Pixar animator Gini Santos gives insight into the creation and art direction of the vivid, spectral world of “Coco”

Pixar has a long tradition of making incredible films overflowing with imagination, creativity, and warmth while simultaneously pushing the limits of technology to make that vision a reality. With their newest creation “Coco” hitting theaters soon, Pixar looks set to once again enchant fans with another heartwarming tale — this one about family traditions, music and friendship. In a lot of ways, those themes are very commonplace in their past projects, but “Coco” has a seemingly endless supply of originality to it as well.

Supervising animator Gini Santos recently passed by Miami as part of a Pixar college tour visiting campuses nationwide promoting “Coco”, where animators can talk with students about the new movie and their career with the celebrated animation studio. In Miami, Santos also took the time to meet with a small group of writers and bloggers to discuss “Coco” and the genesis of the project, which took years to perfect and hone. As Santos explained, Pixar’s careful attention to detail with every movie was heightened with “Coco” as it dealt with a real culture and with it carried a high level of respect for Mexico and its people to get the balance right between the real world and fiction to tell the story of Miguel, a young boy who is desperate to become a musician despite his family’s wishes.

Santos first joined Pixar more than twenty years ago, her first project was working as a character animator for “Toy Story 2” before moving on to now legendary films such as “A Bug’s Life” and and “Monsters Inc.”. Both Santos and Pixar have come a long way since then, and the studio in recent years has been balancing sequels to beloved franchises such as “Finding Nemo”, “Cars” and “The Incredibles” with original movies such as “Inside Out”. I took the opportunity to ask Santos during her presentation about this approach and how working on an entirely new project like “Coco” brings out a heightened appreciation for working on new characters and a fresh story.

“Having been there since 1996, I’m proud to say I’ve been a part of the original films,” she said. “And so, we recognize that there are stories to tell continuously about our characters but we do love that when it’s an original film like this, it’s very inspiring for us and for the animators.”

Through it all, Santos explains that Pixar has always been about carrying a certain vision from the directors and animators through all the way to the finish project, while still having the flexibility to craft a workflow that benefits everyone in the studio.

“I love that they still try to maintain that we’re director-driven,” she said. “We connect directly with the director, each individual and all the animators, we really always try to foster that. Whatever your ideas are, when you first block out a shot you show it to the director first. Let’s get his approval. They’ve always really held true to making the film and create the story really strong, and to not be afraid to take chances in the stories we tell and I think it’s pretty obvious. Our stories happen in so many places and with so many themes. I love that they protect that and they trust us with the creativity in what they do. Pixar has made so many adjustments over the years to really support how we work. If something didn’t work, they would change it or stop it. I wouldn’t have been here that long if it didn’t work like that.”

The results speak for themselves, with Santos proudly showing the prologue from the movie in which the camera flows gracefully around a series of “papel picados” — paper cutout banners — that tells the story of Miguel’s family history and why they shun music. Whereas perhaps another movie would simply show flashbacks, Pixar crafted a lovely tribute to the traditional paper banners that are used by Mexicans for holidays such as Dia de los Muertos with a dual purpose of setting up the story before we get to know Miguel.

Little touches of brilliance abound throughout the clips of “Coco” that Santos shows the group; small but significant details that you wouldn’t catch simply by watching the movie once. Miguel is magically transported to the land of the dead, where members of his family live on when they’re not visiting the townspeople on Dia de los Muertos. There Miguel meets the affable Hector and soon a friendship is struck. Santos explains how trying it was to get the skeletons just right and how they’re movements were painstakingly mapped out with expert precision.

“This was one of our biggest challenges when deciding to first start making this film, how we were going to animate skeletons. How do we animate them making them believable characters? Having animated humans before, we know at Pixar — we have it down. We know the behavior we want, the controls we want because something held together by skin and bone and tissue, we figured out the rules we need for that. Once you take that all away, we know there were opportunities to do something new and fun with something really oddly familiar.”

Before and after animations play side-by-side that further illustrates all the variations. Santos explains how Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo character in Midnight Cowboy served as the inspiration for how Hector walks with a noticeable hitch in his step. In between finished clips of the movie, character studies detailing different ways the characters would be animated and move are shown. The bones had to be separate from the other bones within a certain space from each other, Santos says, and the challenge to animate a talking skull with a full range of expressions even though facial details such as eyebrows and noses are missing was also a challenge.

Among all the breathtaking visuals in the world of fantasy, Pixar aimed for authenticity in its portrayal of Mexico’s people and their customs. To that end, the filmmakers and animators made frequent trips to Mexico in order to do thorough research.

“These trips have really influenced every part of Coco’s production from the story to the music to design and even to the way we’re lighting the film. So all of the research into the traditions and the culture combined with the great heart that we’ve tried to put into the story has resulted into something we’re really excited about.”

“Coco” opens nationwide on Thanksgiving.

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