Recently we told you about how I couldn’t help but fall in love with the skeletons in the Land of Dead in the upcoming Disney Pixar COCO. Their characters, their personalities, how the animators worked to bring them to life was all so captivating. (Read about the COCO skeletons here.) But there’s another COCO character that we got just a glimpse of during our 30-minute preview of COCO during the #PixarCocoEvent press junket. She came onto the screen fierce and colorful. It was clear that she would play a big role in COCO, but then the screen went dark, our preview was over and I was left hanging. My fellow bloggers and I wanted to see more and learn more about what we saw. What was that animal?
I learned the following morning that this character that took my breath away was an alebrije, named Pepita. As press, I sat in on a session with Alonso Martinez (Character/Rigging Artist), Nick Rosario (Directing Animator), and Christian Hoffman (Characters Supervisor) to learn about alebrijes, how they inspired the character, Pepita, and how that character was brought to life in Disney Pixar COCO.
The Origin of Alebrijes
What is are Alebrijes?
Alonso Martinez, who has an extensive collection of alebrijes, shared with us the history behind alebrijes. Albrijes is a type of Mexican folk art. It originated with Pedro Linares in the 1930’s. Linares and his family had a history as crafters making pinatas and judas. When battling a terrible illness, Linares had these strange mystical dreams. The dreams took place in a forest with unusual, colorful animals, unlike anything he had seen in the real world. The imagined animals all seemed to be calling out “Alebrije”. When Linares started to get better those images stayed with him. Using his artistic papier-mâché skills he created sculptures of his imagined animals, that he named alebrijes.
Is an alebrijes a spirit animal?
Nagual is the belief that each one of us has an animal representation of ourselves. The popularity of Nagual spirit animals has created a rise in more Mexican folk art to honor that.
Alebrijes are not considered spirit animals. Because alebrijes do not come from a religious or mystical background, there are no stories attached to them. Instead, the creator of an alebrijes creates the symbology he/she wants to with his/her creation. While spirit animals are based on real animals, alebrijes are a mixture of multiple animals.
How are Alebrijes made?
Today, alebrijes are one of Mexico’s most recognized art forms. Once made from papier-mâché, they are now made from a special wood called copal. This type of wood is said to be magical, made from unitado magic. There are parades and festivals throughout Mexico where alebrijes are created larger than life and put on display. Take a look at one alebrije parade we were able to find on YouTube.
The Role of Pepita, an Alebrije in Disney Pixar COCO
Why are there alebrijes in COCO?
We’ve talked in earlier #PixarCocoEvent articles about how much time the Disney Pixar COCO team spent in Mexico researching the area and its cultures. During those trips, it became abundantly clear how much the Mexican folk art of alebrijes plays in the culture of Mexico. Even though alebrijes are not associated with Dia de Los Muertos the team wanted a way to pay homage to them while also introducing the rest of the world to this unique and beautiful art form. Alebrijes are not meant to be a spirit animal or spirit guide. But, in COCO the team did take some creative license with that to be able to connect the alebrijes to Miguel’s story.
What exactly is Pepita?
Pepita’s inspiration came from studying several different animals. In COCO, Pepita is an alebrije who is a mix between many animals. She has teal ram horns and a striped lizard-like tail. Her red wings and aqua-colored talons are similar to that of an eagle’s. She has tiger arms and a tiger-inspired face. Her back is a deep blue that blends to become emerald green across her body while her underbelly is orange. There are yellow tick marks spotted across her body.
How did Disney Pixar COCO animators bring Pepita, alebrijes to life?
Alonso Martinez described being able to create Pepita as the “type of character you are waiting for”. “Pepita is this ‘meaty’ character with lots of complicated parts to figure out.” How do you get her various animal parts to move together flawlessly? How do you pay homage to graphic wood carvings while also making them feel organic and realistic? These were some of Alonso’s challenges during the 2 ½ years it took to create Pepita. The artistic and animation team also really had to delve into how they could give Pepita personality that would enrich her character as well as COCO.
- While not always scary, Pepita needed to be able to scare the COCO characters. She needed to have that fierce look I referenced earlier. To that end, Alonso studied many many pictures of angry tigers. He joked that he had studied so many tiger faces he could see them with his eyes closed.
- Watch what happens when Pepita enters a scene. She has a fluorescent glow to her eyes, tick marks, tail that illuminates her environment and the characters around her.
- Look for the animation to carry all the way to Pepita’s claws which do retract.
- Animating a character is a long process. Just Pepita’s teeth took a day to animate.
- Shading proved to be one of the more challenging tasks. Because each part of Pepita’s body is shaded a different color and has either fur or feathers. There was a lot of adjustments that needed to be made to get the pattern of her fur correct. For example, the colorful tick marks on her body had to have fur that flowed in the same direction as other fur. The solid, non-patterned color, belly and inside arms took longer to develop than the full body.
- To get ideas on how to animate Pepita’s feathers, Alonso studied the manes of horse’s and how the hair grows out over time. They tested the main with different colors and shading to see how the color patterns would move with Pepita.
- Pixar animator, Casey, was tasked with showing the magnitude of Pepita while also keeping her able to move as an animal would.
- Animators go through several rounds of drawings with and without their other characters in them to make sure all the characters are in proportion to each other.
- Pepita’s wings also had to be designed with care. They needed to be believable but also large enough to be able to help her fly.
- When Pixar artists, like Alonso, are happy with their images, the next step is creating sculptures such as what you see below.
What role does Pepita play in COCO?
Pepita is Mama Imelda’s spirit guide that helps her journey from the Land of the Dead to the Land of the Living. The rest we don’t know, but I’ll be sure to share after I see COCO this November.
Making our own alebrijes in a crafting session with Disney Pixar COCO character artist, Alonso Martinez
One of the most memorable moments during the #PixarCocoEvent press junket was getting to participate in our own make and craft session with Alonso. Alonso used a 3D printer to create a one-0f-a-kind alebrije for each of us. We were given 30 minutes to paint it however we wanted. As we painted we talked with Alonso about art, COCO, and his inspirations.
I sat with my friend, Victoria from Simply Today Life. (You can read her post about the alebrijes here.) Her alebrije design was colorful and multi-patterned. While mine was part trying to get the look of Pepita and part free form. Those 30 minutes went by far too fast. Before we knew it we had to wrap up our projects (in more ways that one.) These projects were top secret until today when each of us gets to reveal our alebrijes to you in our Pixar COCO stories about alebrijes.
As I stated above when I first saw the alebrije, Pepita she was bold and fierce. I was concerned that maybe she would be a frightful creature that would bring harm to Miguel. But as you can tell from the concept art and her purpose to be a spirit guide she is meant for great things and will develop a strong relationship with Miguel. I can’t wait to see how her story plays out in COCO this November. And while I initially thought I would have to wait until November 22 to see this movie, I am thrilled to have been invited by Disney to the followup #PixarCocoEvent this early November where I will be on the red carpet for the premiere of Disney Pixar COCO. More details coming soon.
Take a look at this new Disney Pixar COCO trailer.
If learning about alebrijes has you wanting more take a look at these products with Amazon that will help you grow in your appreciation of alebrijes.
- Click over to see Amazon’s collection of 5 different styles of Alebrijes Coloring Books
- There’s an extensive collection of alebrijes sculptures to admire at Amazon. Use this link.
- You can also find children’s books about alebrijes with this Amazon link.
Disney Pixar COCO opens in theaters on November 22, 2017.
Click over to read more from our #PixarCocoEvent series
For more information about COCO visit the COCO Official Channels
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