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How to make a Pixar movie in 5 (not especially) easy steps

'Coco' co-writer and director Lee Unkrich takes us through his five-step guide to making a Pixar movie

By Helen O’Hara

‘We don’t want it to seem like we’re wizards who somehow birthed these films perfectly polished,’ says ‘Coco’ co-writer-director Lee Unkrich of Pixar’s latest. ‘It’s a long process!’
He explains how it all comes together in five (not particularly) easy steps.

1. Nail the pitch
‘Coco’ began life in 2010, not long after Unkrich had finished directing ‘Toy Story 3’. ‘The Pixar brain trust [the studio’s creative leadership] like us to pitch three different ideas so that we’re casting a wide net, and in this case my idea to do a story set against Dia de Muertos [Mexico’s Day of the Dead] sparked interest.’ He was given the green light to begin researching it.

2. Put in the miles
‘There’s an enormous responsibility to tell an authentic story,’ says Unkrich, aware of the pitfalls for American filmmakers exploring other cultures. ‘We hopped on a plane so we could see Dia de Muertos first-hand.’ That trip presaged further travels in Mexico. The team took thousands of photos, stayed with families and recruited staff with Mexican heritage.

3. Find the story
The core of the story came quickly, even if its hero was called ‘Marco’ back then. ‘Our films often go on circuitous paths,’ says Unkrich. ‘At its core “Coco” is a celebration of family and heritage.’ The main challenge was finding the best way to its emotional finale, an early fixture. 

4. Break new ground
Dia de Muertos is not, Unkrich is clear, a ‘Mexican Halloween’. The film’s skeletons had to be friendly rather than scary. ‘I made the decision early on to give them eyeballs, because the eyes are the windows to the soul. Figuring out how they fall apart and put themselves back together was extremely difficult, technically.’

5. Be surprising
No other Pixar film has depended so heavily on its songs. ‘I had “O Brother, Where Art Thou?’” as a model,’ says Unkrich. ‘It’s not a musical, but you can’t really separate the music from the movie. We’ve talked about doing a musical for years – it may still happen.’ Here’s hoping.

'Coco' is in cinemas from Fri Feb 19.

Coco review

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