Brad Bird: interview
Wally Hammond talks to director Brad Bird about his career in animation and working on the forthcoming gem, 'Ratatouille'
As animated films have developed, become more sophisticated, they now credit directors of photography. ‘Ratatouille’ has two directors of photography.
The director may chose the camera angle, but the director of photography chooses how the scene is lit. Sometimes the DoP will pick the camera angles as well. Because this is a virtual world, how they are lighting these sets is very much akin to what is done in live-action. How the light is treated, how it is refracted in the air, all that stuff has to be figured out. If it doesn’t turn out perfectly the first time, things have to be moved and re-lit – and it’s really an art form.
I would love to see ‘Ratatouille’ seriously considered for the cinematography award this year, along with films that are live-action. The chances of that may be miniscule. But we got nominated by the Art Director’s Guild for the ‘Incredibles’ alongside a live-action film. So, I think people are starting to see that it is film, and creative decisions still have to be made, and they are the same tools that have to be used. And if the artistic choices are good, they should be weighed alongside other well-made artistic choices from any type of film, whether they be animated or live-action.
There’s some extraordinary detail in the film.
If you look at the water when the rats are escaping – it’s pretty good. All of that was somewhat difficult to do, the shots of the wet kerbstones you’re talking about were done a little later in the process. Water is very tricky. The lovely dull shine on those copper pans! There’s a history to those copper pans. That’s all part of being a working kitchen. You don’t want to feel everything’s brand new. The computer would be much happier if everything was brand new. Ageing. You have to put that in, it doesn’t come automatically. The computer, first of all, doesn’t want to do metal. It would love to do plastic. And the second thing is, it doesn’t want to do anything with any history. It wants it all to be brand new and unused. And we want to create a universe that feels lived in.
I read a piece on recent animation, called the Art of Degradation
That thinking, there’s precedent for that. At the time that George Lucas made the first ‘Star Wars’ space was always presented as pristine. And he wanted to show that they may be fabulous vehicles but they’ve been driven some miles. And, without anyone thinking about it or thinking that was going to help make it a pop hit, everybody believed in that world, because it looked inhabited. Well, the same is true with animation. We want to weave a spell here and make believe this. And although there’s not even remotely believable about a rat actually being able to cook in a French restaurant, if we get a lot of the other details right, they’ll go along with us, with our preposterous notion. If we make it believable. And that’s part of making it believable.
How do the developments in technology affect you as a director?
In any film, if it’s animation or live action you have X amount of resources and X amount of time. If you’re an obsessive person – which film directors tend to be – you can very easily pursue one idea and drive that into the ground and use up a lot of the resources on getting one thing on the screen. History is rife with stories of directors who got so obsessed that heir films went massively over budget – out of control. And then didn’t even work as films. That’s because you can disappear into these decisions and forget the story. I always try to keep one foot on a producer mentality – the clock is running – which of these ideas are the most important to completely nail, to get absolutely perfect? And for which ones, if I get them good, if I do them well rather than perfectly, is that good enough? And if you do that, your team has enough gas to take the whole journey. And when you need them to get something absolutely perfect, you have enough gas in the tank to do that. One thing was different on ‘The Incredibles’ from previous Pixar films. It’s partly based on the difference in the way John Lasseter and I direct. John likes to build the sets in great detail so that the camera can go anywhere. Bulletproof sets. The camera can go on the underside of a table – and there’ll be detail on the underside of the table that you can see. When I came to ‘Pixar’ to do ‘The Incredibles’ the film was so HUGE. And it had so many more sets. There were so many it would have literally tripled the budget of any other Pixar film. We’d still be working on it. So very quickly I had to say what my camera angles were and what I needed to see. And we literally built things so that they only worked – some of the things – from that one angle. If I stuck to the one angle that I said that I needed, there were enough resources to make it look good. And then I was able to move out. I had to really lock down. Whereas John wants to explore his sets and discover things. If I had done that with ‘The Incredibles’ that film would have been dead. On ‘Ratatouille’ things were built a little more in depth but you still have to allocate resources.
There’s a problem of auteur-ship with such a collective working team. For instance, the story idea was inherited from another animator, Jan Pinkava.
Nobody likes not having the guy with the idea not being able to follow it through. But the thing that made the idea, the story, really wonderful was that it really had so many possibilities to it. That was also what made it very hard to shape into a finished story. It came to a point where the curtains were going to go up, in this beautiful world, everybody loved the premise, everbody love the character types, but the storyline was not going in one direction. And it needed to.
