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Pixar’s Lee Unkrich on the ‘anxiety’ of directing Coco

Pixar’s Lee Unkrich on the ‘anxiety’ of directing Coco


‘I felt an enormous responsibility on my shoulders to do it right’

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Image: Disney / Pixar

Lee Unkrich has an obvious, visible presence at Pixar Animation Studios, as a co-director on Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo, and the solo director of Toy Story 3. But like so many of Pixar’s senior creative crew, he’s had a less-obvious hand in the company’s projects from the earliest days, with credits reaching back to his editing on Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and scattered work on other Pixar films ranging from supporting vocal work to supplemental story material. In other words, he’s one of the “brain trust,” the long-standing team that’s helped shape the studio’s voice and philosophy from the beginning, from informal feedback to the formal development workshops that made Pixar a standout in the animation field.  

Unkrich is back in the director’s chair for Pixar’s latest project Coco, an emotionally powerful family adventure about a boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who crosses over into the Land of the Dead and seeks out his idol, the singer Ernesto de la Cruz. The film is fundamentally built around Mexican language, music, and culture, especially the Día de los Muertos traditions of honoring the dead. I recently spoke with Unkrich about his directorial partnership with a young Mexican-American writer and animator at Pixar, the false story starts Pixar went through on Coco, and why Pixar makes specialized prints of its movies for different audiences.

I was just reading an interview with you from 2010 where you talk about how much anxiety and agony you suffered over making Toy Story 3. You called it “fear-based filmmaking,” because you worked so hard out of fear of letting people down. Did you go through anything similar here?

I did, but in a different way. In that case, I was petrified of going down in film history as the guy who directed the bad sequel to the two beloved Toy Story films. That was a lot of what drove me on that film. In this case, I did have a lot of anxiety when we were making this film about the fact that we were taking on a real culture in the world, and the fact that I’m not Mexican or Latino myself. I felt an enormous responsibility on my shoulders to do it right, to do everything I could to set us up for success, to surround ourselves with experts, to immerse ourselves in Mexican culture as much as we could.

And so yeah, I did have anxiety because of that, and just because this was a tough story to crack. There were a lot of times while we were making this that the story just wasn’t quite coming together. And I had the normal anxiety I think we all have at Pixar, that we’re not going to be able to crack the problem and make the movie work. But having gone through it on Toy Story 3, and having successfully gotten to the other side, I had a little bit of a better perspective this time. I knew the film would get done one way or the other. I just hoped it would be as good as it could be.

Image: Disney / Pixar

Pixar films go through long development processes at the story stage. I’ve read that this one started as the story of an American kid discovering his Mexican heritage. What other story stages did you go through? What did you discard along the way?

That was really the biggest change we made, changing from that early story. It was less about a kid discovering his Mexican heritage. The primary thrust was a kid who had lost his mother, and it was very much about him learning to let go of her and moving on with his life. And we realized after developing that for a while that we were telling a story that was really thematically antithetical to what Día de los Muertos is all about. Día de los Muertos is about never letting go. It’s about this obligation that we have to hold onto the memories of our ancestors, and not let their memories die. And when I realized that, I knew we really needed to start over and tell a different story than we were telling. And at that point, we had already done a lot of research, and spent a lot of time in Mexico, and I was for the first time comfortable telling a story from a Mexican perspective, about a kid in Mexico, in a Mexican family. Our first stab at the story reflected the fact that none of us at the time were from Mexico, so it made sense to tell it from an outside perspective, because I knew we were going to have to teach the audience about the traditions, and about Mexico, and that seemed like a logical way to do it initially.

You brought in cultural consultants, and you mentioned your extensive Mexican travel. What did you learn among all of this that was most surprising to you that you most wanted to put in this story?

The biggest thing we didn’t know that came out of the research was from someone who was advising us, an expert on Dia de los Muertos. We learned for the first time about this notion that we all can potentially die three deaths. The first one being when our heart stops, and we’re no longer living. The second being when we’re buried or cremated, and nobody can see us anymore. And we all have the potential to die this third and final death when there’s nobody left among the living who remembers us, who knew us. That seemed like such a powerful, poignant idea, and we knew we needed it to be part of the film somehow. Initially, it was more of a side idea. But ultimately, in the course of story development, we realized it really was core, a central idea that needed to be what the film was ultimately all about. And over time, we gradually wove that idea into the bedrock foundation of our story.

