How Coco animators solved Pixar's big, bony challenge
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Remember Hank, the surly, seven-legged octopus from last summer’s Finding Dory? The development of the squishy scene-stealer proved to be one of Pixar’s greatest technical challenges to date, but that’s partly only because the innovative animation studio is always charting some new technological territory with each film. And if Hank’s endless elasticity and spongy idiosyncrasies were the big animation hurdle last year, this year’s film, Coco, presented a difficult design challenge that’s perhaps a little more… rigid.
Coco (out Nov. 22) culls half of its main characters from the vibrant skeletons who populate the colorful Land of the Dead, a bustling underworld where a young boy named Miguel accidentally travels on Dia de los Muertos. To create all the bony break-out and background characters, all of whom are nothing but skeletons in chic clothing, Pixar animators had to essentially forget everything they knew about humans.
“If Hank represented the pinnacle of what you can do with something so organic that it’s not held by a certain shape all the time, skeletons were the exact opposite,” says Gini Santos, a Pixar veteran since 1999’s Toy Story 2 and, with Michael Venturini, one of two supervising animators on this show (what Pixar staffers call movies). “Over the year we’ve spent so much time and research figuring out our human characters and how their skin squashes and stretches, so this totally broke the rules for us. We knew with skeletons that all of a sudden, those boundaries of something organic are gone — the skin, the muscles, the tendons. And if there’s nothing holding it together, what can you do with bones? And we realized, we can do all sorts of things.”
Skeletons are certainly new territory for Pixar, which has made anthropomorphic art from bugs, fish, cars, toys, and monsters — but the macabre figures actually have one of the longest histories in modern animation. Cartoon skeletons stretch all the way back to Walt Disney’s groundbreaking first Silly Symphony short, The Skeleton Dance, in 1929, in which animator Ub Iwerks oscillated between spooky and silly as he drew four jolly skeletons dancing around a graveyard. Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas would later add to the history with stop-motion representation; He-Man’s goofy baddie Skeletor, even, is among the more significant animated skeletons already carved into western memory.
“It’s not anything we had done before, but it’s also something that hasn’t been done a lot, period,” says director Lee Unkrich, helming again for the first time since Toy Story 3. “We wanted to create skeletons that A, were not creepy, and B, were entertaining. The most important thing was, I knew we were going to have some very emotional and potentially heavy scenes in this film, and I told my team we needed to design characters that were appealing — and appealing enough to the point where I could go in and shoot a big close-up of one of them and the audience would be right there with them, believing them completely, and not be put off.”
One key design decision that helped make Coco’s corpses completely compelling: Filling those usually-empty eye sockets with big, expressive eyes (and having those same sockets stretch and squash to do the work of the ever-important eyebrow). “You don’t typically see skeletons with eyes, but it was important because without them they’re just blank slates,” says Unkrich. “It’s cliché, but the eyes are the window to the soul, and I knew if I was going to have tender, soulful moments with these characters, I needed the audience to be able to look right into them.” What the artists didn’t include were certain traits that would throw audiences off: No gums, no tongues, no separate mandible jaw. “A skull is just scary [on its own], and we knew our biggest challenge was overcoming this very macabre-looking thing,” says Santos.
Santos’ and Venturini’s teams didn’t waste much time with theoretical discussion once Pixar’s concept and story artists had laid down a crucial design foundation. The animation crew eagerly began toying with the rig model that they would use for this show, built on the principles of a very sensible launching point: Basic anatomy. “Our skeletal structure is really only 20 percent of our bodyweight, so you take everything away and all of a sudden these characters were basically not bound by anything and they were light, so that changed the rules of our principles of weight,” Santos says.
Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina had also issued a challenge to animators early on to “change the perception of what people think skeletons are through their personalities,” but the film also faced a major challenge of scale: How do you not only bring one skeleton come to life, but allow hundreds of unique skeletons in a crowd do it as well? Variations in size, sheen, fashion, as well as shades of whites, browns, yellows, and ivories and degrees of crack and decay, helped distinguish the masses and solve one half of the issue; motion helped solve the other. “When they all start to look the same, you have to figure out how to make them distinct from each other and part of that means coming up with different personalities each of their movements,” Santos continues. For perhaps the best example of buoyant bounding, you’ll find it in the manic motion of Hector, the lanky urchin played by Gael Garcia Bernal.
An arm still moves like an arm, whether covered in flesh or not, but the exposure of what lies underneath meant that artists could make the animation significantly richer by designing bones with the ability to move individually. The resultant rig boasts a calcium-happy bone quantity somewhere in the 120-130 range (down from a human adult’s 206). The model allowed for more entertainment opportunities as animators investigated how joints might pop apart when a character stretches with excitement, or how ribs can jiggle with laughter and fear, or how a skeleton might fall and break entirely, only to begrudgingly pull himself back together by the abstract “life force” that holds the skeletons all in place (another question that the animators had to solve).
One question that remains uncracked, and perhaps still will until the next show rolls around, is whether all this skeletal work will have a lasting effect on the members of Team Coco who have spent years getting more than well-acquainted with bone structure — and perhaps may never look at a human character the same way again. “We worked so hard in the very beginning to get organic things like lips and skin perfectly right,” says Santos. “When we figured it out, we thought, ‘Finally, we’re free of it.’ And it turns out, if anything, our team has now discovered that, wow, at least we didn’t have to think about each and every bone back then.” Ah, the glory days of animating human flesh the old-fashioned way.