Oscars: 'Coco,' 'Ferdinand' Animators Reveal How to Create a Memorable Character From the Blank Page

12:05 PM 2/7/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Creators behind figures from 'The Boss Baby,' 'The Breadwinner' and 'Loving Vincent' also weigh in on what it takes to make a bossy, suit-wearing infant and more.

Courtesy of Blue Sky Studios (Ferdinand) and Disney/Pixar (Coco)

The five nominees for animated feature have a slew of memorable characters, and, it turns out, many are female. They range from a brave 11-year-old girl living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan to an intimidating Mexican great-great-grandmother and a bossy therapy goat. When it came to creating this band of colorful characters, the filmmakers had to decide how they would look (including expressive eyes and lovable underbites), dress (such as a buttoned-up mom and a matriarch with an affinity for Victorian-era clothing) and sound (thanks to voice cameos by an Oscar-nominated actress and a Saturday Night Live comedy queen). Creators reveal how they built these characters from the blank page up.

  • Ferdinand

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    "I'm here to calm you now so you can maim and gore things later," Lupe the Calming Goat tells the bull Ferdinand when they meet in Fox/Blue Sky's Ferdinand, an animated tale about a pacifist bull who'd rather smell the flowers than fight in the ring

    Director Carlos Saldanha says the quirky goat started out as a male character, but the filmmakers changed direction to create a strong female character who could stand up to the bulls. (They kept the big eyes, underbite and exposed teeth.) "We didn't want a 'princess' goat," he says. "We wanted her to be sharp, edgy and confident. We gave her an in-your-face, explosive personality."

    Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon was cast to voice the character because she "could be strong, funny and warm at the same time. I met with her, and I felt she was a perfect match."

    In the film, Ferdinand is sweet and earnest, but based on his size, he's considered a fighter. Ferdinand's and Lupe's storylines tie into the film's "don't judge a book by its cover" theme. Says Saldanha: "Lupe's a goat that people don't care about; she's a companion to a bull, but she wanted more. She needed to be the opposite of a calming goat."

  • The Boss Baby

    Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

    As in many real-life households, the mother of Boss Baby (the suit-wearing infant voiced by Alec Baldwin) is the foundation of her family and as such "has her head on straight. She's soft and sweet but also firm and authoritative," says director Tom McGrath, who adds that for this character, he "wanted to do something very stylized and be more cartoony" to fit the film's style yet give her enough range so that the animators could create an emotive performance. "Simplistic but complicated," he says.

    Universal/DreamWorks Animation's The Boss Baby is a period film that merges aspects of the '60s, '70s and '80s, but McGrath didn't want to overdo trendy clothing. "We kept her in pants and with her hair up because she's a working parent," he notes. "When we were designing the family, we also created a sort of 'Sears portrait' to see how the [characters] play off of each other."

    Lisa Kudrow completed the picture by voicing the character. "The goal was to be charming, not ruthless. We wanted her voice to feel real," McGrath says, adding that sometimes the actress would improv the lines: "She has great comedic timing and can play the serious bits just as well."

  • Loving Vincent

    Courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment

    To examine the life of Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela developed a story that follows fictional character Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) on a journey to Van Gogh's final destination, the quiet village of Auvers-sur-Oise just outside Paris, where Roulin hears conflicting stories about the artist's life.

    Saoirse Ronan (nominated for a best actress Oscar for Lady Bird) plays Marguerite Gachet, the daughter of Van Gogh's physician and the subject of his works Marguerite Gachet at the Piano and Marguerite Gachet in the Garden. "We wanted her to look like the paintings," says Welchman, though they gave Marguerite the face of Ronan, who is about the same age (23) as Gachet was.

    The drama, produced by Poland's BreakThru Films and the U.K.'s Trademark Films, was made using a frame-by-frame animation technique (like stop-motion) with roughly 65,000 oil paintings on canvas. The filmmakers started by shooting the performances of the actors, including Ronan, on a greenscreen at 12 fps, edited as if it were a live-action film and then broke it up into images that were painted in Van Gogh's style.

    As to Marguerite's role in the story, Welchman says: "There was speculation that something was going on between [her and Van Gogh]. We used that speculation as part of the dramatic development of the story. She's an enigma to us."

  • The Breadwinner

    Courtesy of GKIDS

    In creating Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy so she can work to support her family, Ireland's Cartoon Saloon and director Nora Twomey wanted to work "from the eyes out, with very few lines," says Twomey. "The fewer lines with a hand-drawn character, the more you can identify with the character because she's less specific and more universal."

    Indeed, in the GKIDS feature The Breadwinner, Parvana's eyes reveal much of her emotion. For instance, when Parvana goes to the market with her father, it can be a frightening experience for a girl. She stands out with her long hair and bright scarf, but her body language shows that she doesn't want to be seen — her shoulders are drawn in to take up a small space, and she keeps her eyes down. When she returns, dressed as a boy, she blends in, and with her body language she takes up more space.

    "There's a warmth and earthiness to her personality," says Twomey of Parvana, who is voiced by Saara Chaudry. "She has flaws, she has humor­ — she's fully rounded. We wanted a character that was relatable, even when she does something incredibly brave."

  • Coco

    Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

    In Pixar's Coco, Mama Imelda is the matriarch of young Miguel's family in Mexico. As such, "she had to be a character that you could believably see the rest of the family cowering at her feet," says director Lee Unkrich. "We needed somebody with a real sense of gravitas so you would buy that she has such sway over the family."

    She was designed to look similar to Maria Felix and other formidable Mexican actresses from the '30s and '40s. "We have the white shock in her hair. We wanted her dress to be corseted so that she feels tightly wound," Unkrich says. "We gave her big shoulder pads so that she would be physically formidable and also have a sense of history."

    The team behind the film, which is based on the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition, also centered Mama's look on a Victorian aesthetic, using the works of Mexican engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada, including his famous La Catrina, which featured a skeleton woman in period garb.

    Alanna Ubach (Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce) was cast to voice Mama. "There's such a richness to the sound of Alanna's voice," adds Unkrich. When she was cast, the director didn't know the part would require singing, but, luckily, "it turns out she's a great singer."

    This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.