LSC’s Q&A with Dean Kelley of Pixar’s Coco by Abby H. '20
(he also worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Monsters University, and The Incredibles 2)
A couple of Fridays ago I had the opportunity to sit in on an LSC preview of the upcoming Pixar film Coco, hosted by storyboard artist Dean Kelley. Though I am not allowed to share details about the film itself (no spoilers), I have (c o m p l e t e l y p a i n l e s s l y :’-)) transcribed a bit of his guest lecture and the Q&A that followed. Enjoy!
I’m the lead story artist for Coco. I’m from Chelmsford, so I grew up in Boston. It’s great to come back to Boston, especially a smart place like MIT where I feel really smart. So I’m going to show you guys some unreleased material and kind of go into a little bit behind the scenes of how we kind of attack these stories at Pixar. Some background on me: I joined Pixar in 2009. Like I said I’m from Chelmsford; I went to Rhode Island School of Design. I majored in Illustration and I knew I wanted to work at Disney, but I didn’t how to get there or anyone in LA or if it was something I really wanted to move to get to. I mean I loved Disney but not enough to be like “okay I’m going to move to LA and make this big jump.” So I kind of did this baby step, dip-your-toes-in-the-pool move to Minneapolis halfway across the country with my wife (girlfriend at the time) who was from there. I knew her family and I knew there was a small commercial animation studio that was there. So I’m like “that’s a nice thing and I could ease into it and know people there and not feel like I’m completely alone.” At that studio I learned a lot about animation, but it did teach me what I didn’t like to do with animation. It was a real fast turnaround but I got to paint, I got to do a little bit of design work, I got to animate, I got to work on the computers. This was back in like ’99.
Eventually I was there for like a year and all my buddies that were in LA were like “you just gotta come on out, all the studios are in LA, so just come out, I don’t know what you’re doing here, you want to work at Disney, you’re not going to do it in Minneapolis.” So I finally moved out to LA. I started working at The Simpsons, and I was there for about three years. I was doing character layout which is basically taking storyboards and then blowing them up and then putting the characters on model and then the backgrounds on model, and then that gets shipped to Korea. It was fun because I loved the show, but it was not at all creatively engaging for me. So I’m like “ah, man I don’t know what to do.” Then two of my buddies from RISD created Avatar: the Last Airbender. [gasps from the nerds that have gathered for this talk] I don’t know if you guys know that show. [the gasps are replaced by laughs] You guys do? Is that yes? [resounding YES from the crowd] Okay. So they asked me “do you want to come and work on the show” and I was like “ah, man.” I would be leaving The Simpsons which is such a big deal because The Simpsons is primetime animation. Avatar was just like this startup show; I had no idea what it was going to be.
So I went over there to do character layout and then they got rid of character layout because all the stuff that we were sending to Korea—the same way we did for The Simpsons, but it’s a little more forgiving on a show like The Simpsons—but the cinematic kind of anime approach they wanted on Avatar, we weren’t cutting it here in the States. We were doing a lot of like Danny Phantom kind of flash graphic stuff, western-style animation. Except for, well there are going to be times during this talk were it seems like I’m kind of “go me”, but out of all the stuff they sent to Korea, the Korean directors were like “we have to discontinue this because we’re spending too much money on all these layouts, except for this one guy—who’s this one guy” and I’m like “oh, man.” They kind of singled me out at the studio and I’m like “oh that’s great,” and then they said “well we’re going to get rid of that, do you want to take the storyboard cuts?” And I was like “sure” because I wanted to stay on the show, but I had no idea what storyboarding was. I learned classical drawing, painting, portraiture, and landscape design at RISD, but there was no commercial animation program at RISD. That was like my second school working with Bryan [Konietzko] and Mike [Dante DiMartino] and the other artists on Avatar where I learned how to storyboard, how to use the skills that I learned, and just made sense of drawing a lot and understanding film. I was able to apply that directly into what I did on Avatar and then I rode that to the end for about three years and then I became a director on Penguins of Madagascar, the TV show, with Nickelodeon. So I was working on that, and then right around that time I submitted my portfolio to Pixar—just when I still had that Disney dream, but you know I shifted to Pixar because they were kind of the better studio and you want to work for the best and work with the best. So right when I became a director down at Nickelodeon, I got a phone call: “hey we want to fly you out to Pixar.” So I fly up. The interview went well, but I’m still working at Nickelodeon and I had just gotten that director gig. So I was still making those decisions that maybe you might come across in life, like for me moving from studio to studio, moving from different parts of the country, to follow what you want to do.
That brought me to Pixar, and I’ve been there since 2009. I worked on Monsters University which was my first film, and then I started on Coco and that’s what I’m here to talk to you guys a little about. So I’m going to give you some background on the film and how we researched it. From a visual perspective, there’s a richness of beauty to Día de los Muertos that evokes intrigue and emotion, but even more powerful than the images is the spirit of the celebration. The more our team researched this holiday and how it’s celebrated, the more it affected us in a deep emotional way. So some of you guys might already know that the holiday Día de Muertos or Día de los Muertos is also called the Day of the Dead. It’s a Mexican celebration that takes place over two days at the beginning of November. People honor their departed family and friends by building ofrendas or altars where they display photos of their loved ones and leave out food and offerings that their loved ones enjoyed. It’s become a tradition of connection, remembrance, and family, and those were kind of the early ideas of what sparked Coco. It was an idea that the director came up with about seven years ago now. It was set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, but in order for us to figure out and flesh out the story at Pixar or with any film, research is huge. So we take trips. When I worked on MU, I actually came here. I thought I was going to go somewhere else, but they were like “no, you’re going back to your hometown.” We visited Harvard and MIT and it was cool. Nothing against the school, but I wanted to go somewhere like… I guess it’s better than Toy Story 3. They visited a dump. But like the folks on Nemo got to go to the Great Barrier Reef. So it depends on what the film is, really.
I was lucky enough to get to go down to a village outside of Oaxaca, maybe forty-five minutes out, very rural. There wasn’t any electricity. They would make these ceramic pots and sculptures, and that’s what they sold to make a living. They let us come in and see how they lived, how they ate, and what we understood was how much their family was such a huge part of everything they did. They also wore such colorful clothes. It was so exciting for us, and over the last several years we were fortunate enough to go down there a few more times to see firsthand how the holiday was celebrated all over the country. As a result, these trips have influenced every part of Coco’s production, from the story, from the lighting, from characters, to the music. Everything we did was trying to make sure that we were being very respectful of the culture and the traditions that we were then trying to put back into the film, because we were so inspired by it, and we thought we could really create a unique story so we put it together. It’s something that we’re really excited about.
After working on a film that focuses so much on family and music, how have your conceptions of your families changed?
That’s a good question. We’re in the story room talking, even though not all of us are from Mexico, we all come from different backgrounds, different families. I’m one of four boys. My folks are still married. They’re still living in the house I grew up in. And family was such a huge part of supporting my journey like getting to Pixar. It’s like when I call my mom, we cry a little bit more, and sometimes we talk about stuff. As a parent now, I have four kids, and I feel like the appreciation of being a parent has changed from like my appreciation of my folks. But I think it’s just made it brighter. And the music and seeing the musical consultants has definitely opened my eyes. I think of parts of Mexico where the music evolved from. I think, as an artist, I can find that passion, and still wanting to learn for me as a filmmaker and storyteller, and still have family that supports me. I feel like it’s very resonant when I watch, like there are a lot of parallels.
You went from a more traditional western animation background to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and now with 3D movies. Especially now that we don’t see very many 2D animated movies anymore, was it difficult to switch between these different art styles?
No, I think storyboarding on a film that’s CG has more limitations for what you can do with the sets and the camera moves. Once the characters and the sets get built, it’s a virtual space where the layout artists can come in from our boards and move the camera. But with 2D, whatever you put in the boards has to be translated. Like someone has to lay that out by hand. There’s not a lot of camera operating. I feel like, you know, I’m working on The Incredibles 2 now, and a lot of the stuff that I had fun doing on Avatar (I did some of that stuff for Korra too), there’s a lot of that fun, frenetic, action filmmaking that I think lends itself into something like The Incredibles. But I feel like my approach doesn’t change. I still try to help tell the story in the best way and use any sort of visual clues and filmmaking techniques to be able to support that. Yeah I wish it was more—I think maybe Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki, is probably one of the last few filmmakers that are still doing stuff by hand. I think he approaches it the same way with looking at and studying film.
