Creating “Coco”

Photo by Anupam Gupta | Mercury Staff.

Can you describe your role as a concept artist in the making of “Coco?” 

I got to work on a lot of different things, like sets, characters, background characters, graphics and color. I also worked on a lot of translations as one of the few Mexicans on the project. I got to join the team at a very, very early stage. That’s when we get to do the most concept art and have the most fun and experiment the most, trying to find the look and the style of the film. Throughout the film, I was really lucky to have projects that involve a lot of hands-on paint and traditional media stuff, just because Mexico is filled with those street signs and a lot of crafts and pottery and all these things that have to be hand-painted to look real. I got to do a little bit of everything in every department.

What part of the concept art did you enjoy doing most? 

Just like in general, collaboration (at Pixar) is a very enriching experience, especially because this is my first film. So, everyone I know who I worked with was on their third, fourth, fifth, 10th film, you know? So much more experienced than me. I think that was my favorite part, just getting to know these people better and get knowledge from them and absorb everything like a sponge or something … but design wise, everything was so fun — hard and challenging, of course, but a huge learning experience.

Did your Hispanic heritage influence how you approached “Coco?”

Yes. 100 percent. It feels sometimes like its fate that I’m on this project. They knew that I was Latina or Hispanic, but I don’t think they knew exactly where I was from. I’m from Guanajuato, the town that heavily influenced the film, especially the land of the dead. When I got there, I saw all these reference boards of pictures of the crew in Guanajuato, and I’m like, “That’s so weird! I lived there.” It’s so funny. Miguel’s family in the film, they’re all shoemakers, and my dad is a shoemaker too. But that all happened once I was already on the project, and it’s not like we did that because of me, but it just happened to be my life. I feel really lucky because I think Pixar is trying really hard to make Pixar a more diverse place to work at and make it more inclusive of women, men, anyone, all people and all genders and all ethnicities, so that’s really awesome. I think this film is proof of that.

Miguel and other characters use Spanish words during the “Coco” trailers. This is a noticeable step forward in terms of Disney/Pixar characters embracing their culture. Can you expand on any other ways this film makes progress in that area?

Adrian Molina was a story artist at Pixar, and he kind of stepped up and took it upon himself to write the story without anyone truly asking him, which is great because that’s a lot of work, and its very admirable that he would do something like that and just take on for the team and try and make the film better, but then it ended up being so good that Lee (Unkrich, director of “Coco”) was like, “Yes. Come on board,” and he hired him as the writer. Lee is a very generous person, and I think he was aware that he need more of someone who was part of the culture to help him make it better. So then Adrian became the co-director, and I think because of that, Adrian really pushed and fought for it. Adrian, his mom is Mexican and he is very close to his mom, so it feels like that’s his culture, and he knows Spanish and stuff. I think he’s the one who really pushed for it. Every screening, we would all give notes, and I would always write, “More Spanish,” or “Make it funnier,” stuff like that. I think that it was a team effort, but truly, I think Adrian, Lee and Darla (Anderson, Producer of “Coco”) wanted that to be the case. And we also wanted to use very common expressions that Mexicans would feel like, “Oh my God, this is so local! How did they know?” But, also things that were easy to understand for other people who don’t speak the language.

How do you feel “Coco” plays into the current climate in America?

I think it’s a very important time, a good time for that film to come out. It’s important for people to go see it and it’s very relevant. I hope that this film will help other people understand our culture better, hopefully bring people together, and maybe open the door for other cultural films to be made in the future. Not just by Pixar, but by other filmmakers and other studios because there’s such a little gap for those films right now. Acknowledging someone else’s culture and how beautiful other cultures can be is hard. It’s hard these days. I feel like its awesome that they did that and hopefully it’ll give other people the courage and affirmation that it’s important and relevant and people should do it. Hopefully others will understand, be more kind and there will be more films representing other people and cultures. I think its completely relevant and important to see it.

There are people who say “Coco” resembles “The Book of Life” in many ways. What are your thoughts on similarities and differences between the two?

“Coco” has been in the making since 2011 or something, which is a long time. I remember being an intern when “The Book of Life” was announced, and that was 2013, two years after “Coco” had already been going on research trips. I think there are so many films about Christmas and there are so many films about other holidays, why can’t we have more than one holiday movie of Day of the Dead? I think it’s just so uncommon and unusual to celebrate other cultures in film, and we are often so misrepresented as a culture that that’s why it seems unusual. If anything, it’s awesome that there’s more than one. I was just in Vancouver last week giving a talk, and Jorge Gutierrez (creator of “The Book of Life”) was the moderator for my talk, and we are totally friendly. We all admire each other’s work, and I think “The Book of Life” is great. I really admire also how much and how hard he fought to make that film. I don’t think they’re at all similar. I think the fact that they are based around the culture doesn’t mean that the story is the same. The story is completely different. “The Book of Life” is a love story, and “Coco” is about family and self-love and a little boy who’s just trying to seize his moment and do what he loves, which is to play music. I think the stories are completely different and the settings too. The only similarities, I would say, are based around the holiday and color palette, but that’s Mexico. I think they are very different, but we are all supportive of each other’s work, and I think it’s good that we are doing it.

Do you have anything to say to young people in the industry trying to be a concept artist?

Draw from your own experience. Always. I think it’s so easy to get really freaked out and scared when you’re in school and say, “No one’s going to hire me for me. I need to draw like this artist at Disney or this artist at Pixar or DreamWorks to get hired. That’s what they’re looking for,” but it’s not really true because they already have artists who do that. So they want something new and something fresh and a new take on things. They’re always looking for something new and it’s important to embrace your imperfections and the quirks about yourself because that’s so essential to who we are. I would say let that shine through your work, and don’t be afraid to be yourself. Work hard and be kind.

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