Disney/Pixar’s Coco will be taking audiences through the Land of the Dead as we follow the main character Miguel’s journey when he accidentally gets transported to that realm after playing his music idol’s guitar. And all of this on Día de los Muertos when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. Along the way, Miguel meets his family and they look a bit skeletal.
When we picture Día de los Muertos, what is the first image that we see? The image that typically comes to mind are sugar skulls and, primarily, ornately dressed skeletons. The human components that originally defined the dead are gone once they pass over. And this particular detail of the Mexican holiday presented a significant issue for the animation and design team when it came to character construction because kids typically do not react well to skeletons. Daniel Arriaga, the character designer for Disney/ Pixar’s Coco, spared no details when he talked about the challenges the team faced when confronted with having to bring skeletons to life onscreen:
“The skeletons presented a huge challenge for us. Number one is skeletons are usually very scary right? So we got a bunch of references of skulls and actual skeletons and as you see, if you saw that talking, I’d run. I wouldn’t want to see that, but we did want to stay true to the skeletons as well. So we got pictures of their bones. We actually had a real skeleton like the ones they have in schools and we actually see if we could actually make that appealing by photoshopping things on it.”
Because of the important message behind the film surrounding family and because a good part of the film is located in the Land of the Dead where deceased family members are now skeletons, it was imperative to make sure that kids weren’t too afraid to watch it. Maintaining that balance of realism while also maintaining a humorous charm became the sole focus of the design team.
As mentioned before, one of the defining images that we associate with Día de los Muertos are ornately dressed skeletons. The problem with skeletons is that the defining physical character traits are gone, which can make it very difficult to differentiate between them. This presented itself as a problem because Miguel interacts with his deceased family members in the Land of the Dead. The challenge for the design team then became how do they give character traits to skeletons, so that audience members can identify them easily. As Arriaga explained, the solution came down to the face paint that is used during Día de los Muertos:
“Also two, one of the things that happens with the skeleton is that you lose all of the things that give us character, you know, your eyes, your noses, your mouth, your muscle tissue, everything about it. And we all look the same, so how do you get a character out of that? How do you make variations of that? So we did a bunch of paintings and skulls in order to explore stylization and to explore different things to reduce the scary factor of the skulls. Another huge part of the Day of the dead is the face paint, so we wanted to make sure we incorporated the face paint in the skeletons as well. The challenge with face paint though is that sometimes it can get too distracting, so we had to do another test with that.”
Although the design team was presented with numerous challenges when designing skeleton characters for Disney/Pixar’s Coco, it is clear to many that the hard work paid off in the long run. The family members we have been introduced to in via trailers that come from the Land of the Dead come across as friendly, but they do not blend together. Each one stands out from the pack and that in itself lends more power to Disney/Pixar’s Coco.
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