‘Coco’s Mexican-American Co-Director Adrian Molina Reveals the Origins of Pixar’s Día de Muertos Film

Producer Darla K Anderson, Director Lee Unkrich and Coco Co-Director Adrian Molina. Photo by Deborah Coleman. Courtesy of Pixar

In response to the increasingly significant presence of Latinos in the medium, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers hosted an Animation Master Class during this year’s NALIP Media Summit. To kick off the breakout session, Walt Disney’s Animation Studio and Pixar sent representatives from three of their recent and upcoming features. Moana producer Osnat Shurer, Cars 3 co-producer Andrea Warren, and Adrian Molina, writer and co-director of Coco, highlighted the studios’ move towards inclusion in their individual presentations.

Proving that animated movies can have a larger impact than just mere entertainment value, Shurer explained that Moana, the Oscar-nominated adventure about a young woman in the South Pacific, became the first film ever to be translated into the Tahitian language. It’s a tongue that is seldom spoken in French Polynesia but which gained new vigor because of this development. Similarly, and with Cristela Alonzo as her banner star, Warren talked about the qualities that the Latina comedian lent to the character of Cruz (a bright yellow car with dreams of being a racer) in the third installment of the talking-vehicles franchise.

Not surprisingly, attendees were extremely eager to hear Molina share new insight on the anticipated title about Día de Muertos. Enthusiasm in the room became audible as the crowd cheered when his turn to speak came around. Mindful of the expectations riding on Coco, the Mexican-American filmmaker described the process by which he and his team went about gathering knowledge and specific information on the beloved holiday. Their efforts came across visually in an exclusive scene for NALIP Media Summit attendees to enjoy, which offered a deeper look into its colorful afterlife and Spanglish-speaking inhabitants – including alebrijes inspired by Mexican folk art. Starring the voices of Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Jaime Camil, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, among many other Latino stars, Coco will open in theaters on November 22.

In the meantime, here are some new details about the making of the film from Adrian Molina himself.

On Coco Being a Dream Project

When I first heard that Pixar was creating a film about Día de Muertos, my first reaction was, “I need to be on this project.” I’d worked with Lee Unkrich, who is the co-director and producer of Coco and of Toy Story 3, and the promise of having such a talented team telling a story that embraces the traditions of Mexican culture was the type of project that I always dreamed of working on. From a visual perspective there is a richness and a beauty in Día de Muertos that evokes intrigue and emotion, but even more powerful than the images associated with the celebration is the spirit behind the celebration and the more that our team researched Día de Muertos and how it’s celebrated, the more we all found ourselves affected in a really deep emotional way.

On Getting the Día de Muertos Basics Right

Día de Muertos, which is also known as Día de los Muertos in some places, is the Day of the Dead, and it’s a Mexican celebration that takes place over the first two days of November and people honor their departed family and friends by building ofrendas or altars where they display photos and food and beverages that their loved ones enjoyed in life. What’s so beautiful about it is that it’s this tradition of connection, remembrance, family, and joy. These ideas were the early sparks of what has since become Coco.

On the Importance of Research at Pixar

“When I first heard that Pixar was creating a film about Día de Muertos, my first reaction was, ‘I need to be on this project.’”

Research is such a lively and important process to create wonderful stories, and only more so with this film. So as soon as we decided that we were going to tell a story set in this world we knew we had to go to Mexico for a deeper education and understanding. Also, we had to go to Mexico. [audience laughter] Over the last couple of years we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go on several trips down, send different departments and different areas of the studio, so that we could all experience how Día de Muertos is celebrated and passed down generation to generation all over the country.

As a result, these trips have influenced every part of the production, from the story, to the music, to the design, down to the way we are lighting the film, since so much of this stuff is based on candlelight in the cemeteries and ofrendas. Right now we are only a few months away from finishing the film, but we are still very hard at work during the final stretch. It’s really beautiful to start seeing it come together. Maybe some of you have seen some of the trailers. Each story element and every piece of this tradition [is something] we are trying to infuse into this film, so it’s resulting in something that we think is really special.

On Miguel’s Struggle to Pursue His Musical Passion

Our main character is Miguel, he is a spirited 12-year-old who dreams of one day becoming a great musician and this, however, clashes with his family’s decades-long ban on music. At the beginning of the film, Miguel tells the story of how his great-great-grandmother, Imelda, fell in love with a talented musician who eventually left the family to chase his dream. Music has since been forbidden in the household. Miguel likes to say he is from the only family in Mexico that hates music. He lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia with his large extended family: his papá, his mamá, his cousins, aunts, uncles, and his abuelita.

In order to pursue this dream, he secretly practices his guitar in a hidden alley, where he’s created a miniature ofrenda to his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, who is a beloved Mexican musician who has long since passed away. Miguel believes that when he looks at Ernesto he feels a connection and he is determined to play music like his idol, but he doesn’t want to upset his family. His fortune changes on Día de Muertos, when he stumbles upon a long hidden secret in one of the photos perched on his family’s ofrenda. After the photo falls to the ground, it breaks and it reveals a secret folded away potion showing that his great-great-grandfather, the musician who caused the ban on music, is holding a familiar skull guitar, which is the exact same one on all of Ernesto de la Cruz’s albums.

On the Title’s Origin and the Adorable Dog Dante

Mama Coco, for whom the movie is named, is Miguel’s 90-something great-grandmother. She is the eldest member of the Rivera household. Then there is Dante, a local street dog that Miguel has adopted, or maybe more accurately he has adopted Miguel. He is a Xolo, which is the national dog of Mexico, and it’s short for Xoloitzcuintle. They are a nearly hairless breed, but despite first impressions he is super adorable and I think you are gonna fall in love with him. As part of our research we learned that Xolo dogs have a propensity to lose their teeth, and as a result their tongues tend to roll out of their moth. We though it was such a cute, little specific detail that’s really endearing. The animators really embraced that.

On His Initial Connection to the Celebration

My personal experience with Día de Muertos was that I actually discovered it in high school. My mom is from Jalisco, but the town that she grew up in didn’t celebrate it like it’s done in Oaxaca or Michoacán. I had an understanding of the traditions, but not necessarily the experience of having it around in a household or in a town, where they go to the cemetery and they put together this community event. I also lived in Oakland, where we had community festivals and we’d see the ofrendas but in a slightly different setting that you would see in Mexico.

On Making Coco Feel Authentic

In the research trips, families were inviting us into their homes and showing us the people they were remembering, and telling us stories about each of the individuals. [We were] eating together, laughing together, and you’d had the marigold petals leading to the cemetery, and all of these details really helped us create a clear picture and a clear language about what it feels like to celebrate this as a family. And what it feels like to go to the cemetery as the sun is going down and the candles are going up. To be able to experience that feeling as filmmakers all of a sudden it gives us the tools to use sound and to use color to bring this town to life, bring this celebration to life. So that hopefully when you see it if you have experienced Día de Muertos celebrations in towns like these you recognize it and you say, “Oh yeah, that’s what it feels like.”

Coco hits theaters on November 22, 2017.

The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) seeks to inspire, promote, and advocate for Latino content creators in media. As a non-profit organization, NALIP advances the development of Latino content creation through its programs focusing on narrative, documentary, TV, and digital formats. For more information, visit