Seven years ago, Lee Unkrich won his first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for “Toy Story 3,” his debut directorial effort for Pixar. He’s favored to win in the category this year for the studio’s “Coco,” a celebration of family and Mexican culture that has grossed over $700 million at the worldwide box office.
“There’s something special about that first time that was mind-blowing. It was like an out of body experience,” Unkrich said of his first Oscar win. “I don’t know that I’ll have the same experience again, but it doesn’t make it any less special.”
Set during the Dia De Muertos festival honoring the dead, “Coco” “is not about death or grieving or loss, though death is certainly part of the story,” Unkrich said. “It’s about family and remembrance and the obligation that we have to pass the stories of loved ones along, and that’s a universal idea. No matter what culture or religion you’re in or even if you’re not religious at all, these are basic human notions.”
Over the course of the six years it took to make the film, Unkrich and his team made many trips to Mexico to take photos, experience Dia De Muertos, and spend time with families in rural parts of the country. “It gave us a specificity that we wouldn’t have dreamed up on our own in a studio in Northern California,” he said.
“’Coco’ is about family and remembrance and the obligation that we have to pass the stories of loved ones along. These are basic human notions.”
Pixar hired expert advisors for the first time. “We had a great responsibility to be as authentic and respectful as possible. Every single decision we made was looking through that lens of cultural appropriateness and respect,” Unkrich said, noting that “Coco” is the top-grossing film of all time in Mexico. “That tells us we did it right.”
Unkrich, 50, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, worked in television editing before beginning his career at Pixar in 1994. He worked as an editor on “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” and co-director on “Monsters Inc.,” Finding Nemo,” and “Toy Story 2.”
“Animation wasn’t my background, but I found that I like working slowly and meticulously and thoughtfully to create a story,” he said. “I get the same level of satisfaction that I do from live action if not more. And I love being able to make movies without being surrounded by the film industry, like I was in L.A.”
A movie-loving kid from Chagrin Falls, Oh., a suburb of Cleveland, Unkrich acted in plays and was interested in art and photography, and he felt that filmmaking would combine his interests. He grew up in a Reform Jewish home, raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a German-Catholic father who became interested in Judaism as a young man and officially converted when Unkrich was eight years old.
“My family was very active in our temple, where I had my bar mitzvah. My father was on the board and my mother was in the sisterhood. She actually ran the services in the summertime,” Unkrich said. “Even though we weren’t a particularly observant household—we didn’t keep kosher—Judaism was a big part of my childhood. I was one of the few Jews in my school. But I went to a Jewish summer camp starting at age 10 and went back every summer until I was in college. My best friends in life are my friends from camp. And I met my wife in the last summer I was there.”
Unkrich and his wife, Laura, live in Marin County and have three children, Hannah, 20, Alice, 18, and Max, 13. He maintains a strong connection to Judaism. “I’m not super-observant,” he said. “But the community has always been very important to me and to my wife, and it’s important that our kids are part of that community.”
As for his next project, it’s to be determined. “I’m still busy with ‘Coco.’ It hasn’t opened everywhere around the world,” he said, not eager to jump into something new. “First, I want to take a long vacation.”