How 'Coco's' Imaginary "Land of the Dead" Was Influenced by Mexican History

In the Pixar film, the otherworld isn't just a candy-colored fantasyland — it's actually a scrupulously researched tour through the country's layered architecture.
Courtesy of Disney Pixar
Harley Jessup says the Land of the Dead builds on  earlier eras as more people die and enter that world.

In Coco, Disney's Nov. 22 release set on Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, young Miguel (played by Anthony Gonzalez) is inadvertently transported to the "Land of the Dead." The vividly colored buildings he finds there are more than just Pixar eye candy. According to production designer Harley Jessup, the huge vertical towers actually reflect a carefully researched and  "layered history of Mexico."

"At the bottom of each tower," explains Jessup, "are the Aztec and Mayan pyramids; above that, Spanish colonial period buildings; above that are Mexican Revolution era and Victorian era buildings; and then into the 20th century and modern day. That created a logic to the Land of the Dead — they are always building on the earlier era as more people die and enter that world." Director Lee Unkrich wanted the towers to "feel infinite," says Jessup, so they are full of detail, and are all connected by interlinking trolley cars.

To get all the design elements right, Jessup, who won a 1988 Oscar for Innerspace's visual effects, made multiple trips to Mexico. "We brought back thousands of photos, ranging from the cobblestones on the streets to the city skylines and including the amazing crafts, the embroidery, the ceramics, sculpture. We absorbed it like a sponge."

A particular inspiration struck during a visit to Guanajuato, a city in central Mexico. "It's a city of terraced architecture that is going up steep hillsides — very brightly colored and layered," notes Jessup. "There's a network of tunnels at the base, and then layers of architecture that go up the hillside."

Another big influence came from the early-1900s engravings of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, including his famous La Catrina, which features a female skeleton with a big hat. Says Jessup, "That really inspired us to embrace Victorian-era architecture in the Land of the Dead. That allowed for some spectacular scenes — for instance, we have a huge cast-iron grand central station that includes the 'department of family reunions,' which is also Victorian in period."

This story appears in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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