TIFF Presents: In Conversation With Brad Bird (video and highlights)

By Mike Valiquette

I wasn’t able to make it to the Brad Bird talk held at TIFF a few weeks ago, but thankfully I have good friends who were willing to share the experience. And ALSO thankfully, TIFF thought they’d share it too! Here’s the video:

Here’s a few highlights thanks to Sean Janisse, Barry Sanders and Rich Duhaney:

“Never make anything for an audience that doesn’t include yourself.”

“Just make it.”

Some paraphrasing on this one:

Step 1 is recognizing bad work, but that’s easy.

Step 2 is explaining why it’s bad, which is harder.

Step 3 is the hardest part, explain how it could have been improved. Then you are adding something and expanding your skills.

There was also a great point about making sure to consume more than just animation so that you’re not living in/creating from a bubble.

But our pal Brent Smith went above and beyond with some detailed coverage of the event, so I’m just going to share that here in it’s entirety. Thanks Brent!

Brad Bird came to Toronto to talk to an audience that was full of animation students and professionals on Tuesday May 29 at the TIFF Lightbox. I was excited to hear one of my favourite filmmakers talk about his work and his latest film.
I was not disappointed. The details of creating characters, building worlds and telling stories were captivating.
His origins:
 
Brad Bird’s early drawings as a child were primitive like most of ours, but he remembered that, even very early on, his were meant to be viewed in sequence. When he got older, his parents indulged his passion to view films multiple times, which was not common for most people at that point. He was studying film.
 
Observations from Pinnochio:
 
As a child, he was intrigued by people who imitated others – people on the street or on screen. He recognized that this could be done purposefully the first time he saw Disney’s Pinnochio. During the song “I’ve Got No Strings”, rather than simply performing the song, Pinnochio was animated as if he was learning as he went along because he was doing it for the first time. It was apparent in his gestures that the puppet wasn’t able to distinguish between the audience’s good and bad reactions, so he ended up playing up to any attention, which got him into trouble and was his core character trait.
 
Creator of Sideshow Bob:
Brad was a fan of the inspiration for Krusty, a clown host for kids shows and cartoons called “Rusty Nails” who was on TV in Matt Groening’s hometown. Brad was drawing keys for Krusty before creating a new character: Sideshow Bob. Bob was designed to be an absurd character with whom the audience could engage and connect, a character with depth beyond Kelsey Grammar’s sophisticated vocals.
 
Iron Giant:
 
Brad was working at Turner Feature animation when Warner Animation bought them up. This included Turner’s library, everything Turner was developing and the last 3 months left on Brad’s contract. At that time, he was working on developing an animated sci-fi film called “Ray Gun” and Warner didn’t like it. Since the new owners now had 48 films in ‘development’, they asked Brad which one he wanted to take over. The book “Iron Giant” was being developed as a musical, and that’s the point at which Brad stepped in.
 
He went back to Ted Hughes’ book, which was what drew him to this property. It had a sense of melancholy that came from a core of loss that appealed to Brad. The time period wasn’t specified in the book but the paranoia suggested that the era of Sputnik and the early cold war would suit the story.
 
Hogarth and the Iron Giant:
 
In order to understand death himself, Hogarth had to lead someone else (the giant) through feelings that the boy didn’t yet understand.
 
The giant’s original design was much more detailed and articulated, to the point that it actually had jointed lips and way too many controls! That didn’t suit Brad’s vision of the giant’s origins (What is useful about robot lips or human facial expression on a being who had never encountered humans?), so he asked Ralph McQuarrie, a concept artist on Star Wars, to give it a try. They kept pulling away detail, but the robot still needed to express himself. They built him eyelids that could be rotated to suggest eyebrows as well as cheeks to give him more emotional range. The jaw was a fixed shape but had the ability to push out and twist a little to give even more range to his expressions.
 
