Pixar films have steadily become even more dazzling visual experiences with each new release since the studio’s first full-length computer-animated film in 1995, “Toy Story.” Where animators were challenged before with bringing the shiny plastic complexions of Woody and Buzz to life, in “Coco” they were tasked with creating tender characters out of lifeless skeletons.
Shading character lead Byron Bashforth presented an exclusive sneak peek and provided details about Pixar’s newest release on Monday evening. In professor Mike Dillon’s CTVA 102: Inside the Movies class, students saw the first few minutes of “Coco,” which introduced a new fantasy world rooted in music, family and Mexican folklore.
In “Coco,” 12-year-old Miguel aspires to be a musician, despite a longtime ban of music within his family. During the annual tradition of Día de los Muertos, he makes a discovery about his family’s past and strums his way into the Land of the Dead.
Bringing to life a collection of 10,000 computer-animated bones worth of characters created through digital paint and custom software presented a unique challenge for Pixar.
Bashforth showed the character-making process from its design, to animation, shading and then final rendered versions. Though they originally worked against making the Land of the Dead a scary place, they found a way to embrace the skeletons by generating rigid facial movements and light springs in the characters’ steps with computer programming.
The backbones of Héctor, voiced by Gael García Bernal, were demonstrated as Bashforth showed how they played with the designs of each joint and ligament. Animators used costumes to accentuate their figures while still adding an individual flair to each of their designs.
Bashforth said that some of the conversations at Pixar for “Coco” were about how to make the sequins on jackets, how much jiggle to have on arms and how much peach fuzz they could afford to render.
“We have a lot of meetings about very, very weird things,” Bashforth said. “You know it’s something odd and specific, but yet at the same time, you know you have to do it because you have to figure this out.”
Bashforth has worked at Pixar since 1999, starting with “Toy Story 2” as render technical director. He has worked as shading technical director on films like “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and “Inside Out.” Bashforth has continued to innovate with more complex animation development over his 18 years at the company.
“The specificity of the job is increasing. If you roll back to ‘Monsters, Inc.’ there was two characters with hair and one with a t-shirt and those were hard challenges. Now every single thing has hair and multiple pieces of clothing, so as a result the jobs have specialized,” Bashforth said.
He moved over from technical direction to shading when he worked on the scare floor, try-out room and Yeti on his second project, “Monsters Inc.” More recently, before “Coco,” Bashforth said he spent six months trying to get the eyes of the fish just right in “Finding Dory” as integration engineer on the film.
With the ever-changing technology of Pixar’s animation, Bashforth doubts he will look at “Coco” in the same way two films down the road without wanting to shade it a different way than it is currently. When they were reinventing the characters of Mike and Sully 10 years later for “Monsters University,” he noticed how far their craft had come.
“I spend my entire life looking at these pixels, so I care about them,” Bashforth said.
Along with the evolution of animation, “Coco” marks the first Pixar animated film to touch upon Hispanic culture and have an entirely Latino cast. Brightly colored fantastical alebrijes sculptures from Mexican folklore appear in the film along with a Xolo dog named Dante, which is the national dog of Mexico.
“We’re always aware of the culture that we’re representing, so there’s a lot of effort put into the research to figure out what elements we should have in the film,” Bashforth said.
Along with the particular work put into the skeleton designs, he thinks the human characters are very special because he feels like we all know people like them, and will relate to them, particularly Miguel’s abuelita.
Animators like Bashforth have finished polishing each detail on “Coco” after spending over two years working on it and the Pixar film will come to theaters on Nov. 22.