking into de la Cruz’s tomb and borrowing his guitar for a nearby talent show. The choice puts him on a collision course with the Land of the Dead and the actual ancestors who were disgraced by a musician.

But this is Pixar, so as Miguel crosses a bridge of marigold pedals—traditional flowers left on the graves of ancestors during this holiday—he’ll discover even the afterlife is fabulous. And that’s where the fun of Coco really begins.

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A Bridge Between Cultures

When Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz first pitched what became Coco to John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, it was one of three potential ideas on Unkrich’s mind—as well as the most unique. Having come off directing Toy Story 3 (he also co-directed Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc.), Unkrich was looking for a fresh start, but even then Coco seemed like a very different movie.

“I pitched three different ideas,” Unkrich told me during an interview. “One of them was an idea that I had originally been developing before I changed gears and worked on Toy Story 3. And then two other ideas, one of which was a Día de los Muertos themed story, and John kind of went for that one right away.” Describing it as the start of an adventure, it still took some time for it to develop into the very personal story that it is today.

“It was a long journey early on to figure out the story we wanted to tell,” Unkrich said. “It had a main character who was a kid, but it was about an American kid traveling down to Mexico and visiting his Mexican relatives. Music wasn’t a big part of that story at all.” Revealing that it took a year to settle on being about the conflict between familial love and a musician’s aspirations, heritage and new dreams, Unkrich is more than thrilled with how Coco came to fully embrace the unique elements of Mexico and Central America.

While Molina’s family never directly celebrated Día de los Muertos as elaborately as the family in Coco, he still recalls it being a time to remember and honor his family. A happy occasion.

“One of the things that I could really relate to in terms of the way that death was treated in the family setting was that it was always a home scenario where we would talk about people who had passed away, and [my mother] would talk about her little brother who she loved and told fun stories about him,” Molina said. “He died before I was born, but you know, she would always talk fondly about him and share stories.”

In lieu of that kind of poignant authenticity, the filmmakers eventually went down to Mexico for research on the Day of the Dead and the culture at large.

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Years before a character was even designed, Pixar filmmakers traveled to Mexico, from the urban sprawl of Mexico City to the rural vistas of Oaxaca. Those influences echo throughout Coco, both in terms of the flat natural lights of the movie’s fictional village of the living, Santa Cecilia, and the more vertical and urbane wonders of the Land of the Dead. Both are decorated with the sacred marigold pedals, punctuating landscapes with orange and pink, and the warm glow of candlelight which turns real-life cemeteries in Mexico into a place of hearth and kin every November.

“Mexico is a designer’s dream,” production designer Harley Jessup marveled during a presentation to journalists. “This was like such a treat to get to work in this world. I’m decompressing now, because I realize it’s almost over and we’re going to have to think about something else besides Mexico.”

In the case of the film, he was drawn to the the flowery displays of orange and pink in real graveyards, which are duplicated in the fictional San Cecilia resting place that Miguel inadvertently raids. Of course, that allows him to meet his older ancestors and try to convince them of his dream in the Land of the Dead—a vista of tall, vertical hills that are drenched in Mexican history, right down to their foundations which resemble the Pre-Columbian culture that originally inspired Día de los Muertos. Yet overall, like the traditional dress of Miguel’s most prominent ancestors, the Land of the Dead has a distinctly late 19th and early 20th century affectation.

“There’s really a layer and history that’s inspiring to us,” Jessup revealed. For example, while designing the film’s prominent train station, a port of entry between the living and the dead, the architecture takes on a more old-fashioned, splendored bureaucratic appeal, as opposed to the modern DMV greetings in Beetlejuice. “For the Marigold Grand Central Station, we looked at 20th century cast iron buildings in Mexico and New York. And we were particularly inspired by the Palacio de Correos [de Mexico], that’s the main post office in Mexico City, and the beautiful cast iron architecture there.”

In fact, much of the Land of the Dead finds its history in José Guadalupe Posada engravings, which showed skeletons continuing their lives past the grave in cartoonish delight… just minus the skin. It is these subtle details, and an interest in the larger Mexican canvas, that greatly aids Coco’s visions.

Teeth, Wings, and the Unfurred

Two such playful details are new characters Dante and Pepita, one of whom might be the most creative stab at an animal sidekick in animation history, and the other is an amalgamation of many animals.

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Characters supervisor Christian Hoffman and directing animator Nickolas Rosario were on hand to walk us through the former in regard to Dante, a canine absent almost any hair, teeth, or much in the way of good hygiene. But he makes up for it all with personality. Gloriously lovable, and extremly stupid, personality.

