As a fan of mesmerizing folk art, and specifically alebrijes — Mexican folk art of fantastical creatures, usually sculpted in papier-mâché or from the magical (and easy-to-carve) copal wood from the Oaxaca Valley — I think Disney-Pixar's Coco may just be the most beautiful film ever made. That may sound like a load of hyperbole, but if you've seen the film, which features two gorgeously rendered alebrijes in vital roles, you can't deny it's at a least a contender in that category. Unless, of course, you just don't like bright colors.
With colors so blazing you could see them from the moon, including some 7 million lights in one jaw-dropping shot of the Land of the Dead, Coco looks like it comes straight from the heart of Mexico's most vibrant traditions. It's all very purposeful, considering the filmmakers took "tens and tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of photographs" on their initial scouting trips down south, as producer Darla K. Anderson (Toy Story 3, Cars, Monsters, Inc.) told SYFY WIRE while discussing the film, which is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.
Many of those pics featured the various versions of the perfectly photogenic alebrijes, which can be found all over Mexico, particularly in the Oaxacan region. "They're colorful chimera animals, they're mixtures of like donkeys with eagles' feet, and all sorts of bizarre animals," Alonso Martinez, a member of Coco's character team and a lifelong fan and collector of alebrijes, told SYFY WIRE. "Being a kid, I remember collecting comic book cards or Looney Tunes or Pokémon or things like that, and these felt like that, [in] that they were these very unique things, and each store that you went into had dramatically different styles. I always thought that was so cool, and so I started collecting them when I was a kid. It just happened to come in really handy when we were making the movie Coco."
Indeed, when the team found out that many of Martinez's alebrijes were just sitting in his Pixar office, they quickly scooped those up and relocated the collection, which stayed in the art room "during the two or three years" he was on the film. (Please note, they've since been returned.)
As such, alebrijes are all over the finished product. "It's so fun watching the movie over and over again and realizing there were alebrijes in scenes that I never saw," Martinez says.
As you can tell from the film, the team fell in love with the mythical creatures, and their visual storytelling potential, particularly "the whole idea of the spirit guide," Anderson says. And so Dante and Pepita became a vital part of Coco's story, even though "they aren't really a part of Dia de Muertos in any strict sense."
"You have to be very careful about where you deviate from the right thing, and if you do, you have to be very respectful the entire way," Martinez says. But since alebrijes don't "come from a specific mythological or religious thing, you can have a lot of creative freedom there."
In the film, a young, perfectly alive boy, Miguel, magically and accidentally crosses over into the Land of the Dead during the Day of the Dead celebration, the Mexican holiday where living family members remember the deceased and help them along on their spiritual journey. But while the film goes into great depth about the holiday and its traditions, alebrijes don't exactly fit into the picture. Though, when you have the potential to bring such beauty into the film, you fudge tradition a bit.
"In making a movie that shows beautiful aspects of Mexico, it just seemed like too hard of a thing to pass up on," Martinez says. "And it kind of raised the awareness of alebrijes."
"I think the idea of taking creative license with adding them to our storyline seemed blessed by everybody in the way that we knew what we were doing; anytime we would talk to anybody or brought in external people, and they'd say, 'You know, alebrijes …' And we'd say, 'We know. We know,'" Anderson says. "But how does it feel? We're not trying to make a definitive film in every single way, and we would never do it if we didn't have everybody's kind of collective blessing. And everybody was pretty excited about it."
Once you get a look at Pepita, Mama Imelda's giant alebrije in Coco, you'll know why. She's a fury, fluorescent amalgamation of all sorts of critters: "It's jaguar, eagle feet, eagle wings, I think the horns from a ram," Martinez, who created the digital puppet of Pepita that allowed animators to bring her to life, says. "And then we were thinking slightly the way that the feathers kind of happen on the back of the tail, it kind of inspires like a lizard tail." And she glows brighter than an '80s ski jacket!
While that may sound utterly unique and fantastical, it's actually based on the traditions of the alebrijes, as first envisioned by Mexican piñata maker Pedro Linares in the 1930s. As he lay on his deathbed, Linares drifted off into fever dreams of forests full of these magical creatures, all screaming at him the nonsensical word "alebrije!"
Such a wild mix would certainly be an animation challenge, but animation challenges are what Disney-Pixar is built upon. So with all the resources of the company's "digital backlot" behind them, Coco's artists got to work.
