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November 2004
The Incredibles: An Interview with Brad Bird

The Incredibles: An Interview with Brad Bird

By Todd Gilchrist

Since his first high-profile gig as director of the acclaimed and memorable "Family Dog" sequence of Steven Spielberg's '80s TV show "Amazing Stories", Brad Bird has come a long way- writer for "*batteries not included", director for "The Simpsons", and auteur responsible for the celebrated flop "The Iron Giant". With the release of "The Incredibles", his name stands to become a household word for millions of families. In this interview with blackfilm.com, Bird explains the process by which he landed his creativity at Pixar, the folks responsible for such CGI epics as "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc.", and how he made superheroes human beings just like anybody else.

How easy making the transition from classical animation to 3-D animation?

Brad Bird: It was not as difficult as - I mean, I definitely had to learn the world and the technology is really amazing, but it's also on the edge of failing a lot of times. You know, it's kind of like an old TV set versus a really advanced digital one. If the signal is bad on an old TV set, you get a little bit of snow, maybe the image rolls a little bit, but it's still the image. You can still understand what it is. But if the digital thing gets its signals broken, people start sneering and turning purple and going as though you've dropped acid or something. So that's kind of what this system is like. When it goes south, really weird things happen. If the decimal point isn't in the right place, really bizarre stuff happens. There's one scene where Helen is in the tunnel, we're watching it, and there's this little flash. And I'm saying, "what is this flash? Can we go back?" And so we go back a frame at a time and we find one frame where there's this white streak that goes all the way from off screen up to her face. One frame. And I said, "What is that?" So one of the computer guys went into it and analyzed it and it turns out that it's one of her teeth shooting out of her head at Mach 5. Yeah. That's the kind of stuff that happens in CG, and that's weird. That said, I think people focus too much on technique of animation, and I think the most important areas to a film's success are the same as a live-action film. Do we understand the characters? Can we empathize with them? Can we follow them? Is the plot surprising and logical? If we don't do those jobs, we're not going to have a good film, no matter what the technology is. I think what makes a good animated film is what makes a good live-action film. I think it's all film, and I think that people in animation spend too much time - when it was hand-drawn, they all said if you lay each drawing end to end it will go to Mars and back three times or whatever, and it was just like - But that's not the point. You could have a million drawings that don't make you feel anything or you could have 20 drawings that capture a feeling beautifully. People get obsessed with the numbers of things. You directed one of the best classically animated films of the last 20 years (Iron Giant) Would you shed a tear if classical animation completely disappeared?

BB: Yes, I would, but I think that I'm an optimist and I think the present stupidity that says that it's defunct will be short lived.

You're talking about Disney now.

BB: No, I'm not. I'm talking about a lot of the press. I don't think Disney's stopped doing hand-drawn stuff. I think they're still doing it. They're still doing stuff on DVD. They're still producing a lot of hand drawn stuff. You know, they did Teacher's Pet, and they've done a lot of small-budget things as well. I think that it's easy to blame a film's failures on technique, because if the remedy is buying a computer, everyone can get out of trouble, they can just buy a computer and their problems are solved. I think they're going to find that their problems are not solved by a computer and that if you have a bad idea, a computer isn't going to make it better. So I think that a lot of CG films are going to come out because Hollywood tends to overdo anything that succeeds. I think some of them will be good and a lot of them won't. And when a lot of them start to fail, the inevitable headline will be - and please don't be one of the guys writing this headline cause it's as moronic as anything else - but the inevitable headline will be "Audience losing interest in CG films." No, they won't be, because they're not interested in the technology. They're interested in characters and a premise, and they're interested in being taken somewhere. And if the film takes them somewhere that they want to go, they'll like it, no matter whether it's pixels or drawings or puppets or clay. I happen to like CG and there are advantages to CG that are wonderful, but there are all advantages to 2-D. I don't think Nick Parks' films would be improved at all by CG. I think that Nick Park's work is beautiful and perfect working in clay. I think that you should work in any medium that you feel that you can effectively tell your story in and I like being able to move the camera and being able to move the camera and have really subtle little facial changes that are very difficult in hand-drawn [animation.] But I also think that there's a graphic quality in hand-drawn [animation] that you can't get any other way. You have to do it drawing style. "101 Dalmations" would not be better as a CG film. I don't think Pinocchio would be better. I think that they are perfect the way they are, so I hope we can just fast-forward to a time where whatever medium the director wants to use to tell the story in, that's what we have. And I'm hoping people will become open enough to see any style and accept any style, and enjoy it."

