On Tuesday, November 14th, Jason Katz, a story supervisor for Pixar, came to my college, the University of Maryland: College Park, with an animation presentation and Q&A for the upcoming Pixar film, Coco.

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Katz started in 1994 as a storyboard artist for Toy StoryA Bug’s Life,  Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. Later, he became a co-story supervisor, working on films such as Ratatouille and Finding Nemo. Then he worked as the story supervisor on Toy Story 3.

Katz described his life in the Q&A, explaining how he came to work at Pixar and his experiences. He had originally planned to go into advertising, but after being rejected by advertising schools, he attended Cal Arts. He loved films and cartoons and emphasized the importance of mentors and idols. He always felt below his classmates in talent, which stressed him out. He explained how lucky he was, always doubting himself, but he had a teacher who was able to get him in contact with Pixar when he was at Cal Arts.  He emphasized inspirational people in his life:

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to have people in your life who inspire you.

Katz also discussed his grandmother serving as his mentor, teaching him to draw and watch movies. In the film Coco, the main character, Miguel, is fascinated by his role model, Ernesto de la Cruz. Katz said how his grandmother was his own de la Cruz. Sadly, she passed away before he went to Cal Arts, but she helped inspire the importance of relationships in his films.

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Katz also talked about the importance of hard work leading to success. He explained how some projects were long-term commitments, taking years to make: it is part of the job and it is important to patiently trust the process, letting the art find itself. Katz discussed working at Pixar more, explaining how much fun it is, with such strong passion and inspiration. He said how important it is to create a place people want to be.

Katz also discussed the upcoming film, Coco. He mentioned inspirations for Coco coming from The Wizard of Oz to look into faraway lands. To help the animators bring the skeletons to life (well, sort of–they’re skeletons), they looked at the 1929 animated Disney film The Skeleton Dance and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. The film’s themes are based on Mexican culture and the importance of family. He was “extremely daunted” starting this project, working on a culture he knew nothing about. He wanted to be authentic, getting the culture right, so they went to Mexico for research and inspiration. He had to put lots of research into this project. They also had to get creative, such as the “vertical city of the dead” in the film.

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Katz also emphasized music in the film, hinting at how the music differs between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead. They made sure the Land of the Living was authentic to Mexican culture, including music. He talked about how proud he is that the film is already released in Mexico, before other countries.

He said how this is not the first mainstream movie about el Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) as The Book of Life (2014), came out before (they were actually conceived around the same time, however). At first the creators were disappointed, realizing the films were related, but he pointed out how Hollywood has room for multiple Christmas movies and should have room for multiple Día de los Muertos movies.

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Katz said that created a film from scratch can be difficult but also easier in allowing you to “create something new.”

Katz talked about the process of creation as a creator, saying how the storyboard artists are given lots of creative freedom and how important story is to writers. He also said how they perfect the film with lots of screenings for feedback leading to “infinite reshooting” if necessary. They value input, saying that if someone has a better idea, they pitch it. Katz also emphasized the importance of the relationship between storyboard artists, writers, and the director.

Katz also explained that Disney buying Pixar changed very little. He said it was “the best thing that could happen” as Disney increased resources for the films.

Coco– Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Hector(Gael García Bernal), the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history.

Coco releases in theaters in the US on November 22nd, 2017.

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