IN CONVERSATION: CHRIS BERNARDI FROM PIXAR’S “COCO”
Chris Bernardi began working for Pixar Animation Studios in November 2000 as a shading technical director on Finding Nemo. Since then, he has served in a variety of roles, including sets shading supervisor, sets shading technical director, senior shading artist on many of their films like Cars, WALL•E, Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Inside Out.
As he mentions throughout the interview, being the set supervisors has Bernardi working with other supervisors, directors of photography and the production designer. Long before his days working for Pixar his path was quite different. He studied biology and physics at Washington University in St. Louis on the pre-med track. Throughout this he continued to hone in on his deep interest in music. He had wanted to score films since childhood and found himself doing that on top of med school. This led to an interest in sound design with the analysis and synthesis behind it. Clearly he realized what path he was meant to be on, as he found similar patterns and methods from that in his working in shading.
For Coco, he serves as the film’s set supervisor. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll notice the elaborate sets and wildly creative imagination in place to create the Land of the Dead. It’s evident with his use of extensive detail how much he loves working at Pixar and how much he loves their films.
Chris Bernardi (CB): For every one that I work on, there are always those ones I really wish I could have worked on. “Ratatouille”. “Up” is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t get to work on it, but the beginning of that is so…
Paul McGuire Grimes (PMG): My husband and I walked down the aisle to the theme song from Up.
Chris started humming the theme
PMG: The Michael Giacchino score in any Pixar just elevates everything.
CB: There’s an easter egg [in “Coco”] for you. I forget people are always asking about this. In the Sunrise Spectacular at the end, go look at the conductor and then find a picture of Michael Giacchino.
PMG: What were the inspirations for designing the Land of the Dead as well as Ernesto de la Cruz’s tower?
CB: I gave a talk at the University of MN about the design elements. With Ernesto’s mansion there’s a little bit of Coit Tower in there from San Francisco. The funicular go-around was an inspired thing. There’s a guy on my team that is super nerdy about trains and he went nuts on there. There’s way more detail in it than there ever is needed, but he’s one of those guys where you don’t want to pull back once he gets going. For some of the other design elements, there’s a great deal of Gran Hotel in Mexico City. If you’ve seen the beginning of 007 “Spectre”, he goes into that hotel. There’s some beautiful Tiffany designed stained glass ceiling that’s amazing. Literally a block from there is the Mexico post office, which has some beautiful iron work. The stairs go up and form a skull and that gave us inspiration for skull motifs.
PMG: So there’s lots of research done with Mexican culture. It looks so authentic and real.
CB: Oh yes. Research is so important to us at Pixar as well as doing our homework. When I worked on “Finding Nemo”, they certified me on scuba so that I could go and do the coral reefs. When I worked on “Cars”, we drove down Route 66. For me, which draws me to working on sets, there’s always this sense of place. When you’re walking down the streets of Manhattan, it certainly feels nothing like walking down the streets of Seattle or Minneapolis. There’s a sort of feeling you get in the Southwest when the sun is going down, it gets super dry, you’ll know when you’ve captured that visually. It’s always important to be there to catch the spirit of it, so you know when you’re hitting it.
Another component to us, beyond the design and technology, is that it’s much more about the spirit of the holiday. It’s one of those things that a lot of us didn’t know about, but the more we studied it, the more it affected us in an emotional way. In that, having a time when you can set aside a day or two to sit and talk about the people that came before you. You put up their picture and the things they loved, and it’s such a sweet idea. We all found it so moving that we put up an ofrenda at work.
PMG: How much of the set pieces are physically built in advance to help in the computer modeling of them?
CB: Do you mean like in the real world? We don’t build in a real world, but in a 3D environment, like you would design in CAT. Every now and then we’ll do it with characters; we’ll do sculpts. There’s something with them where we don’t want the director having to play around. If you’re sculpting it, you can bring it in and look at it. We have some amazing sculptors who can reshape as needed there in person. With what we do, we work closely with the layout department who does the camera work. For us, I’ve been working with Matt Aspbury, the director of photography, for three years now so we have a short hand between us. We’ll design the sets around the way we need to shoot them. They’re all built up in a virtual environment. We still need to do them before animation gets in there. We’re sort of the people that hold the keys to layout, animation, lighting.
PMG: I walked through the traveling Pixar exhibit that came through the Science Museum of Minnesota. It was mesmerizing to see what all goes on behind the scenes to make a Pixar masterpiece. What’s a common misconception or something you want people to know about your job.