The Incredibles:
 
This began as an earlier concept of a character who had reached the peak of his abilities and passion for his work 20 years ago. The idea evolved into a superhero story, with the characters were developing by asking a series of yes or no questions about decisions they might make.
 
Ratatouille: 
 
Brad was already part of the Pixar ‘Brain Trust’ before coming on this film, and was presented with this story to offer input which led to him being appointed director. This meant he had to find a way to make the audience root for gourmet chefs, one of the questions that formed when he was in the ‘trust’.
 
The Title:
 
Ratatouille was the working title early on, but not finalized in the last few months as the production was nearing completion. Brad was asked to pick from a list of potential titles to take to Steve Jobs for approval. The problem was that “they all stink!” (RATS! – an actual possibility. Really???) Brad had a film to finish and didn’t want to waste time thinking about this, but he had to do his job, and talk to Jobs. Brad’s argument to keep Ratatouille? “It’s good, it’s French, it has ‘rat’ in it!” And that was it.
 
Remy and Emile:
 
Patton Oswalt was Brad’s favourite of about 10 different actors because his voice was able to convey a rich layering of emotion, a great inspiration for an animator. It was also a great contrast to the voice of Emile, storyboard artist on the film Pete Sohn who had been recorded for the scratch track. Initially the characterization of both characters was reversed – Remy was laid back and Emile was a bundle of nervous energy. It made more sense the other way around – the passionate future chef and the dude going with the flow, so the first time tried this direction, Brad had him drink two beers to slow him down. And all subsequent recording sessions were with Pete visualizing that feeling.
 
Making the switch to live action – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:
 
After completing The Incredibles, Brad was invited to talk with Tom Cruise. It turned out that Tom appreciated the film’s storytelling, was especially impressed with the staging of the animated action sequences and was interested in working together. This led to Brad directing the next Mission Impossible film. It turns out that the timing and rhythm necessary to effective animated action sequences translates well into live action. Staging was the key to each.
 
Both men were inspired by Orson Welles and Chuck Jones. Tom was Brad’s advocate to the producers, as he had celebrated each of the director’s different visions for the franchise. As a result, Brad was able to check off 5 out of six items he wanted to see in a spy film.
 
Here are some of Brad’s most quotable advice and insights:
 
On making professional connections –
Send your work to the person at the top. If they reject you, go to the next highest person on your list and down the line until you get a positive response. That way you know you are working with the best person that you can.
 
On voice direction –
Look for a voice that tells the audience something about the character. More importantly, it needs to be interesting enough to engage the animator’s imagination for the weeks they have to work with it.
 
On recruiting at Pixar –
We look for people with more classical training – more than simply a talent for animation, they have a passion for character, design and storytelling.
 
On visual storytelling –
Communicating visually makes for clarity, even if it’s rough. (Words can easily be interpreted differently by different people;an image makes for less confusion.)
 
On education –
Be aggressive in seeking new information. Don’t settle for mediocre knowledge. (Brad and his classmates sound out industry vets outside of class hours to supplement the curriculum from one instructor that they felt didn’t know that subject very well. They actually broke into a classroom and invited the vets to speak.)
 
On inspiration –
Look for inspiration beyond animation: your own life, film, fine arts, opera, books and music. Let these influences become your style.
 
People who only look to animation for inspiration will repeat what has already been done.
 
On style and serving the narrative –
Directors in any medium who inspired Brad concentrate on staging and not simply performance. Look to how staging is done in other mediums and how it strengthens the story being told.
 
On criticism and analysis –
Most people only scratch the surface. Analyze the films that grab you and figure out why you find it appealing. With work that sucks, don’t just say you don’t like it – fewer people will take the time to analyze why they don’t like it. Fewer still will try to figure out how to fix it.
 
On motivation –
Do it before you have permission and support.
Create now.
 
On creating for an audience –
Make sure that the audience you are creating for includes you! Brad likes to picture himself in the most comfortable seat in an elegant movie theatre with curtains that open and then thinks about what he wants to see on that screen.

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