The journey from pencil sketch to screen for an animated movie is a long and challenging but rewarding experience. Just ask anyone who has worked on a cartoon short or a full-length animated feature. I am certain they may use a few other choice words to describe the process, but in the end, they are gratified when they are able to bring an animated movie to audiences of all ages.
From sketch artists to animators and directors and even the in-betweeners, they all share one common goal and passion: tell a story.
That is demonstrated once again in the Academy Award-nominated Disney Pixar film Coco. Released on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD, the unforgettable story of 12-year-old Miguel and his extraordinary trip to a land of his ancestors, Coco has already claimed a 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Motion Picture.
The marigold road from concept to reality was a six-year trek for Coco story supervisor Jason Katz. “Lee (Unkrich) came off Toy Story 3 in April and put his Oscar down on the table and talked about what he wanted to do next,” Katz recalled during a press tour in Philadelphia.
“We all sat around that table talking about what Lee might be inspired to work on and we started talking about what we were interested in at that time. And we found out that we had this real love of Mexican folk art and Mexican music and so we dove in and started to explore that,” Katz explained.
What followed next was a brain-storming session where a few ideas were tossed around but Katz and company kept circling back to an idea of a boy who went to the land of the dead and learned about himself and his ancestors. After pitching the idea to Disney Pixar animation execs, Katz notes “we were off to the races a few months later.”
With any Disney and Disney Pixar project that race is not a sprint but a marathon. From concept to conclusion, everyone is prepared for the journey. “I worked on the movie for six years,” recollects Katz. “That first year was us learning, going down to Mexico,” Katz adding, “we pitched it in September and we were in Mexico at the end of that October.”
As story supervisor, Katz was the first artist on the film. “So I worked with our writer, our director Lee and our producer Darla Anderson,” the Pittsburgh native remembering sitting in a room and hammering out what the story could be. “Once we have an idea what the story potential can be, we have story artists come in and at any time I can have anywhere from five to ten board artists that I am working with and supervising them,” explained Katz. “I am basically acting as a conduit between the director and these board artists,” he states. While all this is happening the team is working toward achieving the director’s vision for the movie.
For Katz research trips to Mexico were vital in capturing the feel, the sights, the sounds, the culture, the music and the people of Mexico that would provide a foundation for Coco. Each and every one of those outings Katz adds “what we learned, who we met, we had this amazing good fortune of days with families and going to the cemetery with them and asking questions and just listening and learning and observing and all of that made it into the movie.”
Katz discovered that the team’s love of Mexican folk art and culture ignited an exploration about Dia de los Muertos and what quickly became a natural hero’s journey, a Wizard of Oz kind of conversation for Katz and his team. He observed that it “would be interesting to see a character from the world of the living cross to the world of the dead and what that would be like.”
“You really have to start trying things out and hang them up on the wall and see what sticks,” Katz explains. He adds that all of the gathered information and observations allowed the animators to make choices that were hopefully authentic, honest and respectful.
That commitment to authenticity, honesty and respect is not taken lightly either. “That is just our process. Making movies is about a series of choices,” he notes. “You have the opportunity to learn, you kind of get it in your brain and you are able to share the same language of remembering that person we met or remember that story we heard.” For Katz that attention to detail elevates the story, “taking it to a place that hopefully is correct for the story but also it feels authentic to those who know that world.”
Katz can’t sing the praises enough of the entire production team of Coco, and that begins with the director. “What I like about working with Lee is that Lee is an incredibly thoughtful individual. He is also very gracious and comfortable, allowing us to try a bunch of versions. I pitched five to six different ways to tell the story,” Katz recounts before settling on what worked best.
Katz’s experience with teamwork stems back to when he first joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1994. He worked as a storyboard artist on Toy Story and A Bug’s Life where he also did some additional character design. His talents as a storyboard artist are also obvious on a number of Pixar feature films including Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. and served as co-story supervisor for the Academy Award winning features Finding Nemo and Ratatouille.
Disney Pixar’s Coco is Pixar Animation Studios’ 19th feature film. It topped the domestic box office Thanksgiving 2017 holiday weekend while becoming the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico while breaking box office records in China.