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Interview: Pixar’s Lee Unkrich Talks Success, Diversity and ‘Coco’

On the road to the 90th Oscars, the studio’s most senior talent reflects on the storytelling and production challenges of bringing ‘Coco’ to audiences, as well as new efforts to increase Pixar’s workplace and senior-level creative diversity.

‘Coco’ © 2017 Disney•Pixar. All images courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

With a slew of Annies, VES Awards, BAFTA, and other accolades safely stashed in its guitar case, Pixar’s Coco continues its successful awards season run towards the Oscars, arguably the animated feature to beat. Helmed by Oscar-winning director Lee Unkrich, Coco tells the story of a young boy’s journey to follow his dream, who, in the process, rights a historical wrong and discovers the true importance of family. Set in a small Mexican village on Día de los Muertos, Coco captures in bold, vivid and often humorous detail the heartwarming story of our hero, 12-year-old Miguel, forbidden by his family to play the music he can’t live without as he is magically transported between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.

Director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson at the Mexico City premiere of ‘Coco.’

Unkrich, one of Pixar’s Brain Trust and most senior talent, previously won an Oscar for directing the third installment in Pixar’s most famous franchise, 2010’s Toy Story 3. With Coco, the director teamed with screenwriter and co-director Adrian Molina, along with producer Darla Anderson, to craft an emotional engaging story that showcased Miguel’s magical adventure, rich in Mexican cultural traditions as well as universal themes of family, honor and commitment.

Given the movie’s success, it’s easy now to downplay, or overlook completely, that this was a risky production for Pixar. Coco is a culturally specific film that could have easily missed the mark or offended. In addition, it’s a brand-new, original story, rather than a sequel, steeped in Mexican traditions that might not have interested a global audience, especially without a built-in audience or fan base.

In a recent conversation with AWN, Unkrich talked about his filmmaking background and directing perspective -- he detailed his approach to Coco’s development and production, including thoughts on directing and common storytelling challenges that always prove difficult to overcome. Additionally, he shared his thoughts on how Pixar is responding to industry calls for greater workplace and executive-level diversity.

AWN: Congratulations on the Annie and VES Award wins, as well as the Oscar nomination. We last spoke before Coco was released so you’ve had some time to enjoy the film’s success. It must be nice.

Lee Unkrich: Yeah, it’s been really wonderful. We never take any of this for granted, nor do we expect it in any way. I’m really proud of my cast, crew and everyone who worked so hard on the movie for so long.

AWN: As we’ve discussed in the past, you never really know how a film, even a Pixar film, is going to be received.

LU: Well, especially with this one. You know, with a sequel, you have some degree of confidence that people know the world and the characters, and that they’re looking forward to another film. But, with an original story, you never know, especially with this film being so culturally specific. We hoped it would do well, but we just didn’t know.

AWN: What was your initial reaction when you first heard of the Oscar nomination?

LU: Well, I was really thrilled. After I won the Oscar for Toy Story 3, I figured that I had hit my peak and that was it! I didn’t expect that to happen ever again in my life. And the whole time we were making Coco I told myself, “You won an Oscar. It was nice. You got that out of the way. Now, you can just make a movie and not have to worry about whether it might be Oscar worthy or not.” So, to have this happening again is just thrilling.

AWN: As a director and editor, you come to animated filmmaking via a slightly different path than most, who usually come from either the animation or story development side of things. Is your approach any different than most Pixar directors? Does your background make you more sensitive or focused on any given part of the production?

LU: Prior to coming to Pixar, I went to USC film school. I had done some directing in addition to editing. So, I would say, yes, I came from an editing background, but more broadly, I came from a live-action background. I understand it’s unusual for me to be in the position that I am given my background, because most directors working in animation do either come out of animation or out of story. I was in the right place at the right time, and when Pixar was getting started, I think I brought a needed component to the table by just understanding cinematic language. I’ve always believed that editing is really second only to directing in terms of the responsibility for shaping and creating a successful film. So, I had that background, and that’s why I think I was valuable to the team at Pixar. But beyond that, I did edit purely the first two films we made at Pixar, but everything that I’ve worked on since then, I’ve either co-directed or directed.

So, I’ve had a lot of years of understanding the whole widget, seeing what goes into making a film like this. At this point, I do have a pretty broad understanding of everything now. I certainly don’t come at directing animators in the same way that someone like Brad Bird would. He has such an amazing background in just the graphics and history of animation…I come at it more from a performance standpoint. I talk to my animators like they’re actors, and I get less involved in kind of the nitty gritty of other aspects of how they craft their animation. So, at the end of the day, even though I did come from this kind of sideways direction, I’ve spent a few decades, now, working at Pixar, so I do have a pretty good understanding of what it takes to make one of our films.

AWN: Well, that background gives you a unique perspective that drives your storytelling and directing sensibilities, which in turn has produced some of Pixar’s most successful work.

