Pixar uses VR to bring the Land of the Dead to life

"Coco VR," the first virtual-reality experience from Pixar, sets you loose as a skeleton to play in the imaginary universe of its next film.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

Pixar's movies can be so captivating, you sometimes want to walk around inside their worlds.

Now you can.

"Coco VR," the first virtual-reality experience from Pixar , lets you virtually explore the glimmering Land of the Dead from the studio's upcoming feature, "Coco." Check out your skeleton body in a mirror as you try on different outfits and pop your skull off and place it into your hands. Walk around a town square with a friend, exploring buildings on your hunt for Easter eggs and movie extras, like a deleted scene from the film.

Or ride an elevator that lifts you high above the roofs to an elevated train, allowing the expanse of the twinkling metropolis to unspool around you, almost like you've really traveled to this imaginary world.

"You are stepping into a Pixar film," said Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus. "But in addition to that, you're also able to experience things in this that you can't in the film. … You're able to create a deeper, richer world beyond -- and the parallel to -- the film's experience."


In "Coco VR" you and a friend embody skeletons exploring the Land of the Dead. 


"Coco VR" brings blockbuster animation studio Pixar into virtual reality for the first time, a taste of what VR cheerleaders have always hoped could be a match made in heaven.

Virtual reality is one of the hottest trends in tech, attracting huge investments by giants like Facebook, Google and Samsung. Despite the buzz, broader adoption remains muted because people have been hesitant to pour hundreds of dollars into a souped-up computer and a high-end headset like Facebook's Oculus Rift when it isn't fully clear if the experiences in VR are worth it.

That's where Pixar comes in. The studio is beloved for its captivating stories and wondrous animation, with flagship feature films such as "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" routinely some of the world's highest-grossing pictures. Putting a trusted name like Pixar into virtual reality, and doing it well, could crystalize the appeal of VR for a broader swath of people.

So... does that mean we can expect Pixar's first full-length VR movie?

"We're crawling before we walk before we run," Marc Sondheimer, Pixar's producer of "Coco VR" and an Oscar winner for the Pixar short "Piper," told me in an interview Monday -- after he finished laughing. The company said it's focusing on the release of "Coco VR" for now.

Morphing "Coco" into something "inherently VR" was the guiding principle for the teams at Oculus, Pixar and visual-effects-experiences firm Magnopus, which worked together to create the "Coco VR" experience, according to Rachitsky in an interview last week. Pixar's "Coco" film team created animations and sets, while Magnopus carried the art into virtual reality, adding social elements and interactive layers. Oculus helped both teams with creative and technical feedback throughout the process.


Even the moon has a skeletal smile in "Coco VR."


"Their films are nearly perfect. We're not going to replicate what they do on film," Rachitsky said of Pixar's movies. "And so we really leaned into the audience experience ... making it highly interactive, and highly social and highly fun."

Pixar isn't the first studio to embrace VR as a complement to an upcoming film. Lionsgate built a VR experience to tease to its "Power Rangers" movie, and Warner Bros. created a VR hover car chase scene through futuristic Los Angeles as a preview for "Blade Runner 2049." Disney, Pixar's parent company, had already made two other VR experiences before "Coco VR," for "Moana" and "Beauty and the Beast."

But "Coco VR" is more social and interactive than film-based VR experiences that have come before it.

You can explore the Land of the Dead with a friend in VR, hearing his or her voice inside your Oculus headphones as you both, in the form of your skeleton avatars, take pictures together at a photo booth. As you ride the elevated train, you can snatch your pal's skull off her body and toss it overboard. (Don't worry -- she won't be headless for long.)  Shaking maracas on stage in a musical finale musical, you can hear your buddy laugh at your dance moves.

"There are many social experiences and multiplayer experiences in VR, but this is the first on the narrative side," said Colum Slevin, head of experiences at Oculus, in an interview. "This was a big piece for us, bringing people into this shared, cooperative world. That was a first."

Magnopus helped translate Pixar's "Coco" assets into a living virtual realm, but it's first role was helping convince Pixar to do VR in the first place. 

"There was a lot of enthusiasm at Pixar, but within the studio itself there was some very healthy skepticism" about VR's ability to deliver a level of quality fans expect of Pixar, said Magnopus co-founder Alex Henning. His company made a prototype of the experience hoping to pull Pixar onto the bandwagon. When his team entered the prototype with Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, Henning said he was biting his fingernails to get his reaction. 

Unintentionally, in that early version of the experience, the mic on the Oculus headset would continue to pick up sound even after a user removed his headset and his skeleton avatar slumped over. 

So when Catmull took off his headset, "we heard his disembodied voice through his skull, 'This is really weird but really awesome, continue," Henning recounted. 

"It was a new wave of industrial espionage," he joked. 

The "Coco VR" experience is available today on Oculus Rift, and a version of the experience will launch for Gear VR on Nov. 22, alongside the opening of the film in the US. If you don't have a headset, you can get a peek at the experience at some Disney Stores in California, New York and Florida, and at select movie theaters, starting today until the film's release.

For Pixar superfans, you can expect a trusty friend to meet you there.

"The Luxo Ball is in all our films," Sondheimer said, referring to the red, yellow and blue ball that makes a cameo in every Pixar feature since the studio's first short, "Luxo Jr." In "Coco VR," the ball appears in a "uniquely VR fashion," he said. "It's not just sitting on a shelf."

I didn't spy the Luxo Ball during my first, rapid-fire demo of the experience, but even if I had, I'd still want to return to the Land of the Dead. The beautifully imagined virtual world of "Coco VR" doesn't simply use VR to make its story feel real -- it makes you feel magical. 

First published Nov. 15 at 10 a.m. PT.
Updated at 1:10 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Magnopus co-founder.

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