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Coco'Director Lee Unkrich Speaks to BYU Animation and Media Arts Students

Lee Unkrich gave animation and media arts students a detailed look into the making of one of Pixar's most recent films

Lee Unkrich, director of Pixar's "Coco," visited BYU through the BRAVO! Professional Performing Arts series, where he spoke to students in the Animation and Media Arts programs. Unkrich presented a behind-the-scenes look at the film's development and production process and answered student questions.

"I was excited to hear that he was coming. He's a big name," said media arts student Lauren Brunken. "I know the impact this movie has had on people. It's a movie that connected with people and made them feel good, and I think it did good. I like when that can be done, especially with big budget films."


Lee Unkrich discusses the design for Miguel.
(Alyssa Lyman)

When Unkrich first started working at Pixar right out of film school, he did not expect to be there much more than a month. Pixar was a small, relatively unknown company, and Unkrich intended to make his career in live-action film. Twenty-five years later, Unkrich has had a hand in all 20 feature films to come out of the animation studio, which quickly became a household name.

Unkrich conceived the beginnings of "Coco" six years ago as a result of his strong interest in Mexican folk art and culture, particularly Día de Muertos. He presented the idea to Pixar and was given the green light to continue to develop the story.

Creating a film that strikes a chord with both audiences and critics, particularly one that draws so heavily on an existing culture, is no easy feat, and "Coco" went through take after take and draft after draft before it was ready for the big screen. Unkrich walked students through the initial conceptualization and extensive revision process for many aspects of the film, including the character designs, the voice acting and the story itself.

"I'm interested in the overall production process of animation, so it was interesting to see all the different things come together and how complicated all the different aspects are," said animation student Judy Bloomfield. "There are parts that I haven't dealt with much, like sound and music, because I'm generally on the animation side—it all needs to come together to make the whole."

For John Newton, a media arts student emphasizing in directing and currently producing one of the program's capstone films, one of the biggest takeaways from the presentation was Unkrich's respect for his colleagues and the collaborative process.

"We have a romanticized concept of directors in our head, that it's this artist who's controlling everything," Newton said. "I was interested to hear him say that he just walks into work and his assistants point him to a problem and he tries to figure out how to solve it. It's filmmaking from the ground up rather than the top down. The crew is making the film, and the director is helping solve the creative problems as they arise."


Lee Unkrich takes student questions. (Alyssa Lyman)

"Someone asked a question about balancing the process, about letting people be creative, but also feeding the vision you have as a director," added Bloomfield. "I do a lot of production, and I run into the same thing where I have a vision and I know what I want, but I also know that there are a ton of other really talented people who I don't want to shut down. The best things happen when everyone is enjoying the process, when everyone feels like they're in control."

One of Unkrich's greatest challenges in guiding a cohesive creative vision for "Coco" was developing the main character, Miguel. Unkrich took students through multiple versions of a scene toward the beginning of the film to give them a sense of the work and problem-solving it took to get Miguel to a point where audiences would understand and relate to him.

"He talked about making Miguel's desire clear from the very beginning and how pivotal that is for the story," said Newton. "He showed us the process they went through to try to make us feel what Miguel was feeling in that very intimate scene where Miguel is watching videos of his hero. Getting our audience to care about our characters is a huge part of filmmaking. If we clearly communicate the desire of the character to the audience, they will latch onto it, and it will become their desire."

Bloomfield was also struck by the time and effort the Pixar animators put into making improvements and solving problems that arose. "Lee talked about the frustration of almost pounding your head against the table, not knowing where to go with the story because you're hitting blocks. We experience that all the time so it was really relatable, and it was good to know that even someone who's really big in the industry still struggles with these same things. They had to go through a lot of iterations to get to where they are now."

Beyond the logistics of the film, Unkrich shared the passion he and his crew felt for the subject material and culture they were representing, particularly in the themes of remembering and holding on to family that Unkrich saw in Día de Muertos celebrations. Unkrich and other crew members made research trips to Mexico and ultimately decided to start over with a new story idea several years into the process to better honor the spirit and purpose of the holiday.

"The biggest moments of impact while I was watching the presentation were the moments where I realized the level of research that went into this and how intimate the research was," said Brunken. "'Coco'is about a real, very much alive culture with real people and real lives. The crew made personal connections. It felt special to see and hear."