Did you face any problems getting this project going after "The Iron Giant" was released?

BB: I actually had the idea for this long before Iron Giant. It was the one I wanted to do next. The difficulties are the difficulties you face any time you make a movie. You're always trying to make the story be efficient, but you're trying not to make it feel rushed. You're trying to get people to make connections with the characters and be able to understand and empathize with them. You're trying to do something that is surprising but feels logical, and it's a challenge every single time.

How did you become involved with Pixar?

BB: I've known John [Lasseter] for a while and they had actually been talking to me about coming up and joining Pixar since "A Bug's Life". And I was talking to them, but I was always involved in something and they were doing their thing, but we kept talking and after "Iron Giant" was done, it just seemed like a good time and I pitched this idea to them and they got it immediately, and didn't seek to change it into anything else. They just totally signed on to what the film was and the flavor of that thing. They didn't try to make me make it more like "Toy Story" or any one of their other movies. They just said 'we want to do all different kinds of films, and this is great. Let's go for it.' and that was refreshing."

How much did Andrew Stanton contribute to the film?

Andrew Stanton wrote the first several drafts of Nemo and when he got into directing it the project was big and complicated, so he had a few other writers work with him just to facilitate things. I don't know - I look at every Pixar film as director-driven. I think that's what distinguishes them from other studios. They want original ideas, and they want the director to be invested in it. It's not an assignment at Pixar - you know what I mean? - and John (Lasseter) loves toys and he has opinions about toys that are really detailed and nuanced, and he'll tell you why the 0M Spy Camera gun was one of the coolest toys and why these other ones aren't as good. . . . and you can feel that in the Toy Story films. Andrew Stanton, you can feel his relationship with his own son and his struggle with being over-protective. He had a fascination with fish too. Pete Docter wondered if there's monsters in the closet - where do they go? The philosophy at Pixar is that if you're deeply passionate and invested in your film, you're going to stay passionate for the 2 or 3 or 4 years that it takes to make it. So that's their philosophy, and I feel like I'm another example of that.

What was the inspiration for this film?

BB: This is a sort of gumbo of all the adventure movies and spy movies and comedies and TV shows and comic book things that I liked as a kid, kind of stirred together with my own personal family stuff - both the family that I grew up in and the family that I have now with my wife and sons. It's just kind of a gumbo of all that stuff stirred together. It's supposed to feel like a lot of things and nothing.

You voiced one character. That must be Edith Head.

BB: Well, we certainly looked at Edith Head. But there are actually a lot of female fashion designers, if you research it, that have giant glasses. But also, Patricia Highsmith was an influence. She wrote "The Talented Mister Ripley" . . . Linda Hunt. When you're designing a character, you're just saying - who is that? We have drawings and you can see them in "the art of . . ." book where she's taller and fatter and older and younger and thin. We tried a lot of stuff and we kept saying no, no, more like this, but I like the nose on this one, and maybe the pageboy cut, maybe glasses should be bigger. Okay, make 'em bigger. . . and you end up with something that reminds you of Edith Head and you of Linda Hunt.

Am I nuts or does Syndrome look like you?

BB: Well, yeah, but I didn't figure that out, I didn't notice it until we were deep into it, because I didn't see it, but everybody's like, hey man, he looks like you.' and I was like, 'well, it's too late now. We've already built him.

How do I feel about that- the villain.

Am I the villain?

How did you come to do the voice of Edna?

BB: We do a temporary soundtrack where we take existing music and kind of cut it together so it kind of represents where we hope to go. We do storyboards and we record people in Pixar, we kind of cast within Pixar people who get in the ball park of what we're looking for, and sometimes those voices stick. Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of "Finding Nemo" was the voice of Crush, and people just liked his voice from the story reel. Joe Ranft, who's a top story guy there, did Heimlich in "A Bug's Life" and did the asthmatic penguin in "Toy Story 2". Bob Peterson, another top story guy, did Roz in "Monsters, Inc." and they tried actresses, but they ended up having to keep telling the actress 'no, make it lower, like this' (lowering voice). And finally they went, 'look. He's already doing it. Why don't we just keep it,' so I think that's kind of what happened. Kari the babysitter in the Incredibles is one of our animators Bret Parker. Rick Dicker, the government guy is Bud Luckey, who wrote and directed the little short you saw beforehand, so we just try to find a voice. Pixar doesn't really care about how famous somebody is. It's more about how right they are for the character.