Based on the real Central American dog breed Xoloitzcuintli (or Xolo), Dante belongs to an ancient breed of hairless mutts who also have a long history with the supernatural. Consider that Xolo dogs are named after the Aztec god Xolotl, who was a deity of both lightning and death. And Xolos were believed to have magical properties, warding off evil spirits and offering a healing touch for arthritis.

“They’re basically a big snuggly water bottle,” Hoffman laughed. “They also served as guides for the dead, as they traveled from this world into the next.” Granted in the case of Dante that seems like a dubious tip of the hat. While Hoffman said they looked at other animated dogs, from the beloved beastie in Pixar’s Up to the streetwise Tramp in Lady and the Tramp, their Dante is a bit of a sadder case. While describing the few patches of hair that Dante does have, Hoffman noted, “It’s scraggly and wiry and honestly a little gross, but given he’s a street dog, we feel like that just adds to his appeal.”

Yep, like Miguel’s desire to be a musician, his relationship with Dante is forbidden, since the pooch is a stray dog often found chewing on bones in trash cans. Unwanted by Miguel’s parents, the animators leaned into the dog’s gross-out appeal. With no hair, they focused on placing wrinkles on his hindquarters and neck, and removing teeth from his mouth since he has no dental care on the streets. They also based the animation for his long slobbering tongue on Hank the Octopus in Finding Dory. It reached the point where they even considered making him cross-eyed, or removing one of the pupils as they had the tip of an ear.

“At the end, we took a look at it and we felt bad for him,” Rosario conceded with a sheepish grin. “Like we’re breaking his ear, breaking his tail, losing teeth. Let’s just give him some proper eyes.” Even so, the version audiences first saw in the bemusing “Dante’s Lunch” video short below is still a more lovably buffoonish version of the creature than what almost ended up in the movie.

The first version of the “Dante’s Lunch” short delivered to John Lasseter featured Dante walking with realistic movements and having some common sense while in his quest for a bone. Lasseter suggested they play up the poor creature’s slowness to heightened degrees.

“The lights are on but nobody’s home,” Rosario said of the dog who audiences will likely want to hug in Coco. “We realized simplifying the thought process, simplifying the brow shapes and the eye shapes just made him look a little goofier, made him look a little dumber.”

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In short, even as Dante follows Miguel like the Xolos of legend into the Land of the Dead, he will not be the creature whose companionship may prove the most helpful… or antagonistic.

The other fascinating character revealed during our Pixar visit also is rooted deep in Mexican culture. Her name is Pepita, and she is an alebrijes, a chimera-styled being from modern Mexican folk art.

“So the origins where alebrijes come from is from a guy named Pedro Linares,” technical director Alonso Martinez revealed during a presentation. “When we think of folk art, we think of the 1600s or a really longtime ago. [But] he came up with them in 1936 when he fell ill. He had a fever dream in which he was in a forest, and all of a sudden, these chimera mixtures of animals started showing up and they were all really brightly colored. And he thought he saw donkeys with wings and lizards with chicken feet.”

Given that Linares’ current profession was that of a piñata maker, it was easy to transition making toys out of his dreamy visions, first from paper and later wood carvings. Now alebrijes are commonplace in Mexico, including having their own Mexico City parade. Hence, their incorporation in Coco as spirit guides for the dead, animal amalgamations who serve our ancestors.

In the case of Coco, this takes the shape of Pepita, a part-eagle and part-tiger animal who obeys Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), the matriarch of Miguel’s family from over a hundred years ago. When Miguel refuses to give up the guitar, she will set this lovable but decidedly smarter creature on her great-great-grandson’s trail.

“She was going to need to be very fearsome, so like always, we took such deep dives in our references,” Martinez said. “We try to think about doing the realistic thing.” For Martinez, it meant getting away from the toyetic image of alebrijes today. He was trying to get back to perhaps what Linares dreamed about: realistic animals with elaborate colors and markings. It also explains why Pepita is an eight-ton creature with a massive wingspan, as well as some admittedly gorgeous (and intimidating) ram horns above her feline visage.

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It’s likewise obvious that Martinez has a personal love for this creature and everything she represents. It’s why he brought his own large collection of alebrijes toys he owned as a child, and allowed a room full of journalists to examine each one.

“It’s just something that I’ve always loved about Mexican art,” Martinez mused. “It’s the combination of Mexican art, the colorfulness. I don’t know if you know this, but you can take the limbs off of one and put horns on another. So you kind of get… that type of creative thinking that perhaps led me to want to be an artist.”

It’s a sensibility shared by everyone else we met at Pixar during our two-day visit.

