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Concept Artist Ana Ramírez Brings Homegrown Touch to Pixar’s ‘Coco’

Pixar concept artist and CalArts alum draws on her native Mexican heritage for costume and background designs for director Lee Unkrich’s Day of the Dead-themed animated feature set for release on November 22.

Pixar’s ‘Coco’ arrives in theaters November 22, 2017. All images courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios © 2017.

Pixar’s Coco, the forthcoming Day of the Dead-themed animated feature set for release on November 22, is directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) alongside writer and co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson.

A multi-generational story about the power of family relationships, Coco follows Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a lively Mexican village but comes from a family of shoemakers that may be the town’s only music-hating household. For generations, the Riveras have banned music because they believe they’ve been cursed by it; as their family history goes, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife decades earlier to follow his own dreams of performing, leaving Imelda (Miguel’s great-great-grandmother) to take control as the matriarch of the now-thriving Rivera line and declare music dead to the family forever.

But Miguel harbors a secret desire to seize his musical moment, inspired by his favorite singer of all time, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s only after Miguel discovers an amazing link between himself and De la Cruz that he takes action to emulate the famous singer and, in doing so, accidentally enters the Land of the Dead.

In the underworld, Miguel encounters the souls of his own family -- generations’ worth of long-dead but no less vivacious Rivera ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda. Still, given the opportunity to roam around the Land of the Dead, Miguel decides to track down De la Cruz himself. He teams up with a friendly trickster named Hector (Gael García Bernal) to find De la Cruz, earn his family’s blessing to perform, and return to the Land of the Living before time runs out.

Ana Ramírez

Pixar concept artist and CalArts alum Ana Ramírez recently detailed her contributions to creating the lively, colorful world of Coco at this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival, speaking to a packed and very enthusiastic house. (Check out her graduate film, So Long, Yupi, on Vimeo.) Ramírez described the research into her native Mexican heritage conducted by the filmmaking team, and later sat down with AWN to discuss her approach to her work, her designs for one of the film’s central characters, Mama Coco, and her newly-discovered love of hand-drawn type.

What are some of your favorite tools that you use when you’re working?

I like drawing traditionally, so I like drawing on paper a lot. I use the paper blocks that we have at Pixar, any kind of paper and pencil, or pen...that’s my favorite. If I have to do color work, I use gouache and then I scan that and then composite everything digitally before sending it over for review. That’s for concept art, mostly. But then if I have to packet something, then I’ll use [Adobe] Photoshop for mostly everything.

Describe a typical packet.

When we packet something, we create technical drawings of selected pieces of concept art so that the technical teams know what to do with it. That helps inform everything they’re going to be working on. We’ll take the approved design and do a more technical drawing of it, along with lots of notes, and then send it over to them to work off of.

When you’re creating a series of drawings for approval, typically how many pieces do you submit?

It just depends. For example, if I’m working on a character and we’re trying to do variations of her outfit for two different days, I might do 11, 15 designs, or something, and then from that we choose the strongest ones. So we’ll choose five. In the end, we’ll choose two.

Talk about the process for designing Mama Coco’s dress.

For Mama Coco, we wanted her to be comfortable. We wanted her to be warm as well. Assuming she’s a very old lady, she should be warm and be wearing a sweater or wearing a blanket over her arm. But then we also wanted her to have the traditional dress on so we had to think about how we wanted to do that. We tried a lot of different designs, like a shirt with a skirt.... We had a version where the dress wasn’t showing and she just had a Mexican rebozo on over her top. We showed the two variations, with and without showing the dress and Lee, the director, liked the one where it showed the dress. That dress is very typical in Mexico.

Mama Coco’s dress has a very particular embroidery design on the front. How many different designs did you create to reach the final version?

For the embroidery design on Mama Coco’s dress I only did two costumes, which was really nice. That’s the first one that I did, and then the only variations that I did were in color. I had two or three different color variations and then we ended up going for that one.

it’s really nice when we don’t have to do that many passes. Because sometimes in art review, if something just doesn’t feel right, it can take weeks to get approved. And even if you show every week, it just really depends on whether you’re close to what they want or not. So it’s really nice when they like it the first time they see it. Then you’re like, “Oh yeah, great.”