Any crossover promotions with the insurance industry?

BB: Yeah. I'm sure that's a tie-in that will never happen.

Was there a concern the themes of this might be too mature for kids?

BB: Well, it's a comic book adventure. Are you going to put pillows around the conflict? No. You do a superhero story, and things are going to blow up. There were people where we said, 'okay, now, we're deviating from the norm- hold hands. Is that okay?' and we all held hands and said 'yeah. We don't want to do just one kind of movie, and I think that parents ought to take the PG seriously. Only they know what their kids can see, but some kids were mildly traumatized by "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and they probably shouldn't have seen it. But I don't think you would ever say, 'yeah, take all of that stuff out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the movie that it set out to be.

The difference being that animation still carries a stigma as being only for kids.

BB: Well, that's a long-held bias that I don't happen to agree with. I can't name another art form on the face of the earth that limits its audience by saying it's aimed at one age group. I mean, you don't say 'opera- it's only aimed at 35 to 60 year olds.' I have people asking me what it's like to be working in the animation "genre". It's not a genre. It's an art form that can do any genre, and it's been limited by people's perceptions, but I think it can tell any story there is.

So what's the key to unlocking the medium to all ages?

BB: I don't. Make it happen, man! You could be the guy. Brad Bird still has to get money.

What do you think of 'Adult Swim'?

BB: Uh, some of the stuff is funny and some of it is crap. I mean, you can do crap for adults as well as good stuff for adults. But I think a lot of kids will love this movie, but I think they have to be the kind of kids that are fine with "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

To what degree is this film an homage to these genres and to what degree is it a parody?

BB: I think we have fun with it but I never intended to wink at the audience. I wanted people to care about these characters and believe in this world. I think there's a tendency with some filmmakers to act like they're above the material and I think they're limiting what I film can be because they're always saying 'I don't really believe any of this and you shouldn't either. I'm hip to the fact that this is kind of silly. Well, I wanted to make something that had fun with that world but was sincere about it. And I wanted people to worry about the characters, to care about the characters, and I don't think you can do that to a certain point if you're always winking and nudging the audience. Well, I think winking and nudging to a certain extent is patronizing, unless you're doing an all-out comedy like "Young Frankenstein". Then wink and nudge away. I'm right with you.

How important was the Simpsons to you and your career?

BB: I thoroughly enjoyed that show during the eight seasons I was with it. I think that we did a lot to change people's perceptions that animation could be for adults, you know, that was okay. I think we had some of the same struggles you have in feature animation. I mean, we tried for two years or so to get it in the best comedy category and not the best animated category, because we were competing against Muppet Babies and Garfield, and we were going, come on, man, we're a comedy. So we fought and we fought and finally, after a lot of chair-throwing and threats, the academy said, 'okay, you're eligible to be a comedy. No one nominated us. Now, that was during the height of Seinfeld, and maybe you could argue that we weren't the best comedy, but we sure as blank were in the top and five and you can not tell me that we weren't. And so I think people are prejudiced against animation. I won't say what show I thought we were better than, but I just was begging for an audience laugh-off. You take your best episode and we'll take a mediocre episode and tie the arms and legs behind the back, and we will kill you, you know what I mean? Can you see the heat under my collar? It was important to me. I had a great time with the show, I learned a lot because the writers on that show are so brilliant. We had to move really quickly so I learned about making decisions quickly, which helped me a lot on Iron Giant. It also helped me on Incredibles, because we had a movie that was very large, but we wanted it to be producible and in the same range as any other Pixar film, and the only way we could do that was by planning the daylights out of it and not deviating from the plan. But that's all stuff I learned from working quickly. So it was a great experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Do you know what your next project is?

BB: Well, my next project is yakking about this and then I go into a coma for a short time. But it's a scheduled coma, I'm going to be brought out of it easily, and I have slippers and a nice robe.

How old are your boys?

BB: They are nine, twelve and sixteen. And all of them liked this, so I feel like we did something here.

How old are you?

BB: I'm in my forties. I'm younger than springtime and older than... I got the older minted lady. I've got to start acting like a diva, don't I?

Did your wife like it?

BB: Yeah, she did, even though she was like 'that's one of our arguments.

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