LU: What I’m focusing on most of the time is just the creative storytelling end of things. And I’ve got great people on my team who can tackle the technical end in terms of getting things done on time and on budget, even if it’s in some cases things we’ve never done before. There is a dialogue between us. I’m always made aware of things that are proving to be too difficult. And there are compromises that happen along the way, so that I can still tell the story I want to tell, but maybe do it in a way that’s more producible. It’s a big team, and we find ways of getting things done. I think my crew respects me because they know that every decision I’m making is based upon the needs of the story. I’m never asking for things willy-nilly. I understand every moment in the film, every shot and what it’s doing for the story.

So, when I’m making decisions about the minutiae of costumes, or lighting, or anything that goes into making the film, everything is going through the filter of how it’s supporting the story. And my crew knows that, and they trust me that every decision I’m making is based upon that. So, even if something was really hard for them, they’ve always gotten on board because they knew it was in service of telling what will hopefully be a good story.

AWN: The path from germ of an idea to finished film is usually long and tortuous. Looking back on your first ideas for the story and how they eventually evolved and coalesced into the film you finally made, are you satisfied you hit the tone you were looking for?

LU: I think so. I’m happy with the finished film, but as you mentioned, these things are ever-evolving. At the very beginning of the process, I didn’t even know what the story was going to be. It was hard for me to at the beginning to know what I wanted the tone to be. At the end of the day, we’re making a Pixar film, so I knew that there ideally was going to be a balance of humor and heart and emotion. And I think we did a pretty good job with that, especially the emotion. But, we did start off with a very, very different story, and that story evolved over time. And the tone of it changed over time as we found what it was that we wanted to say.

What we really landed on, pretty early on, was the emotion of the story, and that stayed pretty true through to the end. Then we grappled more with the logic issues of the storytelling, as well as the humor. We were always trying to find ways to make the film funnier along the way, and that tends to be easier than finding real emotional.

If you want your audience to feel genuine emotion in a story, to get invested in the characters and their own feelings, and not feel like they’re just being manipulated or told how to feel, that takes a lot of track laying along the way in the course of the storytelling. And when you do your job well, you can make audience after audience cry, which we’ve been lucky enough to do with Coco. But that’s a lot of work. When I look back on the film, that was the bulk of the work; getting that emotion to work, along with the comedy. When you get a lot of funny people in the room together spit-balling ideas, you can come up with some funny stuff.

AWN: What were the biggest challenges you faced getting this film made?

LU: Well, as always, story. I mean, that’s the thing that’s not very sexy, but that’s the thing that we spend the most time on in any given film. That’s always the toughest nut to crack. But, from a production standpoint, it was really the scope of this film. There wasn’t any one thing that we hadn’t done before, although the skeletons were new -- that was something we hadn’t animated at the studio before, so that had its own set of challenges. We were doing cloth on a level that we had never done before, in terms of really complex garments that needed to then be rolled out to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of characters. So, that was tough.

Creating the land of the dead was a huge challenge, getting that level of granular detail and sense of scope out of a world and do it in a way that was producible. We had to come up with a lot of tricky ways of giving a sense of a really rich, deep world. But, we were able to do it relatively simply. So, yeah, lots of challenges, mostly having to do with the scope. It’s a road movie. Miguel is always on the move through the whole story, which means we have a lot of unique sets that are just used for one scene at a time. That makes things more complex and more expensive.

AWN: Last question. Everybody seems to be talking about profound changes in the movie business. Pixar has been the gold standard in animation for as long as it’s been in business. But there’s a lot of competition these days. Disney is looking at buying Fox’s film business, which includes two animation studios. There’s change going on in creative leadership at Disney animation…there’s just a lot of stuff going on. You’re one of the most trusted, experienced, talented and senior voices at Pixar. How does all this impact Pixar’s strategic agenda and direction moving forward?

LU: Well, that’s a big question. It’s true we do have to plan things out years in advance, and major change can take time. That being said, we are making a lot of changes at the studio, and we’re doing them faster now than we thought we could in the past, in terms of getting more gender diversity at the top. We’re really working to get more women directing features at Pixar, more unique voices at a high level in terms of people coming from different cultures, different ethnicities, [telling] different kinds of stories. I mean, Coco was really groundbreaking for us at the studio, and the fact that it ended up being so successful really made people much more open to taking risks on films that are kind of outside the box, or films that are a little more culturally specific. So, these are the kinds of things that we’re doing.

I know that we’ve gotten criticized some in the past for being a bunch of white guys making movies at Pixar, but the reality is it wasn’t anything that was planned. We were a group of people that happened to come together 25 years ago with the dream of making features using computers.

When we made the first Toy Story, we didn’t know if we’d ever get to make another movie after that. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the studio has been very successful. But for the most part, the same people that started the company are the same people making the movies. So, I guess I’m just saying there was no intention to not be as diverse as we’re trying to be now. But, now, especially in this environment, it’s lit a fire under us to broaden the types of stories that we tell, and the range of people who are actually making them. And we’re making good progress quickly.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.