“Coco” director Lee Unkrich, a Chagrin Falls native, created concept for latest Pixar project

November 19, 2017 GMT

“Coco” director Lee Unkrich, a Chagrin Falls native, created concept for latest Pixar project

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- “Coco,” opening Wednesday, Nov. 22, is the latest Pixar 3-D, computer-animated, musical fantasy adventure for kids and adults alike. And it has a local tie. “Coco” director and story idea creator Lee Unkrich is an alumnus of Chagrin Falls High School.

Unkrich, 50, who also directed “Toy Story 3,” was doing promotion for his new film last week and called from Los Angeles to talk about his career and the making of “Coco.”

“I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to make movies,” said Unkrich. “I applied to college at USC [University of Southern California] because George Lucas and a whole host of other great filmmakers went there.”


Unkrich is the one who came up with the movie’s concept: a boy who travels to the land of the dead to resolve some of his family’s conflicts.

“I got the idea for ‘Coco’ because I was interested in the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. We put together a team [from Pixar] and went down to Mexico and just immersed ourselves in the Mexican culture surrounding Day of the Dead. We stayed with families and interviewed people about the history and customs about Day of the Dead. We did the deep dive on the topic,” he said.

“It’s about how they remember those family members who are no longer with them. It’s part of the fabric of that culture. It’s how they keep their ancestors alive. We ended up taking several trips to Mexico. We were determined to make our story authentic and respectful of that culture. We wanted to get it right.”

After work on the storyboards for the movie had begun, Unkrich and his team continued to consult with contacts they had made in Mexico to insure they had cultural accuracy.

“One example is that we had Miguel’s grandmother always carrying a wooden spoon to help her discipline the kids. When we showed this to the families we had worked with, they corrected us. They said a grandmother in Mexico was far more likely to use her own slipper than a wooden spoon,” he said.

That change was quickly incorporated into the movie.

“Coco” is a lush visual experience. Unkrich said it’s not so much that the technology for making Pixar animated films has changed or advanced since “Toy Story” appeared on the big screen in 1995, but it’s the people who work there.

“The young people they hire just get better and better and better. Computer animation is what they’ve grown up with. It’s all they’ve ever known, and it comes so naturally to them,” he said of the new crop of talent.


The computer-animated landscape of “Coco” is complex and visually rich. The detail involved is mind-boggling.

“I worked with a huge team. It takes 500 people to produce a landscape of that epic scale,” he said. “The skill level of these people is off the chart.”

On the day that “Coco” was screened for local critics in Cleveland, Christian Hoffman, a character supervisor on the film, gave a presentation at the Cleveland Institute of Art for a packed house of students.

Hoffman, 43, oversees a group of artists who are charged with bringing various characters from the film to life. The characters begin in 2-D on a page and then become 3-D sculptures. Hoffman and his team of artists are tasked with shading, skin tone and the graphic grooming of hair and mustaches.

“I attended Carnegie Mellon [University] in Pittsburgh, where I majored in computer graphics,” said Hoffman by phone on his way from the airport to the CIA for his talk.

“My path to Pixar from college was extremely straightforward,” he said. “Someone from Pixar knew someone at Carnegie Mellon and asked for recommendations for students in computer graphics that might be interested in Pixar. They contacted me and interviewed me after I graduated. Even though I had offers from other places, I was holding out for Pixar. The wait paid off. Eventually they hired me,” he said.

Even with his degree in computer graphics, he still needed a whole new skill set.

“There was a ton of learning curve when I first got there. There was a big organized push to train us. There was a 10-week training course. I found my niche in the art department there. The first movie I worked on was ‘A Bug’s Life.’ ”

The CIA presentation was the first event of its kind for Hoffman. He said that Pixar hires a wide spectrum of talent when it recruits.

“We look for people who have a tech slant on the work and those who have more of an art slant. Ideally, we want people who have some of both. But the distinguishing factors are talent and passion. Having both of those qualities is the winning combination,” he said.

Hoffman is optimistic about “Coco’s” prospects for success.

“I worked on the movie for two-and-a-half years. After that long of a time, you become so familiar with the project that you lose some perspective on how it might affect an audience. I have now been to a couple of audience screenings. I can tell you from gauging those reactions this movie is very good. The audiences are super happy and very emotional when they watch the film,” he said.

“That’s what you look for. That’s what you want.”