Everybody loves Pixar. Eh, it's okay. I can take it or leave it. Everybody loves Brad Bird, too. I didn't really know who he was. Not until I sat down at the Pixar Panel to watch a Brad Bird introspective...
He's cool, I guess. But I've still never seen Iron Giant. I hope when I finally do see it, it's worth the hype. Doesn't matter. I'm the only guy smart enough to have recorded and transcribed the entire Pixar ordeal at Comic-Con. Here it is for you, fellow cartoon lovers...
On hand are Director Brad Bird, Producer John Walker, and Moderator/Author Mark Vaz...
Mark Vaz: We're all sort of gathered at a very interesting moment for this movie. Because at Pixar, up in Northern California, at 10 am this morning, over the loudspeakers at Pixar's headquarters, it was announced that The Incredibles has wrapped and is finished. Our guest, director Brad Bird, and producer John Walker just flew down from Sky Walker Ranch where they were basically mixing the sound. They still have some more work to do, but essentially, we're seeing them at the end of an amazing journey. Just to give you a little bit of the background about The Incredibles, I think most of you know it's about a superhero family. It is about a time in the future where being a super hero has been outlawed. And, so, they have to go undercover. Mr. Incredible is known as Bob Carr, and Ellen Carr, former Elastic girl, all have to go about in secret. For Comic-Con, it's an appropriate superhero film. It's kick butt. Definitely. I've seen the reel. It's amazing. But it is also much more than that. There was a nice quote that I got from Brad that I think I should read. It sets up who Brad Bird is as a filmmaker, and what the film's about in terms of going beyond just a superhero movie. These are Brad's words. Remember, Brad came out of a 2-D traditional animation background. He entered the world of 3-D computer animated graphics when he went to Pixar. It was a bit of a journey for him just to go from 2-D to 3-D. Brad said to me, "Pixar's intention was to bring me up to Los Angeles, thinking I would settle in and get comfortable. And then someday come up with an idea. But there are a lot of ideas in my head. It is a large shop floor with lots of stories in various states of being assembled. So I wasn't waiting for an idea. I just wanted to do The Incredibles. It just tickled me. I related to all of these characters in one way or the other, like a kid playing with his toys, acting out scenarios for the different characters. It might seem silly because this is such an over the top thing with superheroes and broad villains. But I really related to it. In terms of being a husband, and a father. In terms of getting older. The importance of family. What work means. And what it means to be prevented from doing the thing you love. All of these very personal things are wrapped up in this big, goofy, caramel corn package.” For those of you unfamiliar with Brad's background, we have a clip that will bring you up to date...
(The clip mainly features edits from the Simpsons and The Iron Giant. It last for about five minutes.)
Vaz: I'd now like to introduce you to Brad Bird. (Brad sits down at the panel...) And joining us is the producer of The Incredibles. John Walker made another interesting journey of his own, because he came out of Chicago Live Theater. He went on to be associate producer on Iron Giant. And now he is producing The Incredibles. So, welcome Producer John Walker. (Walker sits down...) The quote I threw out at the beginning sort of sets the stage that The Incredibles is not just a superhero movie. And there were a lot of things that went into the gestation of the idea. Why don't you travel back in time and tell us your inspiration...