What would you want an audience to take away after watching Coco?
Cry with your parents a little bit more, appreciate your parents. I love when I call my mom or dad. I mean I don’t get to see them that often. I got to see them last night. They came and saw a couple talks I gave last night. I think just realizing that you’re one of many people that came before you. Life is so short, and I look back and I was able to have great relationships with my grandparents, but I miss them terribly now. I kind of wish I was able to have more conversations with them as I got older. So that sliver of time that you have with people, if anything. If you come out of this film, other than going “yeah we love the film, we want to watch it again,” I think that connection to family, maybe, calling your family and reconnecting or maybe connecting more or making those conversations happen more frequently. Appreciate the people that came before you and all their hard work.
What’s it like working at Pixar, especially the technological aspects?
It’s great. In my role now as a story lead, I’m able to go into other meetings with the very smart people that come in and write the code that kind of looks like the Matrix when I look at the screen and I just see numbers. I know how to draw and move the story along as a filmmaker but when I see that, there’s such a great blend. That influences what we can do and then they get influenced by what we do creatively, and I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that they want the challenge of wanting to do, more stuff. The tendency has been, as Pixar has gotten bigger, there’s been sometimes where we’ve done the safe thing with certain moments, within films, not films as a whole. And I feel like a lot of technical folks were like “no, we want that challenge, we want the hard stuff, give us the hard stuff, how do we figure out simulation” and I feel like with this film, like the marigold petals, all the simulation with that, and just the rigging of a lot of these characters, they found ways that they were really excited about, you know, because we could just come up with anything in story like “hey can we do this?” I feel like Pixar is just a really great place to embrace both; there’s a good blend of the left-brain, right-brain that comes together to create something that, hopefully, when you watch, you’re not going “how did they do that?” Well, maybe on second or third viewing.
What do you love the most about being a storyboard artist?
I think how long it takes and having a lot of patience. It’s kind of a disposable art. We’ll put stuff up and then we realize, we’re just trying to service the whole; sometimes we put so much into the work that if a scene does get cut you’re like “oh god that was a month of my life and it’ll never see the light of day.” Like once it gets into production, that’s when the big bucks come out, and it’s very rare that they cut scenes that are animated. So early on in the pre-production part of the story, we keep putting stuff up and then we’ll tear it down and poke holes in it to make the story as good as it can possibly be. I think a lot of it is just going “don’t look back, always move forward” and having that endurance and thick skin to go “oh well I’m servicing the whole.” And purely execution-wise it is the more films that I’ve studied—and there’s hundreds of films that I’ve never seen that we have at our disposal to watch, like live-action films—and seeing how people saw things creatively, how they composed scenes, I feel like I’m always learning that part of it, and I can just always watch films. There’s just not enough time in the day to watch every film ever made, and there are great young filmmakers that are coming out, movies from all over the world that we get to watch, documentaries, and just seeing how people approach just shooting characters and people moving and the humanity of that. So I feel like that part I’m always learning, but the biggest thing is helping the director find their vision. If I was the director this is how I would want the scene to look, and you try to find that middle ground.
I’m curious about the workflow of this sort of project because it seems like you could storyboard for years. Is that on a set timeline or what?
Every three months, we put up our screening, and it’s the state of the story at that point so it’ll all be in storyboard form at that point. And we’ll watch it in the screening room and we’ll go back for a few hours with the braintrust and we’ll have lunch and kind of pick it apart, but within those three month check-ins we are looking at ways to go “is there a scene that looks like we could kind of polish it a bit more?” With this film in particular, we knew where we wanted to start and we knew what our ending was, which is kind of rare. It’s usually kind of built back, and this was good because we knew the ending so we could kind of reverse engineer that. So once we had the ending, we knew that was the scene, that we could go into the pipeline of building sets for that scene, but there is a quick turnaround and it’s gotten faster it seems. The more that we put it up, the more certain scenes start to stand out more as “let’s lock those.” So in terms of the overall life cycle of a film, it’s probably eight screenings and then we do an audience preview, but at that point it’s kind of the film. So it’ll be a hybrid of story, animation, plot layout, but hopefully at that point a lot of the film is animated because a lot of audiences don’t really understand or aren’t really familiar with looking at storyboards. So it’s like every three months. It’s long but I say it’s like a marathon or a race. At times it feels like you’re sprinting a marathon. Just keep moving forward, and know that you’ve got a bunch of people there just to support you to make the film. You’re not doing it alone.
