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Pixar brings Day of the Dead to life in newest film, 'Coco'

Creating a world of skeletons and vivid lights presented some new challenges for the animation studio.

In Pixar's latest, "Coco," Miguel is magically transported to the colorful Land of the Dead, where he meets his late family members.

Pixar has brought to life the worlds of toys, monsters and ocean creatures. But for the animation studio's latest film, "Coco," its animators faced a new challenge: bringing life to the dead.

The movie's plot follows Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who lives in Mexico and dreams of being a musician, but is banned by an old family curse. This eventually leads him to cross over into the Land of the Dead, where he encounters skeletons of all sorts as he learns about his ancestors and their history.

The story takes place during Día de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead." While the two-day Mexican holiday for remembering deceased family and friends is celebrated around the same time as Halloween, its roots date back more than 500 years to the time of the Aztecs. Today, observers create elaborate altars covered with offerings to the dead such as flowers, incense, cardboard skeletons, tissue paper decorations and plates of deceased loves ones' favorite foods.

The challenge Pixar's team faced was to bring these characters to life in the same painstaking detail it's brought to the stars of crowd-pleasing blockbusters such as "Toy Story," "Monsters Inc" and "Finding Nemo." The studio has become an animation powerhouse, winning hundreds of awards and widely lauded for its emotion and thought-provoking stories.

Now, it's planning to bring that quality to an entire civilization of lively and colorful dead people.

"Every film has something that we haven't done before that we have to figure out. This was about scale," director Lee Unkrich said. "It was all about figuring out how to scale up all the work that we had done already."

In August, I visited the studio's Emeryville headquarters, which has life-sized statues of characters from previous films like "The Incredibles," "Cars" and "Inside Out" dotted around its campus, to learn about the process behind creating some of the scenes and characters featured in "Coco."


Though "Coco" happens in the land of the dead, Pixar wanted to make it very bright and colorful.


To the bone

One of the biggest challenges to animating a bunch of characters without flesh is how to show emotion and personality.

Pixar typically tries to make its characters as lifelike as possible (aside from, y'know, talking cars). But Pixar took extra liberties with the skeletons of "Coco," particularly in order to show a wide range of facial expressions. To do that, the film's team added eyes, eyelids, lips and even mustaches to the characters.

"Having animated humans before, we know about the behavior of the body," said Gini Santos, the movie's supervising animator. "The thought process of our characters are always read in the eyes."

Pixar focused on making the skeleton's clothing look and act naturally.


Adding clothing to the characters presented another challenge. Pixar's computers typically try to mimic how clothing would react in the real world, but that means the animated cloth on a skeleton would fall into gaps between the skeleton's bones. To solve this, Pixar told its computers the skeletons merely didn't have gaps in their ribcages, and attached some pieces of cloth to the skeleton's joints to keep things like pants and shirtsleeves from snagging and getting stuck.

For dresses, the team created an invisible sphere of wind around the skeleton's joints, filling out the clothing as if they were being worn by a normal person.

Lights, action

Unkrich wanted the Land of the Dead to be unlike anything anyone had ever seen. To do that, his team relied on vivid colors and all sorts of light. Pixar obsessed over this effect so much, it created 7 million "lights" in one shot.

All that work leads to some impressive visuals. In one scene Pixar showed me, Miguel is walking across a marigold bridge of brightly colored orange petals. Then he looks up and sees the intricate and colorfully lit Land of the Dead. It was just beautiful.

Individually coding each one would have been tedious and time consuming, of course, so Pixar used a technology called "bake light" that made the task much easier. All the streetlights, for example, were given one name and illuminated through a single control, telling them what color to give off and what brightness.

"Let's say there's a million streetlights; as far as the computer is concerned, it now thinks it's one light," said Danielle Feinberg, director of lighting.

Ultimately, this reduced the number of different lights the team had to manage to around 15.

Now playing: Watch this: Pixar ​previews ​teaser ​trailer for ​'​Coco​'

Character crossover

Pixar used techniques to create characters in previous films, like "Finding Dory," to help make the dog Dante look like a realistic street dog.


As if lighting and dressing skeletons wasn't enough of a challenge, Pixar decided Miguel's canine companion, Dante, would be hairless, meaning animators couldn't rely on fur to cover up any mistakes. Quite the opposite, they had to add bumps, splotches and scratches characteristic of a street dog into Dante's design, as well as his ribcage and shoulder blade movement.

To do this, the team relied on techniques they'd developed for characters in other films, such as Hank the octopus in "Finding Dory" and the bears in "Brave."

One part of the trick was a "skin simulation" to make the stretch of Dante's skin realistic. The other part was a "volume simulation" to give life to the jiggly chunks of the dog to make his movement look more realistic.

Those lessons even extended to Dante's tongue, which if you watch closely, uses the same techniques as Hank's tentacles (though Pixar did some work to make sure it looked more tongue-like).

"More than anything, we're very happy that Lee and Adrian (Molina) felt their vision came true in what we were able to bring them," Santos said.

"Coco" is set for release on Nov. 22 in the US, with voicing including Alanna Ubach, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel.

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