Academy of Art University Alum Daniel Arriaga Talks Animating Disney’s Oscar Winner, ‘Coco’

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Journey into the Land of the Dead with a young boy and prepare yourself for an authentic, yet fun, series of laughs, wonder, and dancing bones. If you’re thinking zombies – you’re wrong! It’s the smash animated hit from Disney and Pixar Animation, ‘Coco.’ Daniel Arriaga, Academy of Art University alum and now a senior director at Pixar, appeared on his alma mater’s campus back in October to share his experience creating the film.

Daniel, who is of Hispanic background, talked candidly with students and alumni about how his ethnic ties made him determined to tell the story accurately, while his education and experience as an animator were challenged in re-animating skeletons to have more than just life, but a personality. And of course, Daniel answered questions about his own experience and gave valuable advice to students about how to get started in the animation industry.

From Student to the Stage at Academy of Art University Theatre

Daniel’s own start began by preparing for a career in the arts at Academy of Art University’s School of Animation and Visual Effects in San Francisco, California. Since its inception in 1929, Academy of Art University and San Francisco have served each other as mutual sources of inspiration and talent. On-campus students have the opportunity to experience the Bay area’s unique artistic culture while they hone their craft. Being located close to the film making industry and other creative hubs provides a singular opportunity for the university to employ working creatives as instructors. These active artists not only impart theory and technique, but also real-world experience to their students.

Representing a number of alumni and instructors who worked on this film, Daniel stood on stage at Academy of Art University’s 79 New Montgomery Theatre and shared his experiences along with a two-hour presentation of animated shorts and clips from the film. His emotion and passion shone through as he spoke of his journey from a “wide-eyed” student to a senior director at Pixar, and a character art director on the film ‘Coco.’ Daniel’s work on the film encompassed five years, including a trip to Mexico. Commenting on the film, he said, “Wow. Seeing it to this day, I’m still blown away.”

“This is a real dream come true to be back here at my school,” Daniel said. “To be able to stand here is really the moment I can say ‘I made it.’” After the formal presentation, Daniel encouraged students who are preparing for a career in animation to work hard, become proficient at their specialty, and amass a solid portfolio of work. “I’m so blessed to be back here. I used to sit where you are right now and to be able to stand here and talk to you is really special,” said Daniel.

Animating ‘Coco’

The dancing skeletons dressed in traditional Mexican attire were the most difficult challenge of all, admitted Daniel. Taking a basic skull, adding a body, and then infusing it all with life and personality takes animation skill at an entirely new level. Daniel and his team had to create new moves and tricks throughout the process. Their efforts have surely paid off, as the most laughter in the film always accompanies these skeletal characters.

Inspiration for the various skeletons, spirit animals, people, and even dogs were taken from his own life and background. “This project was very close to me because of my culture,” reveals Daniel. “We wanted this film to be as authentic as we could make it. We really wanted to pay our respects to Dia de los Muertos and do it right.” Whether Daniel and his team have done that, all while creating a truly entertaining film, is up to you. Audiences have already voted, and now the Academy will get its chance.

Disney’s ‘Coco’ Won Best Animated feature Oscar

‘Coco’ is set during the Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that is celebrated around the country. While painted skulls have become symbolic of the holiday, other decor includes food, flowers, and elaborately decorated altars covered with offerings. Follow an aspiring young musician named Miguel as he embarks on an incredible journey to the magical land of his ancestors, the charming trickster Hector becomes an unexpected friend who helps Miguel uncover the mysteries behind his family’s stories and traditions.

Emeryville, California-based Pixar Studios has pretty much set the standard for animated movies. They have earned over $11 billion in worldwide box office receipts and consistently dominate the 17-year-old animated feature category at the Academy Awards. Their current standings are eight wins and ten nominations. ‘Coco’ won both Oscars it was nominated for: Best Animated Feature Film, and Best Original Song. The 90th Academy Awards were held on March 4, 2018, on the ABC television network.

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