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The SDSU Alumni Behind “Coco”

SDSU alumni Lalo Alcaraz (’87) and Darla K. Anderson (‘82) played major roles in the production of "Coco."
By Cory Marshall, Video by Scott Hargrove

“We’re just so happy and grateful that it’s reached so many people and that this extremely specific love letter to Mexico had universal appeal.”

Updated 3/5/2018

Disney/Pixar’s “Coco” won Best Animated Feature Film at the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, 2018.

It’s a relatively quiet morning at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California. Still, there’s a gathering of mickey-ear-modeling onlookers nearby—gazing toward a makeshift interview set.

With a camera set up in the back of Disneyland Resort’s World of Disney store, a light stand illuminates a merchandise display made up primarily of plush alebrijes a la Disney/Pixar’s, “Coco.” San Diego State University alumnus Lalo Alcaraz (’87) takes a seat.

“It’s surreal to be in the belly of the beast—Downtown Disney,” he said, joking, as he eased into a chair.

Alcaraz is one of two Aztecs behind the blockbuster film “Coco,” along with Pixar producer prodigious Darla K. Anderson ('82). Billed as one of three cultural consultants for “Coco,” Alcaraz is also the creator of the popular La Cucaracha comic strip.

“Coco” opened to rave reviews in November 2017 and snatched an Academy Award nomination for Animated Feature. The film unfolds during the sacred Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, following 12-year-old Miguel as he pursues his dream of becoming a musician and comes to realize the importance of family.

The film’s creators—chief among them Anderson—have called “Coco” a love letter to Mexico.

If it is a love letter, Mexico wrote back adoringly.

To date, “Coco” is the top-grossing movie of all-time in Mexico. Critics say its success is due, in part, to  Disney/Pixar’s dedication to “get it right” when it came to the dozens of cultural details celebrated in the movie.

Cue Alcaraz

It was in their initial meeting that Alcaraz and Anderson realized the Aztec connection. What’s more, the two quickly learned they followed nearly the same academic path.

Though they missed each other by a few months (Anderson graduated the same year Alcaraz enrolled at the university), both majored in environmental design in the School of Art and Design and studied under professor emeritus Eugene Ray, whose non-linear, forward-thinking approach to teaching inspired their respective career paths.

“I think the thread between us three—Darla, Gene and myself—is allowing yourself to be a free thinker occasionally. Gene taught us to do your thing, break the rules and make your own thing,” said Alcaraz.

Anderson concurred. “I was working at a Mexican restaurant and they asked me to paint a mural on the wall. So, I came to Gene and [asked] if I documented and wrote about my experience and did research, could I get any college credit for it. He said sure.”

After graduation, Anderson created commercials before landing at Pixar, while Alcaraz studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to art.

The Making of Coco

Anderson, who minored in Spanish at SDSU, frequently went camping in Guadalajara, Mexico, and volunteered at orphanages in Baja California, recalled the moment “Coco” director Lee Unkrich first approached her about the concept of the film. She jumped at the chance to be involved.

“I loved being in Mexico, traveling to Mexico and felt very connected to it,” Anderson said in a phone interview from Pixar’s Bay Area studios. “When Lee brought up this idea set in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos, I felt excited to get to do something that was an extension of who I already was. It definitely helped my relationship with [Lalo] that I spent so much time in Mexico and SDSU—all of that. I could speak to all of my experiences.”

Four years into the six-year production of “Coco,” Alcaraz was brought on as a cultural consultant. He recounts traveling to Pixar Studios and watching animatic versions of the movie—a series of storyboards and audio. He would routinely give feedback on characters, dialogue, pronunciations—everything down to the story itself.

“It’s funny when you hear the director talk about our involvement in [“Coco”] because you hear him say, ‘Well, they weren’t afraid to give big notes.’ You don’t really give a big note to a director. He knows what he’s doing. But they didn’t bring us there just to rubber-stamp stuff,” said Alcaraz.

Later, Disney hired Alcaraz as a consultant for movie merchandise. He concentrated on the toys—those plush alebrijes that line the shelves at Disney Downtown.

Art can change the world

Similar academic backgrounds aside, Alcaraz and Anderson also share a similar belief. Simply put, they believe art can change the world.

“I believe that we reflect society in our films, and if we can shift perception, create empathy and tell stories that have emotional connectivity, we can change the world. That’s my mission and my task,” said Anderson.

She refers back to 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.,” which she also produced. It was the first major film to come out after 9/11. Pixar had begun production years prior and now it was ready for release, a movie about monsters with the message that laughter is more important than fear.

The timing of “Coco” also seems providential.

“With ‘Coco,’ having it so embraced by the Hispanic and Latino communities and beyond is overwhelming,” Anderson said. “We’re just so happy and grateful that it’s reached so many people and that this extremely specific love letter to Mexico had universal appeal.”

Alcaraz said that same sentiment is what brought him back to art after studying architecture in graduate school.

“The main reason for me to work on this project was to have something that my kids would be proud to watch. I know their kids are going to watch this thing,” said Alcaraz. “These big mainstream Hollywood movies are like public works. They’re going to be used for years and years.”