Brad Bird: Well, at the time the idea came to me, I just thought it was a goofy movie about superheroes. I didn't really know where it came from. It wasn't until I got up to Pixar that people started asking me where the idea came from. And it sort of stuck with me. I was like, "Yeah, what was going on at the time?” I knew how old the idea was, because one of the characters, the baby, in the film is named Jack-Jack. And my middle boy was a little tiny baby when I made the idea, so I named the baby Jack-Jack. At the time, I was working as a consultant on the Simpsons. I was very happy doing that. I was also trying to get one of my movies made. I kept having these movies get on the runway, then they would never get cleared for take-off. My guy would get fired, then, of course, the new guy wouldn't want to deal with anything the old guy had done. Or a film that was vaguely like something I was working on would just tank at the box office. Then, suddenly that idea was bad because someone else executed it badly. I just had all these things that I really cared about stuck at various studios. You couldn't take them anywhere else, and you couldn't make them. I was feeling very frustrated. At the same time, I had a new family. And the family was getting larger, and clearly demanding more time. I was worried that I hadn't made it yet. So, either I was going to dedicate the time necessary to making it and be a lousy father, or I was going to be a great father and never make it. I didn't want to lose either. I thought they were both highly important to me. That sort of angst found its way into this idea where a guy is wanting to do what he loves. And he's being prevented from doing what he loves. He's kind of occasionally threatened with losing the focus of his family. He finds out that is more important. I think that is where it came from. But the movies to me are those magical things that didn't happen. The magical things that were kept from being. And they weren't kept from being for fantastical reasons. They were kept from being for bureaucratic, boring reasons...Somebody didn't want to lose their parking space, so yeah, let's skip this idea...So, in the film, the guy can't be super because he has a lousy job at an insurance company.
Vaz: So this was an unconscious thing?
Bird: Totally unconscious, and I didn't figure it out until retrospect.
Vaz: I believe John was in a coffee shop when Brad first shared the idea...When did you first hear about it?
Walker: That was in 99. Brad said, "Come on over, I want to show you this new idea for a movie.” And over coffee, I was shown a drawing of a line-up that we'd been using for the last five years, of characters in the family. And it was a great drawing. Over coffee, he showed me that one drawing and he told me the story. It took, maybe, an hour to hear the whole story. And it's amazing that, in four and a half years, it has changed some...But not a lot. From what he described in that coffee shop to what we're seeing on the screen at Skywalker and Pixar right now is the movie he told me about.
Vaz: I believe Tony has mentioned that when the original design phase went on, you guys were designing it to be a 2-D film. The idea that it would become 3-D came much later.
Bird: Right, and I think that helped us in a way. We were trying to make it pleasing graphically. I think there is a tenancy in CG films to pile so much detail on there that it loses simplicity, and it loses a pleasing graphic element. I think that the fact it was developed for 2-D animation, and that the guys who were originally involved followed it all the way through, helped maintain a pretty stylized look that we are happy with.
Vaz: There's sort of a Sixties version of the future. There's sort of a feeling of James Bond. There are a lot of textures. How did all of that evolve? The stylistic part?
Bird: I just liked stuff from that period. It's just high-tech enough. There was a period where we all believed we'd all be flying around in jetpacks. Remember when those guys used to land in the Super Bowl and stuff? "In twenty years, you'll be flying one of those, son!” "Oh, gee, dad. That sounds great.” Don't you all feel cheated that you don't have your jetpacks? (Applause) If anyone is going to design it, it's probably somewhere out there...(Points out in the audience) You could be that designer.
Vaz: John, maybe you could start on this question. To make the transition from 2-D to 3-D, when you arrived at Pixar, what was the biggest hurdle that you had to deal with?
Walker: The first thing that happened was that Pixar very wisely surrounded us with really, really good people. They surrounded us in bubble wrap so that we couldn't hurt ourselves. Or hurt the organization. Because we really didn't know what we were doing. That great team steered us through the process. Because we didn't understand the process.
Bird: They bubble wrapped us originally, and then gradually they took the tape off.
Walker: We were used to making traditionally animated films. That pipeline has been around for decades. It's fairly linear. You do the rough animation, then you clean it up. You add the effects, you add the tones, and then you film it. In 3-D, everyone can sort of be in there all at once, working at any time. And it has a much more fluid work flow. We had to try and learn that. We had to figure out how Pixar made films, and then adapt that to Brad's stock.
Bird: It was very slow. It takes forever to build these things. Especially if you want to get the kinds of expressions in animation that we wanted to get into CGI animation. We wanted to avoid looking puppety. For me, it felt like you were dumping thousands and thousands of decisions into this giant, bottomless pit. And nothing was ever moving forward. Every once in a while, you'd go, "This is still being made, isn't it?” "Oh, yes, yes!! We need another thousand decisions to go into the pit today.” Yes, so you chuck these things down there. "Tahhhh!! Tahhhh!” And you'd never see any progress. And the weird thing is, at the end, suddenly you'd get these images, one after the other coming in really fast. And they had unbelievable detail and nuances....
