Meet the Pinay animator behind Gael Garcia Bernal-starrer Coco

by Jennifer Dugena
Nov 14, 2017
Gini Santos (left) is the first female supervising animator in Pixar's history. She led the team of animators who worked on Coco, the Pixar film featuring the voice of Gael Garcia Bernal (right).

When Filipinos watch the Disney-Pixar animated film Coco featuring the voice of Gael Garcia Bernal, they can take pride in the fact that the person who led the team of animators is a fellow Pinoy.

Gini Santos is the first female supervising animator in Pixar’s history. She is also the first Filipino to hold this position.

The Pinay animator took up Advertising Arts in the University of Santo Tomas. She went to Guam to work in the Art Department of an agency and later studied Master of Fine Arts in computer arts in New York’s School of Visual Arts. She made a student reel and sent it to Pixar at the time the first Toy Story movie went out.

She joined Pixar in September 1996. Since then, she has animated characters in Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and the Academy-Award winning movie Finding Nemo.

Now, Gini led Pixar’s team of 80 highly-skilled animators to produce the company’s upcoming film Coco that will open in Philippine cinemas starting November 22.

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Coco is about a Mexican boy named Miguel (voice of newbie Anthony Gonzalez) who dreams of becoming a singer despite the disapproval of his strict family.

He wants to become an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Miguel finds himself in the colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, Miguel meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history.

The animated film is directed by Lee Unkrich (of Toy Story 3 fame) and co-directed by screenwriter Adrian Molina.

In a round-table interview with members of the Philippine media last November 6 at the Marriot Hotel, Gini shared her experience guiding and mentoring the Pixar animation team, and how being Filipino helped her create details that added to the movie’s charm.

Continue reading below ↓ (Philippine Entertainment Portal) asked Gini if there were Philippine references used in the movie considering that Mexico is culturally similar to the country. She explained:

“It was more in the acting. It’s more on the performance versus something built that you see there. There’s a lot of Filipino practices in some of the acting that we do that they also do in Mexico. [Specifically] this whole thing with the slipper.”

In the movie, Miguel’s grandmother chases a stranger away by slapping him with a slipper – a behavior similarly seen in Philippine culture.

Gini also described the effort the team made to be accurate and respectful towards the Mexican culture, and how she related to its dynamic of the family.

“When we were making the film I remember the producer and even the director Lee said we need to make this right. We need to be respectful of the culture. We actually had consultants as we were making the film. That also meant that in animation, our acting, the choices had to show that this is how Mexicans are.

“I was able to relate because I felt like the dynamic of the family was the same as we have here. Example in the States, the Western world, your personal space is really big. In the Philippines, our personal space is really tiny. People stand really close to each other in the streets. Even for family members that is also the case.

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“We had a few a few Latinos, Hispanic animators. They actually made a lot of comments on our animation. We were sharing notes about how our cultures are the same. It was exciting to make because I felt I can relate to the dynamic of the family – just that culture.”

Is it possible for a Pixar animated film to be based in the Philippines?

“I feel films like this – we always made – a lot of our films always takes place in different parts of the world. This is one of the first we heavily researched the culture and it’s been inspiring because I feel like that’s really opened the door to doing more films that could be about other culture too, so for sure.”

HOW COCO IS RELATED TO TOY STORY. PEP also asked about Easter Eggs (hidden features or messages) placed in the movie. Pixar is known for placing references of previous movies in its films.

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“These [Easter eggs] was intentionally placed by the director. Easter eggs refer to our Pixar characters hidden in there. That’s the director’s decision.”

When asked about the bahay kubo seen inside the aquarium in Finding Nemo, she disclosed, “[That] bahay kubo was intentional to Nelson [Bohol].”

Nelson Bohol is a Filipino set designer artist for Pixar.

“When they tasked him with designing the underwater scene, it was easy to put a bahay kubo there. He told the director [he will place one there] obviously.”

Gini revealed that there are two Easter Eggs in Coco. One specific Easter Egg references Toy Story. Watch out for a truck in the movie that has the Pizza Planet logo.

Pizza Planet is a restaurant in Toy Story that was visited frequently by Andy, the young boy who grew up with the Woody doll.

Gini has been with the company long before the community of Pixnoys (Pinoys working in Pixar) was established.

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“For the longest time, I was the only Filipino there. We finally had one animator that we had hired. He’s name is Mikey Soles. He’s half-Filipino, not even pure. He’s kind of a second generation. Great guy. He associated himself as Filipino but he’s already mixed.

“There’s a lot of Filipinos there in other departments.”

When asked if Gini has plans to direct her own Pixar movie, she disclosed that she prefers to continue doing animation.

“No. I love just animating and figuring out characters.”

How is it like being a woman and Filipino in a predominantly white, and male-dominated industry?

“Obviously they’ve never had a female supervisor. The dynamic was a little interesting. One thing I also learned as a female [supervisor], as a woman, I also had my own biases myself.

“I felt like, I’m in this role, I better make this perfect. But I didn’t need to and I needed to navigate that. I feel I had a lot of support from my animators and co-workers.

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“The only reason I’m a strong animator was because I started there and we worked collectively together.

“As far as it being a first female [supervisor], they definitely respected me for my experience. My struggle was getting my voice to be heard. It’s such a new thing. I tended to not speak that loud. I had to get over my biases and had to navigate that. They don’t look at you as a woman in the room. They had to make adjustments.

“It’s not that they’re purposefully doing it. There is an awareness I feel like men have to kind of realize that you need to address the woman in the room and Pixar’s been making adjustments to educate us a little better.

“It’s weird for me because I’ve worked with a lot of these men for 20 years. But to be there at the table with them now is definitely something new that we’ve had to navigate.

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“Pixar’s been very active in trying to support the diversity we have now. I feel that having a woman as a lead will encourage other women to come through the ranks knowing there’s a woman in the room with them that can be supportive too.

“Pixar practices an open door [policy] and anyone can talk to the CEO. Everyone is equal. It’s been rewarding... they try to protect our ability to voice out issues. You feel free to work there.”

On the day of the interview, Gini was awarded a Plaque of Recognition by the City of Pasay for being an exemplary Pasay resident, a world-class Filipino artist, and the city’s pride. The award was handed to her by City Administrator Attorney Dennis Bernard Acorda through the Office of the Mayor Antonino Calixto, in Cinema 3 of Newport Mall.

Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, president of the Original Pilipino Performing Arts Foundation, also gave Gini a plaque of recognition for “her invaluable contribution to showcasing the creativity of the Filipino to a global audience.”

The musical fantasy adventure film Coco will be showing in Philippine cinemas on November 22, 2017.

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Gini Santos (left) is the first female supervising animator in Pixar's history. She led the team of animators who worked on Coco, the Pixar film featuring the voice of Gael Garcia Bernal (right).
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