A Day Inside Pixar

We visit Pixar to get an intimate look at Coco and the studio that changed the world.

Of all the imaginative splendors glimpsed during two days behind Pixar’s gates, perhaps the most enigmatic is a pair of paper white eyes staring blankly at me. They belong to “Pepita,” a chimera-styled character from this year’s Coco. She has been recreated via 3D printed sculpture and now awaits my decision for coloring while I mull over an assortment of paints Pixar has provided. Unlike normal press events, even a journalist’s down time is treated as a chance to create and build at Pixar Animation Studios. And for a group of often sardonic reporters, it had the same soothing effect of arts and crafts time for kindergartners—or a Pixar movie for audiences of any age.

The activity was one of many illuminating snapshots into the singular energy and culture that turned a little technology firm into the most transformative force of modern American animation. What was once, in 1986, a spun-off branch of Lucasfilm’s computer division now stands tall atop its Emeryville campus, a Wonka Bar wonder nestled amongst the post-industrial expanse between Oakland and Berkeley, California.

While painting my Pepita, Alonso Martinez, a technical director for Coco, is on hand to discuss the creature he helped design, as well as his journey to Pixar. After all, like so many who graduated college under the shadow of economic collapse in 2008, particularly artists, he was told by many to give up his dreams and face a diminished reality. Yet within several months, his dream became the reality, and he got the golden ticket to Pixar which led to work on his first film: Up. Less than a decade later, he is now overseeing, with Pepita, the visualization of one of his favorite childhood icons. In Coco, this winged beast will be one of many strange things a boy named Miguel meets in the Land of the Dead. For Miguel is spending his Day of the Dead getting a crash course in his family’s heritage—going to the other side to convince his ancestors he should be allowed to become a musician, even if he must face giants of their culture, including Pepita herself.

“Pepita is a type of Mexican folk art called alebrijes,” Martinez says, noting how each painting station includes one of his own actual childhood alebrije toys. Explaining that the concept is rooted in the work of Mexican artisan Pedro Linares, he continues, “When we think of folk art, we think of the 1600s or a really long time ago. [But Linares] 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.”

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They went on to define his work, first as Papier-mâché and then as wood carvings. Now they are synonymous with Mexican craft. They’re also in Coco as spirit guides for the souls of the dead. For Pepita, this means she’s part-tiger and bird, with the wings of an eagle and the horns of a ram. She also helps prove that even by their 19th feature film, Pixar is still finding new pathways to fly.

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Built on 16 acres, which used to house a fruit cannery, Pixar’s headquarters is a testament to its dueling influences. Now an official piece of Disney’s media empire after CEO Bob Iger oversaw the acquisition of Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, the animation jewel still rests apart from Disney and other Hollywood studios some 350 miles south, and is decidedly closer to its San Francisco roots. With a foot as much in the tech world of nearby Silicon Valley as the movie industry, the life philosophies of John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and first film director, and the company’s earliest investor, Steve Jobs, are ingrained in every nook and cranny. From the outdoor amphitheater to the infinity swimming pool and soccer field beyond, the grounds are marked by a 21st century ethos about living in your work, as opposed to only for it.

At the center is a deceptively modest (and giant) statue rendering of the animated desk lamp character, Luxo Jr., and his beloved rubber ball. As the protagonist of Pixar’s very first Lasseter-directed animated short from 1986—which in turn earned the first Oscar nomination for a computer-generated film—Luxo harkens back to Pixar’s humble beginnings when Jobs viewed the company as more of a hardware and software provider. Yet Lasseter and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull slowly turned that vision in a different direction. The fruition of this pivot directly faces the statues across the way: It’s the Steve Jobs Building.

Rechristened with that moniker after the Apple CEO’s death, it is a more than fitting rebranding since, as Lasseter has previously stated, the structure “was Steve’s own movie.” Designed by Apple Store architect Peter Bohlin with a focus on Jobs’ desire for maximizing creative encounters between employees, the heart of Pixar is a living and breathing community center where all roads lead to a warmly lit and sprawling atrium. Encompassing the entire first floor, this democratic commonwealth houses Pixar’s café and lounge, its mailbox area, and tokens of home team victories, such as life-sized Toy Story and The Incredibles sculptures—or the 16 Oscars and various other awards preserved in a sleek glass case. Even Pixar’s main screening room, complete with starry-night ceiling lighting, is designed to spill out from the atrium’s back wall.

Conveying his logic for envisioning an inspiration commune, Jobs once told biographer Walter Isaacson, “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

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Perhaps that’s why even the conference rooms overlook, from their eyrie-eyed vantage of open windows, not the vast green outside, but Pixar’s true sweeping vistas of talent on the atrium floor below.

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It is in one of those conference rooms where I interview Coco directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, as well as producer Darla K. Anderson. Unkrich and Anderson have been with Pixar as a movie studio since the beginning. Unkrich worked as an editor on the studio’s legendary first feature, Toy Story, within which Anderson also had the curious film credit of “digital angel.” She’s been a producer at the studio ever since, starting with Pixar’s second feature A Bug’s Life, while Unkrich first stepped into the director’s chair when he joined Lasseter as a last-minute co-director sub on Toy Story 2. He has since served directorial duties on Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story 3.

