Standing on stage at the Academy’s 79 New Montgomery Theatre in this past October, Daniel Arriaga looked out on a sea of Academy students as he described spending years of his animation career working on the Pixar feature film Coco as a character art director. One of a number Academy alumni and instructors who contributed to the film, Arriaga may not have shed any tears, but he was clearly emotional as he talked about his full-circle journey from a wide-eyed Academy student to senior director at Pixar Animation Studios.
“This is a real dream come true to be back here at my school,” Arriaga said. “To be able to stand here is really the moment I can say ‘I made it.’”
Coco & the Land of the Dead
With the lights dimmed, Arriaga illuminated the audience with never-before-seen clips of Coco, which opened on Thanksgiving Day, 2017. Students laughed at choice passages from the film, which follows Miguel, a boy caught between his dream of becoming a musician and his family’s generation-old ban on music. Searching for answers, Miguel sets off to locate the grave of his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, only to find himself thrust into the colorful Land of the Dead, where he meets his deceased relatives and eventually finds middle ground between his passion for music and love of his family.
“Wow. Seeing it to this day, I’m still blown away,” said Arriaga. Throughout the two-hour event, Arriaga delighted the audience with tales from his five-year journey working on the film, including a trip to Mexico.
Presence of Eternity
The film takes place during Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the world. Observers create elaborate altars covered with offerings to the dead—including flowers, food and calaveras (or painted skulls); the latter have become symbolic of the holiday. The skeletal characters in Coco closely resemble the calaveras, although they’re also dressed in traditional Mexican clothing.
It’s these lively, skeletal characters that steal the show, which the audience confirmed by laughing most when they appeared on screen.
For the eager-to-learn Academy students in the audience, ears perked up when Arriaga shared insights into the complicated design process of creating characters from conception to refinement.
Skeletons, dogs, spirit animals and humans flashed on the screen as Arriaga, a Mexican-American, talked about finding inspiration for the characters’ movements and actions from his life.
“This project was very close to me because of my culture,” said Arriaga. “We wanted this film to be as authentic as we could make it. We really wanted to pay our respects to Dia de los Muertos and do it right.”
Arriaga related how, for Coco’s animators, the skeletons meant Pixar’s animators were tasked with bringing the dead alive—and transforming them into relatable characters.
“There were a ton of challenges that came with designing the skeletons,” he said, showing a picture of a real-life skull. “How do you make that appealing and get character out of that?”
Arriaga shared the complex development from rough drawings to final versions, all while giving tips to student animation artists in the audience.
After the presentation ended, a question and answer session revealed students’ strong interest in advice about the working world of animation. Arriaga spoke about being open-minded when it comes to jobs after graduation, having a strong, relatable portfolio and simply getting good at the craft you practice.
“I’m so blessed to be back here. I used to sit where you are right now and to be able to stand here and talk to you is really special,” said Arriaga, as an appreciative round of applause brought the evening to a close.
Gathering later, students shared their thoughts on Arriaga’s presentation. A number of students in the audience are also part of the Tea Time Animation Club, an independent organization formed by Academy students and alumni devoted to perfecting their craft. Member Leonardo Quert pronounced the show “amazing”—and inspiring.
“It showed me anything is possible,” said Quert, a December 2017 graduate of the School of Animation & Visual Effects. “For students—even myself—thinking of working in the real world can be scary, but having light shed on it from Daniel, I think gave all students some hope.”
Mirelle Ortega, a School of Visual Development undergrad, said she was grateful Arriaga was invited and that she always tries to attend events with industry professionals.
“It’s always valuable to learn more about how things work in a real-life production. Sometimes you don’t have a clear idea, but hearing from people who work in that specific area is really beneficial.”