Academy of Art University alumnus unites art and heart together in Oscar-winning animated film “Coco.”

For the first time, filmmakers unconnected to the industry of animated films were able to vote on the merits of movies with animation, and “Coco” won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Among those honored for this film was character designer Daniel Arriaga of Pixar Animation Studios.


“Coco” is impressive for its artistry and authenticity. In his characterizations, Arriaga drew upon skills attained at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, California. Founded in 1929 by artist Richard S. Stephens, the Academy expanded its curriculum after World War II to include Commercial Art and Advertising, Fashion Illustration, Lettering and Layout, and Cartooning. In 1951, when Stephens’s son, Richard A. Stephens, became the director, enrollment increased, and a transportation design department was added. Since 1966, the Academy has offered a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art.


The Academy of Art’s alumnus, Daniel Arriaga, drew upon his cultural background for authenticity in the characters of “Coco.” The main character, a Mexican boy named Miguel, wants to be a guitarist and singer, but his father forbids him. Aware of some mystery surrounding a dead relative named Ernesto de la Cruz, a singer and movie star, Miguel seeks more knowledge about Cruz and the family secret by traveling to the Land of the Dead. Employing his knowledge of Mexican celebrations, Arriaga has Miguel search for his relative during El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), the commemoration of lost relatives on November 2. Because it is customary to visit the graves of dead relatives, Miguel tries to contact Ernesto in the graveyard. Somehow Miguel falls into the after-life where he must obtain a blessing from his ancestors so he can return to the living and fulfill his destiny. With the authenticity of Miguel’s search for Ernesto and skilled animation, Arriaga creates an intriguing character in Miguel.


On a return to his alma mater of San Francisco’s Academy of Art University to talk with “the visionaries of tomorrow,” Arriaga discussed the laborious, but gratifying, process of bringing “Coco” to its successful completion. As they listened, students began to feel hopeful and confident of the opportunities available in the academic, artistic, and professional environment of Academy of Art University.


Find out more about Academy of Art University: