On Wednesday night, Nov. 15, Pixar set supervisor, Chris Bernardi (“Inside Out”) spoke to a nearly full house of students interested in animation and film. In his presentation, Bernardi explained his role as set supervisor on his latest project, Pixar’s “Coco” (in theaters Nov. 22) and debuted footage from animation tests and preliminary drawings.
“Coco” follows the young Miguel on the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Miguel is a passionate musician and looks to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz for inspiration, but his family has banned music from their lives since a tragic event from their past. “Coco” is about family and heritage and chasing your dreams. Yet, “Coco” is not your typical Pixar fairytale, it combines a rich cultural history and with deftness and creativity, constructs two worlds of epic proportions.
As set supervisor, Bernardi’s team was in charge of creating the universe of “Coco.” Every cobblestone, every building, every tree was sketched, modeled and animated by Bernardi’s team. The film started as a nugget of idea by director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) in 2011 as a fascination with the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos, and after multiple trips to Mexico, extensive research, full-time consultants and years of work “Coco” was born. Bernardi emphasized the importance of research in the film, from the food to the movement of the skeletons to the detailed ofrendas (altars built for dead relatives).
Bernardi said he did not know much about the holiday before the film, “We have no similar holiday here in America.”
Since immersing himself in the culture and the holiday he emphasized the beauty of “the idea of remembering your ancestors.”
“At the end of the film there is an ofrenda and my grandparents are up there,” he said. Along with his grandparents are photographs of other lost relatives.
“We tried to do it with a light touch,” Bernardi added, “it is not a sad thing, it’s the idea that people come back to us. We remember the things that they loved. The idea of spending some time to think about them is the wonderful sentiment.”
Bernardi highlighted some of the challenges his team faced like the scale of the double universe in the film and the loose movement of the skeleton’s vertebrae. Additionally, most of the film takes place at night, which meant the animators needed to provide artificial light for every scene at night. Also, the team is getting used to new rendering program with pathfinding technology that the company acquired for “Finding Dory.”
When asked about his journey to a career in animation he explained, “when I started there wasn’t even a field, I took a long path to Pixar, it takes a while.”
He got interested in electronic music in college and from there he discovered animation. Bernardi said the leap from music to animation was not as big a jump as one might think. He explained that music is texture for the ears while animation is texture for the eyes. He started his animation adventure in 2000 as shading technical director for “Finding Nemo.” Since “Nemo,” Bernardi has worked on such Academy Award-winning films as “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3” and “Inside Out.”
Bernardi had some advice for all the young animators out there: “Work hard.”
“I did a lot of awful animation,” he added without shame. “They started off bad and I got better and better, keep hammering at it.”
It took Bernardi ten years and a ton of hard work to end up in animation
“I wish there was a magic bullet but sometimes it’s just hard work,” he said.