Finding Light After Death

But for all the creatures, magical and earthbound, the trick to them is that they must interact with very human figures for audiences to invest… even if those humans are skeletal remains dancing around a Land of the Dead. Despite most of the film taking place in the afterlife, as with Día de los Muertos itself, death is not meant to be viewed as a somber or depressing affair. Of course, Lee Unkrich and production designer Harley Jessup wanted the land of the living in San Cecilia to be a pleasant place as well—it has vitally vibrant life and lovely sunshine in it. However, it also notably has a lot of harsh florescent indoor lighting at night and very little vegetation. Unkrich wanted to see almost no green in the living’s world, so the Land of the Dead would be that much colorful.

And it is. Coco sets a record for Pixar with over 7 million light sources in the Land of the Dead, causing the afterlife to resemble a dizzying cornucopia of vibrancy and festiveness. Almost every shade of the color wheel is represented from this world’s towers to its still happy penchant for fireworks.

“It was very alive and fun and joyous, because we all want to think of our ancestors going to a very fun place instead of a depressing, sad place,” said a very proud Danielle Feinberg, director of photography for lighting. She also has reason to beam since her team came up with groundbreaking ways to reframe the other side.

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“One of my very best lighters remembered this little bit of code that had been used on short films, which was used just a little bit on a film,” Feinberg confided. With that code, they were able to throw fireballs of various colors all over the Victorian afterlife to glorious effect. Similarly, they took a small bit of code lightly used on The Good Dinosaur and made their computers read millions of colors at a time as a single data-entry—which is what makes getting millions of light sources on the screen feasible.

Says Feinberg, “[We can tell a computer to] find every streetlight, and it finds all the streetlights and puts a light into each one of them, but because of the magic of math and code, it considers it one light. So instead of a million lights, they now have something the computer considers a single light. So we can generate this image where we have one light that controls the streetlight, and another controls color and intensity, and another light that lights those blue lights.”

The result is a vision of the dead that can fog and illuminate hidden secrets, such as how the towering vistas are actually individually divided into 12 sections, each one representing a different era in Mexican culture, from the Pre-Columbian era to the modern world. And submerged in the clouds are sneaky secrets, like skull-shaped easter eggs formed by shadows or negative space.

“If you look at the artwork and even some of the footage you’ve seen, there’s skull iconography everywhere,” sets supervisor Chris Bernardi said. “There’ll be like windows that have a skull shape, and some of it’s obvious and some of it’s pretty subtle. We also wanted to achieve that on a macro scale.” Similarly, it helped accentuate the history of each vertical, urban tower that constitutes one “island” of life in the afterlife.

“It helped us establish this concept of history in the towers,” Bernardi said. “The idea that the Land of the Dead has been around since there were people. And so some of the earliest people who died formed the base of these towers, and started building in the architectural styles of that time. And as the years went by, they worked their way up.”

And the people comprising those dead bodies were also designed with just as much meticulous forethought and mathematic creativity by art director Daniel Arriaga, supervising animator Gini Santos, character shading lead Byron Bashford, and simulation technical director Emron Grover.

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All four showcased the challenge of imbuing a liveliness to what are technically the remnants of the deceased.

“The skeletons for us were a huge challenge at Pixar for many reasons,” Arriaga lamented in a shared presentation. “One of the main reasons is because they’re very scary… and one of the things you learn is you have no character Underneath we all look the same.”

So how did Mama Imelda and the rest of Miguel’s family become so lovable? Simply put, it helps when you get creative with the anatomy. Arriaga slyly admits they changed the anatomy quite a bit. For instance, if you squint, all of the skeletons in Coco have the thinnest of lips, which conceal the fact that they also have very large teeth. Similarly, the skeletons are allowed to mimic facial hair, if not have it outright, by way of shading, lighting, or festive face paint, which is also in keeping with the Day of the Dead setting.

Another of the curious innovations that Gini Santos unveiled is the fact that each skeleton is able to move their joints because instead of knees or elbows, Pixar created hidden force fields that allow the skeletons to bend their body parts, accordingly. The end result is an afterlife that looks to be pretty swinging.

The Duet Lives On

When I meet with directors Unkrich and Molina at the end of the day, both remain eager and ever happy to discuss their vision, which has taken over half-a-decade to make it to the big screen. Near the end of our time together, I bring back up Molina’s words about a duet between the living and the dead. How does that duet live on, like Miguel’s ancestors, once this movie comes out?

After pausing for a moment to consider the question, Molina responded, “As a filmmaker you always hope that your film is something that can stand the test of time, and whatever time it’s made in, you hope there’s a classic element to it that people will be able to relate to decades down the road long after we’re gone. And, you know, those movies that have withstood the test of time have that, and have been informed by that style and themes that are universal and timeless. If you can achieve something like that in a film, then I think you’re in good company.”

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As its Nov. 22 release date nears, perhaps Coco will also join such company, just as Miguel is joined by his idol in a harmony that reverberates past the hereafter.

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