“Mexico is a designer’s dream.” With those words, Harvey Jessup, the production designer on Pixar’s upcoming Coco, summed up precisely what made the Día de Muertos-themed project such a joy. Speaking at the Emeryvillle studio a few weeks ago, Jessup added how important it was to honor the film’s setting. “We felt an enormous responsibility to be as authentic as possible while joyfully celebrating the culture of Mexico and the importance of family,” he added. The latest trailer for the animated flick gave us brief glimpses of the colorful Land of the Dead world that director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, and the artists all over Pixar dreamed up. But audiences are in for a treat when they see to what extent every detail in the movie was carefully chosen to honor the Mexican culture and the Día de Muertos celebration that served as inspiration for the film.
Remezcla got a chance to hear Jessup and his colleagues, including members of the lighting and set design teams, talk about how their trips to Mexico were crucial for coming up with the visual stylings of the animated movie. The Pixar team drew ideas from architecture from all kinds of historical eras and found ways of incorporating traditional imagery from the Day of the Dead celebrations into the fantasy-driven story about a boy who ends up in the Land of the Dead trying to find more about his family. And while some references will surely be self-evident to many, we’ve singled out 5 unlikely sources of inspiration that helped make Coco one of Pixar’s most visually inventive films in recent memory. Check them out below.
Coco hits theaters in Mexico shortly after opening the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia (FICM) on October 20, 2017 and opens in U.S. theaters on November 22, 2017.
Santa Fe de la Laguna
‘Coco’ still courtesy of Disney•Pixar
The town of Santa Cecilia, where we first meet Miguel and his family, was inspired by the Michoacán region in general and by Santa Fe de la Laguna in particular. With its fair share of artisans and traditional Mexican cultural touchstones, the small town felt like the perfect model to use to create the bright and colorful world that would first introduce audiences to Miguel before heading into the Land of the Dead.
José Guadalupe Posada
COCO – Concept art by Armand Baltazar and John Nevarez. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
The famous turn of the century printmaker and engraver is famous for using skulls and skeletons in his political cartoons. His lithographs and engravings were but one of many visual references for the world of the Land of the Dead in Coco. For, while his drawings were first driven by political satire – including his well-known take-down of upper class women, “Calavera de la Catrina” – they have since become central artistic inspirations for the Día de Muertos holiday celebrations.
Palacio de Correos de Mexico
COCO – Concept art by Huy Nguyen. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
In designing the Marigold Central Station, the Pixar team looked to early twentieth century cast-iron buildings in Mexico City and New York City. In particular, they focused on the Palacio de Correos de Mexico, which opened in 1907 and became the flagship building for the country’s postal office, as a model for the transport hub in the Land of the Dead. Similarly, the Department of Family Reunions was designed as a sort of Victorian take on the Department of Motor Vehicles, to better lend it an air of the bureaucratic air they were going for, but with a much-needed stylish flourish.
THE LAND OF THE DEAD – “Coco” Courtesy of Disney•Pixar
Director Lee Unkrich gave his team a tall order when telling them what he wanted for the Land of the Dead: create a place unlike anything we’ve seen before. The resultant layered city that’s in the final film is a mish-mash of styles, a city built vertically rather than horizontally, with older architectures at the bottom of it giving way to newer and more modern buildings. But one of the earliest inspirations for it was the city-state of Tenochtitlan, which once stood on an island in Lake Texcoco—the team just loved the idea of the city standing as an island onto itself.
Y tu mamá también
COCO – Pepita concept art by Huy Nguyen. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Yes, you read that right. Not only did the Pixar team find inspiration in Mexico proper but in its wide-ranging cinema. And while you already know Gael is lending his voice to Hector, Unkrich and his animators were actually inspired by the colors in Alfonso Cuarón’s decidedly non-family friendly film. They loved the interesting color combinations throughout, with purples and greens being filtered through and contrasted with fluorescent lights. For a movie that spends much of its running time in nighttime darkness, the plays on different light sources were crucial to finding ways of making each scene and emotional beat distinctive in its own way.