Is there a scene from a Pixar film that you might not have worked on that really stands out to you?
That’s a great question. Yeah, I feel like that scene at the end of Incredibles before they fight where you’ve got Bob to kind of tell Helen after they got off the island to stay there and she’s like “no, we’re going in” and she’s like “what is this to you?” and then like Bob finally breaks down and says “I can’t lose you again.” That’s pretty powerful. I feel like to have a movie go into a third act and have those characters so realized in terms of the emotion, and now after being a father I don’t think I could watch the end of Nemo where he says “I love you dad” after he says “I hate you” in the beginning. And Ratatouille is one of my favorite films. I never got to work on that, and again it’s Brad Bird and he has such a different approach and it’s great to get to work with him now on Incredibles. It comes out next year, so it’s on like an accelerated schedule. But I would say scenes where you can get a lot of emotion from animated characters, like Walt Disney set up back in the thirties, to get invested in animated characters that aren’t real, they’re just drawings but they seem real. That’s kind of hard to do, but when it does land, it’s pretty powerful.
What changes when you’re working on a sequel from with an original concept? How you adapt the assets from, for example, The Incredibles which was made in the 2000s to current technology?
Yeah, sometimes we have to go in and re-rig those characters because you look at it and it looks like plastic now. What we’re able to do now, like with mouth shapes and what the animators can do is so sophisticated, especially with the hair and everything. The challenge of working on a sequel like MU, you’re kind of locked in, like you know the characters, so you don’t have to reacquaint the audience with them, like with Toy Story or Cars or The Incredibles you know who the characters are, but it’s that much harder to then go “well, what are you going to have the characters go through now, what story are you going to tell, what are they going to learn, what epiphany are they going to come onto in the third act?” I think that’s where it gets really hard. You’re in a kind of narrow playing field. I think it’s kind of more fun to work on originals because you have more leeway with this. You’re like “I don’t think Bob would do that” or “Mike and Sully wouldn’t talk like that” “why not?” “oh the first film” “oh okay.” There’s a trailer for the first film where he says something like “oh you’ve been jealous of my looks since the third grade!” and we did the sequel, or well, the prequel, and we were like “oh my god” because they were supposed to meet in college. And we were like “let’s just forget it” and took creative license, but like we tried many versions of it to have where they met in grade school, and it was just not working, it wouldn’t work. We were handcuffed by one line from a trailer, and they were like “oh you got to be kidding me” and then we were just like “oh let’s just go I don’t think the audience would catch on.” [the nerds laugh, and someone asks “So canonically they did meet in college?”] Yes. [laughing continues] But I would say working on originals is really fun, but you’ve really got to lock into who your main character is. There are different challenges, but I feel like you’re not as creatively handcuffed working on an original as you are in a sequel.
In 3D animation, there seems to be this big difference between the tech team and the story team or like the artist team. My impression is that the artists create the stories and then people like us from MIT, engineers at Pixar, we do the simulation and the rendering. Is there a career path in Pixar or in any of the 3D animation companies you know where people bring their technologies but then also have a say in how the story goes or are also on the creative team? How does that play out? As an insider in Pixar, do you know of any examples of this or does this ever happen?
I mean there’s definitely a career path dealing with that pipeline, and the brains behind the art, the people that write the code, and then the technical folk. You know Pixar creates its own software, so it’s all in-house, but by the time they get on to it the story’s kind of already moving, so when we start and I come onto the film, it’s just the director and like a handful of storyboard artists and the writer, so technical is not even involved yet. And then they come in and they do have a say on if this is feasible’ like can we actually do this. It’s not like a budgetary thing, but they can open up some avenues for our characters to be rigged a certain way that we didn’t think that we could do. But I think Disney and Pixar are the only two CG studios that have everything in-house. Like Dreamworks is farming their stuff out. I don’t really know their pipeline, but like everyone wants to work cheaper, but at Pixar there definitely is a path there. There are technical leads that come in and advise the director on certain decisions, but I honestly don’t know if people have made that jump going from technical and then going into story. I mean there are technical supervisors that are there that will help the director, like with the marigold bridge I showed, we didn’t know how we could even do this. We had like once-a-month meetings with the technical team that explained that we could do this and worked with us, but we were the ones in story that kind of came up with it based on our research trips. But I know no one ever goes from story to technical. [laughs from assembly of techies] It’ll never go that way. That just won’t happen.
I’m assuming you knew of some of the directors before you started working at Pixar. How is it now working with all these people you knew about before that you see in the credits of big movies?
I didn’t know any of them before I came up and I started working, and you get to know them right away. In story, you’re in those long story meetings and in those braintrusts, you get to see it’s pretty candid. The braintrust is all the directors at the studio and the creative leadership. So John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Jim Morris, they’re all in the room with us and we all kind of just poke holes at the film. And you start to see the personalities of certain directors, some people are a little more “find the heart” and some people like Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, these guys are like hardcore structural guys that really understand story, and they kind of check you right away. These guys are well-versed, well-read, very smart, but yeah, working with them creatively, personality comes out a lot. Like once you’re in the story room working, you’re in there for a long time, you kind of just joke around. I have a really good rapport with Brad Bird now. I’ve been working with him the last ten months, so that’s kind of fun to be like “I saw you in all those magazines and DVDs” and now after I pitch him a sequence he gets all excited and starts punching my arm like “this is great” and I’m like “thanks Brad” and that’s always great. So it is weird to go “oh my goodness you’re Brad Bird,” especially Brad, who went into live action and you know worked with George Clooney, worked with Tom Cruise, and it’s weird for him to be back just because he loves animation so much. And he loves this world of The Incredibles, so like just working with him with that live action experience was just amazing.
What was your favorite scene from Avatar?
Of all the scenes or the ones I did? Just in general? My favorite scene, I guess a scene that I did, I did a lot of action stuff, so I would say the Azula-Katara fight. [gasps from the crowd] I boarded that. I love the scene that Bryan Konietzko boarded, the scene where Aang fights Lord Ozai at the end. But that was pretty awesome because, like I said, that was where I learned how to storyboard and I got thrown into the fire because they knew that I could handle complex scenes, and it was always action scenes, and it was always really fun to do, and that last one was pretty fun to do because the scale of the effects were great. It’s kind of cool because Brad Bird’s kids loved the show, so he said that, and I’m like “oh that’s good, I love your work too Brad!” I know that sounds like me giving myself a big pat on my own back but I would say those big moments that I don’t think you see in western television. Like I showed my kids. You know there’s great stuff on TV but that show and how it connected with the audience, yeah it was pretty powerful.
Was there a reason why you decided to have Miguel’s family be shoemakers in Coco?
We wanted something that just seemed so boring for a kid to do. Like families that actually had a family business that we thought that someone could keep going from generation. We went down and we met this shoemaker down there. We went to his shop and there was this one kid that was just painting things of leather and it kind of smelled and he had headphones on. Like “is it okay if we take pictures?” He was like “yeah sure.” But he just looked like he was just doing it for the work, and we’re like “imagine if Miguel was doing that instead of playing music.” But that would be the one thing that his family loves making. You’ll see in the film just the way we made the shoe shop within the house, within the compound, they all kind of have their own station and they all kind of work together like a family unit. Miguel’s kind of out of place, and I think that was why we landed on that. It seems kind of random. I’m so used to it now, but like yeah, shoes? Weird. When you look at the opening clip and Miguel’s like “shoes? why shoes?” That’s a good question, you know. I don’t know.
As a musician, I just love the music, which is huge in this. Do you guys collaborate with musicians when putting together the story?