Walker: "Oh, oh, so that's how it's going to look? I wish you could have let us know three years ago.”
Bird: We'd forgotten about it at that point, "Oh, gee...What is that?”
Vaz: What was the challenge? Because Pixar creates these really amazing looking 3-D environments. And you wanted the characters to be stylized. How did you make that work?
Bird: Without getting really long and boring about it, which is kind of easy, since it's such a vast subject...Um, I, personally, am really creeped out by a lot of things CG designed. Do you know what I'm talking about? The soulless, "Yes, Dr. Quagmire!” We so didn't want that. We wanted the playfulness and the joy. One of the reasons I was drawn to Pixar was because I felt their work had that simplicity. And that joy. Here's what I would say. Basically it's like black & white photography versus color photography. In that, those of you who do black & white photography, the temperatures of your developers can range a lot. They can be hotter or colder, and you will still get a photo. Once you get into color, the temperature of the chemicals has to be within one or two degrees, which is why you put heating pads underneath the things. With CG, the minute you start to put in detail, it starts to demand more detail. So, if you put in a little rosyness to the cheeks, suddenly, you go, "Well, why don't they have freckles?” And you go, "Okay, that sounds reasonable. Let's add freckles.” "Freckles? Well, you need eyelashes.” And not just the image of an eyelash, but every single eyelash. Okay, so know you're doing eyelashes.
Walker: Nostrils. You need nostrils.
Bird: Okay, so now you're going to put on nostrils. Pretty soon you have these really disturbing looking things. They're very realistic, but because we're a cartoon, we've made the eyes a little bigger. But we've made them look so real, they look like deformed people. You know? So, we had to take detail to a point, and be very careful about not getting seduced beyond that point, because if it goes too far, it ceases to become disturbing. I hope we hit that point. I feel that we did. So we simplified things like ears, and kept things graphic. But we put a lot of attention into conveying weight believably. We'll see what you guys think.
Vaz: What should be pointed out is that this is really Pixar's first feature where they are doing a human world. You were really pushing Pixar, because they hadn't dealt with that yet.
Bird: Their attitude was, "Yeah, yeah. Humans. They're our Achilles' heel.” I thought the Chess player in Toy Story 2 was a marvelous design, and it gave me a lot of hope that this could be done. So, we just stepped forth...
Vaz: About creating a CG world, Brad, I believe you told me that it was easier to blow up a planet than pull on somebody's shirt.
Bird: Yes, that was very difficult. That was one of the Alice in Wonderland moments on this film. You'd say, "In this scene I want this robot machine to crash into the building and take out big chunks of it. Shards are coming down. Cars are being blown up.” They're like, "Yeah, okay. How many cars do you want? A lot of damage? A little damage?” I'd say, "I want a variety of damage.” And they'd go, "A variety of damage it is.” Then I'd go, "In this other scene, this incidental scene, I want Bob to grab this other guy's shirt.” And they'd yell in agony, "Ahhh! Ahhh! He said shirt. He wants him to grab a shirt. Oh, my god!” Then I became acquainted with the Pixar glaze, where these technical geniuses...Their faces become whiter, and they start looking at each other like, "Does he know what he's asking for?”
Walker: Then they come and visit me, "John, he wants me to pull a shirt. We don't have any money for that.”
Bird: So, I'm like, "Let me get this straight...You can blow up a planet, but you can't have a character grab another character's shirt and pull on it?” And they're like, "Yes, that's just the way it is.” So I had to ration my shirt grabs. Because there is a contingent in the CG world that if you blow up a building, or something, and you have shards raining down on Manhattan, they'll just yawn. But if you have a guy pulling at someone else's clothing, they're amazed, "Oh, he did a shirt grab! I must talk to that man that did the shirt grab!”
Walker: Actually, The Incredibles has the best shirt grabs ever.
Bird: We've got the "Shirt Grab!” Because that's what we know you want.
