Do you ever wonder how the animators at Pixar make such stunning films? Here is a deep dive into what went into the making of Pixar’s Coco.
Pixar has been cranking out animation after animation ever since I was a little girl. While it is easy to just look at their films as simple children’s cartoons, the level of craftsmanship and artistry that goes into every detail of their films is often forgotten. Looking at their first computer animated, 3D-rendered film, Toy Story, as compared to the new Disney movies coming out this year, it is clear to see their skill in the craft has only become more perfect, and it is only going to go up from here. I mean, there was even that meme circulating about their attention to detail when the Incredibles 2 teaser trailer was released.
It is almost unimaginable the amount of time and detail that goes into making one of these cinematic masterpieces, and that became even clearer in their most recent release - the Coco movie. The film takes place in Saint Cecilia, Mexico, and follows young Miguel as he reconnects with his family on Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead).
After seeing Pixar's Coco in theaters, I realized that you could take practically any shot from this film, spend hours staring at it, and still not see every detail. From its color script to the fluidity of the character rigging, Coco is arguably Pixar’s most ambitious, cinematic piece yet. So let’s take a look at what, and who, came together, step-by-step, to craft the original screenplay into this stunning finished product.
Disney Pixar is pretty notorious for going on insane research adventures before the start of a film. For Zootopia, they traveled to Africa to study the movements of the wildlife there, and for Coco, they went to Mexico. While it is easy to say these are just excuses for a fancy vacation, most of the story’s inspiration comes while on these research trips. The film’s director, Lee Unkrich, said that it was during one of these trips that they noticed trails of marigold petals all around town, and when they asked about it they learned of the tradition to leave a trail of marigolds to guide the spirits of your deceased loved ones home on Día de los Muertos.
Now without this trip, the most integral part of not only the plot of Coco, but the cinematography as well, would have been missing, so I think we can all agree these trips were necessary. Without them, we wouldn’t have had stunning shots like this.
Not only did they learn of the tradition of the marigold here, but they learned about what the Xolo means to Mexican culture. The Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo for short, is a hairless breed of dog known as the Mexican hairless dog. Xolo, as personified so beautifully in the film by Dante, are believed to protect the home from evil spirits. In order to have Dante come to life, the team at Pixar actually had a real Mexican hairless dog come into the studio to study and film some reference footage for their artwork. They even made a few promo videos with the dog, Fin, which you should watch when you get a chance, because he is quite the cutie.
Let's move from real world inspiration to getting everything down on paper, in other words the concept art. I wanted to take a look specifically at the concept art from artist, Ana Ramirez, because not only is she a Mexican American, but her Dad is a shoemaker, just like Miguel’s family. Ramirez mostly worked on set design and costume design, and her artistry really comes to life in this film. Below are a couple of her sketches, and if you have seen Coco, you can see sprinkles of her work in almost every scene.
Many other artists got to bring their personal style to the film as well. Here are a few examples worth checking out. The first concept art sketch below is by artist Daniela Strijleva and the second is by Zaruhi Galstyan.
Via Oh My Disney
Via Crafty Chica
Quite possibly the most intricate part of the Pixar filmmaking process, 3D modeling, is also the most crucial. Alonso Martinez, the Technical Director, spoke on his work with Pepita, Mama Imelda’s iconic alebrije.
Pepita may seem like such a small part of this film, but her design and rigging was carefully crafted for much longer than you may think. Alonso Martinez said he spent over 6 months on Pepita alone. Can you image how much longer it took for the main characters in the film? One of the most vital aspects of 3D modeling, is making sure that all the character’s motions are fluid and natural, and that is where the original team’s research comes back into play. Similar to what they did with Fin the Xolo, hours and hours of reference footage are shot and used during this process of the filmmaking. Here is just one of a thousand examples of direct usage of a reference shot in the rendering, and ultimately final product, of this film’s animation.
And now for the main event, if you asked anyone what they thought was the most iconic shot from the entirety of this film, I guarantee everyone would point you to the shot I am about to talk about. As Miguel first enters the Land of the Dead via the marigold bridge, when he turns to see the full scope of the city, all of its lights and buildings, the true mastery of the animators at Pixar is revealed to us in full force.
Director of Photography for Lighting, Danielle Feinberg, spoke on what it was like working with the color script to create the right mood for the Coco Pixar film. This specific shot houses over 7 million lights. I don't even want to think about how long that took. Feinberg explained further how the lighting technology used on the fireflies in the film The Good Dinosaur, is what led to their ability to create the beautiful glow of nightlife in the Land of the Dead in Coco.
Now, of course, looking at all of these stunning sketches, footage, concept art, and scenes from the film itself is incredible, but nothing really compares to the way it all feels as you sit down to watch all of the lights, sounds, and feelings the finished film has to offer. If you loved looking at these overwhelmingly amazing combinations of artistry, animation, and culture, then definitely watch Coco. Make sure to share this article with your friends and comment below with which part of the animation process or which piece of concept art you loved the most! Or let me know which upcoming Disney films you are excited to see next!
**Featured image via Refinery29