Rooted in the heart of the Mexican culture is the annual celebration that is known as Dia de los Muertos, or Dia de Muertos. While Dia de Muertos is an indigenous and pre-colonial heritage celebrated primarily in Mexico, the tradition has branched out into other locations as Mexican families have moved throughout the world and shared their heritage and culture with other communities. The celebration itself is revered as a grand family reunion, where the souls of the dead are invited back to the land of the living to reunite with their loved ones but don't think this celebration is a somber occasion. Instead, Dia de los Muertos is joyful celebration rich in tradition, family remembrances, and full of beautiful colors.
See also: Coco: A Love Letter to Mexico, Dia de los Muertos at Disney California Adventure Park, Dia de los Muertos Sugar Skull Craft
During a recent press trip to Pixar Animation Studios for the film Coco, we had the opportunity to learn more about the history of Dia de los Muertos from the animation team who traveled to Mexico to learn as much as they could about this celebration to keep Miguel's story authentic and grounded in the real world. Here's what we learned about the history of Dia de los Muertos from Disney•Pixar animators, and 7 fun facts about the Disney•Pixar’s COCO.
Disney•Pixar’s COCO opens in theaters November, 22nd.
History of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico
As many of you know, every Disney•Pixar film begins with research, and the film Coco was no exception as animators felt an enormous responsibility to keep the story as authentic to the history of Dia de los Muertos as possible, especially when it came to the customs associated with Dia de Muertos, and the unique purposes and meanings behind each custom.
Once in Mexico, the research team realized how much Mexico is a designers dream, with the rich colors and textures throughout the country. The early 20th-century engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada are central to the imagery of Dia de Muertos and helped animators plan the generations that are shown in the land of the dead.
The city of Guanajuato, a multi-layered, brightly colored city built vertically on steep hillsides with narrow stairways and bridges with a network of tunnels underneath has always been a huge inspiration for the land of the dead. While the traditional, rural Mexican town, Santa Fe de la Laguna was used as the preliminary layout for Santa Cecelia in the film.
To illustrate the historical customs into Miguel's story, animators found they needed to set the rules of the tradition early on in the film. Here are a few ways animators infused the traditional customs in the story of the film.
The Offrenda is an altar that is set up and decorated to greet the spirits of those who are returning on Dia de Muertos. Offrenda in Spanish means offering, and as such you leave offerings of food, drinks, and other things your loved ones loved in life to help nourish them after their long journey. It's a key part of the tradition of the Day of the Dead, and it also keeps everpresent the feeling and idea that our ancestors are watching over us and they are connected to us.
One of the elements on the Offrenda are photos which are displayed to remember the faces of the loved ones and inspire family stories and memories relatives can share over the course of the holiday. Animators used this real-world detail to bolster a moment in the film to create great character conflict.
In the film, loved ones that had a photo on the Offrenda are able to visit the land of the living for Dia de Muertos, and those who don't have a photo on the display and aren't actively remembered can't visit the land of the living. This put Miguel in a bit of hot water when he meets Mama Imelda for the first time in the land of the dead after he's removed her photo off the Offrenda preventing her from passing to visit her family in the land of the living.
The Marigold Path
A path of cempasúchil petals (marigold petals) is meant to guide the spirits back to the home or the cemetery. It's believed that the color and the distinctive scent of the cempasúchil petals get the attention of the spirits. It's also a really beautiful symbol of the connection of generation the path brings together.
Animators knew they were going to use the marigold path in the film, but they wanted to be sure to keep the path a natural one since much of the film is about the character's journey. To do this, animators created a bridge made of marigolds to connect the land of the dead to the living which became the iconic, memorable image you see from the film. It was one of those magical Pixar moments that got better and better with each step forward.
As part of the holiday tradition, families will go out to the cemetery during the day and they'll sweep and wash the graves before the celebration. Then, families will decorate the graves with beautiful flower arrangements and sculptures, and they will sometimes even do full paintings out of flower petals. At night families and the entire community will come out and stand vigil all night long in the cemeteries, which are full of music and lit candles in a beautiful moment of togetherness and reunion.
The cemetery created the perfect opportunity for the animators to introduce Miguel to his family and put in motion the events that would lead him into the Day of the Dead. The cemetery was a natural fit for the family reunion because at night you feel the spirits come with you as they come to take the offerings from the Offrenda.
These are just a few of the story elements that lend to the film, as Miguel goes on the adventure of a lifetime to the land of the dead to reconnect with his ancestors and find his way back home. The story is one about the universal themes of family, legacy, and whether or not you relate to the people you are related to.
7 Fun Facts About Disney•Pixar's Coco
Of course, every Disney•Pixar is built with some fun and entertaining facts audiences love. Here are 7 fun facts we learned during our early press day.
- For the Marigold Grand Central Station, animators looked at the early 20th-century cast-iron building in Mexico and in New York. Skulls and skeleton motifs we incorporated into the architecture.
- The Department of Family reunions, where family records are kept, was designed to resemble a Victorian Department of Motor Vehicles, showing the bureaucracy has a history that lends authenticity and a believability to the world.
- To outline the differences between the land of the living and the land of the dead, daytime is mostly in the land of the living and nighttime is 100% the land of the dead
- Two-thirds of the film is set in the night which was a major consideration for animators. Reflecting warm, saturated colors are found in the land of the living, where the land of the dead features cooler colors with wet, musty streets. Both are beautiful but with a very distinct feeling.
- To contrast with the flatness of Santa Cecelia, ‘fanastical verticallity' architecture (as animators put it) is found in the day of the dead.
- There's no living vegetation beside marigold blossoms in the land of the dead.
- The marigold bridge literally connects both worlds with candles lighting the way for ancestors to return home.
About Disney•Pixar's Coco
Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel's family history.
Disney•Pixar's Coco opens November 22nd!
Portions of the material and expenses for the Disney Pixar Coco Movie Event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.