Vaz: This is for both of you. We all know what goes into producing a live action movie. With all the lights, camera, action. How do you direct CG animation?
Bird: I often get asked this question. And I connect it with this really annoying question. I want to do live action films. And I've been interested in them for a long time. But, one thing that bothers me is, after I make an animated feature, and people watch it, they'll say, "You know, I really enjoyed that. But when are you going to do a real film?” I'm like, "Ahhh! I'll cut you man!” Basically, it is the same as a live action film in that you are still dealing with characters. You are still dealing with staging. You are still dealing with cutting. It's all about communicating ideas clearly. Being able to see what the characters are thinking. And when I'm talking with the animator, I'm talking with them as much as I would be talking to an actor. "At this moment, we need to see this vibe in the character's eyes. And then he needs to take a beat.” Or, "This character shouldn't be sitting there comfortably because he's worried about what he knows is going to happen two minutes later. Can you have him be a little impatient? Maybe have him not know what to do with his hands?” The animators love that. People think that you talk to animators about, "Hey, I'm drawing number 347, could you perhaps use this technical blah-blah-blah?” They are not that way. They are passionate people who are observant at their best. They have a lot of opinions about things. They have movies that they love, and movies that they hate. And performances that they are inspired by. It's like talking to an actor; it just takes longer for them to act.
Vaz: John, do you basically supervise the pipeline? What do you focus on?
Walker: I focus on the money, and the schedule, and keeping us going in the right direction. One thing that is difficult...
Bird: He moderates the number of shirt grabs...
Walker: Only one more shirt grab for you, and that's it, buddy. The artists involved in the animation are all individual artists. They are painters; they are animators that can draw. They can produce animation all by themselves. They don't need three or four hundred people to get together and work for four hundred years to produce a piece of artwork. Actors, in live action, need a group more to produce a piece of art. I think it's a little more difficult to get those large groups of artists all moving in the same direction, because they all have the ability to say, "Forget this, man. I'm going to go paint it myself, and produce it on my own.” That's one of the challenges in producing and directing in animation as well. Keeping all of those artists going in the same direction and staying interested in the project for that long haul. Because it will take three or four years.
Vaz: I will be taking questions in just a minute, but first we have a couple of clips we'd like to show. I'll let director Brad Bird set these up...
Bird: The first scene is basically with Bob. It takes place fifteen years after he was Mr. Incredible. He's kind of gained some weight, he's balding, and he's kind of disgruntled with his life. He gets an opportunity to take a top-secret mission moonlighting, and he doesn't really tell his wife, or anybody, what he is doing. The first scene that you are about to see is right after he gets the offer to come do some sort of moonlighting work as Mr. Incredible. You'll see his first mission that he has done in fifteen years. And the second scene that comes right after it comes a little later in the film. He has a wardrobe problem in the first sequence, and tries to resolve it in the second...
(The clips are shown. The first clip has Mr. Incredible fighting a giant orb robot. It's pretty awesome. The second clip has Mr. Incredible inquiring about a super costume, and he gets a rundown of "cape” incidences, which convince him that he defiantly doesn't need a cape. It's a genuinely funny scene. Look for these on movieweb soon...)
Vaz: See, that's why superheroes should never wear capes.
Bird: No capes.
Vaz: We have some time for questions and answers...
Q: Is there any truth to the rumor that they are planning a 2-D department at Pixar? And that they want Brad to run it?
Bird: Not that I know of. Is there something you know that I don't know? I should probably read the Internet more often so that I know what I'm up to. No. I think Pixar is always looking at doing new things, and stuff like that. But there are no plans that I'm aware of to do a 2-D animation...Yet.
Q: Two quick questions. What is up with the shirt? (Brad's shirt has a bunch of funny little shapes across the front of it...) Second, what was it like working with the voice actors?
