Pixar animator takes students behind the production of latest film

Media Credit: Donna Armstrong | Hatchet Photographer

Jason Katz, a story supervisor from Pixar Animations, discussed his latest film "Coco" at the Armand Hammer Auditorium in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design Monday.

A story supervisor from Pixar Animations — best known for animating “Toy Story 3,” “Ratatouille” and “Monsters Inc” — discussed his latest work at the Armand Hammer Auditorium in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design Monday.

The event included exclusive clips from the upcoming film “Coco” and an in-depth discussion by Pixar animator Jason Katz about the conception, execution and creative process behind the movie. The film tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel as he tries to solve a family mystery that will allow him to pursue his love of music and centers around the traditional Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The highly anticipated animated film premiered Oct. 20 during the Morelia International Film Festival in Morelia, Mexico. It will be released in the U.S. Nov. 22.

Here’s a behind the scenes look before the film hits theaters in the U.S.:

1. The story behind the story

Katz interlaced his tell-all talk with funny anecdotes and exclusive details about filmmaking and his own creative process. When discussing the original plan for the film six years ago, he said his team proposed three distinctly different storylines to the executive board, and “Coco” was the immediate winner.

Katz said the team was sure they wanted to make a movie about Dia de los Muertos, but they were not set on what the plot would entail.

“We knew that if we had a beginning that we were happy with and end that we were happy with, the rest of the stuff would fall into place,” Katz said.

Katz and the rest of the animation team traveled to various cities in Mexico to ensure that their depiction of Dia de los Muertos honored the traditions of the celebration.

The family dynamics displayed in the film were also garnered from a personal connection. In one case, Katz said an idea came from an animator on his team who had an interesting upbringing with his grandmother and became the inspiration for Miguel’s grandmother in the film.

“I have an animator from a large Italian family whose grandmother used to threaten him with a wooden spoon when he misbehaved,” Katz said.

2. Finding a happy medium

As the film is largely about a young boy’s love for music, Katz said it was crucial for the production team to relay an authentic feeling of passion that did not feel unrelatable to the audience or use music to convey emotion.

“We tested various scenes and were never satisfied with the reaction,” Katz said. “We had to capture Miguel’s love for music without stating it verbatim, or making it a musical, Frozen-esque movie.”

Some scenes in the final cut of the film were spontaneously thrown together, which is common practice, Katz said. He went on to explain that the spontaneity and accidental ideas are why he was lucky to have a six-year time frame to produce this film.

“I am lucky that at my job we’re given the time frame and leeway we need for our creative process,” Katz said.

3. New horizons for Pixar

Katz said the film stands out from other films he has worked on for Pixar like “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 3” because it highlights a culture outside the U.S.

“It’s frankly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before from Pixar,” Katz said. “This is the first time I have been part of a film that didn’t take place where I grew up, or in some familiar area.”

The animator further explained the impact the movie had on his personal connection to his family’s culture, Dia de los Muertos and his grandmother.

“My grandmother was such a huge part of my life,” Katz said. “And to create a film that honors where we came from, that honors our ancestors, is incredibly fulfilling.”

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