The animation icon talks about his latest technical achievements

This week, I was invited to attend Disney's Blu-Ray Disc symposium. We were treated to a couple of studio tours, and allowed an advanced look at some of the great titles Disney, Fox, and Sony Entertainment have coming out on the new Hi-Def format. But it was the Ratatouille presentation that had the fifty-plus crowd of tech-site writers and entertainment journalists buzzing with anticipation. Huge Linguini and Remy standees crowded the Mt. Olympus auditorium on the third floor of the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood, California, where part of this seminar was being held. The crowd could hardly contain themselves, picking at the Blu-Ray display boxes that had been set up to glorify the arrival of this animated classic on Disc.

Brad Bird was about to make his entrance. The guy is already an icon in the world of animation. He has directed such classics in the genre as "Iron Giant" and The Incredibles. Today, He was going to do a little lecture about the new format, and how he has utilized it in bringing Ratatouille into the home market. This was truly proving to be the most exciting event of the two-day Blu-Ray celebration.

Ratatouille is one of Pixar's greatest computer-generated animation achievements to date. And if you have the money, Blu-Ray is the only way to go when viewing this film for your own entertainment. The format provides an absolutely perfect reproduction of the film the animators intended. This is the way they wanted you to see it, and it is even more gloriously showcased in Blu-Ray than it was on most theater screens. We were allowed to ask Brad Bird about the process of turning his film over to the format.

Here is what he had to say about the matter:

This is one of the biggest films of the year. How does it feel to have everybody so responsive to what you guys have done?

Brad Bird: We're just grateful to get out with our skin still on. The response has been wonderful. Disney knew that this was an international film. They always expected that it would take off overseas. That's the nature of this particular beast. Because of the way this business is treated, people become cynical about which ideas are allowed to move forward. Pixar is not a cynical place, though. We never take our ideas into a focus group. We don't do those types of meetings. We never thought, "Rats are going to be big this year!" Or, "Lets slap a title on there we can't pronounce!" At Pixar, we create something because it is fun. That's the way it was done eighty years ago. Back then, people just trusted the filmmakers. It wasn't all about pie charts. It was what they wanted to do personally. That's the way we approach our projects.

What are we going to be able to see in an animated film that Blu Ray is really going to bring out of it?

Brad Bird: I'd love to tell you something exotic. Anybody that has seen Ratatouille in a decent theater knows how much detail there is in the movie. There is an astonishing amount of detail. We don't get any of that free. We can't buy an old antique dish and bring it in. In animation and CGI we have to build that stuff. We have to put in all the little scratches and blemishes. We have to paint them. Every single thing is put there. Every little thing is a decision. We put those dents in that copper pot. So we have a horrendous amount of detail in these things. We put that detail in there to be viewed on a really big screen. We hope, we assume, that people will have the best projection and the best sound. Unhappily, a lot of theaters don't. They have loose gates, so that their films have less chance of breaking. But what happens is, when you loosen the gate, the film doesn't break as much, but you also don't get it in perfect focus. There are a lot of little things like that, that the distributors do. They do that so they don't have to watch there films and look at them all that much. The thing about Blu Ray is that it's a perfect rendition of your film. The colors are completely what we intended them to be. If your monitor is calibrated, you are going to see it the way we made it. With Blu Ray, if you blow up the image, it looks really good. Because you are know getting to see more detail. And this is just jaw dropping to me. I didn't expect it to be this good. It is really great. You are going to see all of the detail that we put in it there. Yeah.

What are you looking forward to the most, know that we have a world where we can play films on a format like Blu Ray?

Brad Bird: I would love to say all of the incredibly complex features that are available on a disc. But actually, it's about seeing things with incredible detail and quality. I actually want movie theaters to step it up, because I love the theatrical experience of sitting in the dark and watching things with an audience. The screens have gotten smaller. The releases have gotten so wide that quality control is hard. The things I love most, are the simplest things. With Blu Ray, if you see it and you shut out the lights, and you have a decent system, you will see the movie that we made. Which is not the case with a lot of theaters that are not careful about their presentation. I went to a place in Vermont to see Spider-Man 2 on its second day of release, and there were three giant scratches going through the entire film. Its because it was a multiplex. The manager didn't care. When we went to complain, and he was playing pinball. All he had to do was clean the gate. So, when you work this hard to get all of the details right, you want to see it. You go through a lot of sweat to have people go, "Spit!" When they put it on a screen, and don't care about the quality, it is really depressing. One of the things I like most about Blu Ray is that you are seeing it pristine, and perfect. It's not going to fade. You can play it one hundred times, and its still going to look great the hundredth time you play it. So, I would love to give you an exotic answer, but that's what I look forward to the most. Seeing all of the films I have yet to see in that clean of a format. Seeing a beautiful new print of a classic film is also incredible. I love that I have that that to look forward too.

Knowing the latest achievements in interactive content, how is that going to change the production process while you are in the middle of a project? Are you going to be constantly thinking of ways to change the format of your Blu Ray DVD when it finally comes out on the market?

Brad Bird: All the extra materials? I think we are ahead of the game on it. I go back and forth on how much the audience should know. Guys like Spielberg don't even do commentaries. And I think that might be right. But I've never followed that advice. I have always done commentaries. On The Incredibles, we started really early by filming all of our meetings. There was a lot of boring stuff that we captured, that isn't on that disc. But we also caught some real golden moments. Making movies is hard. There is a tendency, when making these extra materials, to just slap on a happy face. Usually, this stuff is shot after the movie is completed. They tell people to group around this desk, and to act like they are working on a scene that was done ten months ago. You have to be happy, and you have to smile. They want you to look like a happy worker. But these films are hard. It is a lot of creative people that all have different opinions. Its conflict. It is war. It's a good war, but its war. So, we brought cameras on early with The Incredibles. We had some really great special features because of that. I think all of the films we do at Pixar after that will kind of have that bent. We will cover the whole process, and the uniqueness of the beast. People are aware that we are using Hi-Def cameras now, for all of this stuff. There are so many different ways that you can approach a film. Its like film school in a box. You won't even need to go to school. You can just slap on a disk. And you can learn everything you need to know about it from that disc.