Bird: Well, the shirts...These shapes are the individual characters. What happened was that the animation director had them lined up against his computer, and I said, "Wow, what are those?” And he said, "These are the really simplified version of the heads. We always want to make sure that they're clearly identifiable.” And I said, "Man, that's a T-Shirt.” And the voice actors? It's fun. I like working with actors. They are fun and creative. And we had a good time. I am not a fan of getting the celebrity first, and then trying to get the character. I think we tried to think of the characters first, and then where the best place to look was. Sometimes, they are famous, and sometimes they are not. There are actually a few Pixar people that provided the voices for the characters in The Incredibles, and they had substantial screen time. They were great. It's really about finding a voice that fits the characters. And one that inspires the animators.
Vaz: And the voices that you heard were Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Elizabeth Pena, and Brad Bird.
Bird: Sorry for that. I will make it up to you later.
Q: I hear that they might need a director for X-Men 3. Any chance that you would step up to that?
Bird: Oh, Fox, you know where I am. I'm on vacation...I love the X-Men movies, and I think Bryan Singer is an excellent choice for Superman.
Q: Did you guys work with The Incredibles video game at all?
Bird: As much as we could. There is a point on these movies where your time gets spread awfully thin. I didn't have any co-writers or co-directors, so I was all over the place. Many key people that worked on the film did sit down and work things out. I think it looks really cool. I hope it works out. I've got to admit, I don't play a lot of those games myself. I'm afraid I'd get my ass kicked fairly quickly. I'm pretty sure. But from what I've seen, it looks pretty cool.
Q: Is this film aimed more at adults?
Bird: Well, this is Pixar's first PG rated film. I think kids will have a blast. I think really little kids should pay attention to the PG rating. If little Timmy is five and very sensitive, he will come out crying very quickly. My kids are going to have a blast at it. But my kids like these types of movie. I think there will be plenty of stuff to keep kids excited and interested. It will give kids the kind of experience that I loved from my childhood. But there's also plenty for adults. I'm a Simpsons guy. I talked about that when I was coming up. At an advanced thing for Nemo, we had a party afterward, and I heard someone say, because we were up next, something that sums it up very well. "Well, if John's sensibility is here, Monsters skews a little younger. And The Incredibles skews a little older.” I encourage everyone that loves all the other Pixar films to see this, but also, if you are not animation fans, to check it out. Because I think you'll be consuming popcorn.
Q: On the heels of what the last person asked. You were talking about how this is a different film for Pixar. How it skews a little older. Do you feel that, as far as the story content, the Pixar people influenced or tempered the film you wanted to make at all?
Bird: No. This is absolutely the film that I wanted to make. And I have nothing but respect for the whole Pixar process. They look over each other's shoulders. I have things that I suggested for Nemo that are in Nemo. The guy that directed Nemo suggested and has things in this movie. I would say that, when I first pitched it to them, they got it immediately. They were riding on the movie that I was making. They weren't telling me to give him a buddy and a cowboy hat. Let's be realistic about Hollywood. If any other studio had the kind of success that Pixar had, they would hunker down and stick to a formula until those movies stopped succeeding. There was none of that there. They got the concept of the movie I wanted to make, and they supported us in making it. They challenged us. They asked questions, and if I didn't have an answer, they would get back to me. They were supportive. They challenged me. And they forced me to bring my best game. A lot of the crew from Iron Giant came with me to work on this film. So it will have a heavy, gianty flavor to it. But I will say, most importantly, they shielded us, and they protected us. When large budgets come around, there are a lot of iron-fisted people. I was able to focus on this movie absolutely. It was about making the movie, and not a lot of extraneous Hollywood junk. I give full props to Pixar and to John, who threw his body between me and the forces of mediocrity many times. Full props.
Walker: Pixar's best strength is that it's a group of really talented filmmakers who help each other make those films, but let the voice of the director dictate what goes on. All those hundreds and hundreds of notes filter back through Brad. That's what makes these films great.
Bird: These films are passion projects. They are director-driven. I have nothing but praise for Pixar.
Vaz: We could probably keep going. Unfortunately, we have to end it. Thank you everybody. Don't forget to pick up your goody bag on the way out.
And, thank God, that one is over...
Stay tuned. There are still conversations with Lloyd Kaufman, Bill Plimpton, and all of the Jasons headed your way...
Dont't forget to also check out: The Incredibles