The Language of Music

Coco is not a musical, but music is an essential part of what moves and motivates Miguel. It’s what drives the plot too, and what sends Miguel off to the Land of the Dead. While the movie contains a litany of original songs, Molina and Kelly wanted none of them to be an “I Want” song in the tradition of Disney musicals — instead they had to show how Miguel felt.

Molina said that was their first real story obstacle, to “show that music was the air that Miguel breathed”:

We always knew that we wanted Miguel to be moved by this deep passion for music. We’re all artists here at Pixar, so it made sense to us to be fueled by your heart and feel this drive to create… But it’s one thing to know it intellectually and another thing to express it in a way so that your audience feels it… And we knew we needed to make it pretty clear for Miguel, because he was going to do some pretty crazy stuff over the course of this film — he’s going to run away from his family, he’s going to break into a tomb, he’s literally going to risk his life going into the land of the dead in pursuit of his passion to play music. And if you don’t buy that this is core to his being, then you’re going to wonder, “why is he doing that?”

After some brainstorming, Molina and Kelly came up with a private space that Miguel could “express his passion” away from his family, and where he has created his own haphazard ofrenda of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz.

“We took all these elements that felt natural, and we used the context of the holiday to show how Miguel feels about wanting this connection,” Molina said.

“And Miguel is kind of using it naively,” Kelly added, “in his way to make that connection with his idol.”

It’s then that Molina was struck by inspiration from his own personal childhood memory as an aspiring animator, waking up at 4 a.m. to tape reruns of The Wonderful World of Color. Stimulated by that memory and by a random guitar line he heard at a cafe, Molina “started grabbing audio clips of Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante films, a little bit of Ricardo Montalban, singing and talking about music” to turn into a proof of concept of Miguel’s ofrenda and his duet “across generations” with de la Cruz. And thus was born the teaser clip that introduced us to Coco.

“We’ve gotten the note so many times in screenings past where people intellectually get what Miguel wants, but they don’t feel it,” Kelly said. “But after we screened this clip, we don’t get that note anymore.”

More will be revealed about the music and score of the film — which was scored by Michael Giacchino, Germaine Franco, and Camilo Lara of the music project Mexican Institute of Sound — at a later date.

COCO - Concept art by Zaruhi Galstyan. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Transforming Folk Art and Practices Into Folklore

Despite the extensive research the Coco team did into the Day of the Dead, the one thing they could not find was a consistent mythology lying behind the tradition. Unkrich explained how, during their trips during the holiday, they interviewed various families about the specifics of Día de los Muertos only to be met with a resounding shrug:

I will say one thing that was interesting to me is that in all of our research and all our time spent with families… we would ask them what their vision of an afterlife was, and pretty consistently people would just say, “I don’t know.” So there wasn’t some set vision of the afterlife that was tied to Dia de los Muertos. So we found that we were pretty much left on our own to figure that out. We knew that we wanted it to be a celebratory place, we knew that people who were there were probably excited to visit their relatives every year, so there was a kind of buoyant, festive atmosphere.

This was a boon for Unkrich and Molina, who now had creative license to portray the afterlife however they pleased. But first came the establishing of rules. Unkrich listed off some of the laws of this land they established, like whatever jobs they held in life must be continued in the afterlife — “so Miguel really didn’t have anything to look forward to” — and transforming beloved aspects of the holiday, like the ofrenda and the path of marigold flowers, into actual narrative devices. The ofrenda becomes a pivotal point of conflict for Miguel, with the pictures of the ancestors on the altar acting as sort of passports that will allow them to cross over to the land of the living.

But one of the most vibrant traditions of the Day of the Dead is the path of marigold flower petals, also called cempasúchil, which Mexicans scatter on the ground to act as a guide for the spirits of their loved ones. Kelly described the process for how it transformed from some scattered petals into one of the most memorable set pieces in the film:

The Marigold Path was something we saw in all our research trips that was so beautiful, even at night it looked like they were iridescent, like they were glowing. And we thought, “we gotta use that, we have to find a way to kind of Pixar-ify it.” Well how about making a literal bridge out of petals?

But the Coco team also got the chance to incorporate an aspect of Mexican culture that has little to do with the Day of the Dead: Mexican folk art named alebrijas. In the film, they are bright, vibrant chimera-like animals that act as spirit guides to the dead ancestors. They have a fascinating history behind them, one that only stretches back 70-or-so odd years.

Alonso Martinez, the technical director for characters, described the art form that he loved “since I was a kid” and how they were born out of a paper mache artist’s fever dream:

When we think of folk art, we always imagine things that are from the 1800s, 1700s, or even older. Pedro Linares actually came up with them in 1936. When he fell ill, he had fever dreams in which he was the forest and all of a sudden, these creatures started appearing. And they were chimera animals, you know, mixtures of donkeys with wings, snakes with two feet, and all of these wacky animals. And they all started chanting the word “alebrijas,” which doesn’t have additional meaning. He named them alebrijas. And Pedro Linares was by profession a piñata maker, and so being an artist, when he woke up he was like, “Oh I have to capture this thing that I saw.” And little did he know that he would make what would end up being one of Mexico’s most famous forms of art.

Beloved in Mexico as “sort of Mexican action figures,” Martinez said, alebrijas were originally made out of paper mache, but are now made out of soft copal wood found in Oaxaca. There’s no universal symbology behind their designs, but they rather depend on the artist making it. The only constant is that they’re brightly colored, which the film pays tribute to by maying them glow fluorescent in the perpetual nighttime of the Land of the Dead, according to directing animator Nickolas Rosario.

Martinez showed a clear personal affection for the alebrijas, even bringing in his own collection to show (but not touch.) “Having loved them since a kid and being a part of what I think as Mexico, shining a spotlight and having the world know about them is such a cool thing,” he said.

The main alebrijas in Coco is named Pepita, who is part lizard/iguana, part eagle, part tiger, and part ram. But unlike the skeletons, painstaking detail wasn’t made to make her seem overly realistic, but more graphic in an homage to the wood carvings of the popular alebrijas. And who knows? Maybe they’ll gain a new layer of mythology behind them with this film, as the spiritual guides and favorite toys of both Mexican and American children alike.

“They have made such a deep impact in Mexican culture that they’re taking on new forms,” Martinez said.

Coco hits theaters November 22, 2017.

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