Happily Ever Afterlife: The Making of Disney Pixar’s ‘COCO’

It’s easy to understand why Día de Muertos, the Mexican holiday known to English-speakers as Day of the Dead, would prove such an alluring inspiration for animators. Its unique, colorful visual aesthetic, beguiling folkloric mythology, and family-centric ideals make it ripe for an ambitious big-screen interpretation. Aesthetics aside, however, creating such a film would by no means be an easy task—making a specific cultural tradition accessible to a global audience, while skirting concerns over cultural appropriation and authenticity, would be a daunting challenge for any production. The team behind Disney Pixar’s Coco can attest to those challenges. In production since 2011, Coco hits theaters this November, having gone through a number of iterations before the studio and filmmakers felt they had a film they were sure would connect with audiences.

“The earliest stories we came up with were completely different than what we have now,” admits co-director Lee Unkrich, who has helmed other Pixar hits like Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Toy Story 2 and 3. Unkrich, who doesn’t come from a Mexican background, discovered in preproduction just how tricky the storytelling would be. “The first story that we worked on for about a year was about an American kid who had a Mexican mother and an American father. The boy ended up going down to Mexico for Día de Muertos; it explored a lot of ideas about being Latino but still being a fish out of water in a lot of ways,” he says. “It was a story created from an outsider’s perspective—which I am—and I thought that by having a character who was learning about the culture, it would be a way to teach people around the world about the celebration.”

The story, however, simply couldn’t support that structure. “After working on it for about a year, we realized we were telling a story with antithetical themes to what Día de Muertos is all about,” Unkrich says. “We were creating a story about a boy going on a quest to say goodbye to a loved one, to let go of his grief and move on—and that’s just not what the celebration is about. The [holiday] has an importance and obligation to remember, to keep loved ones alive through their stories.”

That early version was then scrapped, save one crucial detail: the title. Coco, according to the filmmakers, was originally the name of a character in the film’s fictional land of the dead—they liked the name so much that they kept it for the title. “This happens a lot at our studio,” says a smiling Unkrich. “You start out with one story, and, through the course of a few years, it turns into something completely different.”

The version of Coco that will be making its way to screens around the world tells the story of Miguel, a boy from a small town in Mexico, whose family has an odd aversion to music and those who play it. Miguel sees his family’s no-nonsense attitude and focus on its generations-old shoemaking business as a burden standing in the way of his ultimate dream, becoming a musician like his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz. A series of setbacks and mistakes accidentally lands Miguel in another realm—the mythical land of the dead—where he discovers that each year, on Día de Muertos, the deceased who are remembered in their loved ones’ ofrendas (offerings to those who have died) are allowed to go back to visit the world of the living for the evening. “A picture on the ofrenda means that you’re actively remembered—that’s your ticket back home,” explains story artist Dean Kelly. Realizing the mix-up, Miguel has to enlist the help of a shady skeleton known as Hector to reclaim his place among the world of the living.

As Dean Kelly points out, the film’s original setting and adherence to the family aspects of the holiday gave the story its eventual direction. “It’s a story about a boy trapped in the land of the dead who needs the help of his family to get him back home safely.” Early on they realized there was a promise of exploring a world of ancestors and memories that could only be brought to life through animation, a world with very universal themes of family and questions about what it means to be part of a family.

The family themes resonate heavily with the film’s Mexican-American writer/co-director, Adrian Molina. “We wanted to do it in a way that spoke to those communities but was also accessible to everyone around the world.” Family, after all, is a universal theme and an integral part of Mexican culture. “So much of the film is about family and our connection to family,” he says. “In my own experience in the Mexican community, that’s very important. We wanted to hold true to the fact that families aren’t always completely functional.”

Producer Darla K. Anderson, Director Lee Unkirch, and Writer/Co-Director Adrian Molina look over designs for Disney Pixar’s COCO

The central conflict in Coco revolves around music. As a budding musician in a family of people who are staunchly opposed to the profession, Miguel retains the characteristics of an outsider that the film’s original story called for. Always out of step with those around him, Miguel explores his own role within his family legacy. “Early in the film, we knew Miguel had a dream and a family that disapproved of the dream, and we knew that was a conflict that would drive the story forward,” says Kelly. “We wanted to put pressure on that relationship to force Miguel to define what he wanted. The pressure he feels comes from a family legacy that he feels is a burden.”

The filmmakers had to establish a deep and diverse musical range so audiences could be immersed in the sounds of Mexico. “More so than any other film we’ve done so far at Pixar, music has been such a crucial part of the storytelling and story-development process,” says Molina. “As such, it’s a project where we wanted to get talking about music really early on in the process.”

“We found that there were three different types of music that we needed to talk about. The first is source music; Miguel lives in the [fictional] town of Santa Cecilia, where this great musician, Ernesto de la Cruz, came from.” The de la Cruz character provided an additional challenge—creating a fictitious musical icon who would fit in with the story at large. The filmmakers decided to make the character a composite of actual figures from Mexican popular culture: Pedro Infante, Ricardo Montalban, and Jorge Negrete.