Image: Disney / Pixar

What was your directorial partnership with Adrian Molina like? What was your work process together?

Adrian and I worked with Darla on Toy Story 3. Initially, he was a storyboard artist. He came to us from CalArts. He had an internship at Pixar, and I think he was only 21 when he started working on Toy Story 3. He quickly became a really valuable member of our story team, bringing a lot of great humor and great ideas to the film. We encourage our story artists to give notes and thoughts from time to time, and I always found his notes particularly insightful and thorough and well-considered. And then he went off and worked on other films — Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur. In both cases, he contributed a lot to those stories. 

And then when we were making Coco, Adrian really wanted to be a part of it, and we were happy to have him, because I love working with him. He really served just as a story artist for the first few years, but he continued to submit great notes and great thoughts, and more and more, he became part of our core group that was really banging on the story. And at one point in the development, we really hit some roadblocks. We were having a hard time, really stuck in the mud. Adrian started writing actual screenplay pages on his own, and he sheepishly gave them to me and said, “I know you don’t have to read these, but I needed to get this out of my system and give it a try.” And they were really fantastic. They were as good as any pages that I read from any established writer.

So we took a leap of faith and asked Adrian to take over duties as a screenwriter and he did that until the end. He did a fantastic job. And I started to rely on him more and more in my day-to-day work on the film. So at a certain point, we asked him to step up and be the co-director of the film. We’d been so like-minded, and it’s always great to have a trusted person to turn to, especially when you’re really having a hard time figuring the movie out. He provided that for me. And it was a fringe benefit that he’s Mexican-American himself, and so he was able to tap into his own family history, his family stories. Ultimately, working on this film was very personal for him, and he was very passionate about making the best film it could be. And then, finally, the other reason I wanted him to direct is that he’s a rising talent in the studio. This was a great opportunity for him to be mentored by me, and see the entire process of what it takes to make a film of this magnitude.

Image: Disney / Pixar

Do you remember what the sticking point in the film was, and what his fix for it was?

It had to do with the mechanics of what Miguel was trying to do with the Land of the Dead, and what he needed to do to get back out. We tried a lot of different ideas, and all of them felt kind of surface and plot-driven. What Adrian brought was the idea that Miguel needed his family’s blessing to return home. That came from something very personal in his own life. When he headed off to college, his mother and father had him kneel down, and they actually gave him their blessing to go off into life and do what he wanted to do, and that he would always have their blessing. It was very meaningful to him in an unexpected way. They had never done anything like that before. And so the thought occurred to him to introduce this idea, and it ended up being really central and thematically on-point. It really helped solve some problems we’d been having.

Your interviews about the earliest Pixar films focused on the technological developments of figuring out how to do fur and faces and water, learning something new with each movie. That doesn’t come up as much with Pixar anymore, because the animation has become so sophisticated. Does the studio still focus its environment around technological innovation?

It’s always important to us to continue to innovate, and to do things we haven’t done before, but that’s never what’s driving why we do it. We don’t come up with stories that allow us to innovate. We come up with story ideas, and then the innovation becomes necessary to tell that story. Everyone at Pixar is wired to know that no matter what the movie looks like, ultimately it doesn’t matter if the story’s not good. That has remained the same for the 25 years or so I’ve been in the studio. Everything is driven by story. Everything serves the story.

Were there challenges here where you needed to innovate to tell the story you wanted to tell?

It was mostly that I had a vision of what I wanted the Land of the Dead to look like, and it took a lot of work to realize that on-screen. It took a lot of really smart people to figure out how to do it. There were many things we hadn’t done before. We’d never done skeletons, so a lot of work went into designing skeletons that were appealing, and not frightening. And the scope of this movie was really enormous, so there was a lot of under-the-hood innovation that needed to happen for us to be able to realize the visual density. We had an extensive amount of geometry that we were trying to put up on screen. There are some shots with 6 million light sources. Those kinds of images can bring computers, even today’s really fast computers, to their knees. And that can put you in a situation where it would take so long to render images that you’d never be able to finish the movie. So we’ve got some really smart folks on our team that figure out really innovative ways of optimizing, so you can get that density in the imagery, but as far as the computer knows, the geometry is much simpler. And so it’s renderable, and you can have your cake and eat it, too. That’s my dumb, non-computer-scientist way of describing it. There are scenes at the end where we have thousands and thousands of animated skeletons. And I honestly don’t even know how [the programmers] did what they did. I just told them what I wanted, and they figured out how to do it.

