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Brad Bird

An Interview by Michael Barrier

Elsewhere on the site, in my review of Pixar's The Incredibles, I say this:

"It's the best of Pixar's six features, and the first computer-animated feature I've seen that gives me hope that the medium may eventually have the same capacity for artistic expression as hand-drawn animation. [Brad] Bird [as writer and director] surely deserves most of the credit for this breakthrough, and probably all of it."

Brad BirdI've seen The Incredibles three times now, and my admiration for the film has increased each time I've seen it. That doesn't happen very often with recent animated films.

The Incredibles has many other admirers: it was nominated for a total of four Academy Awards, including best animated feature and best original screenplay. When the Los Angeles Times asked me to write about The Incredibles for its February 27, 2005, Oscar preview edition, I was happy to accept the commission. I asked Brad Bird if he could make time for a telephone interview, on very short notice, and he was able to do so. We talked on the evening of February 16, 2005.

Barrier: I've been astonished by how precise the parallels have been that some people have drawn between the film and certain superhero comic books, like Powers, Watchmen, and Fantastic Four. I gather from other interviews, though, that you really haven't been that much of a comic-book reader, and really haven't been consciously influenced by these comic books. What kind of feedback have you been getting from fans about these supposed influences, and how have you been responding?

Bird: I was not a big comic-book reader. I read a few, when I was little, but I was really much more into things like "Peanuts" and "B.C."—funny strips. I got my heroes secondhand, from television and movies, to a certain extent. When fans ask if I was influenced by issue 47 of Whoeverman, I have no idea what they're talking about. I'm perfectly willing to believe that I'm not the first to come up with certain ideas involving superheroes; it's probably the most well-trod turf on the planet. If there are similarities, it's simply because the same thoughts that occurred to other people also occurred to me. I'd be astonished if anyone could come up with any truly original powers that were at all interesting any more.

That's not the part of the story that I'm interested in, anyway. The part that I'm interested in is all the personal stuff. I tried to base the powers on family archetypes. The father is always expected to be strong, so I had him have strength. Moms are always pulled in a million different directions, so I had her be elastic. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so I had her be invisible and have protective shields. Ten-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls, so I had him be speed. And babies are unknown—they may have great powers, they may have none.

Barrier: Since the film has come out, and you've heard these comic books invoked, have you read any of them?

Incredibles DVDBird: No, I haven't. I'm only now catching up on movies that have come out. I have three kids and a wife, and any moments that aren't dedicated to working on this film in some way, or family, are immediately reserved for sleep. I'm now in a rush to see all these other films that came out this year. I even mentioned on the Dennis Miller show that I met Annette Bening last week, and I told her I thought she was great in Finding Julia—and then I went, "No, no, no! Being Julia, Finding Neverland. It's confusing because I'm gulping them down too fast now. And it's not only films, I'm pretty unaware of anything that's going on in popular culture right now. I'm behind on books, I don't know what's happening in music—I had the Grammies on the other night and I'd only heard a couple of the songs before. I've got to play catchup now. Don't' get me wrong—I'm interested, but the pile of stuff I have to look at is just ungodly.

Barrier: Had you even heard of Powers before?

Bird: No, no. I've heard of Watchmen. Other people have mentioned that aspects of it are similar to Incredibles, I think something about the superheroes being retired. I know it's very highly regarded; if you're going to be compared to something, it's nice if it's something good.

Barrier: Speaking of the films you've been watching—for original screenplay you're up against four live-action films that have generally gotten very strong reviews, and of course one of them, The Aviator, was nominated for best picture. If you had to choose between the two Oscars you've been nominated for, for best original screenplay and best animated feature, which one would be the most significant to you?

Bird: No one's ever won the best original screenplay for an animated film before, and I think some of the best stories that have been put on film, have been for animated films. I suppose best original screenplay would be a little more special, for the reason that you're competing against all films, without any qualifications, and the fact that no animated film has ever won it before. To [win] any kind of an Oscar is an honor, but when you're being compared against a much wider group of movies and then found one of the best, it may even mean a little more.

Barrier: When the Academy created the best animated feature Oscar a few years ago, a lot of people felt that was a ghettoization of animation, essentially foreclosing what happened in 1991, when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture. The Incredibles was very high on a lot of best picture lists—Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said it was the best picture of the year, for example.

