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The Magic of Animation: Behind the Art and Shading of Coco

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ASUCI invited UCI Disney fans and students last week to come and listen to Pixar’s Byron Bashforth discuss his work on the newest Pixar movie, “Coco,” debuting Nov. 22. Despite the small number of people in the Crystal Cove Auditorium, Bashforth, the character shading lead on the film, arrived with lots of surprises and animating techniques to share with the audience.

Bashforth started off the event by showing a special sneak peak of the first five to six minutes of the new film, which had the audience laughing and smiling. People clapped as the first clip ended, wishing for more. Throughout his talk, Bashforth included at least four more two-minute clips of the animation, giving away clues to the movie’s plot without ruining the ending. Going further than the story, Bashforth explored the line-up of characters audiences would be introduced to in the film, explaining the process of their creation, including initial goals and obstacles animators hit in the beginning.

After the first clip, Bashforth shared photographs other Pixar animators had taken on their research trips to Mexico, exploring the land, the towns, and meeting the people. He gave examples of the use of Mexico’s culture, introducing the main character Miguel’s dog, Dante, the native dog of Mexico fondly known as the Xolo dog, short for Xoloitzcuintli. Bashforth filled the presentation with a series of early animation tests, created to play around with each character’s movements and facial expressions. As the character shading lead, Bashforth described his role in designing the look for each character, from the colors of their outfits to the texture of their skin, digitally painting the surface of each character’s hair, clothing, skin, and in this case, bones.

Since the story occurs during Dia de los Muertos, Pixar animators decided to take on the responsibility of creating skeleton characters. They hoped to take away the creepy appearance of actual skeletal remains and instead add the animated, Pixar charm to these new characters. Bashforth shared that this job proved to be tricky but fun, as they ventured in making sure the skeletons’ expressions were clear, that their clothes didn’t fit awkwardly, that they appeared to be friendly, and of course, to put their own memorable design on the characters. Cinched waists, sullen eye sockets, and connected jaw lines are a few of the solutions they came up with to accomplish their animation goals.

Bashforth ended his presentation wishing the best to the audience, encouraging them to go see the movie, then opening up the floor to questions. A student ran around the room with a microphone ready to offer to those raising their hands with questions, which varied from job openings to Bashforth’s own career and his Pixar experience, which began in the summer of 1999. Afterwards, students lined up to meet and take pictures with Bashforth, asking him to also sign the movie poster they received while entering the auditorium.

The New University had a chance to interview Bashforth at the end of the program to find out more about his career as shading director, his work on “Coco”, and ultimately his experience with Pixar.

What made you interested in Pixar?

When I was in University, I was studying computer science, and I was originally studying artificial intelligence, and then I thought that was really hard. And Toy Story came out around that time, and I realized that I could actually make pictures and do the computer stuff that I was interested in. So I thought about it and kinda switched my major to computer graphics and I applied to Pixar afterwards.

Did you grow up with Disney?

When I was really little, the Disney Sunday Family Night show was always something that we watched, but not so much animation in particular or anything like [that]. I got into, kinda through the computer science side where you can actually use computers to make things that were just engaging, and that was really amazing.

What’s your favorite part about working for Pixar, and your job?

I’m always amazed of, like, what everyone does. Everyone is a pro at what they do, but when you put all the stuff together, the outcome is even more than you can imagine. So it’s really fun to see it, because you can’t make this by yourself. You can’t make anything this big or this much of a spectacle on your own.

What can be one of the more frustrating parts of animating and the process?

Computers (he answered immediately with laughter following). I mean we have a lot. We’re always using new technology, so that stuff can break on us. Story changes, even though necessary, can kind of be disruptive. You’ve been working on this character for awhile and you have to stop because it’s no longer in the movie, that kind of thing happens once in awhile. I mean it’s like any other job, at some point, you know, you give in to the rhythm and you want things to work smoothly. But you know, every two or three years, you get to experience a movie in the theater that resets your perspective on what you’re doing.

How did you get involved in working with COCO?

Yes, I applied… So all the leadership positions at Pixar, there’s a certain application process for it. I had been the character shading lead on Monster’s University, and then I was helping out a few shows. I worked on Finding Dory for a little bit, and Inside Out for a little bit between those. And then COCO. And when COCO came around, I really wanted to work on the show cause I knew the character work was going to be great ‘cause the designs were so spectacular and it was really different from stuff we’d done before. So I applied to be on the shading team.