I was told I could add sets. I needed to use a few of the ones that they had already built. I had a cast of characters I needed to use. But what they did and how they did it was largely right open. It was like a film school thesis project. You have this set of limitations but other than that you have total freedom. You have this amount of time – now go! If I was specific about what I wanted, they were the best in the world of giving it to me. I couldn’t have asked for more co-operation. It was very difficult, but they couldn’t have been more supportive than they were.
Did you have more satisfaction on your first animated feature, ‘The Iron Giant’, because you saw it through?
Remember I wrote the screenplay for ‘Ratatouille’. I kept a lot of the elements that everyone loved, but I was free to change anything that I felt was at odds with something else in the story. And I was freed to come up with new solutions. So I started a whole new script. I only had two lines of dialogue from the previous version. And two shots. I did a whole new lot of story reels with (Head of Story) Mark Andrews. Every shot in the movie is something I worked out. So even though we had a very tight schedule, it is the movie I was hoping it would be. And I hope that Jan feels good about it too.
It’s a very sophisticated film. Was the company worried it might not appeal to the younger children and therefore cut box-office potential?
They never expressed any doubt about it. They were more like, ‘Wow! I’m engaged by this.’ I never heard one word in Pixar about ‘Will kids get this?’. I don’t think it’s important that they get everything. I think that it’s important that they get engaged, interested. But I think that people confuse between ‘being interested’ with ‘understanding every single thing’. And therefore, if it can’t be understood by a 5-year-old, it’s not worth putting on film. I just don’t agree with that. I think that children are very smart. I also think that, I would love it if people felt about this film how I feel about a lot of my favourite films where I get different things from them at different ages. Certain jokes I laughed at in ‘Bugs Bunny’ when I was 8 years old are different jokes than the ones I am laughing about now. Now I’m laughing about Daffy Duck looking at the camera and going: ‘pronoun trouble!’, you know. But, I’m still laughing at the same cartoon. So I’m hoping that my movie is a movie that you can see more than once, and at different times in your life and get different things from it.
You show your affections in ‘The Iron Giant’ for 1950s Americana. Here we have restaurant world of Paris in the 1960s or 1970s. Do you have any special affection for that?
I do now. One of the problems that I had with the film at the point when I got involved with it was that a lot of fantastic research had been done and while it was represented in the film visually, it wasn’t represented in the story. And I can only think that they thought that people would maybe bored by some of the details of the kitchen. And I didn’t think that it was boring. I thought it was interesting. And that rather than assume that the audience wouldn’t find it interesting, let’s make it interesting. Let’s tell them who is in charge in the kitchen. What is the heirachy in the kitchen? And women are a minority in the kitchen – how weird is that? And how does that effect them? One of the greatest things about movies is that they take you different places and you see things from different perspectives. You’ve met John Lasseter (Creative Chief Officer of Pixar and ‘Ratatouille’s Executive Producer). Here’s a guy who’s interested in everything. Really interested. And he could go down absolutely any alleyway – metaphorically speaking – and be completely engaged. He’s perpetually a child in the best sense, that is about being curious about the world. And I share that feeling.
Is the competition between Dreamworks and others and yourselves to chase the lucrative box-office from the family audience threatening to decrease the impact the new animated films should have?
I think we, with ‘Ratatouille’, have been more than a victim of a lot of fuzzy animal films that came out before us that just have a bunch of jabbering, wise-cracking practically interchangeable animals. People will take one look at our talking rats and think: ‘Oh! It’s one of those.’. And it’s true, they’ve not showed up. Even though it comes from Pixar. We’ve had the greatest reaction ever from people who have gone to see it, but the reaction to seeing it we’ve found surprising. And I think it’s partially down to that rack of animal films.
We have a schedule to produce a film a year. But that goal is ‘as long as we can maintain the quality’. It isn’t about the schedule first. I’m really happy about this company that they will not, are tenacious about not compromising quality. It has to be our best effort. That’s more important than anything. There’s going to be times when it won’t work out. But it won’t be because we didn’t try our absolute best to make it as good as we could. And that’s rare.
You’ve said you’s be happy to move into live-action as a director. Why isn’t this exciting world of animation enough of a magnet?
Well, for me, film is the magnet. All film is about about creating a ‘reality’ that is not ‘real’ but is believable. That, to me, is the magnet. I have some stories that I have to tell that are for animation, some that are for live-action, and some that are a blend of the two. It’s all film. I love it all. I love film.
Author: Wally Hammond
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