Talk a little bit about the backgrounds. During your talk, you mentioned that working with graphic design was very new to you, especially different typefaces, letter forms. What kind of research did you do to create those visuals?

At Pixar we have a library with a lot of fonts, which is really nice. All the fonts that we have in that library are fonts that we have bought or that we’re okay to use. I was trying to only search within that library because I didn’t want to find a font that I liked and then realize that we didn’t have it. Although I think it’s fine if maybe they can try to figure it out and see if we can use it. I ended up just doing everything completed, inspired by the fonts I found on the computer.

The production designer really wanted to have it have that kind of handmade feeling, you know, of the Mexican street signage that you typically see, with a lot of rich texture and color.... So that’s why I decided to just do everything by hand.

So you did hand-drawn versions of all the typefaces?

Yes. It was really fun because I just saw it as painting, just like a design. I kind of stopped thinking about it as “Oh, a typeface.” It was more like, “have fun!” It was cool to go back and look at some poster art that I really liked and see how artists mixed graphics with art, and then started seeing it differently and not so kind of square.

What part of Mexico are you from?

I’m from Guanajuato, but my sister lives in Mexico City. During the time that I was working on the film I kept going back home to visit, and every time I went I would take pictures to use as references.

What is your approach to creating artwork for backgrounds?

I was very new at doing set design because the way that I approached it in school was more artistic. I didn’t really think about size, scale, all of that stuff. That was challenging, learning the process of working with scale and keeping in mind always “How big are the characters? How does this fit in the world?” So that was definitely a learning experience, but it was really nice because the art director for sets was always very approachable and was always happy to answer my questions, and teach me what he knew. Everyone was just so nice.

At Pixar, I feel like everyone’s always so happy to share their knowledge, so that was great. Working on this film, I learned so much from other people. But it was really cool, I wanted to really portray Mexico and have all the stands with corn, and gorditas, and taco stands, and all that stuff...I really wanted to help it look authentic.

How many people did you work with on a day-to-day basis while you were working on the film?

Though our team’s not that big, it varies. At the lowest, we were maybe four people: the production designer, two art directors, the graphic designer and me. And then, at our largest, when it was crunch time, we might have been around 13, 15 artists, all of us working on a lot of different things at the same time.

So when you’re preparing a piece of concept art for say, a background, how many iterations will you go through generally before you feel like you have something you want to show your team?

Oh...a few, maybe five or six. We start with research, so before I even get to the art part of it, I have a few boards with tons of different references, like “This is kind of what I have in mind.” So, those five ideas are just referenced first.

I’ll show reference for one idea, reference for another idea, and another idea. And then, based on that the director and the production designer choose, “Well, these seem like they fit better,” or, “They work better for the story.” So, based on maybe two that they choose, then I make a few more designs...maybe five to 10 variations on something.

What is your approach to creating background characters?

For background characters, sometimes we have to work with what we already have in the library and then just modify that. Also, with sets, I forgot to mention it’s just one design and we just build on top of that and modify that, so like with characters sometimes it works the same way where we just take a character from our library, or a few characters, and then modify those to fit in the new world that we’re designing.

For Coco, we had to design a lot of new background characters because we didn’t have that many in the library that looked like the characters that we wanted to design for this project. It was a lot of research and looking through research photos and my own photos that I had, and just kind of drawing people from life, and then, from there, deciding which ones were the most appealing and watering it down to a few.

For costume design it’s the same process. We had a little bit less to work with for costumes, so we choose one or two shirts that worked well with other things like jeans and skirts, and then dressed them differently...sometimes we put a plain or patterned shawl on top of them for variation.

What inspires you in your personal work?

I always feel inspired when I go to film festivals or when I see my friends posting about their films at festivals online. I’m here at Pixar drawing backgrounds and concept art, but some of my friends are still making their own short films and I’m like, “Wow, it took him four years to finish that but he did it, and maybe I can do that, too!”

Just going to film school and having to make films every year, and then suddenly not doing it and seeing my friends do it, really makes me want to do it again. Right now I’m happy just focusing, learning new skills as part of the art department. But, eventually I’d like to do a bigger project on my own. Whenever I can I sketch at home and upload it to Instagram or Twitter.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.