Yeah, we usually work with Michael Giacchino. He’s the composer. But then with this, this is the first time that we actually had never worked with Giacchino and we wanted to, but Giacchino wanted to make sure that they referred down to Mexico with all Mexican musicians using traditional Mexican instruments. So that was a big part we had cultural representatives and consultants that we brought in from outside that lived in Mexico just in general for the film. And then Mexican-Americans that lived in LA were brought up. And we had a lot of those folks from over Latin music, too, so we would screen them a lot of the stuff that we were doing, even just kind of road-testing stuff to see like “are we doing this right? is this authentic? is this respectful? are we doing what we should be doing?” We actually had the family members talk to one another and we were able to bake that into the script more. But for music, it was such a big part, what mariachi music is and then what traditional kind of indigenous parts of Mexico where music comes from, so it was finding that blend. At first it was starting to go kind of Frozen-y, and we didn’t want that. And the consultants were like “don’t go there” and we were pushing back in story. I think that’s the comfortability of working in these movies for a long time. You pull from the same banks sometimes, and it’s just convenient. It kind of saves time because you’re familiar with it, but with this we wanted to make sure that we did it right and brought in the right people to shape us and keep us on the right track like tour guides.
Mexican culture is pretty understanding towards death; there’s a very clear relationship, or at least better than we have here. I think that comes across in the preview we saw where someone just died and it got played off as kind of funny. So how do you handle themes of death and still make it marketable to all audiences?
We always wanted to make sure that we were sensitive to it. The way I always looked at it was that this is a movie about Miguel learning about death, so he already knew obviously what death was, we all know that’s what’s going to happen to all of us and we understand. The bigger thing was more that Miguel didn’t understand how he related to his family, like “how can I relate to the people I’m related to?” that was what we were going back to. So the Land of the Dead just allowed us to have fun with the history of and the verticality of the world and layer it with the rich Mexican traditions but not really lean too hard on the death thing. It’s still there and it’s still a part of life, and we wanted it to be a part of this film. When we went down and we were in the cemeteries, we would see, at night, everything’s lit by candle and you would hear everybody playing music like guitars and trumpets. It’s all kind of a celebratory feel, and there’s food trucks, and kids are running around with sparklers, and it feels kind of fun. They’re celebrating the people and their lives, but then there’s people down there that have rosary beads and it’s really reverent and it’s powerful. And you see how people respond when they go and pay respects in the cemetery kind of like we do here in the States. But we try not to go too far in with that. It was more “keep it light-hearted” and “make sure the designs of the skeletons aren’t Tim Burton-y.” That was some of the stuff that was coming back from the Twittersphere that Lee [Unkrich, director of Coco] would kind of bring up in story-telling like “oh, a land of dead skeletons? it’s going to look like Tim Burton?” No… Knowing that we navigated those themes, it was more about Miguel understanding what his family tree was, and we always loved the idea of this holiday about families coming together. It would be great if you could meet your great-great-grandfather. What would you say? Is there something you’d want to ask him? So those are the things we tried to focus more on and not the sadness and permanence of death. It was more Miguel just understanding who he is and how he fits in the family.
Across the board for these types of movies, where do the ideas start?
The director will usually get like three ideas and work closely with an artist or a production designer to come up with a couple of paintings or just exploratory stuff and pitch that to John Lasseter, Jim Morris, and Ed Catmull. Then there’s three ideas, and they see a variety, it’s not everything on one, and then we obviously want to tell stories that we haven’t told before or give cultures or people that we’ve never dealt with a voice. We have a few films in development right now that have different ethnicities and genders that are kind of having different voices that I think Pixar hasn’t had in a while. Like it’s always easy to deal with cars or toys because there’s no ethnicity—it’s a thing. But I feel like with this it all comes from the director. It’s a director-driven studio, and we want to make sure that three years in, if we’re poking holes on this one, we can always point back to “this is why I believe in this” and not “wouldn’t it be fun if it was like in outer space?” Like you really want to come from something different like Pete Docter with Inside Out. It was about his daughter and his connection growing apart from her as she got older and that was the core of the film. I don’t know what she’s thinking about, what’s going on in her head and that’s kind of where it came from. That would be like the pitch, and then they’d say “okay now make the film.”