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  • Jared Huizenga

Chris Bernardi’s road to ‘Coco’ started after a detour from medicine

Medicine was where Chris Bernardi saw his life headed.

A pre-med student while attending Washington University in St. Louis, Bernardi was on his way to becoming a doctor when his career path took an unexpected turn.

Now, 30+ years later, you won’t find much online about Dr. Bernardi. OK, I’m sure there’s a Dr. Bernardi, but it’s not the same person. If, however, you were to search IMDB for Chris Bernardi you will find a résumé sure to make most in the world of animation green with envy.


The list includes “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters University,” “Cars,” “Toy Story 3,” “WALL-E,” and his latest effort, “Coco,” which opens in theaters on November 22.

“With degrees in biology and physics, it’s pretty obvious how I’d wind up at Pixar,” he joked. “I wanted to go to medical school, but at the time I also had a deep interest in scoring films. It was a time when computers and music were just starting to intersect in a way that was really exciting to me … I loved being in that place where art and computers intersect, technology in general.”

Knowing that once he started down the path to medical school and all other aspects of his life would have to be set aside, he decided to venture down that opposite path – at least for a while.

“I thought ‘I can be a doctor, I just want to try this for now,’” he said. “It sort of led to working with computers.”

That work with computers led him to a cyber-arts conference to see a presentation by sound designer Gary Rydstrom, a hero of his from Skywalker Sound.

“He was showing the sound design on ‘Tin Toy,’ which was one of Pixar’s early short films and all I could do was watch that,” he said. “I knew what computer graphics was, but I’d never seen someone really tell an emotional story [with it].”

It was then that he knew that this was what he wanted to do. The only question was how.

Given that he already had powerful computers for crafting music, he started creating his own computer graphics program to teach himself and get good enough to work at a place like Pixar.

In 2000 he finally got to where we wanted to be, hired on at Pixar to work on “Finding Nemo,” where he worked on creating the coral reef. Later he would work to help create the trash planet featured in 2008’s “WALL-E.”

And now, 17 years later, he finds himself still working at the studio, but this time as the sets supervisor for “Coco.”

But what exactly does a sets supervisor on an animated film do?

“I still have to explain it to my mom sometimes,” he said. “I’m a sets supervisor and that puts me in charge of the environments for the film. So I run a team of artists and technicians that build the world the characters inhabit.”

And on a film like “Coco” that world is very important. The film features a young boy named Miguel who, after a series of unfortunate (or fortunate depending on your outlook) circumstances finds himself transported from his small village of Santa Cecilia to the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos.

In all, his team was roughly 30 people, although when the credits roll on the film, you’ll see a much larger team that has worked on the project since its inception roughly six years ago.

And those sets, which include everything from large crowd shots (there are many of them), to buildings and towns, to the smallest of details like character clothing and hair.

“Obviously I’m biased, but it’s my favorite movie to have worked on,” he said. “I think from a sets standpoint only, I think it’s one of the most visually-rich films we’ve ever created.”

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