CB: Well, some people still think we’re painting on cells by hand. I think it’s always difficult to explain to my mom what I do, particularly when I was doing shading. Now that I’m in sets, it’s a bit easier; you can talk about the environments in general. It’s a little bit easier to say you’ve made the bricks and cobblestones, and with everything else in the world, it was someone else on my team who placed it in there by hand. Everything in that ofrenda in the Rivera compound. With everything there, someone thought to put a flower there, a glass there, someone would look up what kind of bread should be that would be sold in the market.
PMG: It always seems like everyone at Pixar loves their job.
CB: I do! I feel like we all want to be there, we all love what we do. Everyone is so passionate, especially on projects like this. My team poured themselves in this movie. I always had to drag them away from their computers, as they always wanted to do just one more thing. It’s 8:00 and they have family to go to, but there’s this awesome idea they “have to get in there”. I tell them it will still be awesome tomorrow and to get home. The more amazing the film looks, it ups everyone’s game, so you’re all bringing it at 100%, and the movie looks even more beautiful. You all get excited. It’s one of those really collaborative making art as a team sport.
Coco has been in the works for years now from the initial idea sparked by director Lee Unkrich through the many stages of its execution. Bernardi opened up that there plenty of challenges that came with being on the sets team for Coco.
CB: Lee [Unkrich] started thinking about this in 2011. It’s what he’s been thinking about since “Toy Story 3” and then I was brought on in 2013, I brought my leadership team on in 2015. The bulk of the sets work was last May. The lighting and animation was done over the summer.
There was a difficulty with detail and scale. In the small Mexican towns, there was so much interesting detail we wanted to capture, but all of that stuff takes time. Trying to find ways to manage that in order to make a film of this scope and still be responsible to the film’s budget and people’s time– so I’m not driving me team to the ground. Capturing that detail and the history and age is important to us in sets. There are all of these little stories that the set tells that people work on. In the Land of the Dead, it’s sheer scale because we’re seeing the city in the background at all times. We’re trying to manage that complexity in a way that the computers can still manage. We’re at the beginning of the pipeline. It flows into layout, lighting, and if we’re not efficient, it slows down other departments.
PMG: What’s more fun for you, working on an original Pixar piece like Coco or Inside Out or building on a franchise like Monsters University and Toy Story 3?
CB: They both present their different challenges. I worked on “Toy Story 3” and a lot of that was looking at “Toy Story 2” and using different technology that wasn’t available before. We didn’t want to over modernize it. Same with “Finding Nemo”, I think they ran into that on “Finding Dory”. There’s a look to it that you have to be true to, but you don’t want to make it look like it was made twenty years ago. So it’s like trying to find that sweet spot of trying to upgrade things but not go too far, but then other aspects become easy, because we know what Andy’s room likes look, etc… There will be new things and challenges but from an artistic standpoint we have a visual language of which to achieve that. You know how realistic to be, when you’ve gone too far, or not far enough. Original films are challenging because you spend a great deal of time discovering that visual language. I find that fun. Working with a production designer when even they’re unsure of what they want. They all work in different ways. Trying to piece it all together and work with them and the director to execute something. I had a great team working on this film. Everyone got on the same page and we all knew what each other wanted.
PMG: Is there a common lesson you hope kids take out of Coco?
CB: I think the movie is really about understanding who you are in the context of your family and those who came before you. I think we, as much as we rebel against that, we are very much shaped by those who came before us. Understanding that is important. The other is a nice lens into Mexican culture. It’s a little snapshot of the richness and beauty of their traditions.
PMG: What’s the best thing about working for Pixar and can you tease what you’re working on next?
CB: I don’t know the next big project I’m working on. I have two weeks off and then I go back to work on “Incredibles II” for a bit. Those things always change on a daily basis. You never know what’s going to pop up until I get my assignment.
PMG: Can you pick and choose what project you’re working on when you’re looking down the Pixar pipeline?
CB: There’s two ways. You can always express a preference from a standpoint as an individual contributor or a TD. I can say that I’d like to work on this, but I’m not like that. If a project needs me, I’ll go and work on something and do the best I can. For a leadership position, you’re almost out on the open market. If a movie comes up and they’re looking for a supervisor, you have to apply and interview with the director and producer, and they pick someone. It’s a beautiful meritocracy. There are fun parts of leadership. With being older, it’s fun to clear a path for others to succeed and getting them assigned to the right things, helping them be the best they can be.
He ended the interview by telling a story about walking around the Pixar campus at lunch to clear his head and saw Pixar writer and director Pete Docter over on the soccer fields with an ostrich running around. As we know now, the character of Kevin in Up was modeled after an ostrich. But at the time, the movie hadn’t come out yet, so he merely brushed it off knowing there was probably a good reason for it.