Of all the places that Pixar’s computer-animated features have taken audiences, few can rival the dazzling Land of the Dead in “Coco.” It’s a huge place, crammed with buildings that reach the sky, and bursting with crowds of lavishly costumed skeletons. The Land of the Dead is an identifiable place, but it also depicts an idea deeply ingrained in Mexican culture: It’s the place where the living can visit their departed ancestors to celebrate their lives.
“We felt a huge responsibility to the people of Mexico to get it right,” says production designer Harley Jessup. “We wanted them to recognize details that the rest of the world might not even notice.”
That began with the miracle bridge into the Land of the Dead, built of cascading marigold petals. “In Mexico, they have a beautiful tradition of spreading petals outside doorways as an invitation to visitors, and to their ancestors,” Jessup says. He understood that these designs would require extensive visual effects.
Pixar’s visual-effects team knew “Coco” would push the boundaries of what they had done before. “The biggest technical problem was the scale of the Land of the Dead,” says visual effects artist Stephen Matthew Gustafson. “The Land of the Dead had the largest sets we’ve ever done. And the crowds brought Pixar’s pipeline to its knees.”
The Land of the Dead is an extremely busy place, bustling with skeletons wearing more than 1,000 different costume combinations, sporting wigs and mustaches that made certain individuals recognizable. Coming and going, they flocked through massive sets that resemble TSA checkpoints and giant train stations, with some hanging off the sides of suspended trolleys. “If skeletons fall off, they can pull their joints back together again,” laughs Jessup. “There aren’t many safety precautions in the Land of the Dead because they’re already dead!”
Gustafson says Pixar’s effects teams approached these challenges by breaking this world down into environments. “The sets were some of the hardest things in ‘Coco.’ ”
Because they often had hundreds of characters, he notes that, “To be honest, sometimes we’d scale things back. The art department was good at coming up with variations — almost more variety than we could handle. We’d tell them if something they wanted was too crazy.
“To a certain extent, size is not a problem for computer animation, but the amount of detail was a challenge to render. I was always checking to see if it was OK. The details of what you see are in the textures from the tiles on the roofs to the cobblestones in the streets of the Land of the Dead. It really gave richness to the place. It went beyond anything I’ve ever worked on before.”