Did you have any involvement with the special features on Ratatouille?

Brad Bird: I didn't, because of the time crunch. I had to turn that aspect of this disc over to someone else and let them drive it. I did give them a lot of notes. I think the package looks great, though. It is really amazing. The richness of the detail, and the color of the image are great. I can't think of another way to perfectly preserve your film.

Going back to the film itself, did you have to do a lot of research in making Ratatouille?

Brad Bird: Yeah, we actually did do a lot of research. A lot of that stuff was done before I came onto the picture. This was a pretty exclusive world, and it was hard to jump right into the middle of that. Pixar is a huge place. We have a lot of people there that started out wanting to be something different in life. They wanted to be lawyers, or doctors, and they actually went to school for that. Somewhere down the road, they decided that they didn't want to do that anymore. And they decided to become animators instead. So, we had quite a few people who were chefs. They actually went to culinary school. They came in and were animators on this project. We did a lot of our research that way. We also made a lot of trips to France, and ate at a lot of the higher end restaurants there, in that country. To see how it was done, and how those restaurants were run. We did a lot of research like that. We love detail. We love to just plunge into these new worlds and explore them. I think people can sense why these things look so authentic. Chefs have a lot of scars on their hands. From burning themselves, and cutting themselves with knifes while they prepare the food. We put that in there. Not a lot of people notice that. But some did.

Do you know when they are going to release The Incredibles on Blu-Ray disc?

Brad Bird: I honestly don't know. It's all top-secret stuff. They could tell me, but then they'd have to kill me. I'm sure its coming. They plan these things very carefully.

Does the advent of Blu-Ray change the way you make movies?

Brad Bird: No, it doesn't. Because I'm a really hard guy when it comes to quality, anyway. I stay after it.

What do you think of the motion-capture films, like Beowulf?

Brad Bird: I think that Mo-Cap is a wonderful tool. Just look at how Peter Jackson used it, to see how affective it can be. I think the dirty little secret of Mo-Cap is that the little things that you really like have been massaged by animators. With Gollum, Andy Serkis did a wonderful job of physicalizing that character. I think that is brilliant. I also know that those scenes were massaged a lot, to look the way they do, by animators. Several of the most emotional moments with Gollum were key-framed. The animators looked at Andy, but they didn't use the Mo-Cap. They key-framed it. The scene that impressed me the most, where Frodo calls him Smigel, and Gollum goes, "What did you call me?" "Your real name." And Gollum thinks, "My name? My name?" And he starts to remember this part of himself that he has forgotten. You can see it in his eyes. And it's magnificent. I found out that it was entirely animated. It was not Mo-Cap. That's what people "don't" talk about. And I think it does a tremendous disservice to animators. There is nothing wrong with animation. Animators are not technicians. They are artists. They think about performance. I would implore actors to consider animators as brethren. We use different techniques, but we are just as much about the way someone stands, what they are thinking, are they hiding their thoughts? Is that depicted in their eyes? So, I feel like, if you don't muck with Mo-Cap, you don't get the performance from the actors, and you don't get the characteristics of anime. The best Mo-Cap I have seen has all been mucked with by animators. Much the same way the best roto-scope in Disney's time was mucked with. I'm not against Mo-Cap. But I think it has limitations if you don't mess with it.

Is there any chance that you'd do a more adult, R rated animated film?

Brad Bird: Well, it's baby steps with Hollywood, because someone has to pay for this stuff. The industry is full of very intelligent individuals. But overall, they are not so swift with their chance taking. They say, "Can't we do the thing we did last year and slap another number on it?" This past summer was a great example. It's what Hollywood wants to do. Ratatouille was the only big original film this summer. People always say, "There was Transformers and "The Simpsons Movie"." I'm sorry, but Transformers was a Tv show and a toy. And The Simpsons is a show that is still on the air. They might be very enjoyable films, but they are not original. You know what I mean? They are continuations or reiterations. I think there absolutely could be a more adult animated film. Unfortunately, the only R rated animated films that have been made, have been made with a teenager's view of what adult means. Which means a lot of boobs, and a lot of swearing, and a lot of blood. It doesn't mean weightier subject matter, or something that is more sophisticated. That is the unfortunate state of it. I would like to see someone do something on the sophistication of the more adult live-action films in the medium. I want to see detailed characters that bring about a different light. I would love to see Disney-level craftsmanship brought to that arena. Anyway, we'll see. It is always changing.

Can you talk about 1906?

Brad Bird: Not really. We are going through the early days on it. I'm really excited about it, though. I did start to work on it right after The Incredibles. When they asked me to work on Ratatouille, I put a little pause button on it. I have now taken that off. I'm all about that. It is live action. But there is this need in the entertainment press, where once you move out of animation into the world of "respectable" filmmaking, to think that you are doing a "real film". I got your "legitimate film" right here, buddy! But I want to move into different kinds of projects. I have live-action films that I want to make. I have live action films that I want to make. I have films that are a blend. I like Westerns, I like horror films, I like political films. I just like a whole bunch of different kinds of films. And I hope I get to make a lot of them before I kick the bucket.

Ratatouille will be available on Blu-Ray and Standard DVD on November 6th, 2007. Just in time for you to buy Panasonic's Next Generation Blu-Ray player: The DMP-BD30!