Image: Disney / Pixar

The language in this movie is such a mix of Spanish and English. I don’t speak Spanish, but I still caught a few language jokes, like Miguel entering a music contest as “little de la Cruz,” naming himself after his idol. How did you decide how to handle the language? And are there jokes in there that only Spanish speakers are going to get?

We always wanted to have Spanish be a part of it, because the film takes place in Mexico, and in reality, all these characters would be speaking Spanish. So we made some choices, like both in Santa Cecilia and the Land of the Dead, I wanted all the signage to be in Spanish, unless we needed to have English for a story point. The English signs get translated into different languages around the world, but it’s primarily Spanish. And then in the language itself, we really tried to incorporate Spanish wherever we could, either simple words everybody knows, like “gracias” or “hola,” or in other cases, making sure that the way it was performed, or the inflection made it make sense. Like when Abuelita calls Miguel “mijo,” maybe that’s not a word all people know, but the way she’s saying it and rubbing his cheek, you understand what she’s saying. There are some great turns of phrase that I think an English-speaking audience won’t find particularly amusing, but we get big laughs from Spanish speakers. Like there’s a moment where Hector makes a big claim about knowing de la Cruz, and says he used to play music with him, and Miguel says, “No manches!” We get just from his attitude that he’s kind of saying, “Get out of here!” That’s a turn of phrase that’s very colloquial in the Spanish-speaking population, and we know from screening the film as often as we have that when we do have Spanish-speaking people in the audience, they really laugh at that. It’s such an inside-joke phrase to be using. We did our homework and went the extra mile to try to move beyond stereotypes or clichés, and try to do something real.

When you say the English signs will be translated into different languages, do you actually render different versions of the film for different countries?

We do! We don’t re-render the whole film, but we render different versions of those shots. In some cases, we’ll translate into many different languages. I think we translate our movies into something like 52 different languages. So we will do localized versions of a lot of shots. Sometimes we’ll just do one single alternate international version of a shot, that kind of suffices for a world audience. For instance, at the very end of this film, the camera cranes up to a sign that says “The End” in the English version. For the international version, rather then translating “The End” into 52 languages, we created one sign that says “Coco.” It just kind of depends on the complexity of doing a sign in another language. If it’s pretty straightforward text, we’ll do it in many different languages. But if it’s more complicated, say, because the text is part of a three-dimensional sign that would involve a lot of modeling, we’ll often come up with a universal version that works all around the world, that involves symbols rather than letters. Another example: when Miguel first gets to de la Cruz’s tower in the English version, there’s a sign that says “Seize your moment” in brass letters over the tram. The international version just has musical notes on a staff in brass over the door, so it didn’t rely on language at all.

Image: Disney / Pixar

Music is an important part of this movie, with some big story beats where the content of the songs matter as much as the performances. How did you go about developing the songs to integrate with the story?

Well, the first song we created was “Remember Me,” and that was purely driven by when we were first developing the storyline, I knew I wanted a song that could have different meanings and feelings, depending on how it was arranged and was sung. We envisioned a song we would first hear as a big, splashy showstopper, but could later hear as a lullaby. That’s what we approached Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez with. And they came back to us with these two versions of “Remember Me.” Some of the other songs in the movie, since Adrian was writing the screenplay at that point, I asked him to take a crack at writing lyrics. Initially, it was really to save a step of finding outside songwriters to work on it. I knew Adrian was such a good writer, and a budding musician, so I asked him to take a crack at lyrics in line with what we were trying to communicate story-wise. He did, and then we collaborated with Germaine Franco, a Mexican-American composer we’ve been working with. We first brought her on to create an arrangement of “Remember Me” as a demo, and the mariachi version of the Disney logo music at the beginning of the movie. We loved working with her, and we asked her to take a crack at writing music for the songs Adrian had written lyrics for. It ended up being a really good partnership. They loved working together, and that yielded another four songs in the movie.