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Chris Bernardi: From WU pre-med to Pixar studios

Ali Gold | Senior Cadenza Editor

More than 30 years ago, Washington University class of 1985 alumnus Chris Bernardi took Cellular Biology in Rebstock Hall. On Monday, Bernardi was a guest speaker invited by the Film and Media Studies Department. Although he graduated from Wash. U. as a biology major and pre-med student, Bernardi now serves as the sets supervisor on Pixar Animation Studios’ newest movie, “Coco.”

During his talk, Bernardi shared exclusive footage of the film and also discussed his work at Pixar. After visiting Wash. U., Bernardi also spoke to students at local Lindenwood University and Webster University, before continuing on to Detroit and then Minneapolis, as part of a Pixar college tour.

Chris Bernardi, pictured July 25, 2017 at Pixar’s studios. Aaron Brezel | Student Life

Chris Bernardi, pictured July 25, 2017 at Pixar’s studios.

“I think it’s always fun to talk to students and let people know what we’re doing and answer questions,” Bernardi said. “It’s a little easier for me now. I work on these sort of long cycles, sometimes it’s like several years at a time. I was on this film as long as I was at Wash. U.”

Originally a pre-med student, the St. Louis native also took physics and electronic music classes during his time at Wash. U. By his senior year, Bernardi was spending a lot of time writing music. He decided he wanted to try writing music for films, and after a bit of hesitation, informed his parents of his decision.

Then, after a presentation by a sound designer who worked on a Pixar short called “Tin Toy,” Bernardi began to explore 3-D animation and computer graphics.

“They were actually telling a compelling story with it that I thought it was fascinating and could be a part of,” Bernardi said. “It took a couple of years of still working in the music business and transitioning into what computer graphics would be and experimenting with that.”

In November of 2000, he joined Pixar as a shading technical director of “Finding Nemo.” One of his first projects was shading the coral reefs in the film.

“I worked for, I don’t know, maybe eight plus years to get myself to Pixar, and it was the first film I got to make,” Bernardi said. “So I threw myself into it and it was sort of a new experience for me.”

Since “Finding Nemo,” Bernardi has worked on “Cars,” “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters University,” “Inside Out” and for the past four years, “Coco.” One of Bernardi’s favorite parts of creating new films is the immersive research the team conducts in order to fully understand the subject. For “Finding Nemo” they earned scuba-certification, while working on “Cars” they drove Route 66 and for “Coco” they visited Mexico.

“Coco” explores themes of tradition, memory and family by following a young aspiring musician named Miguel who lives in a village in Mexico called Santa Cecilia. Centering around the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, the film takes place both in the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.

“In the Land of the Living, the research into Mexican culture and the holiday itself, [Dia] de los Muertos, was fascinating to me, because I really didn’t know that much about it,” Bernardi said. “The reference we were getting from art,…we had lecturers come through, and we would learn more and more about it and just sort of get immersed in the culture. So that was all very exciting. I love the sort of environment we create for the town that he grows up in.”

Designing the Land of the Dead, meanwhile, relied more heavily on imagination. During his presentation, Bernardi showed the audience some initial sketches and the progression of this fictitious world.

Juniors Emily Stava, who is majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in Spanish, and Mike Carovillano, who is majoring in physics with minors in drama and art, both found out about the presentation through their film professor. They appreciated learning about how Bernardi uses his skills as a former science student in his work at Pixar.

“He’s such a charismatic person and it’s really interesting to hear his perspectives on things because he’s not your typical designer,” Carovillano said. “He’s more of a STEM-based designer, which gave him a really unique perspective coming to the table, I think, so that was really cool to hear.”

Bernardi emphasizes the importance of the liberal arts and broad education in teaching him how to think deeply. Although biology may not seem inherently or directly connected to his work now, through his major, he learned how to achieve mastery of complex material.

“I’m a believer in broad education, but also I think having a major can help you learn how to focus and sort of move really toward, and understand, where the boundary of a field is,” Bernardi said. “In biology, it was, at the time, I kind of knew where genetic research was and where it was going and had a deep understanding of that.”

At Pixar, Bernardi says employees draw on their diverse educational backgrounds, with knowledge of differential equations applying to music and sound synthesis, and biology applying to the way body mechanics work. Ultimately, these varied perspectives and talents enable the production of films rich in detail, design, research and development, like “Coco.”

“The thing I came away with the most is the confidence to not be afraid to learn anything myself, that I could go read peer reviewed papers in a field that I couldn’t understand. And at first, they wouldn’t make any sense, but then I could go, ‘Oh, they’re cross-referencing this,’ and this was before the Internet, too, so it’s even easier now,” Bernardi said. “If you’ve had an example of what it takes to teach yourself about something, it becomes easier to teach yourself almost anything.”

“Coco” will premiere in theaters across the U.S. Nov. 22, 2017.