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Pixar sketch artist draws from upbringing to design ‘Coco’

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Preston Barta

Most of the time when we watch a movie, our focus stays near the surface, following the plot and special effects to their hopefully satisfying conclusion. Rarely have we found ourselves meticulously breaking down the mechanics of cinema, because a film’s ultimate wish is to have a story envelop its audience.

However, when a film is replete with thematic riches and culture, it’s difficult not to be placed in the shoes of its characters and wonder how the filmmakers reached such vibrancy.

In this image released by Disney-Pixar, character Hector, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, left, and Miguel, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, appear in a scene from the animated film, <i>Coco</i>.AP
In this image released by Disney-Pixar, character Hector, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, left, and Miguel, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, appear in a scene from the animated film, Coco.

The Day of the Dead-inspired animated adventure, Coco, takes us beyond the prior works of Disney-Pixar and sends us on a journey to unlock the familial mysteries surrounding a young aspiring musician in Mexico. It’s a story that required extensive research and a collaborative effort to accurately portray.

One of the many artists who contributed her voice to Coco is Mexican sketch artist Ana Ramirez, a California Institute of the Arts graduate who went from developing art for her student portfolio to designing characters, sets and costumes with some of the most talented people in the business. When you see the film and witness the contents within the its frame, you, too, will recognize Ramirez’s skillful touch.

“In Coco, there was so much of my hometown [Guanajuato, Mexico] and what I know and like about Mexico incorporated into the overall look the film,” Ramirez said during a speaking tour for the film with local colleges. “The murals in the streets that you see in the Land of the Dead are pulled from what I love about the holiday. Growing up, there were sugar skull candies and skeleton props and toys I’d collect from the celebration. So many of my paintings were based on that kitschy side of folk art that I really loved.”

Ana Ramirez is the creative mind behind some of the characters and designs in Disney Pixar s 'Coco.'&nbsp;Disney
Ana Ramirez is the creative mind behind some of the characters and designs in Disney Pixar s 'Coco.' 

Ramirez said she always tries to insert pieces of herself into the work that she creates. Whether it’s in her student films, her portfolio or Coco, it’s obvious much of what we see comes from a personal place.

“I feel like I’ve grown so much as an artist working on Coco. Before then, I would draw any design I thought was appealing and would choose a theme. It ended up working for me, but I wish I had put more effort into doing more research and making everything more cohesive,” Ramirez said. “At Pixar, that’s exactly what we do.”

Ramirez described Pixar’s development process as “careful” and “thorough,” constantly examining and improving the whys and hows in every minute detail.

“When you’re assigned something, you have to create it to the best of your ability. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and even if I believe in one design, you have to make changes for the purpose of the movie," Ramirez said. "It doesn’t always need to be the most appealing thing, but the most practical.”

At Pixar, each person has their own official title. They have character designers, set designers, colorists and shaders all within the art department. Most of the filmmakers focus on solely one aspect of the film. But in Ramirez’s case, she wanted to do a lot of everything.

“I’m interested in a lot of things, so it’s hard to pick just one role. I was fortunate enough to work on many areas, such as the color work, cultural consulting and translations,” Ramirez said.

One of the most memorable moments of artistic creativity comes from the film’s opening. Coco begins with an exposition by decorative paper cutouts called “papel picado.” It’s through these decorations that we are quickly introduced to several generations in our central protagonist’s family.

“I designed the entire opening of the film. I worked with lead animator Tom Gately, production designer Harley Jessup and co-director Adrian Molina. They storyboarded it, I designed the look and Gately animated it in 2-D,” Ramirez said. “It was a great and challenging experience, because I don’t usually get the opportunity to design something so flat in 2-D. But it was what we felt best serviced the story we were trying to tell.”

Ramirez described Coco as a once-in-a-lifetime type of project that she feels proud to have been a part of as a Mexican artist.

“Too often we’re misrepresented on the big screen as violent, criminal people. Coco embraces all the things that are beautiful about our country and culture,” Ramirez said. “It informs how rich and vast it is, and how festive and warm the people are. It’s my hope the film touches people from all over and opens the door for more cultures to be seen on the big screen and more voices to be heard.”

Coco is now playing in theaters nationwide.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Disney-Pixar's visual development artist Ana Ramirez seizing an artistic moment as the illustrator of "Miguel and the Grand Harmony," a children's book based on the characters of 'Coco.' Courtesy of Disney.