Filipina behind Disney-Pixar’s most important film for 2017
MANILA, Philippines — For breaking the glass ceiling and bringing honor to her Filipino roots, Disney-Pixar’s first-ever female supervising animator, Virginia “Gini” Santos, was celebrated during the exclusive Philippines screening of the upcoming Hollywood animated feature film Coco held recently at Resorts World Manila’s Newport Mall.
For Coco, Gini supervised 80 highly-skilled, mostly male animators at Pixar Animation Studios to bring to fruition the large-scale project depicting Mexico’s culture of strong family ties that goes beyond this life — all the way to the enchanting Land of the Dead.
The spectacular and endearing film — currently breaking box-office records in Mexico — will open in the Philippines on Nov. 22. Coco is based on the lively Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It follows a 12-year-old aspiring musician named Miguel, who sets off an eventful (and comedic) journey to unlock the baffling century-old mystery as to why his family forbids music, leading to an extraordinary family reunion of those who are in the land of the living and the dead.
“This is one of the first Pixar films where we heavily researched a culture,” said Gini. “I was able to relate because I felt the dynamic of the family there is the same as what we have in the Philippines. And it’s been inspiring because I feel that Coco has really opened the door (for Disney-Pixar) to doing more films that could be about other cultures, too.”
The San Francisco-based Gini, a fine arts alumna of the University of Santo Tomas and who later earned a master of fine arts in computer arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, was given a plaque of recognition by Pasay City’s Office of the Mayor (represented by City Administrator Dennis Bernard Acorda) for “being an exemplary citizen of Pasay City.” Gini and her family resided in Pasay before moving to Guam when she was three years old.
She was also commended by the Original Pilipino Performing Arts (OPPA) Foundation (through its president Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) “for her invaluable contribution to showcasing the creativity of the Filipinos to a global audience” and for sharing OPPA’s “vision to support, nurture and elevate the Filipino talent.”
Prior to becoming a supervisor, Gini was a character animator on Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc. and Pixar’s Academy Award-winning features Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up. She was lead animator on Pixar’s short film Lifted.
In a roundtable chat with the press and bloggers, Gini said as supervisor for Coco, she was responsible for “collaborating and inspiring” some 80 animators from different studio departments.
“I drew from my experience as an animator how to be a mentor, too,” she shared. “We have a lot of young animators who are so amazing, but the challenge is staying steady when the pressure starts to come in while making our film. I feel that as a lead, you have to guide them and make sure they are successful and still enjoy what they do.”
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Coco was faced with enormous challenges, according to Gini, from staying true and respectful to the rich Mexican customs and traditions, to difficulties in the designs of every character.
“The biggest challenge of all were the skeletons,” Gini said of the vibrant characters that populate the colorful Land of the Dead. “We never animated skeletons before. Skeletons are kind of universal symbol for death, and the scary and macabre. We tried to figure out how to make the model appealing so that the audience can connect.”
Gini said she’s pleased with the outcome of her team’s hard work. The film — which features the voices of some of the biggest Latino stars including Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt and Edward James Olmos — has Oscar written all over it.
Coco —which boasts visual feasts of beautiful imagery and cinematography, dazzling music and a solid, unique plot — is the one to beat in the Best Animated Film category, as well as in Best Original Song for Remember Me, a catchy and moving piece penned by Filipino-American Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the Academy Award-winning husband and wife behind Frozen’s Let It Go.
Gini is all praises for Pixar for continuously inspiring its employees and bringing out the best in them, for actively supporting diversity among employees, and for making their jobs both professionally and financially rewarding.
“I was there when they (Pixar) had gone public like sharing stocks with employees,” she recalled. “They also practice open-door policy, meaning anyone can go up and talk to the CEO if you have an idea, if you have a qualm, everyone is equal. They try to protect our ability to voice out issues. And it’s been truly rewarding for me to just have my work be out there and get recognized and realize that I can make it.”