"Mostly, I just love being part of this huge team effort to make something out of nothing, to make the impossible happen on screen," veteran Pixar producer Darla K. Anderson says, who with Lee Unkrich won the Best Animated Picture Oscar for Coco last Sunday.
With the company since they first made Listerine bottles box gum disease and bad breath, Anderson has been part of their movies since the beginning. Credited as a "digital angel" for 1995's Toy Story, she has gone on to produce A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Cars and the Oscar-winning Toy Story 3. In those movies, she helped bring toys to life, followed monsters as they tried to scare little kids and presented a world where vehicles are the only sentient beings.
Coco, which came out on Blu-Ray last week, is about a Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzales) who wants to be a singer and guitarist, but gets no support from his family. (Actually, they do feed, shelter and love him, but they refuse to ever let him pick up a guitar.)
Ever since a troubadour broke his ancestor's heart, Miguel's family has shunned music despite the lad's apparent preternatural gifts. Miguel wonders if he might be a descendant of the late singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Both seem to have supernatural skills with their axes. On Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos (Nov. 2), he stumbles into the afterlife and needs a blessing from his ancestors or his possible great-great-great grandfather to return to the living and fulfill his destiny.
BRINGING THE DEAD TO LIFE
Coco takes viewers to a world they wouldn't be able to see while they are still among the living. For a movie that appeals to children, it seems potentially off-putting that for characters to experience the world of the dead, they sort of have to be, um, deceased.
"The spirit of this holiday (Day of the Dead) is about this general optimism about this ironically life-affirming connection through time and space. It's very celebratory and very bright colors, and it's this idea that we stay connected through our remembrance of each other," Anderson says.
"One of the things that really grabbed me beyond just beyond the consistent warmth and generosity of the people we were hanging out with in Mexico was that people really, really believed and understood that on this day, their family was there with them. You need to put out water for their journey and their favorite foods. That was a really meaningful and special experience."
Anderson, Unkrich, and co-writer director Adrian Molina worked together from the beginning of the project. A quick glance through the credits of Coco also reveals a lot of Spanish surnames. Molina and character designer Daniel Arriaga were key contributors. And Anderson, though a gringa, has lived in Mexico. Still they all spent a considerable amount of time learning more about the meaning of the holiday. Pixar movies have a long gestation periods.
Because most of the images are created from scratch (walking and talking skeletons aren't likely to be in any archival footage), it's understandable why these movies take so much time and labor. Nonetheless, there was a narrow window for their research.
The calendar has a lone entry for Nov. 2.
"You can only go once a year around Dia de los Muertos. We went down [to Mexico] a couple of years in a row. We spent a long time hanging out with families. We went through various cities and villages. We'd taken so many photographs, getting so much inspiration," Anderson says. "We also brought down with us our core crew of artists, both in story and in art. We all divided and conquered and then at night shared all of our stories. It was this once-in-a-lifetime, really, really cool research adventure that we got to go on over the years."
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
If depicting the holiday right was one challenge then telling a story that made sense to people who haven't celebrated the holiday before would be another. Anderson says the latter challenge isn't as formidable as one might imagine.
For example, during the writing, the producer says two of the Hispanic contributors recalled having a female relative throw slippers at children who misbehaved. It's fitting behavior for a family of shoe artisans, and you don't have to speak Spanish to get the joke.
"This inverse thing sort of happens where the more specific you get, the more universal it seems to become somehow. I'm not sure how that works, but it seems to be a truth in storytelling. On this film, the holiday is all about family remembrance, family reunion, how do you want to be remembered and your responsibility to remember those who came before you. Those things that are a cultural celebration are also extraordinarily universal. We all want to be remembered. We want to remember our ancestors, and we all have curiosities about who came before us generations ago and might we have their traits and their habits and proclivities. This film touches on all of that," she says.
WHO'S THE BOSS?
A fellow critic once scoffed at the input producers have on movies. "How hard is it to write a check?" she asked.
In the case of Leon Schlesinger, who produced Warner Bros. cartoons, she's absolutely right. As long as the filmmakers were on schedule and on budget, he left them alone. David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind), however, bombarded his crew with detailed memos and had more input on his movies than the writers, the cast or the person sitting the director's chair.
In her films with Pixar, Anderson may be hands on, but she doesn't appear to fit easily with either of these extremes. She might be in the trenches, but she doesn't need to do much to rally her troops.
"I definitely am involved in every detail of the movie. We also have such an extraordinary team here that I also just get out of their way. That's quite often the right thing to do, which is to watch the extraordinary unfold here," she says.
"Everybody, once they get on a movie ... just commit and dig in. My bigger job is to tell them to go home at night and not kill themselves. Everybody is so passionate about what they do. They want to get everything they can up on the screen. They want to stretch themselves technically and artistically. It's the wonderful problem of having all these driven, kind of type A artists that I have the inverse problem. I have to say, 'Go home and see your children!' There's one guy on the sets team, I used to send him photos of his kids to try to make him go home."
Actually, the kids themselves have been contributors to Pixar films since Toy Story. As with its predecessors, Coco lists all of the babies born during its production.
"That's such a charming, sweet thing that we've always done here," she says. "On this film, it's got this spot-on familial core running through it, so a lot of people are very excited to have their kids' names on Coco."
MovieStyle on 03/09/2018
Print Headline: Coco producer carries on the family tradition