What makes this movie different from all the other ones you’ve worked on?

I mean, there’s a lot of thing about COCO that’s similar to other films that we’ve worked on, you know; they’re family friendly, they’re funny, it’s an adventure, there’s a lot of heart in it. So in that respect, COCO is pretty similar to a lot of the other Pixar movies I’ve worked on. I think just in terms of its scale, and the visual spectacle that it is, I think it’s, you know, definitely pushing the bar a little higher, which is really fun. Ratatouille, before this movie, I think is one of the prettiest movies we’ve made, and I think COCO might unseat Ratatouille in my brain a little bit.

What would you say is the most important part of the process?

I think collaborating is the most important part of the process. Everyone on the shading team will bring ideas to the table. It’s like, I think I can make this look like this, or, how about this? And we’ll talk about it and we’ll show it to the production designer, and we’ll show it to the lighting team, and we’ll sort of decide on a path together. And I think when you do that, the outcomes are really good, cause everyone is invested in making the movie look good. So when we all sort of bring ideas together, we can make something really, really great.

What is the process for the characters?

I think one more important thing is to kind of work from broad strokes to fine detail. So the first thing we do is get the model and I’ll just put something on it that’s very quick and cheap and not that pretty, but just kind of gives the idea of what are the regions of color, what are the basic textures, what’s the sort of, overall thought for this? And then we’ll start iterating on that. We’ll show that to the production designer and be like, ‘what ideas do you have, what do you like or don’t like about this?’ And then we’ll just keep refining and refining. So it’s really a… process, it takes a couple weeks for main characters.

Do you have any personal process for creating a character?

I know what Pixar is generally looking for in characters because I’ve worked on them for awhile. There are certain things we always tend to do. So we always have eyes that kind of pop a little bit, like the whites of the eyes are always very clean, we don’t want to see any veins or anything in there. Our skin is usually pretty simplified, not a lot of pores, or whiskers or things that are usually very clean but detailed at the same time. So there’s a number of those things that I know about. Other than that, it’s usually looking at reference images, we get started on character mold. We’ll take a look at both what the art department produces, which is kind of a roadmap for how the character fits into the rest of the show. Like for Miguel’s family, certain characters are darker skinned certain characters are lighter skinned, so who belongs in what category. And then we’ll start looking at reference photos, and see if we can find examples of what we want to do and then sort of pull those two things together.

Anything in those research photos that stood out to you and had to be in the film?

One image that stood out to me was, which the director told us was important, was the woman they had found in Mexico who looks way more wrinkly than the real nana Coco. Yeah, like shock white hair, really thin. And I don’t know how old she was, but nana Coco is simpler than she was. Yeah, like Lee [Unkrich] was pointing to that and saying, ‘I want that feeling.’

Any Easter Eggs that can be found in the movie?

When Miguel is running through the street in the opening of the movie, he plays like sort of finger drums on a table with a bunch of alebrije, and one of the alebrije is pepita, there’s actually like a toy version of pepita, which is pretty clever. Then he also turns around the corner, I think in that same sequence, and there’s a couple Buzz Lightyear and Woody piñatas, hanging out from under the stalls, which is pretty good too. There’s a couple characters in the movie, there’s a couple living characters that have versions of themselves as skeletons, but I don’t think I can tell you who they are yet. There’s only two guys that aren’t dead in the movie in the land of the dead.

What has been your favorite Pixar character to work on?

A lot of them have been really fun. I shaded the librarian on Monster’s University, which was really fun, because she’s this like, super detailed, like old, barnacle-y thing which was really fun to make, and then combine that with kind of this kind of pearlescent necklace, and the kind of weird tentacles. That was just a lot of different materials and textures to work on. That was fun. Dory was probably the other one, I’d worked on Finding Nemo, and shaded Dory.  And that was just a really bright candy-colored explosion of blue, which was fun to communicate on film.

Bashforth promises that “Coco” will “be a really sweeping adventure,” with strong ideas of tradition, memory, and of course, family. The movie comes out in theaters Wednesday, November 22nd.