Next week, families will have the opportunity to see Disney Pixar’s Coco in theaters where they will experience the land of the dead like never before. Through several research trips to Mexico, the creative team was able to develop a unique and culturally resonant vision of the afterlife. “We would often ask them what their vision was of an afterlife and pretty consistently, people would just say ‘I don’t know,’” explained Co-Director Lee Unkrich when I visited Pixar Animation Studios earlier this year. “So there wasn’t some set vision of an afterlife that was tied to Dia de los Muertos, we found that we were pretty much left on our own to figure that out. We knew we wanted it to be a celebratory place. We knew that the people who were there were probably excited to have this opportunity to go back every year to visit their loved ones, so there would probably be this buoyant, festive atmosphere to everything that we did there. That’s really what drove us to create that vision.”
These research trips proved invaluable to all of the production teams and Story Artist Dean Kelly was inspired by the way families lay out paths of marigold petals to help their loved ones find their way home on Dia de los Muertos. “When we were down in Oaxaca, these marigold paths felt so iridescent, they felt like they were lit up even at night. They were so beautiful, we had to find a way to Pixarify that into something bigger. We thought about what is the bridge between the dead and the living so we came up with this idea in story of what if there was this literal bridge that was made of marigolds. We started to explore this idea and came up with this iconic, very beautiful visual moment and I feel like it really came together.”
Production Designer Harley Jessup had the huge challenge of actually designing the world that lies beyond the marigold bridge. “The city of Guanajuato in central Mexico has been a huge inspiration for the land of the dead. When we arrived there on our second trip to Mexico, Lee said ‘Okay, this is what we want to be looking at.’ It’s a multi-layered city and brightly colored where stairways and bridges are arranged vertically up steep hillsides. It’s a very photogenic city and we wanted to get that into the movie because it makes it a very rich experience in terms of laying out the camera angles. Underneath it all runs this network of tunnels and we started working with the idea of the layers of history being expressed in the world of the dead because Guanajuato is so richly layered.”
The film begins in Santa Cicilia, Miguel’s hometown in Mexico. “Lee wanted what he called a ‘Fantastic verticality’ in the land of the dead to contrast with the flatness of Santa Cicilia,” Jassup continues, “And one of his rules was that there’s no living vegetation in the land of the dead except for the marigolds that the ancestors have brought back from the land of the living. The marigold bridge literally connects those two worlds and that’s built on the mythology of the marigold petals and celosia blossoms representing path to family. Also those two colors work really well together. Those were things we were picking up and latching on to, knowing that they would be integral to the color structure of the movie.”
The presence of a myriad of bright colors in the land of the dead provided a challenge for Danielle Feinberg, Lighting Director on Coco. “How do you get the right emotion in the land of the dead when a lot of our tools have been taken away from us in a way for these quiet and more emotional moments? What we do is take color away, because that’s the easiest way we have to get your attention in the land of the dead where it’s just this riot of color. We’re closing down the color to where we have just blue light or blue and orange lights from lanterns around the room. Or scenes where we still have that colorful world outside, but we put a purple fog over it to diminish and dampen it down to get more of a monochromatic look.”
Pixar films are famous for hiding the Pizza Planet truck, A113, and references to upcoming features in each of their films. But in Coco, audiences should also be on the lookout for hidden skulls. “A lot of Harvey’s artwork featured skulls and skull iconography in wood paneling and in masonry,” Set Supervisor Chris Bernardi explains. “But we also wanted to capture some of the artwork we saw on a more macro scale, a very large scale across the entire city. Some shots have as many as ten individual skulls created in the spaces between buildings or even as a freeze frame when things like gondolas pass through an opening.”
“I had always been drawn to Dia de los Muertos, the idea of the celebration, the folk art, the iconography of it,” Unkrich explains, describing his earliest inspiration for Coco. “It was that coupled with, you know, we’ve been down to Mexico a lot over the years to promote our films and I’ve always seen a love for Pixar’s films in Mexico. Everyone loves Pixar films around the world, but there’s something about Mexico that’s really intense. I was shocked when I learned that Toy Story 3 when it opened was the biggest film ever in Mexico. Beyond Avatar, beyond Titanic, beyond all these films that you think of as being the biggest films of all time. We’ve since been surpassed by The Avengers, but for a while [Toy Story 3] was the biggest film. And it just showed to me that there’s an affection for our characters down there.”
Indeed, Coco opened in Mexico just in time for Dia de los Muertos and it is already lovingly embraced by families throughout the country. It opens in theaters this Thanksgiving, keeping the theme of family and togetherness alive during the long holiday weekend. At its core, Disney Pixar’s Coco is a celebration of life and family, a perfect way to kick off the holiday season.