Bird: Yes, and Premiere magazine just came out with their cross-section of all the top critics in America, and it was No. 3 for the year. On Rotten Tomatoes, a website that cross-references movie reviews from all over the country, Incredibles was the highest rated film of the year.

Barrier: Which would suggest that if there wasn't an Oscar for best animated feature, The Incredibles might have been nominated for best picture.

Bird: You're not the first one to mention that.

Barrier: Do you think the effect of the best animated feature Oscar has been to make it more difficult for a film like The Incredibles to win an Oscar outside that category?

Bird: I think some voters who may truthfully believe that an animated film is one of the five best of the year may feel like if they nominate you for best animated film they're off the hook. I certainly don't want to be complaining—the film has been very well received, and to be nominated for four Oscars is wonderful. But you don't have to look very deep to see that people treat animation differently. We went through the same thing on The Simpsons with the Emmy award for best comedy. No one denies Simpsons is one of the best comedies ever to appear on televsion, but has it ever been nominated with other comedies? As far as Incredibles goes, I can tell when people like the film, and yet when they come up to congratulate me many say, "My kid loves it." It's almost like they're embarrassed to admit an animated film got to them. But for a filmmaker who works in animation, when you work so hard to realize a moment, draw the audience in, and tell a story as well as you possibly can in a medium that's very difficult to master—you feel like it's the thirties and you're in the Negro Leagues, or something. You may play some of the best ball, but you're never going to get to the World Series.

[But] let's not let animated filmmakers off the hook. I think many cater to that [prejudice] by continually talking down to their audience. When I say that I'm not talking about the good stuff. I'm talking about the majority of animation.

Barrier: You're saying that animation's problem is that it has been conceived as being for a juvenile audience.

Bird: Of course. And many filmmakers do nothing to fight that conception.

Barrier: In that connection, it's striking to me that every time I watch The Incredibles the adult nature of the relationships becomes more and more obvious.

Bird: Well, yes. In some ways, that's made it harder to disregard [the film]. It was discussed in The New York Times not once, not twice, but three times. Sometimes I felt people got silly with their analysis of it, the Ayn Rand nonsense for example, but for the most part, the mere fact that a mainstream animated film was being thought provocative at all, I took as a tremendous win. I was happy about that.

Another thing: Walt Disney has cast such a long shadow over animation, and Disney itself was more of a producer's studio than a director's studio. That has helped [encourage] the idea that [animation] is a process, rather than an art that's guided by a vision. Walt Disney was in effect the director of those great films. He wasn't a good director when he was [literally] directing, as a viewing of any of the few short films he's credited as director make clear, but he was an excellent director in terms of directing his directors. But I think that notion, that it's a system that creates an animated film, and not a person, has been kind of bound up in how people perceive animation. The John Lasseters and the Miyazakis of the world are in the minority. For the most part, we have films that are directed by two or three guys, and which one is the author?

Barrier: They're anonymous.

Bird: I don't think that's always the case. I think that John Musker and Ron Clements have a signature style. But in many cases a studio will put two or three people together as co-directors who may not even like each other or respect each other's work. It's used as a way to diffuse power rather than coalesce a vision.

Barrier: You've laid the groundwork in The Incredibles for a more mature sort of animated film, but I haven't seen anything about what you have in mind for your next feature. Are you thinking of something that's more specifically adult than anything that's been done before, or is this simply too big a leap even now for animated films to make?

Bird: I don't know. It's never moved fast enough for me, and yet I can't complain, because the two films I've made are the films I wanted to make. The Iron Giant was a film where I was essentially given a completely dysfunctional unit and a very short amount of time to turn it around. I had nine months to prepare the film from my twelve-page outline to handing out scenes, with an animation department that was completely screwed up. We had half the time and a third of the money and a dysfunctional department, but there was a certain amount of freedom, too. They were shutting down the division as we were making the film, so, as long as we produced on time and on budget, we were left alone, which is a great advantage. And it turned out that there was a great deal of talent at the Warners feature animation division, it just needed to be completely reorganized.

