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'Coco' writer and story supervisor aims to tell a story of Mexican culture the right way

"Coco" story supervisor Jason Katz gives a presentation to students about the film in SOC on Monday, Nov. 13.

Back in 2011, after the “Toy Story 3” craze had finally started to settle, Pixar Story Supervisor Jason Katz teamed up with Director Lee Unkrich to brainstorm story ideas for a new world audiences everywhere could enjoy.

Both men found themselves fascinated by Mexican culture. Katz in particular had an affinity for Mexican folk art, collecting alebrijes and books on the subject.

At last the two came up with the story of a young boy who travels to the “Land of the Dead,” where he learns about himself and where he came from by meeting his ancestors along the way. After many changes over the last six years, “Coco” was born.

When creating an animated film heavily based on a deeply-rooted Mexican tradition, one of the biggest challenges was learning how to tell the story the right way. To Katz, it was about being more than a tourist; it was about creating a story that was as authentic as possible.

“We were committed to acknowledging that we were making a film about a culture that wasn’t one that we grew up in, and we had a responsibility to do it right,” Katz said during an interview with The Eagle. “That commitment was present from the beginning and was one we worked really hard to try to achieve.”

Filmmakers enlisted consultants and experts and studied Mexican art, film and music. They also experienced traditions firsthand by travelling to Mexico and meeting with people living there to discuss how celebrations are alike and different across families.

“We opened up the film to consultants in a way that we’ve never done before,” Katz said. “We showed the movie early and often, gave people a voice into our storyroom to really help craft it. The people we worked with were awesome . . . we wouldn’t be able to make the movie without them.”

“Coco” takes place in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia and is centered around the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

“We learned that if we were going to tell a story that used Día de los Muertos as its centerpiece, the thematics of the celebration needed to be the thematics of the movie,” Katz said. “It couldn’t be a story that had the holiday off in the corner.”

Such decisions allowed them to structure the film in a way that the events could not have taken place on any other day of the year, or in any other place in the world, Katz said.

The film teaches audiences about the holiday without explaining everything directly.

“It’s about remembrance and it’s about the responsibility of the living to actively pay tribute and acknowledge those that came before them,” Katz said. “That’s what “Coco’s” about.”

Katz is no stranger to the Pixar world. He began his career at the animation studio back in 1994 and has worked as a storyboard artist on numerous Pixar films, including the first two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Monster’s Inc.” Since then, he’s served as co-story supervisor for “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille,” as well as head story supervisor for “Toy Story 3.”

Not only is Katz story supervisor for “Coco,” but he takes on the title of “Original Story Creator” as well.

“Coco is a film that I just deeply connected to and always will,” Katz said. “It’s a film that I was there from the beginning and really had an opportunity to help shape and give it a voice.”

Although the movie differs from many other Pixar films by exploring a culture that already exists, it is similar in the sense that it remains timeless and impactful.

“We try to make films that feel like they’re relatable moments that will be relatable forever,” Katz said. “They’re not just like junk food you’re going to eat and forget about in five minutes. Hopefully there’s something that’s going to stick with you, because there’s an honesty to them.”

cjames@theeagleonline.com


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