I adore dogs so naturally, I gravitated to Miguel’s faithful companion, Dante the Xolo dog when I watched trailers for Pixar’s Coco. He’s just so cute and ugly that you can’t help to love him! But, the character that I find most intriguing and mysterious is Pepita. Pepita is the spirit guide to Mama Imelda. She is one of many spirit guides that reign over the Land of the Dead in Coco.
On a recent trip to Pixar in Emeryville, CA, Coco film creators gave us an inside look at the making of Pepita. Her design is inspired by traditional Mexican folk art called Alebrijes. Alebrijes are gorgeous pieces of handmade sculptures which happen to be one of Mexico’s most appreciated and popular styles of art. They have elements of different animals and are colorfully painted.
Here are 12 things I learned about Alebrijes as well as Pepita on my visit:
1* Alebrijes were first created by Mexican artist Pedro Linares in the 1930s.
2* Pedro Linares came from a family of piñata makers. When he was younger he had a vivid fever dream brought on by illness. In his dream, he was in the forest, where he saw chimera animals. The animals were colorful, a mix of donkeys with wings or eagles with chicken feet. As any artist would, after waking he wanted to represent the essence of what he saw so he created replicas out of papier-mâché, and art form he knew best.
3* Alebrijes originally were made out of papier-mâché. Years later they were reinterpreted as wood carvings out of a special type of wood found in Oaxaca called Copal wood. The wood is very soft, carvable and allows for beautiful intricacy and detail. Each family of artists adds their own artistic interpretation and different designs to their Alebrijes.
4* Alebrijes are not tied into Dia de los Muertos, but the film’s creators wanted to pay homage to this amazing artwork. Crafting of Alebrijes are celebrated during festivals in Mexico.
5* Like all Pixar films, Coco film creators did their research. They learned that every Alebrijes is a chimaera animal. There’s another type of wooden Mexican folk art that people mistake for Alebrijes, this is actually nagual. Nagual is the belief that every person has an animal form of themselves like I might be a coyote. Those are non-chimera animals.
6* Character Modeler Alonso Martinez has a collection of his own Alebrijes which he brought to show us. His pieces of art were the initial inspiration for the Spirit Guides in Coco.
7* Pepita is massive, intimidating, and vibrant with large eagle wings and talons. She has the head and arms of a tiger and her tail is lizard-like.
8* The whimsical spirit guides in the Land of the Dead were given a fluorescent glow to their bodies. Pepita’s eyes glow as well as parts of her wings. She illuminates the environment and she’s also casting stunning lights and color onto the characters.
9* Pepita’s anatomy was challenging to create because she has two sets of arms (arms come out of arms), wings and feathers. She was very tricky to make.
10* Pepita is a combination of realistic animals and has the look of Alebrijes wood carvings. She has some flavors of the wood carvings, but also some organic, fleshiness nature to her.
11* Character creators studied patterns of tigers to create a fierce look for Pepita when she needed her to be scary. Alonso Martinez told us that they looked at a lot of angry-looking tigers. So after immersing himself into these reference images, and looking at tons of angry cats, he would close his eyes, “and all I could see was angry cats.”
12* The designers even researched different cat claws and the different shapes that they have. One way in which human anatomy is very different than cat anatomy is that their fingernails or claws are actually kind of switchblades, they’re retractable.
During my visit to Pixar, we were invited to paint a 3D Model of Pepita. Alonso Martinez gave us some tips and gave the group advice and encouragement while we painted our Alebrijes. I didn’t finish mine because of all the thin brush strokes I decided to give Pepita. She moves quickly and I wanted to create movement and motion with my brushstrokes.
See Pepita in this COCO trailer:
FUN ACTIVITY What is your spirit animal? A fun thing to do with your kids is to draw an alebrije. What would the animal capture about your personality? I drew a unicorn, owl, and sloth. Unicorns are my favorite mystical character bringing magic and love while owls bring wisdom and sloths love to sleep (one of my favorite things to do!)
COCO IS IN THEATERS NOVEMBER 22 and is Rated PG.