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Creating Coco

Modelers at Pixar use basic 3-D shapes to bring the characters of Coco to life

From October 31 to November 2, people across Mexico honor the spirits of their ancestors. During Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, families make altars with the ancestors’ photos, belongings, and favorite foods. This holiday was the inspiration behind Coco, the newest Pixar film.

From October 31 to November 2, people across Mexico remember their lost loved ones. The celebration is called Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Families display their ancestors’ photos, belongings, and favorite foods on altars. This holiday was the inspiration behind the newest Pixar film, Coco.

© 2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Miguel and his dog, Dante

Coco follows Miguel, a boy living in a Mexican village. He wants to become a famous musician when he grows up. But his family prohibits it—especially his great-grandmother Coco, the movie’s namesake. Inspired by his favorite singer, Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel practices guitar in secret.  

Coco follows Miguel, a boy living in a Mexican village. He wants to become a famous musician when he grows up. His favorite singer is Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel wants to be like de la Cruz someday. But his family forbids music, especially his great-grandmother Coco. She's the movie's namesake. That's why Miguel practices guitar in secret.

During Día de Muertos, Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead. It’s filled with colorful skeleton versions of people who have died—including Miguel’s own ancestors! On his journey, Miguel searches out de la Cruz to get advice on how to get his family’s permission to pursue music. But he has to return home before the end of Día de Muertos, or else he might be trapped in the afterlife forever!

During Día de Muertos, Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead. It’s filled with skeleton versions of people who have died. Even Miguel’s own ancestors are there! In the Land of the Dead, Miguel tries to find de la Cruz. Miguel hopes his hero can give him advice on how to get his family’s permission to play music. But Miguel has to return home before the end of the holiday. If he doesn’t, he might be trapped in the afterlife forever!

A team of writers, voice actors, and animators spent more than five years making the movie. Everything from Miguel’s dog Dante to the marigold flower petals swirling around the Land of the Dead are made using 3-D animation. Scholastic MATH spoke with digital artist and modeler Alonso Martinez about how he and his team at Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California, used geometry to bring Miguel and his skeletal ancestors to life.

It took more than five years to make Coco. Everything from Miguel’s dog Dante to the marigold flower petals in the Land of the Dead were made using 3-D animation. Scholastic MATH spoke with Alonso Martinez. He's one of the digital artists who worked on Coco. Martinez and his team work at Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California. They used geometry to bring Miguel and his skeletal ancestors to life.

FROM SKETCH TO SCREEN

All characters start as sketches and drawings. Martinez’s job is to transform the sketches into digital 3-D “puppets” that animators will control with computer programs. “The drawings we get are just 2-D shapes,” he explains. “We have to find what they mean in 3-D.”

All characters start as sketches and drawings. Martinez’s job is to turn the sketches into digital 3-D “puppets.” Animators will control these puppets with computer programs. “The drawings we get are just 2-D shapes,” he explains. “We have to find what they mean in 3-D.”

Deborah Coleman/Pixar

Alonso Martinez works on modeling Pepita, a flying mythical creature called a chimera. He translates designs from illustration to 3-D.

For major characters like Miguel, Martinez gets dozens of drawings from every angle or even a clay sculpture to work off of. For minor characters, however, he might only receive a single drawing. From there, Martinez begins building the digital puppet out of geometric shapes. “Characters begin with something as simple as a cube,” Martinez says. “We will keep on adding edges and pulling out faces and slowly shaping it.” The shapes get layered together until each character has a realistic, complex silhouette. This process can take anywhere from two to six months per character! 

In addition to making a 3-D model of every character, Martinez and his team create a way for the animators to move each part of the models. “We build a control interface,” Martinez explains. “For the face, imagine you walk into a cockpit of an airplane and there’s knobs everywhere. When you turn one of these knobs, it makes a different part of the face move.” Every part of the character, from the shape of its smile to the wiggling of its toes, is controlled by this interface.

Major characters like Miguel have dozens of drawings for Martinez to use. These drawings are from every angle. Sometimes they even make a 3-D clay sculpture! But for minor characters Martinez might only receive a single drawing. Martinez builds the digital puppet for each 2-D character out of geometric shapes. “Characters begin with something as simple as a cube,” Martinez says. “We will keep on adding edges and pulling out faces and slowly shaping it.” The shapes get layered together. When Martinez is done, each character is a realistic, detailed figure. This process can take anywhere from two to six months per character!

