Designing the Land of the Dead

Disney Pixar’s sets supervisor Chris Bernardi presented sneak-preview clips and design insights in the making of the new animated film “Coco” to the College of Design.

Designer Chris Bernardi sits down the Minnesota Daily to discuss his role in PIXAR's new film

Jack Rodgers

Designer Chris Bernardi sits down the Minnesota Daily to discuss his role in PIXAR’s new film “Coco” in McNeal Hall on Thursday, Nov. 16.

Kate Drakulic

At McNeal Hall, design students can often be seen squinting into laptop screens, cursing Adobe software or snoozing in the lobby. Thursday morning was an exception. Students arrived excited and eager to hear from Chris Bernardi, sets supervisor of Disney Pixar’s “Coco.” 

Coco tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel and his family as they prepare for and celebrate Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead]. Passionate about music, Miguel struggles to comply with the rules of his family, who have banned music for generations for reasons he doesn’t understand. Angry and unable to stay away from music, he finds himself side-by-side with his ancestors in the “Land of the Dead.” With the help of old family, new friends and magical alebrije [spirit guides], Miguel navigates the “Land of the Dead” and his family history.

“We worked really hard to provide a respectful tribute to Mexican culture and to this holiday,” Bernardi said.

“Coco” is overflowing with rich language, traditions and symbolism. As sets supervisor, or what Bernardi refers to as “the carpenters and masons of Pixar,” he and his team are responsible for the film’s constructed environment. They take the two-dimensional art direction from production designers, and transform it into a computer model that depicts three-dimensional space.

In preparation for the task, Bernardi and his team first traveled to Mexico to do research.

“The research trips are a lot for inspiration. For me, sets are about a sense of place,” Bernardi said. 

In order to capture and communicate a specific sense of place, they spent time in a small town during Dia de los Muertos. They visited homes and graveyards, which were decorated with vibrant orange Marigold flowers, used to honor and lead the souls of the dead to the family’s offerings.

“There’s a richness to it. There’s even a smell to it. There’s these little incense burners [called] copal. It creates this beautiful smoke and there’s all of this orange and there’s an environment there that just has a feel to it,” Bernardi said.

In his presentation, Bernardi gave a brief overview of “Coco” and shared a number of clips with the crowded auditorium. He spoke about some of the challenges he and his team faced while working on the film. 

“One of the biggest set dressing challenges was the ofrenda,” Bernardi said. 

The film depicted many different ofrendas, or altars, used to honor the dead. They were decorated with photos of ancestors, food, gifts, candles and, of course, marigolds.

“We had this altar, and every flower was placed there by hand, every item was modeled and shaded by someone and put there with intent and purpose for the film,” Bernardi said.

He additionally described the complex process of creating the “Land of the Dead,” a vast and detailed landscape, from beginning to end. The enormous scale of the environment was a challenge Bernardi feels his team successfully portrayed. 

“I was blessed with an amazing team on this film,” he said. 

As for advice for students who may be prospective animators or Pixar employees, Bernardi kept it simple.

“Work hard and know what you love,” he said. “When I first applied to Pixar, they weren’t hiring. It was one of those things where you wait, and you work and you get better at what you do, and if that’s really where you want to be, you’ll find a way to get there.”

“Coco” was released in Mexico on Oct. 27, a few days prior to Dia de los Muertos, and quickly broke box office records, becoming Mexico’s highest-grossing movie. The film’s U.S. release is Nov. 22.