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Pinay Gini Santos puts viewers under the spell of Mexico by diving into the uncharted territory of skeletons in the Día de los Muertos-inspired film ‘Coco’

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Over the years, Pixar has brought to life the worlds of ocean creatures, toys, animals, and even monsters. But for the animation studio’s latest opus, “Coco,” its animators encountered a new challenge: Bringing people alive to land of the dead.

“Coco” is about Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming an accomplished musician, but hindered by an old family curse. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel and his dog Dante find themselves crossing over to the Land of The Dead, where he encounters skeletons of all sorts as he unlocks the real story of his ancestors and their history.

At the helm of the film’s animation team is Gini Santos, a Filipino. In a recent interview with her, she said one of the biggest challenges to animating a bunch of character without flesh is how they’d show emotion and persona.

GINI SANTOS

GINI SANTOS

She was also careful that kids don’t get intimidated by the characters.

“Kids might be afraid to see them (skeletons) at first but we’re hoping that they would relate to see Miguel, being another kid, interacting with skeletons and hopefully be like ‘Hey it’s okay with Miguel, it should be okay (for us),’” she said.

Gini believes “Coco” is totally different from other Disney-Pixar movies they’ve done before.

“Every story we tell takes you somewhere different so it was nice to have a story that was set in Mexico. But I think our biggest challenge was the scope of the film, the skeletons and all the music performance were authentic,” she shared. “That’s what took a lot of time as any scenes that have guitar or trumpets playing – they were all authentic (as in) we didn’t just animate them.”

There may be no Filipino touches like the “bahay kubo” inside Nemo’s aquarium, but still the animator said “Coco” reminded her a bit of Filipino culture.

The story takes place during the Mexican Holiday called “Día de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead” – a counterpart of Undas in the Philippines.

“We did a lot of research before the film started to get inspired. Anything you see in the film is inspired by our trips down there,” said Gini. “I was able to relate because I felt that the dynamic of the family was the same that we have here. And you know, the example of like in the States or in the Western world, your personal space is really big. Whereas here in the Philippines, your personal spaces are really tiny. Like, people stand really close to each other on the streets. And even for family members, that’s also the case.”

In creating the Land of the Dead, Gini said, “The beauty of things that no one has ever seen is that you can kind of make it up but you need to be responsible for things about it so that it becomes believable.”

“Coco” hits cinemas on Nov. 22 with characters voiced by Alanna Ubach, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel. The film is directed by Lee Unkrich.

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Being with Pixar for nearly 20 years, Gini is one of the few people who know the studio very well.
Gini counts Disney’s “Brave” and Dory in “Finding Nemo” as among her notable works. She also worked on animation for “Toy Story 2,” “The Incredibles” and “Up.”

A SCENE from 'Coco'

A SCENE from ‘Coco’

Born in the Philippines, Virginia or Gini and her family moved to Guam when she was just three years old. She came back to the country and finished her studies at the University of Santo Tomas with a Fine Arts degree and a major in Advertising. Gini also earned a Master of Fine Arts in computer arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

She joined Pixar in 1996 and looking back, Gini related her parents weren’t happy with her career choice. The artist even admitted relating to Miguel, who was once banned from pursuing his passion.

“My dad was against (my ambition) when I wanted to be an artist. When I first declared my college choice, they were like ‘Oh no, how are you going to feed yourself?’ To come to this point where all of a sudden I’m at Pixar, doing well and following that dream, so yeah, I definitely relate to Miguel.”

Here’s the thing: Gini is the first-ever woman in Pixar history to hold the position of supervising animator.

Gini is grateful, hoping her position will encourage other women to step up too. Thankfully, she didn’t make too much adjustments being a female leader in a male-dominated industry. Her colleagues, she said, are not biased against it at all.

As supervising animator, the 31-year-old Filipina said she is collaborative. She guides her team to do their work while recognizing they have their own great ideas to bring to the floor.

“So, we’re just there to kind of shepherd them and making sure they get what they need and they’re able to share that information with the director and the director is able to talk to them,” she explained. “There are a lot of artistic personalities we have to deal with but to just make sure they’re able to do their work and to animate the best that they can.”

Gini further elaborated: “Under the supervising animators, there are directing animators who lead more and help the team. As supervising animators, we do help out with our team by setting up our team overall but we also kind of act as bridges to other department so we can work together. At Pixar, we really practice the spirit of collaboration so as sups, we don’t tell what the animators should do.”

After “Coco,” Gini shared she will take a break.

“I had been on it for three years so I need to take a break. I’m sure there are new projects I’m gonna get on but as of now, I don’t know yet, they want me to rest,” she said.

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Gini sees herself becoming a director, just like some of her colleagues at Pixar who started as animators.

“I actually get that question a lot. There are so many animators out there who have a sense of timing and ability to tell stories in their animations,” she explained. “But some of us strive to be directors and some of us don’t.”

GINI RECEIVES a plaque of appreciation from the city of Pasay ‘for being an exemplary citizen’ (Photo by Manny Llanes/Manila Bulletin)

GINI RECEIVES a plaque of appreciation from the city of Pasay ‘for being an exemplary citizen’ (Photo by Manny Llanes/Manila Bulletin)

The Pinay continued: “I don’t know if it’s something I’ve ever thought I wanted to do – I could do a short, possibly – but I just love animating. Sadly, as a sup, I don’t get to animate anymore but I’ve always loved animating and figuring out the character especially if it’s a story I’m really interested in. We’ll see if I think of an idea and I want to do a short, I guess that’s kind of the path.”

What’s the best way to get noticed by international companies or animation studios, we asked.

For Gini, the animation doesn’t have to be polished as long as the audience could see the timing and the acting and the beats are clear.

“Just make sure that the quality of the animation is there and before animation made its leap onto the computer, there’s the old school 2D animation. There are 12 principles of animation and a real animation student would know that. So I get asked by students a lot on what they should put on their reel and I always tell them that it comes down with what we see in the animation,” she said. “So, really, it just goes back to whatever your principles of animation are, making sure you know that and applying it to whatever the animation is and we’ll see that even beyond anything else you put there.”

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