Martinez and his team make a 3-D model of every character. They also need to create a way for the animators to move each part of the model. To do this, they make a computer program. Martinez compares the program to an airplane’s cockpit full of knobs. “When you turn one of these knobs, it makes a different part of the face move.” The program controls every part of the character, from making it smile to wiggling its toes. 

CULTURAL CONNECTION

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Martinez doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for Coco. “This is my favorite project ever,” he says. Martinez was born in Mexico and was able to contribute more than animation work to the movie. The creative team wanted his input as someone who grew up immersed in Mexican culture. “I was literally calling my family to make sure things were correct!”

Martinez also worked in details like the symbol of water used in Aztec, Olmec, and Inca architecture. For the character Pepita, a flying mythical creature, he referenced a traditional Mexican sculpture made of wood called an alebrije (ah-leh-bree-hey). Miguel’s parents even look a lot like Martinez’s parents! “Digging into my own past and taking the things I knew about but had not researched—that was cool,” he says.

Martinez doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for Coco. “This is my favorite project ever,” he says. Martinez was born in Mexico. His background let him contribute more than just animation to the movie. The creative team wanted his advice as someone who grew up surrounded by Mexican culture. “I was literally calling my family to make sure things were correct!” he says.

Martinez used designs from ancient Mexican civilizations for background details. He also referenced a traditional Mexican sculpture made of wood called an alebrije (ah-leh-BREE-hey) for Pepita. Pepita is a flying mythical creature in the movie. Miguel’s parents even look a lot like Martinez’s parents! “Digging into my own past and taking the things I knew about but had not researched, that was cool,” he says.    

Determine the 2-D cross sections of the 3-D shapes that modelers might use to create 3-D animated characters. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Determine the 2-D cross sections of the 3-D shapes that modelers might use to create 3-D animated characters. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

A modeler uses a cone as the head for a character. If she sliced the cone below along the plane shown, what shape would the 2-D cross section be?

A modeler uses a cone as the head for a character. If she sliced the cone below along the plane shown, what shape would the 2-D cross section be?

A modeler starts a new character with a triangular prism as its body:

A modeler starts a new character with a triangular prism as its body:

A. If the modeler slices the triangular prism vertically through the triangle’s vertex (top point) parallel to the faces, what 2-D cross section is made?

A. If the modeler slices the triangular prism vertically through the triangle’s vertex (top point) parallel to the faces, what 2-D cross section is made?

B. If the modeler slices the triangular prism with a horizontal plane parallel to the base, what 2-D cross section is made?

B. If the modeler slices the triangular prism with a horizontal plane parallel to the base, what 2-D cross section is made?

C. After completely slicing off the top of the prism in question 2B, the modeler makes a second vertical slice parallel to the faces. What 2-D cross section is made?

C. After completely slicing off the top of the prism in question 2B, the modeler makes a second vertical slice parallel to the faces. What 2-D cross section is made?

Another modeler is designing a rounder character using a cylinder for its body. Check all of the 2-D cross sections that she could create by slicing the cylinder vertically or horizontally.

Another modeler is designing a rounder character using a cylinder for its body. Check all of the 2-D cross sections that she could create by slicing the cylinder vertically or horizontally.

To make a character that looks more villainous, a modeler wants the character to have a triangular face. Which of the following solids could he slice vertically or horizontally to create a triangular face? Choose all that apply.

To make a character that looks more villainous, a modeler wants the character to have a triangular face. Which of the following solids could he slice vertically or horizontally to create a triangular face? Choose all that apply.

Martinez designed Pepita (above). He wanted Pepita to look like a wood carving. Her body is made up of different 3-D shapes based on cylinders, and she has a carved head based on a sphere. What 2-D cross section is made where her head meets her body?

Martinez designed Pepita (above). He wanted Pepita to look like a wood carving. Her body is made up of different 3-D shapes based on cylinders, and she has a carved head based on a sphere. What 2-D cross section is made where her head meets her body?

Imagine you’re a modeler like Martinez. Draw a 2-D character and determine how you’d begin to translate it into a 3-D animation. What 3-D shapes would you start with? Pick one of your starting shapes and show all of the different 2-D cross sections you could create from different 2-D planes.

Imagine you’re a modeler like Martinez. Draw a 2-D character and determine how you’d begin to translate it into a 3-D animation. What 3-D shapes would you start with? Pick one of your starting shapes and show all of the different 2-D cross sections you could create from different 2-D planes.

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