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Creating 'Coco'

He may not have shed any tears, but Daniel Arriaga was clearly emotional as he talked about his full-circle journey from a wide-eyed Academy of Art University student to now a 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.’”

Standing on stage at the 79 New Montgomery Theatre on Oct. 25, Arriaga looked out to a sea of Academy students as he shared his experience working on the Pixar feature film Coco as a character art director. Arriaga is just one of many Academy alumni and instructors who worked on the film. 

With the lights dimmed low, Arriaga illuminated the theatre with never-before-seen clips of Coco, which opened in theaters on Thanksgiving Day. 

Students laughed wildly at the clips of the film which follow Miguel, a young boy caught between his dream of becoming a musician and his family’s generation-old ban on music. In his search for answers, Miguel sets off to find the grave of his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, only to find himself thrust into the colorful and imaginative Land of the Dead, where he meets his skeleton relatives and eventually finds middle ground between his passion for music and love for his family.

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Academy of Art University alumnus Daniel Arriaga discussing Pixar's Coco during a recent event. Photo by Bob Toy.

“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, which included a trip to Mexico. 

For the eager-to-learn Academy students in the audience, their ears perked up when Arriaga shared insight into the complicated design process of the 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 own family and culture. 

“This project was very close to me because of my culture,” said Arriaga, who also has a young son of his own. “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.”

The film takes place during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the world. Observers create elaborate altars covered with offerings to the dead such as flowers, food and calaveras (or painted skulls), which has become a strong symbol of the holiday. The skeletal characters in Coco closely resemble the calaveras while also dressed in traditional Mexican clothing. 

It’s these lively, boney characters who no doubt steal the show, and the audience confirmed it as they laughed the hardest whenever they appeared on screen. 

For Coco’s animators, the skeletons introduced a new challenge for Pixar, bringing life to the dead.

“There were a ton of challenges that came with designing the skeletons. We had to make the skeletons come to life,” he said showing a picture of a real-life skull. “How do you make that appealing and get character out of that?”

He showed the complex development of the skeletons from rough drawings to final versions, all while giving tips to student animation artists in the audience. 

The film takes place during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the world. Observers create elaborate altars covered with offerings to the dead such as flowers, food and calaveras (or painted skulls), which has become a strong symbol of the holiday. The skeletal characters in Coco closely resemble the calaveras while also dressed in traditional Mexican clothing. 
The film takes place during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the world. Observers create elaborate altars covered with offerings to the dead such as flowers, food and calaveras (or painted skulls), which has become a strong symbol of the holiday. The skeletal characters in Coco closely resemble the calaveras while also dressed in traditional Mexican clothing. 

As the presentation came to a close, the crowd was opened to a question and answer session where students were clearly searching for advice about the industry world. 

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 a huge, appreciative round of applause brought the evening to a close. 

After the show, students gathered and chatted about their thoughts on Arriaga’s presentation. For Tea Time Animation member, Leonardo Quert, the show was not only “amazing,” as he said, but also inspiring. 

“It showed me that anything is possible,” Quert said, a soon-to-be December 2017 graduate of the School of Animation & Visual Effects (ANM). “For students, even myself, thinking of working in the real world can be scary, but having some light shed on it from Daniel, I think gave all students some hope.” 

Other students agreed. Mirelle Ortega, a visual development major in her third year, said she was grateful ANM invited Arriaga 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,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t have a clear idea, but hearing from people who work in that specific area is really beneficial.”

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(L–R) Elham Sepehrjou, Fernando Benafiel, Daniel Arriaga and Leonardo Quert. Photo by Bob Toy.