Skeletons are typically associated with death, so it was obvious that filmmakers on Pixar’s newest feature film had to use them somehow. At the same time, they had to be careful of how they used them because this, like all other Pixar films, are for everyone, including kids.
“They are dead things that represent death,” said Daniel Arriaga, the character art director on “Coco.” “Our biggest accomplishment was trying to ‘lighten’ them up,” he said.
In a presentation to us and a few other media outlets during the film’s early press days at Pixar’s studios in Emeryville, California, Arriaga and his team made every effort to make the skeletons in the film friendly for their younger audiences.
Arriaga continued, “Skeletons are our main characters in the film, so apart from their behavior, we also needed to make sure that their physical appearance wouldn’t upset those who are younger and more sensitive to seeing them.”
To do that, the character design team took the care to research and test different skeleton looks and sharing them with younger kids as their test audiences. After a few months of work, they pitched the final version of the skeletons that “strike a balance between the real aspects of skeletons with a fanciful, soft look,” according to Arriaga.
Like most of Pixar’s character design work, new software had to be developed for “Coco’s” skeletal version of the characters. The studio’s software work has been recognized by The Academy and other visual effects companies due to their innovative use of real-world physics and coding that adds a new level of detail and believability to the characters.
For example, the team created “skeleton clothes.” According to simulation technical director Emron Grover, the new clothes had to be created since skeletons appear to be dead because they have no mass or muscle attached to them. The team felt that the look of skeletons without muscle and with clothes was too intimidating and at times, scary. To that end, they came up with a way to create muscle-bound clothes with their software know-how.
“Muscle on the body forms a body’s figure,” said Grover. “Since our characters needed to remain skeletal, we created ‘fake muscle’ through software to give life to the characters while remaining true to their character in the story.”
New software was also developed to give the authentic look of the bones themselves, but not make them look scary. “If you look close enough, you’ll see see the brittleness shown through unique cracks and patterns on them (the bones),” said Bryan Bashforth, the character shading lead. “It’s detailed, but not creepy.”