“As such, all these musicians who were inspired by this guy come and play in the town’s plaza. “We really wanted the world that Miguel lives in to be inspiring and full of music, and we leaned on the broad tapestry and diversity of Mexican music. This is music that is traditional, played in the context of the world that inspires Miguel’s journey. The second type of music is score; how are we going to create themes for these characters, conflicts, and settings that support the storytelling? And lastly, we knew we had the opportunity in this story to create original songs, inspired by the style of music in Mexico and that could support our storytelling.”

To accomplish it all, the production team relied on musical consultants Camilo Lara and Germaine Franco to find the film’s distinctive sound. “The idea was to have a sonic landscape that smells like Mexico,” says Lara, whose own band, Mexican Institute of Sound, has blended together many of Mexico’s musical traditions. Mingling all those styles into a cohesive whole runs the high risk of ending up with an incomprehensible mess, as Germaine Franco notes. “If you go to Mexico, you don’t hear one song at a time; it’s a cacophony in many ways,” she explains. Nevertheless, Lara and Franco emerged from their assignment with about 70 minutes of recorded music after four days, incorporating as many different styles as they could to inform the filmmakers’ decisions.

With the film’s sound established, the filmmakers then turned their focus to Miguel’s forbidden passion for music. A mere line of dialogue wouldn’t meet Pixar’s storytelling standards—the filmmakers needed to drive the point home visually. That’s where Molina drew from his own personal experience, recalling how he developed his passion for animation.

“When I was in high school,” he says, “I was really into Disney films and animation. But it was at a time when the internet wasn’t yet this resource where you could go and find information about anything. So if you wanted to get information on animation, there were very few options. But I remembered that I had seen episodes of the ‘The Wonderful World of Color’ on the Disney Channel, episodes from way back, and you would see little snippets of how they would do animation. These episodes would rerun at 4 a.m., and I remember waking up every morning, sticking in a videocassette, and crossing my fingers that it would record one of the episodes where they would talk about how a film was animated. Every so often it would be one of those episodes—after four months of waking up at four in the morning—and I’d watch these clips of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johsnton, flipping the paper, showing how the drawings go on to be the pencil test to the final animation, and I was so engaged because I felt like I had a connection to these artists.” It isn’t a coincidence, then, that the audience learns about Miguel’s dreams of being a musician when he sneaks off to a hidden corner to watch old VHS tapes with grainy recordings of Ernesto de la Cruz’s greatest hits.

Writer/Co-Director Adrian Molina, Producer Darla K. Anderson, and Director Lee Unkirch at a Press Conference.

The biggest contrast the film needed to make was the visual leap from the world of the living in Miguel’s town to the fantastic land of the dead. For the fictional town of Santa Cecilia, the filmmakers drew from actual locales they discovered during research trips to Mexico, particularly in the southern state of Oaxaca. Subsequent visits to towns in the states of Guanajuato and Michoacan, specifically the village of Santa Fe de la Laguna, provided inspiration for the bulk of the film’s locations.

While Coco’s Santa Cecilia is washed in color and daylight, the land of the dead is draped in deep blues and blacks, dotted with the subtle glow of festive lights and gleaming marigold petals. The filmmakers wanted to avoid a dire, fatalistic depiction of the land of the dead. “There’s a certain sense of irreverence and humor that Mexicans have in respect to death,” says Molina.

“We knew we wanted it to be a celebratory place,” adds Unkrich. “Where people who were there would be excited to have an opportunity to go back to visit their loved ones. A festive, buoyant atmosphere.”

Regardless of how festive the setting, the filmmakers still had to clear a major logistical hurdle: how to create skeletons that could simultaneously carry a dramatic arc and appeal to movie theaters full of children. “It was a huge challenge for us in a lot of ways,” admits character art director Daniel Arriaga. Once you take away a character’s skin and muscle—in other words, when you’re left with just a pile of bones—there’s little room for expressive range or personality. How exactly can skeletons emote believably onscreen? Do you give them eyes? Teeth? Then there’s the more obvious concern: how would a world full of living skeletons not leave the film’s young protagonist (and movie audiences) completely terrified? That solution, however, was a simple psychological ploy. “By Miguel not being afraid of the skeletons, the audience follows along,” says Arriaga. Their accessible character design, balanced with the film’s upbeat story, lets the audience feel at ease.

Visually, the film draws heavily from the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose engravings of festive skeletons in Victorian dress has influenced the holiday’s aesthetic since the 19th century. The film’s deceased characters, known colloquially in Mexico as calaveras (skeletons), were all carefully developed to display unique characteristics that would help each one stand out in the story. “It came down to finding a nice assortment of visually interesting characters and personality types so we could have a broad spectrum,” explains Unkrich, who relates a previous experience at the helm of another Pixar film in informing these decisions. “It’s tough to give everyone their own part when you have a big ensemble—we learned that lesson in A Bug’s Life—so we came out with very clear, specific, and identifiable character types.”

