Miguel's Music in Coco
Barbara Roberson
January 24, 2018

Miguel's Music in Coco

“As we were developing this story [for Coco], we struggled with how to have Miguel articulate how important music is to him,” says Lee Unkrich, director. “All our ideas fell flat. They were clichés. Or sappy. Or something a kid wouldn’t say.”

Adds Writer and Co-director Adrian Molina: “We knew Miguel needed to run from his family and risk his life, but in order for audiences to buy that this was worth doing, we needed to convince them that music was the air Miguel breathes. Our first idea was to have him say, ‘Music is in my bones.’ But that was intellectual.”

Test audiences said they understood that Miguel loved music, but they didn’t really feel it. So next, the team had Miguel sing about wanting to be a musician. But although that worked in the isolated sequence, it turned Miguel into a character in a musical, which didn’t fit the film. Coco is filled with music, and music drives the story, but it isn’t a classical Disney type of musical.

“So, we created a scene that gave us a new setting, a new frame of mind to work in,” Molina says. “We put him in his secret attic space where he’s free to be himself.”

In this hideout, Miguel had created a kind of ofrenda for his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. It is here, in this secret room, where the 12-year-old boy passionately sings one of de la Cruz’s songs.  

“We can see Miguel experience his love of music,” Unkrich says. “Doing this in a wordless way effectively communicated how much music meant to him.”

Play that Guitar

Communicating to the audience that the animated character Miguel was actually playing a guitar became a challenge for the animators and character technical directors. 

“We knew that having him play the guitar right, having his fingers interact with the strings, would be one of our most difficult things,” says Gini Santos, supervising animator . “But, the director wanted it to look authentic.”

Characters Supervisor Christian Hoffman asked Pixar Animation Supervisor and Short-Film Director Dave Mullins for help. 

 “I wanted to make it as easy as I could for the animators because this would be complicated,” Hoffman says. “Dave plays the guitar. He gave me a whole packet of information.”

The first step was to have a rigging lead develop an inverse kinematic system for the fingers. 

“We usually don’t set up inverse kinematics on the fingers because that gives us 10 new IK solvers, but I knew we’d need that for this,” Hoffman says. 

Next, they optimized the workflow for animation. 

“If an animator positions the hand to play a particular chord on the fret board and wants to slide the hand, the fret spaces change,” Hoffman says. “So, we automatically adjust the fingers. They get closer or farther apart.”

The riggers also had the strings vibrate appropriately when Miguel strums the guitar.

“You can get really geeky about the vibration and harmonics, and we didn’t go there,” Hoffman says. “We have first harmonics. We don’t go to second harmonics. But, in addition to strumming and string vibration, an animator could pluck a string and it would deform in a slightly linear manner. On the frets, when Miguel’s fingers press down, the area above doesn’t vibrate. 

If the string was vibrating when he presses down, when he lifts a finger, it would still vibrate. We had simple simulations the animators could fire off that would calculate the vibrations.”

The ability to convince the audience that Miguel is actually playing the guitar helped particularly during the scene in which Miguel shows his passion for music.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Wow,’ that’s a touchstone,” says Darla Anderson, producer. “I love how quiet and simple that scene is, and yet it holds such depth, complexity, and emotional centering.”