Adrian Molina and Darla Anderson interview: Pixar’s Coco

Pixar's next film is Coco. We've been chatting to its producer and co-director, after watching some footage from the movie...

The next original film from Pixar will be Coco, a grand fantasy inspired by Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s a musical – not the kind where characters burst into unexplained song, but one where the characters are musicians and singers so they occasionally bring a little music into the story in a more natural way – it’s a magical fantasy, and it’s a family saga.

All three of these elements are so closely wound in the scenes I have previewed – the music, the magic, the family drama – that, really, they’re all pretty much the same thing. But Pixar are playing their cards quite close to their chests in the marketing here and I feel like I could easily drop more spoilers than I should if I discuss too much of what I’ve seen. Maybe I shouldn’t even explain why it’s called Coco. I certainly shouldn’t tell you the name of a song I saw performed in one sequence – several secret-ish plot points clicked into place when I gave that just a little thought.

Trying to stay spoiler-free, I chose to focus on the filmmakers’ craftsmanship and artistic choices when I spoke to co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla Anderson. To start with, I thought we’d get into the wonderful animation of the film’s many skeleton characters.

A few times in your presentation you said there is potential in animating skeletons but I want to flip that and talk about the restrictions. Can you tell me the rules that limited how the skeletons were designed and animated? We’re going to see some characters both with and without flesh on their bones…

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Adrian Molina: Yes.

So what are the rules that connect the look of a character’s skeleton face to the look of their ‘living’ face?

AM: A lot of what we wanted to do with the skeletons is about connecting to family and loved ones, memories of people that you knew and loved, so we want the skeletons to feel like friends, like family, to be really engaging so that the moment you meet them, you’re not turned off.

Some of the family members that Miguel meets as skeletons in the land of the dead are people he saw as photos on the ofrenda in the land of the living. A lot of the likeness in the design comes down to bone structure, and just thinking hard, using overlays, looking at living versions and dead versions together, to make sure that in their hair styles, in the facial shapes, even in their expressions, that you can see that they look like themselves.

The designers and the animators have been putting a lot of time and effort into keeping the skeletons really appealing, and being able to translate a character from living portrait to skeleton version.

So would the skulls fit inside the living heads?

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AM: I think… in fact… yes. In… in most cases.

In most cases?

AM: We take a few liberties.

To what end? Just in pursuit of appeal, a little bit of extra character?

AM: Yeah, for the sake of appeal and sometimes in animation a lot of the fun we have is in drawing caricatures – animators draw caricatures of one another often, and the idea of a caricature isn’t to get photorealistic likeness but to capture the character of a person, to exaggerate the stuff that makes somebody uniquely them. All of the caricature tools we know as an artist we fold into the design work so that you know, right off the bat, if a character is trustworthy or not, or maybe a very dramatic person, and so on…

You mention caricatures and it strikes me that the potential for hidden, skeleton-ised cameos from Pixar favourites in the land of the dead is huge. You can just give me a wink if there’s anything worth looking out for.

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AM: I don’t want to give any spoilers but I will say that this movie more than any other one we’ve made – or maybe it’s just because I know all of its intimate details – there are so many little easter eggs and nods, either to Mexican culture, Pixar history or other fun things. There are a lot of little details you will be excited to pore through and find…

Now, here’s a thing, if I were to take out my skull right now, it would be a very rigid thing. That’s obviously not quite the case with the characters in this film. What sort of thinking did you do about how the skulls do and don’t move? How can you explain the degree of plasticity in them?

AM: The animators and the designers thought really long and hard about this. In computer animation, one of the things you really need to be aware of is the fidelity of materials. You want to believe in the world, so you want a wood table to act like a wood table, a fork to act like a fork…

Darla Anderson: John Lasseter’s ‘truth in materials’. He always talks about that.

Is that how he phrases it?

DA: Yeah, from back in the day, starting with Luxo. There’s definitely some stretch and squash in there but it won’t be obvious to the eye, you don’t want to lose the sense of reality, of the material.

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AM: When it comes to skeletons, some of the ways in which they change facial expressions, move their brows, it’s treated in a slightly different way to a human living character. In the living you want some fleshiness, you want the squash and stretch. With skeletons there’s a little trick the animators can do to get the same expression, the same movement, but it’s a little bit ‘blockier’, it feels more rigid, more solid. It’s almost imperceptible but it serves to give the feeling.

You say “a little trick” but let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

AM: It comes down to spacing in the animation. Where a soft, fleshy character with movement in their cheek might be more even in how they move back and forth, with a skeleton you might want to move really quickly from one pose to another without going into drawn-out time, so instead of an elastic feeling it feels like facial features are clicking into place.

It is about “clicking” is it, isn’t it? That expresses it so well.