Arguably the trickiest calavera to get right was Hector, a vagabond skeleton whom Miguel relies on to complete his journey back to the world of the living. “We wanted to create a land of the dead that had a certain logic to it,” says Molina. “So that the quality of your life in the land of the dead is dependent on how well you’re remembered in the land of the living.” While that may work out nicely for a celebrated character like Ernesto de la Cruz, it begets a tough afterlife for a forgotten soul like Hector. “As such, he’s a little down and out. His clothes are torn, and even his body is more loosely held together. We wanted to create a character that is fun and engaging, but that has a sketchy element as well. You don’t know what he’s after, what his motives are.” Gini Santos, supervising animator on Coco, drew from performances in other films to help emphasize those aspects of Hector’s character. “Hector’s walk is inspired by the character of Ratso [played by Dustin Hoffman] from Midnight Cowboy,” she says. “In that film, Ratso’s limp became a big symbol of his brokenness—the animators really picked up on that detail for who Hector is in our story.”

Hector is voiced by Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal, who added his own flourish to give the character more depth. “So much of the feeling of being in Mexico comes from the language,” says Molina. “But we also knew that this was going to be the U.S. version of the film, and most of our audience might not understand all of the Spanish. We came up with a framework for when to use Spanish; if the context of how the character is asking gives you a clue, we know we don’t need to translate those moments.” Bernal took up the filmmakers on the offer, injecting authentic phrases and mannerisms throughout the movie as they came to him.

Molina, Anderson, and Unkirch at Pixar Headquarters.

The filmmakers also listened to cultural consultants when it came to the design of other characters, such as Miguel’s elderly grandmother. “The character of Abuelita, Miguel’s grandmother, carried around a wooden spoon with her in an early draft,” recalls Unkrich. “She would draw it from a holster and beat people with it … until one of our advisors saw it and said, “No, no, no. It has to be her chancla (sandal).’”

The land of the dead isn’t all skeletons and darkness, however. The filmmakers decided to infuse that setting with additional elements from Mexican culture. Miguel’s canine companion, the aptly named Dante, is from a Mexican breed known as Xoloitzcuintli—distinguished by their petite stature, hairless body, and exposed tongue. Dante’s tongue was a tough task for animators, who relied on the same technology used to map the tentacles of Hank, the gruff octopus from Finding Dory, to enhance the dog’s expressive tongue in Coco. 

Then there’s the presence of alebrijes, mythical chimeras inspired by Mexican folk art that populate the land of the dead. In Mexico, alebrijes are artisanal toys that are sold in some markets around the country. “They’re still somewhat hard to find, about one or two vendors in each shopping area,” explains Alonso Martinez, a character and rigging artist on the film. “There are entire families that devote themselves to making them; some will focus on insects, others will do the more fantastic ones—tiger-baboon-looking things.” Martinez has collected the figurines since he was a kid and was excited to incorporate them into the film. “Despite the fact that alebrijes aren’t part of the Día de los Muertos tradition, we wanted to shine a spotlight on this very unique art form in Mexico by finding ways to interweave it into the story line. In our movie, they are spirit guides that help characters navigate through the story.”

The character of Pepita is the main alebrije in Coco, a surreal hybrid creature with features of an iguana, eagle, tiger, and ram. “A piñata maker, Pedro Linares, came up with [alebirjes] in 1936,” says Martinez. “He fell ill and came down with fever dreams, finding himself in a forest with animals surrounding him—these chimeras, donkeys with wings or snakes with chimpanzee feet, very brightly colored, chanting the word alebirje.” Linares went on to capture these creatures from his imagination, first in papier-mâché, and then in wooden figurines. “We were thinking about the visions that Pedro might have had in his dream, and then you have the wood representations, and we ended up somewhere in the middle: some graphical, some organic.”

This blend of Mexican culture and traditions means that Coco may not achieve any sense of documentary reality or verisimilitude, but instead it celebrates everything that makes Mexican culture unique. And although it might seem as though the sounds, visuals, and story were designed to blend perfectly from the start, Molina admits that Coco, like every other Pixar film, came to be through an arduous, years-long process of trial and error.

“When these movies are made and finished, you look at them and go, Of course they ended up like this! Everything is in its place and no one could have imagined it ending any differently,” says the co-director with a laugh. “But when you’re in the middle of making the movie, it’s not like that. It’s a lot of blank spots, beating your head on the table, and wondering if it’s ever going to come together.”

For Molina and other members of the production team with Mexican heritage, the hard work was worth every second because of the project’s resonance within the Mexican community. Molina cites “the ability to feature a Mexican family and have a Mexican protagonist,” as one of the elements that meant the most to him while working on the film. “There’s something very beautiful and necessary about seeing yourself on the screen,” he says.

Daniel Loria

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