Filipina animator helped bring ‘Land of the Dead’ to life in Disney-Pixar’s ‘Coco’

November 16, 2017 - 3:48 PM
Gini Santos.

Disney-Pixar’s upcoming 3D animated feature “Coco” will not open worldwide until November 22, but the film has generated a lot of early positive buzz, owing largely to its world premiere at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico last month.

In an early review of the film, Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter raved about its “comprehensively researched storytelling, fully dimensional characters, clever touches both tender and amusingly macabre, and vivid, beautifully textured visuals.”

Partly responsible for the film’s touted vivid look and beautifully textured visuals is Gini Santos, the film’s supervising animator who also happens to be a Filipina.

Originally a native of Pasay City where she was born, Gini’s family moved to Guam when she was 3. She returned to the Philippines to pursue her Fine Arts degree at the University of Santo Tomas where she majored in advertising arts. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in computer arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

In 1996, Gini joined Pixar Animation Studios and was part of the team that worked on high-profile projects like “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monster’s Inc,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Up.”

Now based in San Francisco, Gini was recently in town to promote “Coco,” the first Disney-Pixar film to have a female supervising animator. She also conducted an animation workshop at the Newport Cinema of Resorts World Cinema and was honored by the Original Pilipino Performing Arts (OPPA) Foundation with a plaque of recognition as presented by OPPA president and Resorts World Manila artistic director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. She was also hailed by the Pasay City government as ‘an exemplary citizen” of the city.

Gini Santos was presented with a plaque of recognition by the Original Pilipino Performing Arts (OPPA) Foundation president and Resots World Manila artistic director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.

Discussing her involvement with “Coco” in an ensuing roundtable interview with InterAksyon and other media, Gini said her supervision for the film alone involved a team of no less than 80 animators. She said it was her job was to make sure that these talented artists bring to life the vision of director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay.

“As supervising animators, we recognize that our team are highly talented animators and they’re going to have great ideas of their own. Our job is to kind of shepherd them and make sure they get what they need, they’re able to share that information with the director, and the director is able to talk to them,” Santos further elaborated.

To make sure that Unkrich’s vision is realized, Gini was part of the team that went to explore Mexico City where the film is set and create a world where time-honored traditions are held sacred even as impressionable and precocious little kids like the 12-year-old lead character Miguel wonder why such customs are so.

“Anything you see in the film is inspired by our trips down there. There was a lot of research on our part,” Gini noted.

“Coco” is a musical fantasy adventure that follows the story of Miguel, an aspiring singer and self-taught guitarist who dreams of following in the footsteps of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, the most famous musician in the history of Mexico.

But Miguel’s family frowns upon his musical aspirations. In fact, his elders, particularly his grandmother, are very explicit in forbidding music. The ban, passed down from generation to generation, is strictly enforced.

A scene from ‘Coco.’

Gini said she could relate to Miguel’s plight as she herself was discouraged by her father to pursue her own dream of being an artist.

“When I first told them the course that I want to pursue in college, my family was like, ‘How are you going to feed yourself?’ And now, having reached this point where I’m now working in Pixar, I’m doing well and I’m realizing my dream, I could definitely relate to Miguel,” Gini shared.

At Pixar, Gini felt very much at home as the company is stacked with several Filipino animators including Ronnie del Carmen, who went on to co-direct “Inside Out”; Paul Abadilla, a sketch artist for “Finding Dory”; and Nelson “Rey” Bohol, a set designer for “Cars 3.”

As Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead where he meets his “departed” relatives in his quest to fulfill his dream, creating the world of dead characters was particularly challenging for Gini and her team.

“With the skeletons were, you take away all the skin, it all looks the same. Our solution was to break them up through costumes, certain features like hats and sizes, and then obviously movement, so that really helped the look of it,” Gini further explained.

“The beauty of things that no one has ever seen is that you can kind of make it up but you need to be responsible so that it becomes believable.”

Asked if like Ronnie del Carmen, she sees herself directing her own feature-length animation movie, Gini said that while she’s taking a “never say never” outlook towards that prospect, she does not see it as something she would do in the immediate future.

“I don’t know if that is something I ever thought I wanted to do. I can probably do a short film if I think of an idea and I want it to be a short, I guess, I will do it.”

Disney Pixar’s “Coco” opens in Philippine cinemas nationwide on November 22.