"The alebrijes, the vast majority of them, are made of kits of parts, made from animals from all of our other films that we kind of pulled apart and put back together again," Anderson says. "We just went into our digital backlot and pulled up any characters that made sense. The most recent film we had just done was The Good Dinosaur, and they had a lot of bugs and dino characters, so we didn't want them to be totally recognizable, but that's the first place we went shopping in our digital backlot."
"I know I'm going to get butchered by a friend of mine that loves dinosaurs, but there's one that looks like a triceratops — but I know that it's not — that has like 20 animals in its horns," Martinez says, referring to one particular creature they used from The Good Dinosaur. "And from there, there was a bunch of really odd-looking gophers and birds and things like that, and I think we took some of those, as well as from Monsters University, and anything we could find."
Then they got to work pushing and pulling points, shading them different colors, and creating a litany of vibrant creatures found throughout the Land of the Dead, as the conceit was that many souls there would have alebrijes as their spirit guides.
One such spirit guide also served a similar function in the living world, Miguel's Xolo dog Dante, a scene stealer if there ever was one.
"The Xolo dog was the spirit guide; you went through seven stages to get to the Land of Mictlan when you were buried, and you had to bring a Xolo dog with you, and it guided you on your journey," Anderson says. "So that's how Dante came to be, and the whole idea of having a partner and a spirit guide."
Interestingly, in the third act of the film, Dante goes from a normal-looking Xolo dog to a technicolored, winged alebrije version in the Land of the Dead. But then when Miguel finally makes it back to the land of the living, Dante reverts back to his normal coloring, losing his wings and fancy feathers. You can see Pepita is there, too, but as an everyday house cat.
Anderson says they used "parallel universe logic" to sell that.
"You know how when your cat's staring off past your head and looking at the ghost in the room? So Pepita and Dante in the last scene, when they come back down to the town and we see that they dropped in and they're just regular dogs and cats, and they can traverse the world; the idea being that the animals kind of have that ability, to be in both worlds at their whim."
Regardless of which world they were in, though, the animals and the alebrijes still had to fit in. "One of the challenges of this film was that everything was done to such beautiful detail that the alebrijes had to fit within that, so you didn't pop yourself out of it," said Anderson. "So the challenge is doing it as economically — for lack of a better word — as possible, but still having as much beauty and detail as the world they were going to fit in."
To get a better idea of what the artists went through to bring the alebrijes to life, Martinez walked us through the process: First there's the story-written version; "from there you can get an idea of the personality it might have," or it might even be descriptive as to what the creature kind of looks like. Then art will draw "many, many variations." For Pepita, there was also a clay sculpture made by Greg Dykstra, which, for Martinez, was the "moment where it went from a pretty cool character to like, 'Oh my God I hope I get to work on this character!'"
Based on the sculpture, Martinez made the digital model and the rigging, or articulation. "Once you have the sculpture inside the computer you have to give it the ability to move around and to create different facial expressions, or, like, move its body and open its wings and all that stuff. So I create a user interface that the animators use to kind of pose the character. Obviously, I don't do the animating, which is the acting of the character; I just create the puppet that allows the animators to be able to move it around."
But perhaps "just" is underselling it a bit, as there's a ton of work that goes into getting the details right. "One of the most important poses that Pepita was going to need to hit was the growling, so I must have looked at more than 1,000 images of just angry cats," Martinez says.
But how were the filmmakers able to drop in so many vivid colors, without overwhelming the eye?
"They did a masterful job of visual storytelling, and having the contrast where you are saturated with beauty, but you're never confused about priority. In the right hands, you can go on this visual feast, and it's not too much," Anderson says. "This film was so challenging in every way, and I can definitely say that we used every single last pixel that we could to get everything up on the screen, and still make it renderable and look good."
"If you want to have the perception of bright colors, then you need to have a lot of black behind it. It's in the contrast that the color really pops," Martinez adds.
"This film has got a gigantic scope," Anderson says while discussing the biggest challenge of bringing the fantastic alebrijes to life. "You can see how many sets we have and how much detail is in the sets and how many crowds and how many crowds of humans and all the skeletons and they're all wearing clothes. So all that stuff is scope. Then, on top of it, we said, 'And we want alebrijes!'"
As a collector and admirer of the art form, I obviously do too — as many of them as I can get. And nowhere have I seen them more magically presented than in Coco.