A veteran Filipino animator’s work shines in Disney-Pixar’s 'Coco'

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A Pixar animator for 20 years now, Gini Santos is the studio’s first female and Filipino supervising animator, taking the helm for “Coco.” Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The titular character in “Coco,” Disney-Pixar’s upcoming animated film, is not its protagonist. “Coco” is Miguel’s great-grandmother, about 80 years old, and while she speaks little (and appears only a few times), it is her backstory that propels much of the movement in a film inspired by a holiday — Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead — and the proverbial conflict between following your heart or continuing family traditions. The resolution of that conflict rests upon Miguel, who is the film’s main lead, an aspiring musician who feels restricted by his family’s absurd ban on music.

Once that confusion is out of the way, one can settle in and enjoy “Coco” for the vividness of its marigold bridges, its flickering, glowing skeletons, and its cosmopolitan rendering of where the dead live after they die. Around three-fourths of the film occur there, after a freak circumstance where Miguel suddenly ends up seeing all his deceased family relatives, walking the earth as if on holiday. And they are on holiday, after all, it's Día de los Muertos. Translating the occasion into film, “Coco” serves a flamboyant feast for the eyes.

Directed by Lee Unkrich and co-directed and written by Adrian Molina, “Coco” is not as narratively compelling as some of its predecessors. It is a bit predictable as its premise is formulaic, at least for a culture as bound by family as the Philippines, where dreams are commonly shelved for the sake of filial obligation. But as a moving picture, “Coco” is a successful display of the wonders of design and animation, taking its cue from one of the richest cultures in the world as interpreted by the studio that has produced the likes of “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” “Up,” and “Inside Out.”

"Coco" is a family film set in the village of Santa Cecilia, based from villages in Mexico. The film also takes place in the Land of the Dead, whose inhabitants cross over to the Land of the Living during Día de los Muertos. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

The supervising animator of the film is Gini Santos, who first worked on “Toy Story 2” and who, for the most part, animated the forgetful fish Dory of “Finding Nemo.” A Pixar animator for 20 years now (her credits are also included in “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters Inc.,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” and “Up,”), she is the first Filipino, and the first female, to have held the role.

When Santos started in Pixar, animation had little tools to get by. “We did the best we could, did some great animation films because the story's good,” she says during an early press screening of “Coco” in Manila. “Then, over time, our tools got better. Now you can make animation in so many ways, different styles. You have no more excuse to just do good animation.”

How Santos found her way to Pixar was more because of nerve than ambition. She studied advertising arts in the Philippines, in the University of Sto. Tomas. In Guam (where she was raised), she worked as an art director in an advertising firm (the island’s so small “you're like a big fish in a small pond,” she says) before studying computer art. “Computers were starting to be a part of the creative process so I decided to go back to school,” she tells CNN Philippines in The Source. “I wanted to take a Master of Fine Arts program and I decided I kinda wanna find out more about what the computer meant in the field of art now.”

When she graduated, Santos sent her student reel to Pixar more as a “kind of a joke,” she recalls. “I didn't have a resume and they called me back and said, ‘Hey, are you applying for the animation position?’” she says. “So they flew me there, interviewed me, and that was back in ‘96. And ever since, I've been there.”

Día de los Muertos is when the dead are remembered in Mexico. Given the premise of "Coco," Gini Santos says they had to make the animation for skeletons appealing. "We never animated them before, and skeletons are kind of the universal symbol for death and scary and macabre." Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

“Coco” represents a milestone for Santos, who helped lead a team of around 80 animators for this film. “We're there as mentors. We shepherd the animation team ... so our time is really filled with making sure our team is set up to do their work. We talk with them, with the directors. And we just make sure that we bring the director's vision to the performances.”

But while she is lauded as Pixar’s first female supervising animator, the role also compelled Santos to reinspect her perceptions of the workplace. “I think my struggle was trying to get my voice ... because it's such new thing, and I tended to not actually speak that loud, because I'm like, ‘Oh I'm gonna wait until I say that perfect thing.’ So I also had to get over my biases. I also had to navigate sometimes,” she says in the press screening. “There's an awareness that I feel like men had to come realize, that hey, you need to address the woman in the room. And Pixar's kind of making adjustments to kind of educate us a little better.”

