SALT LAKE CITY — When you browse through the expansive credits at the end of a film such as “Justice League,” it’s easy to picture a swarm of actors and crew scattered around a sound stage, orchestrating the technical minutiae of a massive big screen production. But when the credits roll on an animated film such as the upcoming Pixar production “Coco,” you may be tempted to lump everyone under the generic title of “animator.”
But it really isn't that simple, according to Emron Grover, who came up through Brigham Young University's animation program before moving on to work on Pixar hits including “Up” and “Brave."
“Animator is a very generic term,” he said with a laugh. “At Pixar, the animators take the character that somebody’s built, and they make it act.”
The animators are essentially puppeteers, but Grover’s job happens a little earlier in the process.
“I was in charge of all the clothing in the movie,” he said.
That may seem like an odd thing to say about an animated film, until you realize that Grover works in a virtual world. Grover is the tailoring lead on “Coco,” which essentially means he and his team build computer-generated clothing for all of the characters in the film.
“Coco” tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel, who travels to the Land of the Dead during Mexico’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. The film is filled with colorful visuals inspired by Mexican culture, and Grover explained how complicated it was to put realistic and authentic clothing on the characters.
“You can imagine it quite a bit like real-world tailoring,” said Grover, as he described the complex process of using 3D software to design and apply digital clothes to characters created elsewhere at the studio. “We have virtual fabric that we’ll kind of draft the patterns in, and then we’ll sew all the seams together virtually, connect all the geometry, and then we can drape it around the character. Then we give it mathematical parameters on how it should bend and fold.”
Grover explained that part of the challenge when working with digital clothing is making sure that the virtual clothes understand how to shape around the characters and not just pass right through them. Pixar has spent several years refining a technique called collision detection, whereby the digital cloth is able to sense the body inside it.
Grover has specialized in digital clothing since he started his career at Pixar 10 years ago. After developing his skills in clothing design at BYU — then considered one of the more difficult tasks in CGI — Grover landed an internship at Pixar. At the time, Grover said, “(Pixar) kind of had (its) pipeline up and running,” using early digital clothing processes on films such as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” But in the time since, as Grover has worked on films including “Brave” and “Inside Out,” he’s seen a lot of change for the better.
“The advances since then have been staggering,” he said. “Especially on 'Coco.'”
The tailoring lead job is a satisfying fusion of Grover’s background in both art and computers — he originally went into computer science programming as a BYU undergrad — but his job isn’t all ones and zeroes. Since “Coco’s” visual aesthetic was inspired by Mexican culture, specifically the annual Dio de los Muertos celebration, Pixar also employed a group of Mexican culture consultants to help ensure the accuracy of “Coco’s” on-screen product. Grover and his team were able to draw on a wealth of input and research to make their work look as authentic as possible.
Grover’s hopes for the final product, which he described as “a love letter to Mexico,” are twofold. First, he hopes that seeing the film will help audiences gain “an appreciation for the Mexican culture and the holiday.”
But Grover also hopes that viewers will gain a deeper appreciation for their own ancestors, specifically “how they have shaped who you are, even though they’re not around.”