Pixar’s Chris Bernardi Shares How Art Imitates Life (and Death) in Coco

Pixar’s newest film, Coco, has melted hearts with its stunning visuals and emotional story centered around the celebration of Día de los Muertos in the week since its release. The film’s set supervisor, Chris Bernardi, stopped by the University of Minnesota on November 16 to share what it was like to be part of the creative process, and afterwards he sat down with a few local publications, including Twin Cities Geek.

Coco follows the story of Miguel Rivera, a budding musician who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead during Día de los Muertos. This celebration honors the memory of deceased relatives by putting up their photos on a family ofrenda, telling stories about them, spreading flower petals, and offering food. Coco unfolds partially in the small, dusty town of Santa Cecilia and partially in the glittering nighttime cityscape of the Land of the Dead.

Bernardi explained that managing this stark balance was an enormous challenge for the animators.

Chris Bernardi

Chris Bernardi visited Minneapolis November 16 to talk about techniques used in Pixar’s newest film, Coco, which was released in the US on Thanksgiving weekend. Madeleine Vasaly

“In the small Mexican town, there’s so much interesting detail we want to capture,” he said. “Capturing that detail and the history and the age of stuff, that’s always really important to us in sets. It’s really easy to build a cube or sphere [with software], but it doesn’t look like a building. It’s the age and the way it sags, and the way this door is opened for 20 years like this and the handle bangs up against the plaster, and it’s knocked off some of the paint, but they painted over it, and that paint is newer than the paint around it—and all those little stories that the set tells.”

On the flip side—literally—the Land of the Dead is an enormous expanse filled with stately brick buildings, cast-iron architecture, and millions of multicolored lights. The scale of the setting put the animators to the test. “You’re seeing the city in the background all the time, and [we had] to find a way to manage that complexity in a way that our computers could still manage,” Bernardi said.

Miguel and Héctor in the Land of the Dead

The crazy, colorful cityscape in the Land of the Dead presented a unique challenge to Pixar animators. Disney/Pixar

In addition to visual excellence, the studio prides itself on meticulous research, both visually and culturally.

“Research is so important to us at Pixar,” Bernardi said. “We wanted to really honor the Mexican culture and tradition and felt it was really important for us to get it right.” Prep work for this particular movie included multiple trips to Mexico, where animators sampled Mexican cuisine, visited homes, and collected local folk art, which inspired the eye-catching alebrije spirit guides seen in the film.

Bernardi has heard some viewers say that the animation style in Coco resembles the style of Ratatouille and notes that Harley Jessup was the production designer on both films, so the similarity makes sense. Jessup “has a flair for some of that Victorian-era cast-iron stuff, so there was a lot of influence drawn from Mexican architecture that was around that period,” said Bernardi. “We had a very long discussion early on about that, and about manufacturing techniques of the Industrial Revolution, and how they were building molds to cast this stuff instead of having artisans make them from scratch.”

To create the marigold bridge that connects the living world with the Land of the Dead, set animators ended up using a modern-day application of this method. Instead of creating the entire thing from scratch, which would be very intensive to render, the team built modular pieces that could be assembled and repeated. “Because we were leveraging the way things were made back then, we actually made these pieces that would have been cast like that and reused them,” Bernardi said. “There’s a trick in the computer you can use . . . so you use a lot less memory, all your calculations run super efficient, and you wind up leveraging sort of in a way that that industrial-age architecture did.”

Miguel and Dante

The animation team had to come up with tricks to allow them to render Coco’s complex visuals without overtaxing their computers. Disney/Pixar

Like Bernardi, everyone on the team came to their job with an intense passion, to the point where it sometimes felt like he had to drag his team members away from their computers at the end of the day.

“The more you do that, the more amazing the film looks, the more it ups everybody’s game,” he said. “It’s . . . really collaborative. [It’s] making art as a team sport.”

Although the sets department focuses on the world in which the story unfolds, those who worked on the film did not come away from Coco unaffected by the story, Bernardi said. He noted that Día de los Muertos was “one of those things that a lot of us didn’t know a whole lot about, but the more we studied it, it affected us in a very emotional way,” he said. “Having a time when you can set aside a day or two to sit and talk about the people that came before you and spend some time just thinking about it . . . you put up their picture and you put up the things that they loved . . . that’s such a sweet idea. We all found it so moving. We have an ofrenda at work now.”

In fact, the film itself contains something of a virtual ofrenda: after the credits roll, the faces of departed relatives of the filmmakers appear momentarily on the screen, blasting viewers with one last moment of bittersweetness before the screen goes dark.

“The movie’s really about understanding who you are in the context of your family, and in the context of those who came before you,” Bernardi said. “As much as we try sometimes to rebel against it or not admit it, we’re very much shaped by where we come from and those who came before us.”

Chris Bernardi

With Coco complete, Chris Bernardi will be turning his attention to Incredibles 2. Madeleine Vasaly

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