Wash. U. Alum Bernardi Finds Success at Pixar Studios

| Movie Editor

Alexandra Ambrose | Pixar

Chris Bernardi poses for his portrait at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA. April 17, 2013.

Chris Bernardi is no stranger to Student Life. Not long after his graduation from Washington University in 1985, he was interviewed for a story on a local St. Louis band, Big Fun, with which he played. Today, the onetime biology major has an even better job with Pixar Animation Studios as a technical director of set shading.

What is set shading, you ask? Imagine a world bereft of color and texture: simply gray objects on top of other gray objects.

“Shading adds color; it’s shading that differentiates between what’s made out of metal or what’s made out of wood, both by the way it responds to illumination and to the color. And it determines how something ages and how things wear when they interact, where the paint chipped off something or where the dirt appeared on a window,” Bernardi said.

It was his interest in music that led Bernardi to animation. In college, he took classes on computer and electronic music.

“I was very interested in sound design and the texture of sound, which led me into the music business and sound design. And from there, I made my way into the animation business, mostly for what I do know, which is writing shaders for Pixar, which is how we deal with textures. Basically, it’s the sound design of the visual cue,” he said.

Bernardi was hired by Pixar in 2000 following a stint in Boise, Idaho. In Idaho, he had been working on photorealistic animation, so the stylized art of Pixar took some time to get used to.

“I’d been doing freelance work and writing software, which some of the other studios were using. I’d been getting offers from other studios, but I really didn’t want to work for anyone other than Pixar, and at the time, they weren’t hiring, so I waited around until they were,” he said.

The first movie he worked on was “Finding Nemo,” the acclaimed 2003 film starring the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

“They kind of turned me loose on the coral reefs, so most of the coral reef in “Finding Nemo” was mine, which was exciting. I’d never worked on a film before, and they kind of threw me into the deep end,” Bernardi said.

Since “Finding Nemo,” Bernardi has worked on “Cars,” “Wall-E” and “Toy Story 3” and just finished working on the upcoming “Monsters University.” The four-year production cycle for a Pixar movie starts with the director and story team, and after a year or two, Bernardi and the other technical teams come in to begin development on their end. Each Pixar movie requires an incredible amount of work.

“The hardest problem we have here is getting some folks to just go home. There’s a lot of us that just don’t know quite when to quit. All of us love what we do, and we want everything we work on to be the best it can be,” Bernardi said.

Every frame of a Pixar movie can be expressed in computer code, and Bernardi’s work includes dealing with the physics of light and shadow, something that was especially interesting in “Finding Nemo” because light acts differently underwater.

“There’s kind of this weird bridge between the technical and the artistic. Sometimes I’m painting in Photoshop, and sometimes I’m writing code,” Bernardi explained.

These days, Bernardi is working in the tools department helping to develop software. Most of the software Pixar uses to make its movies is developed in-house.

“[Pixar is a] great place to work, and we have a beautiful campus here. I can’t imagine working anywhere else, I’ll tell you that much. They kind of spoil us here,” he said.

Check out his work on “Monsters University” when it comes to theaters June 21, and remember how much work goes into crafting those three-dimensional textures.