'Coco' Co-Director Recalls the Arts Camp That Helped Him Find His 'Tribe"

Courtesy of Disney•Pixar; Presley Ann/Getty Images
'Coco' (Inset: Adrian Molina)

Adrian Molina reflects on the four-week California State Summer School for the Arts, which is heading into its 32nd summer: "It was the perfect program for the perfect time in my life to convince me that art could become a pathway to a real career."

During my sophomore year in high school, I had a great art teacher, Holly Laughlin, who encouraged me to go after opportunities to learn more about animation because she knew how much I loved it. One of those opportunities was California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA).

The application process meant that I had to put together a portfolio and apply to essentially compete against other really talented high schoolers. I put my head down and tried to pull together the best portfolio I could. It worked, and I was accepted that summer in 2001.

I flew down from Sacramento and I remember getting on the shuttle from Burbank Airport and seeing all these students. We were all there because we shared an interest in art — whether it was music or writing or animation. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had met my tribe.

It’s a four-week program, and essentially, we spent every single day together. During the day, we took classes about animation techniques and watched films that are important pieces of animation history. In the evenings, we sat with friends and filled up sketch books and talked about things that animation students geek out about. We went on field trips to Burbank studios and were visited by animators from all over the industry. One of the groups that came over was from Pixar, and they told us what it was like to work with computer animation.

Bobby Podesta is someone who came to talk to us, and he animated Coco. It’s one of those things where the generosity of all the people who contribute their time and money to this next generation of kids becomes manifest. Bobby was one of those kids, and then I became one of those kids as a writer and co-director of Coco. I had the opportunity to go talk to CSSSA students, and hopefully they will be one of those kids one day who goes back to inspire a new generation.

One of the wonderful things about the program is that a large population of students come on financial aid. They really care about the students and they do whatever they can to make it possible for them to attend. I was one of those students who was able to attend thanks to the CSSSA Foundation. It’s an investment for students at that crucial point in their life when support makes all the difference, whether it be financially or educationally.

It was the moment, for me, when I realized that art could become a pathway to a real career and real success in creating something that could go out into the world. Without CSSSA, I don't know if I would've discovered how much animation meant to me and that it could be a reality for me.

When you’re young and in summer camp, the relationships you have are so accelerated because everyone knows that time is limited. After four days, you become best friends. I didn’t know at that time, however, that a lot of kids I met at CSSSA I would know for the rest of my life. I’ve worked with some of them at Pixar, and one was a best man at my wedding. 

It was the perfect program for the perfect time in my life to convince me that this was something that I could do for the rest of my life. I can only be thankful for the experience and the opportunity, so I must pay it forward.

(Applications for the program are due Feb. 28 for the four-week summer session, which begins July 7 and ends Aug. 3.)

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.