I'm getting off the subject. Before Iron Giant, I spent years on projects that were too big a leap for investment people to make. I developed "The Spirit" for years. I had a project with Turner Animation called Ray Gunn, which was an animated film-noir science-fiction thing. It was funny and action-packed, but it was a little darker than most mainstream animated films, so it never got cleared for takeoff. I feel like Iron Giant was a step in the direction I wanted to go, in that it brought things like the Cold War in, and it didn't have songs, but it had a boy protagonist. Studio people could understand that, and there was the appeal of a giant robot. I feel like Incredibles was a little further step. I do think quality adult animation is going to happen, but I don't know how far you can push it. The further you want to push the stories, the lower your budget is going to have to be. If you accept that, in animation it means you have to give up certain the quality of the movement itself. It's not like a live-action film where you have to scale down the number of locations (although that can be affected, too). It's more about compromising how much your character actually moves and expresses itself. More expressivity—in hand-drawn, especially—means more drawings, means more money.

Barrier: You mentioned "The Spirit," and I wanted to ask you about Will Eisner.

Bird: "The Spirit" is only comic-book crime fighter I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a film director that I liked [who] talked about "The Spirit" being "cinematic." So I started to read it, and I thought, wow! It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn't have the rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics. It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, '47, '48. Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end. I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting. So I got all the reprints of "The Spirit" I could lay my hands on.

Barrier: You said you'd tried to develop a feature of "The Spirit" some time ago and couldn't make it fly. Is that the sort of thing that would be conceivable now that The Incredibles has broken the ground for it?

Bird: I don't know. I think they're developing a live-action version of "The Spirit." For me, it almost seems like it's past. I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that's considered the kiss of death. I don't think you could get any money for a big animated feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn. For whatever reasons, people perceive CG as being the magic thing that will turn any bad idea good. Maybe five years from now they'll realize that any medium is fine if the characters draw you in and the story is well told. But right now, I think it's probably very difficult to find financing for an ambitious hand-drawn film. You can probably get a movie based on a TV show and up the per-minute cost a little bit from the average episode. Hand-drawn features that are based on TV shows can happen, but they already have their audience locked in.

Barrier: Having worked in CG, could you return to hand-drawn animation yourself now, without feeling a dislocation?

Bird: I could absolutely do a hand-drawn film. That said, there are certain things about working in CG that I do truly prefer. I love the minute control over facial animation, whereas in hand-drawn, once you get down to the width of a pencil line between drawings it's very difficult to control, because the line itself becomes more active than any movement it's supposed to represent. And I love being able to move the camera in space. That said, there is a look, and a tactile feel, to hand-drawn that computer just can't replicate—computer has its own thing, and it's a wonderful medium, and I would love to do other things with that medium, but hand-drawn is also something that you can't get any other way… so I hate to see it abandoned. Just as I don't wish to see Nick Park abandon clay animation, until he wants to abandon clay. I love "Wallace and Gromit" just the way it is, and I look forward to any stop motion that Henry Selick wants to do. Stop motion is probably the closest thing to CG that there is, and yet it doesn't look the same. It has its own feel, a little more "touchy."

I think in the future, people will be combining these things in all sorts of weird ways. If you look at some of the student films that are being done now, they're combining hand-drawn elements with computer with stop motion with clay, and they're all being put on the screen at once. I think that's fascinating, and we're only at the beginning of it. There have been very clear delineations between the arts, and I think those lines are going to be crossed and disappear.

Barrier: Sounds like Cal Arts.

Bird: Yeah, kind of. Maybe the ideal version of Cal Arts.

To answer your question about what's next, I have not actually stopped working on this thing [The Incredibles] yet. It seems like there's always something new to promote. I think the minute the DVD comes out I'm actually going to be done, which will be amazing.

I love being [at Pixar], and I have a lot of ideas, all kinds of different things. I've also developed several live-action projects over the years that, like many of my animated projects, haven't gotten off the ground. Maybe now that I've made some films, I'll encounter less resistance to those ideas, because I'm still committed to getting them made. I love the medium of film, and any way to tell a story on film, whether it be live action or animated or a blend, I'm up for. I think film is the best medium there is on the face of the earth, because it combines all arts into one. So I have no shortage of ideas, and the minute all this activity slows down enough for me to think, I'll get to work on something new.

[Posted February 27, 2005]