Each of these filmmakers are all too aware of the studio’s curious mix of digital alchemy and tender, classical sincerity.

“I have loved the intense juxtaposition from the very beginning of this cutting-edge, digital-pioneering effort grounded in the familiar,” Anderson says while considering Pixar’s legacy. “It’s not popular to say ‘an old-fashioned sensibility,’ but I mean that in the best way. [It’s] just grounded in history, heritage, and familiarity.”

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That sense of a familiar lurch toward the past might be doubly true for Coco. While Unkrich underscores that Pixar has always kept in mind a preference for what he considers basic film grammar, intentionally evoking cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Coco taps into a dynamic blend of old and new. In fact, the entire first act turns on a scene of Miguel, a young boy in Mexico, mimicking an old VHS tape of his musical idol Dernesto de la Cruz, who plucks his guitar strings with all the ham of Ricardo Montalban.

It’s a scene that co-director Molina calls a “duet across the living and the dead,” and it informs the intense longing of a young artist who wants to create despite what his family says. It’s hardly a foreign concept for creators at Pixar, but the film visualizes that desire, and the potential conflict of aspirations and bloodlines, when Miguel is forbidden from pursuing a musician’s life. Even on Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, Miguel discovers the skeletal remains of his ancestors can prove a tough audience to win over.

Molina noted the natural appeal of the material has for everyone inside the Steve Jobs Building.

“Since we’re all artists at Pixar, it was something that was easy to agree on and something that we all innately felt,” Molina says. “We’re all fueled by our art and this passion to create.” Spirits of the dead or not, it’s a simultaneously unique and universal yearning.

Nevertheless, the unusual wrinkle of interacting with very distant family via Día de los Muertos is also what makes the project a departure for a studio whose output has mostly leaned away from the culturally specific. With Coco, the goal is not to tell a story that takes places on Día de los Muertos. Rather, here is a story that can only occur in Mexico on Día de los Muertos.

“I pitched three different ideas,” Unkrich recalls of the meeting he had with Lasseter that paved the road for Coco. “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 went for that one right away.” It was the opportunity to embark on a grand new adventure.

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Hence, like the curving bridge of marigold flowers upon which Miguel crosses into the Land of the Dead—and how it uncannily resembles the shape of one of the foot bridges that connects the second floor wings above Pixar’s atrium—the entire studio has become united behind building this latest vision. Coco has been in development for six years at Pixar, and the storyboards and decorations it has borne beautify the second floor of the main building. Stairwells are brightened by Día de los Muertos calaveras, just as they have galvanized character art directors and supervising animators who showcase how they’ve turned skulls into a friendly visage of hearth and kin—figuring out subtle ways to suggest lips and facial hair, all while creating hidden “force fields” to replace knees and joints.

The production designer and sets supervisors likewise showcase their vision for a Victorian Land of the Dead, which is quite unlike any metropolis ever glimpsed by us living folk. With multiple generations of the boney inhabitants enjoying their steep, vertical urban towers, it’s an afterlife of vibrancy and countless colors. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography on lighting, reveals how her team of lighters and animators figured out how to repurpose code so that wide shots of the sprawling land can feature more than 7 million sources of light and color, easily a new record for the studio.

“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,” Feinberg says. And she’s not wrong. In spite of dealing with death, Coco appears to be a dizzying cornucopia of vitality. Then again, the same might be said for the studio in which mingling and idea-sharing continues to find new life in the most unexpected of places.

“My family’s Mexican and my mom is from Jalisco,” Molina says while reflecting on why he was so driven to come aboard Coco when it was first slated. While his family did not celebrate Día de los Muertos quite as elaborately as the one in Coco, the film’s tributes to the deceased are very familiar. “Whenever there’s a funeral in the family, the occasion itself would be somber, and you’d be sad about the loss of that person. But afterwards you’d come together and you’d have music, and you’d have food and you’d tell stories, and everyone was there to live in the happy memories of that person.”

Be it Día de los Muertos itself, the mariachi guitarist tradition Miguel pursues, or even that eagle-winged alebrije custom which artist Alonso Martinez so passionately passed onto his studio with Pepita, Pixar is using the power of its creative commune to share a unique culture with a larger global one.

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Upon finishing the last paint stroke on my own Pepita, it appears decidedly less ambitious in its coloring and patterns than what Martinez and Characters Supervisor Christian Hoffman and Directing Animator Nick Rosario came up with. Blue and green with purple wings, my art probably more resembles Puff the Magic Dragon. But as with all other journalists’ fumbling attempts, Martinez nods approval.

When asked if it’s difficult to let go of Coco now that the movie’s Thanksgiving release date is so near, he shrugs. “I’ve already moved on [to the next movie],” he replies. And what exactly is that next film that’s probably another six years away? The artist just smiles. At the moment, it’s a dream only meant for the Village of Pixar. But one day soon, it will be everyone’s.