In an interview with CNN Philippines Life, Santos shares what goes behind some of the animation studio’s most-loved films, what “Coco” means for her, and what it took to take the film to the screen. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), the film’s main lead, is an aspiring musician who feels restricted by his family’s absurd ban on music. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

One of my favorite pieces of animation was that part in "Up" without dialogue …

So funny you should ask, because I requested the death scene. No one [wanted to animate] ... that the wife died. And I said I wanted to animate that, because I wanted to experience it.

What went into the decision to animate that?

It was really talking about Carl’s life. They call it a montage, where they show parts of the film and there's no dialogue. It's all pantomime: that's what we call acting without any dialogue. Animators love that. You really come up with a performance, [because] usually dialogue leads you. It was just really to set up the story that Carl was married, they wanted to have a kid, and they share their life together until the wife dies. And that's where really the story starts. Usually those things set up the history of the character.

That was something written in by the director, which made it a beautiful piece because you empathize with Carl, because you realize he has this beautiful life with his wife, and they never had a child, which they wanted, but it sets him up for his journey when he takes his house with the balloons and he meets Russell. That's how it works.

"Coco" also deals with death. In the film, there are even stages of death. Where did you get the inspiration for that? Was that from Mexico also?

I think that was just creative license. Usually, the story's written by the director, they figure out the rules of the world. There might have been something they thought of in the dead world, what happens there? They obviously thrive on being remembered. Día de los Muertos comes around, and people put their pictures in the ofrenda [altars], it's a moment when they remember. That's what keeps them going in the dead world. That they are remembered through the stories people tell.

"Now you can make animation in so many ways, different styles. You have no more excuse to just do good animation," says Gini Santos. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

When do these ideas come up?

They did that while they were writing the story, and once they started designing it — there's a department of design that suggests to [the director] based on what he wants to see. Usually, for me or our team, we're about the acting or animation. And sometimes we animate a scene and we won't see some of those special effects 'til after we're done and the next department's putting in the special effects. You saw in the movie some parts that glow. Sometimes we don't see that 'til after. We'll see our animation again with lighting and effects and we're like whoa, it's 10 times better.

Was it a challenge translating music in “Coco” to animation?

Oh yes. Basically, the instructions of the director were every time there was music playing, it had to be authentic. So that meant extra work in setting up the guitar so it could play like the guitar, and if we animated a scene where there was not just a guitar but horns, there's a lot of musicians in there — it had to be really true to the playing. We had to do a reference of musicians playing so we can make sure we're animating it the right way. It did add to the work of animation, but it was worth it, because you watch it and now you know they're playing it for real.

Frida Kahlo also makes a funny appearance in the film.

We wanted to find a way to put Frida in there because she's obviously a national [icon] from Mexico. Again, we took creative liberties to make her character a bit more entertaining, but we were trying to respect who she was too. Frida, the more we went to Mexico, the more we kept discovering things about her — she's apparently really funny as a person, as an artist she was really bold. And so we tried to put that in the character. But things like the papaya [in the film], those were kind of like original ideas that the director put in there.

Is there now a deliberate intention to infuse more cultural references in Pixar movies?

Lee [Unkrich, the director] was always fascinated with Día de los Muertos, and in finding more of what it was, he decided he had a story he wanted to tell. It wasn't a choice because it was Mexico, it just so happened that the story he wanted to tell was based on Mexico. At the same time, it was [a] great opportunity to tell something a little more diverse for us. We made so many films in different places — “Ratatouille” in Paris, “Inside Out” in the mind, “Up” was in South America. So we've really been doing that for a long time. But for this one, yes, it was an opportunity to do something really authentic. It's like taking All Souls Day and we want people to make sure what they're seeing about All Souls Day is the right thing because it's an important holiday. We wanted to do that right.

The film is set in Mexico and is released at a politically-charged time in the U.S. Does Disney-Pixar think of that when creating or releasing the film?

It's funny because it [took] four to seven years to make the film. When Lee came up with the story, our intention was never ... we don't do message movies. We had a story we wanted to tell and it just so happened it fell into the timeline. We're just hoping that people will watch it for the message of pursuing your dream and remembering your family.

Do you have a favorite Pixar film?

What's funny is I always say "Finding Nemo" because of Dory, but each film I got to animate on is so different. Now I'm biased because as a supervising animator on "Coco," I loved working on this film. Not as an animator but being part of the team to help the director get this up on film, up on screen. It's such a rich film, the characters and designs are amazing and there are things we've never animated before. It's right up there with my favorite "Finding Nemo."


“Coco” opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 22, 2017.