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“Coco” Wins Big at 2018 Oscars, Academy of Art University Alumni Animator Details His Experience


The stars were out and the best movies were honored with one of the most coveted of all awards in the entertainment industry, the Oscars. Featured among those who were honored this year is an Academy of Art University graduate, Daniel Arriaga, for his work on the award-winning animated film “Coco.”

The Film

“Coco” is a stunning animated story that follows a boy during a journey through the Land of the Dead. It is a take on traditional Mexican folklore, with an explicit element of the tradition of El Dia de los Muertos. This traditional Mexican holiday is celebrated around the world and the animators of the film took great care to artfully and correctly depict the iconography of the celebration from impressive altars full of offerings and even painted skulls called calaveras. The skeletons that are featured in the film closely parallel calaveras and are seen wearing traditional Mexican garb.

In “Coco”, we follow the story of young Miguel Rivera, who, in searching for the truth about a deep family secret, finds himself on a journey through the Land of the Dead. The ultimate purpose of this journey is that its successful culmination will allow young Miguel to pursue his dream of being a musician. The story is incredibly well written and maintains authenticity and cultural cohesion, while also presenting a cast of incredibly deep characters that viewers can really care about. There was a lot of attention to detail and painstaking historical research to ensure the accuracy and depth of the story being told.

Daniel Arriaga and Academy of Art University

Daniel Arriaga, an Academy of Art University alum went on to become a senior director at Pixar and this film was incredibly dear to him as it pays homage Arriaga’s own cultural heritage. He discussed the importance of maintaining cultural authenticity and the journey of bringing actual life into characters that were, well, dead.

At a recent appearance at his alma mater, Arriaga noted in regard to the skulls, “How do you make that appealing and get character out of that?” While it was, certainly, not easy, Arriaga and his team of incredibly talented artists and animators were able to do just that, creating a visually-stunning story that touched the hearts and minds of all who saw it, leading to their recent Oscar win. In addition to winning Best Animated Feature, “Coco” also won the Oscar for Best Original Song where it beat out original songs from “Marshall and Mudbound, “The Greatest Showman”, and “Call Me By Your Name.”

Creating the finished product was a complicated process that took a lot of hard work, effort, and what resulted is something that is incredibly special to those who see the film, as well as those who made the film. He is incredibly proud of what he and his team were able to accomplish with “Coco.”

Since he finished work on the film, Arriaga has spent some time at his alma mater to give back to the next generation of artists, animators, producers, directors, etc. He gave a talk about the difficult, but rewarding, process of bringing “Coco” to fruition and many of the students who attended the talk left feeling hopeful and as if anything is possible. Arriaga represents and alumni who made it, and for an animated film director, you don’t feel much more “made” than by winning an Oscar for a film you produced.

The 90th Academy Awards

The Pixar film, “Coco”, was up against a couple of smaller, more independent 2-D animated films called “Loving Vincent” and “The Breadwinner,” as well as against two highly touted and big ticket CGI films called “The Boss Baby” and “Ferdinand.” The voting was stranger this year than in years past as filmmakers not connected to the animated film industry were able to vote in this category, something that hasn’t been done previously. Obviously, Arriaga and his team made the right impact and his movies touched the voters more than the big budget films that were in contention for the coveted award.

Seeing a graduate go on to go great things and have great success is, perhaps, the greatest outcome an institution like the Academy of Art University can strive for. So to see one of its former students reach the pinnacle of success that Daniel Arriaga has achieved with his 2018 Oscar win for Best Animated Feature. The film was an endeavor close to his heart as it touched upon his cultural heritage through the journey of young Miguel through the Land of the Dead, hearkening to traditional Mexican folklore with cultural accuracy and authenticity, which characters that are rich and well rounded and a visually stunning environment that draws the viewer deeply into the storyline. It faced some stiff competition against heavy hitting big budget family films, but ultimately, the richness of the story and the attention to detail set “Coco” apart from the rest of the proverbial pack.

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