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Daniel Arriaga’s journey from the Academy of Arts to Disney Pixar’s “Coco”

The film’s Character Art Director shared his design process and influences for the new film.

Miguel%2C+the+main+character+of+the+film+Coco%2C+playing+a+guitar.
Miguel, the main character of the film Coco, playing a guitar.

Miguel, the main character of the film Coco, playing a guitar.

Courtesy of Disney

Courtesy of Disney

Miguel, the main character of the film Coco, playing a guitar.

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In a packed auditorium, Daniel Arriaga discussed the life of a Pixar character designer at a clip screening for “Coco” to a crowd of animation students Friday at the Beach Auditorium.

The film’s release isn’t until Thanksgiving day, but attendees were given a sneak peek of a few clips before Arriaga launched into a discussion about the creative process.

Arriaga spoke about creating the visual aesthetics of “Coco’s” characters, as well as his own journey from San Francisco State University to the Academy of Arts, all culminating in fulfilling his dream of working for Pixar and Disney.

The film follows a boy who is an aspiring musician from a music-shunning family of shoemakers on his journey to reconnect with his long-dead famous guitarist great-great-grandfather in the colorful Day of the Dead-inspired afterlife.

Arriaga shared something in common with every student in the auditorium: he grew up loving to draw.

“I feel like we all love to draw, but some of us get told we’re not good so we stop,” Arriaga said. “Which is not the case, you’re just not good yet.”

Arriaga knew he wanted to study something creative in college, but despite his admiration for animation, initially pursued graphic design. His wife contacted the Academy of Art University on his behalf, which he described as a pivotal moment for his pursuit of an animation career.

“It opened my mind after that, I was spinning,” Arriaga said. “I went home in happy land.”

One of the event’s attendees, senior animation major Jacquelyn Araujo, said that events like these provide insight into the animation industry and serve as inspiration for future animators.

“[Arriaga] has been though a lot and we’re just getting started,” Araujo said. “The more wisdom the better.”

Aubry Mintz, head of the animation program at Cal State Long Beach’s School of Art, helped organize the event with Pixar’s public relations team. He said that the college’s animation program recently had a student get an internship at Pixar, becoming the first to do so and later obtaining a position as an animator at the company.

“Getting one of our students into Pixar all of the sudden says to them, ‘this is actually possible,’” Mintz said. “It says to them that this is someone who’s one of us, who made it, and he’s willing to show us his process and answer our questions, I think it’s huge.”

Arriaga said that the process of creating an animated character is similar to taking notes for a class.

“We draw characters from real-life people and then put the real-life photos away, because now I have my notes,” Arriaga said. “All of this is inspired from life, none of it is just coming from my head.”

During early production for “Coco,” Arriaga and several members of his team traveled through Mexico searching for references to add to the film. Arriaga said a key point was attending a Day of the Dead celebration at a cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico. Before the trip, he was used to associating cemeteries with death, sadness and memories of loved ones passed, but the celebration changed this view.

“Growing up, cemeteries to me were scary and sad places,” Arriaga said. “Places where I remember my grandma throwing herself to the ground. When I went to the cemetery in Oaxaca, it blew my mind because music was playing and children were laughing.”

He described the ceremony as a family gathering played over the aesthetics of Latin-American music, candles and art. Arriaga attributed this symphony of color and music in the face of death as an inspiration for the vibrant images seen in the film’s depiction of the land of the dead.

“[In ‘Coco’] when you get to see the cemetery before you go to the world of the dead, that is what it really looked like,” Arriaga said. “Our’s is just a caricature of it, but that is what it really looked like. It was gorgeous, so beautiful.”

Arriaga described going full circle with his journey as an animator of “Coco.”

“I feel like I remember being that student in the audience wishing that I could just go out there and do the same one day,” Arriaga said.

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