‘Digital puppets’ in Pixar’s ‘Coco’: An interview with Alonso Martinez

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“Coco” is a Pixar treat that feels fundamentally personal. Behind the dazzling visuals, the foot-tapping rhythms, the gorgeous set design and the kid-friendly daffy humor is a movie dabbling with existentialism, the importance of family and the struggle to keep a loved one alive in your heart after they pass away. Like some of Pixar’s best, “Coco” looks to accompany the adventurous sonnets of its immediate plot with a ballad focusing on empathy, grief and acceptance.

Developing this animated musical, however, was far from an easy task. During a presentation for “Coco” at Dwinelle Hall this week, Alonso Martinez, a technical director at Pixar, remarked that “Coco” took almost six years to finally come together. Martinez himself worked on the modeling and “rigging” — a fascinatingly complex process — of several characters in the movie, including the slapsticky and naive dog Dante as well as the ferocious Alebrije Pepita.

Martinez describes the animated characters as “digital puppets,” and he takes part in designing the strings that makes those puppets move.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Martinez teased out what goes behind making these characters behave the way they do.

“In the most simple way, the characters are made out of points,” Martinez explained. “The points are connected by these lines, and these are called polygons — it’s basically a mesh. And (in) that mesh, you write generic pieces of computer code … like Lego pieces that tell the points how they should move. Just to give you an idea, one of them is called Translate. What it does is it moves the points up, down, left, right, and forwards and backwards … and that is how we build up these characters.“

For “Coco,” it was essential that the characters were representing or enhancing the movie’s themes. The film follows young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who comes from a family of shoemakers and dreams of becoming a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Because of an unfortunate incident that happened generations ago, however, Miguel’s family has banned every one of its members from playing and listening to music in any way, shape or form. After they learn of Miguel’s ambitions, a heated argument ensues and Miguel runs away, only to somehow be transported to the Land of the Dead.

Set during the Día De Muertos festival, “Coco” follows Miguel as he, along with the help of his departed ancestors, struggles to come back to his own world.

Because the film is steeped in Mexico’s culture, it was important for Pixar to portray Mexican mores and traditions faithfully. A particular example of its dedication to cultural accuracy is the depiction of the Mexican folk art commonly referred to as “Alebrije” in the movie. Alebrijes are mythical creatures usually sporting brightly colored features and incorporating the distinctive characteristics of many different animals put together.

The Alebrije that Martinez brings to life in “Coco” is the intimidating and frightening Pepita. For characters such as Pepita that are completely products of imagination, the animation process can potentially take six months or more. For Martinez, those six months aren’t tiresome or tedious. “I wish I could work on it for a year more,” he said. “I wish it could be better.”

“What I like about working at Pixar is that I am at a place where people are striving for perfection,” said Martinez. “Because I am a perfectionist, they are allowing me to indulge in the most OCD parts of myself.”

For “Coco,” Martinez was also brought in as a cultural consultant. In talking about how exactly he picks his projects, Martinez said, “(Projects) are assigned to me. I always request the project that I think I will excel at. … For this movie, obviously, I went to my supervisor and requested him.”

Martinez’s Mexican roots are the reason why he decided to choose “Coco” specifically. “I was born there. It’s my home. There’s so much I was gonna enjoy about working on it, and hopefully be able to contribute to it.”

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Martinez describes the animation process as a relay race of sorts. “No person can claim that a character is completely theirs, because it’s such a collaborative effort. You just want to bring something to the table. You just want to make sure that when it comes to you, you are amplifying it instead of cancelling it out. … So what that means is you are conveying the essence of what they wanted to convey. After you have already captured that, hopefully you get to the stage where are plus-ing it, where you are adding you own things that make it even more beautiful.”

Martinez’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious. He speaks about every movie he has worked on in the past — be it “Up,” “Inside Out,” or “Coco” — almost as if it were a part of him.

“In an ideal world, I love this romantic idea of an explorer or an inventor,” Martinez said. “The way I look at a lot of what I do is: In a land where nobody knows anything, even the dumbest person can discover a lot.

For Martinez, the sheer opportunity to keep on learning, to keep on discovering, is what really matters.

Contact Arjun Sarup at [email protected].