AM: Like when you stretch your back, or click your joints. It’s intuitive to a human being to what you feel in the body but it’s exciting to see that on screen, and it’s exciting to put it up there with our level of realism.

In some of the long shots of the land of the dead I saw, hidden in the buildings, designs that look like skulls. That motif also appears, say, on the head of the guitar. It’s everywhere. But why? What does it mean, other than just being “Dia de los Muertos, so skulls.”

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AM: I think it’s another one of those cool little details, something you will catch in little glimpses around the land in the design of the things in this world. It’s a world made-up of skeletons. Of course they’d build this world in their likeness, and it would be an element that just gives a design sense that feels of a piece, sits well with the story we’re trying to tell. We do look for opportunities to make the world feel like it was built for its inhabitants, and in this case that means skeletons.

The world is bright and lively, fun and energetic, which is something we wanted to convey about the spirit of Dia de los Muertos. It’s a celebration, a time families come together and it’s really exciting. Creating a world that feels like a mash-up of eras, where nobody can die – so there’s no handrailings, if somebody falls off of a building they’ll pop apart but soon come back together.

They might have a long trip back.

DA: There might be a delay.

AM: They can make a day of it. But we think of these details because we want the world to be fresh and new, a unique perspective that the audience haven’t seen before.

I suppose it changes film by film, but in this case, what does the credit co-director mean and how is your work different from Lee Unkrich’s work on the film?

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AM: I came into the position first by way of writing. I was a storyboard artist on this film for a couple of years, and I was so excited about telling a story in this world. I worked with Lee and Darla on Toy Story 3 previously so I knew we all have a great relationship.

But there came a part where certain story challenges – like on every film – become a tricky web. This scene is connected to this scene, so we can’t change this detail because of what it means for this other scene. I’d go home and I’d think about it, come back and say “I’ve got this idea for a scene that will connect these two elements that aren’t otherwise connecting.”

I went to Lee and said “I have ideas I want to pitch, I don’t have time to board them but I’d like to write up script pages so you can get it into your head, imagine it and see if it’s something helpful to you.” I wrote them up and said “If you don’t like them, no worries,” but he ended up reading my pages and it surprised him, these solutions, and he was really excited about it. Lee asked if there was anything else I wanted to write so I said “I have these ideas for the second and third act.” The more we talked, the more we realised that the things he was searching for, I was searching for too, and I had lots of ideas to give him as ammunition.

Lee comes from editing so crafting a film from all the best pieces given to him by the artists he is working with is natural. I became somebody who could provide a lot of solutions for him to plug in and use. It’s been a great process. And we’ve loved having Darla as the person to help us figure out how to pull the movie apart and build it back in a better way.

Darla, I don’t mean to neglect you.

DA: Don’t even worry.

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I think of how Pixar has established an open house for solutions, the footage screenings where if somebody has a solution or an idea, it will be listened to. I’ve not been there, I’m just told that’s how it works.

DA: That’s correct.

Obviously, Darla, you’re closer to the project than most people who might contribute ideas. So what has your best contribution been?

DA: Ha! What a question. [pauses] I’ve… been… really passionate about this film, and I’ve been it’s champion, a partner to the directors, so I think my best contribution has been making sure that this huge film, a huge film with lots of different pieces and parts, I’ve helped pull in the artists and consultants and actors and helped put together the team of people who really complement both the artistic and cultural specificity of the film.

AM: It’s all that Lee and I can do to keep in mind the versions of the story and the stuff we need to do. There are so many pieces that if we were left on our own to actually figure out how to do it… well, it’s necessary to have someone like Darla to know what is important to us, what things live at the core of the film, and to be able to put together a team who can actually realise that. It’s not an easy task.

I don’t know that I’d call it a luxury but in animation you get to see a version of your film, see story reels many, many times along the way, and sometimes you change a large percentage of what you see between versions. I presume that at this stage you’re locked on what the story is?

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AM: We’re in the home stretch now… so yes.

What was the last big change you made?

AM: I think… yes… we revamped a number of sections but the opening came along later. We wanted to find a way that really brought you into the family story and the conflict of the main character. Before it was a kind of flashback scene to the 1920s and we decide to instead create something in the realm of the folk-art of the holiday, a more poetic telling of family history. We were pleasantly surprised that when we made that change and showed it to people their reaction was “I get it. I get where he comes from, I get what his family is like.”

DA: It’s a really different way to open the film, even visually.

I got the idea, but it was a little frustrating to see it only as storyboards today.

DA: I know, I know.

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Are you announcing credits for the songwriters yet? Are they all original songs?

AM: There are some original songs in this film, but… well, we haven’t announced anything yet.

Adrian Molina and Darla Anderson, thank you very much. Thanks again to Adrian and Darla for taking the time to speak with me, and especially for sharing some of Coco, particularly those vulnerable work-in-progress portions.

The finished film will be along for UK viewers in January of next year.