The Pixar frontrunner delves into what it takes to create great animation, including leaping at voice actors and collecting expressions.
As an animation geek who tracked Pixar ever since “Toy Story” blew my gaskets and I traveled to the Bay Area to grill the likes of John Lasseter and Pete Docter, sitting down with Brad Bird — the legendary director of “Iron Giant” and Oscar-winning auteur behind “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles” — is my idea of a good time. “The Incredibles” marked the first outside project to come into Pixar, which always gave Bird a wider berth than most.
I followed up with Bird on something I remembered from hanging with him at the Sheridan Bar at the Telluride Film Festival (he brings his family every year). When I made a reaction face of silent disgust (to what, I can’t remember), Bird leapt on it. “That’s an expression!” he said. He’s like a collector, capturing them for later use.
“I don’t consciously go into a room, I don’t need to observe,” he said, “But if something pops out at me, it trips an alarm in me to make note of it, because animation is a collection of gestures. My first art teachers — I had no formal training before that —were the old Disney masters. They always said, ‘Don’t look at our animation, but look at your life and the lives around you, painting, opera, old movies, Uncle Herb.’ Those are the things you are bringing onto animation. You tend to study animation as a library of cool solutions to problems, but you can’t Frankenstein a solution together from other people’s solutions; it’s smooth but it’s been seen, it’s not going to get anybody connected to a character. It’s better to do something unexpected, something very specific. Those things are fascinating to me.”
I asked Bird to explain what it took to create the extraordinary animated sequel “Incredibles 2.”
How do you go about topping an Oscar winner?
I made it clear that if there was going to be another “Incredibles,” I was the one to do it. “I’m going to raise my kids, OK?” I give Pixar huge respect for being patient and not rushing, they let me know they were interested: “When you’re ready we’re ready!”
The biggest issue was how to make a gigantic film when expectations are through the roof from the audience after 14 years. In their minds: “This had better be good, I’ve had to wait!” I don’t want to disappoint people. To have that thought going into it was a potentially contracting, not a freeing thought. I didn’t want to compromise anything by doing something less than worthwhile.
I wasn’t working on it for 14 years; I kept revisiting it, and tinkering a little. I did boards for the opening sequence before I did “Mission Impossible;” I knew I wanted the film to begin right where the last one left off. I thought that was a bold choice after a break. Even with the “Stars Wars” films, there’s a gap, and they’re not in the same location as the last scene.
The idea of the role switch I had when promoting the first film. The assignment goes to Helen (Holly Hunter) rather than Bob (Craig T. Nelson). He has to hang in there at home. The audience knew that Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) had multiple powers, and the parents did not. I knew Jack-Jack was a major part of it. And Edna (voiced by Bird) — she came into it, too.
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With Jack-Jack, I laid down a rule we broke: No new powers in Act 3. All powers were established by the first film, but for Act 3 the opportunity was raised by a story artist of him going big that was too damn funny. But the big baby thing cracked me up. I wanted to see the big baby.
The superhero villain plot was the part that kept changing. I did have a superhero story about an invading artificial intelligence. I will find a way to do it somewhere else. I realized it was not going to work with the family, the part I was committed to: The role switch and Jack-Jack had to work. I was faced with the horrific decision to keep working on it as the days were burning past and the freight train was coming closer, or bail find and something new that served the family better.
To solve the villain, the Winston Deaver character (Bob Odenkirk) did not have enough emotional stakes. He needed someone else, and his brother became a sister (Catherine Keener). It was constantly morphing. We needed a villain threat to remind us why the superheroes are in hiding. What is the villain mad at? What’s his beef against Mr. Incredible? Burt Ward, Robin to Adam West’s Batman, said, “I got more chicks.” The sidekick has a beef was a good way in.
How do you know when something isn’t working? You show it to the brain trust, right?
You start putting reels together: “I’m not feeling what I need to feel: It’s entertaining and interesting bit it’s not digging into me.” [Producer] John Walker and I on the first “Incredibles” resisted showing it as much as Pixar wanted us to show it. That’s because of an experience I had on “The Simpsons.” People get used to jokes and, at the last minute, they find themselves not responding and would change them. They were expecting to have the rush they had the first time they had heard the joke; they start thinking it’s not funny. It’s the same joke! The audience hadn’t seen it. I saw some really good jokes thrown out.
Not everyone agrees with me. Films where [Pixar] let people wander a bit ended up being bad, so a lot of energy was put toward getting them put back on track. I have felt if you screen things too much, you end up chasing notes. If you show it so you get a bunch of notes every 3 1/2 months, you’re only dealing with notes, there’s not enough time to think about what you want it to be. And the audience is less reliable when they’re too familiar with the film and their reactions are not genuine. It’s easy to get disconnected from how the audience will feel.
Brad Bird demonstrates the Bermuda Triangle.
Are the tools more sophisticated from the first “Incredibles” to the second?
The characters should seem the same. They look a little different, a little more how we wanted the first film to look, but we could only get 85-90 percent there. We couldn’t get all the way there. We can now. The rigs for the characters, they’re like a puppet to a puppeteer. The better they are, the better the animators are able to express themselves through them. The human rigs for “Ratatouille” were much improved over “Incredibles” in the space of one year. I felt more graphically free to get away from reality and be more stylized. I didn’t like the creepily realistic areas that were happening.
This is a more intricate Bermuda Triangle [he gestures to the center of his face]. That’s where everybody looks. That’s all done consciously. If things get tight and you have to get a drawing done quickly, you pay attention to that area where everything happens, where the audience is looking. That’s where you put your money.
How do you cast the voices?
I cast for the voice I hear. Sometimes I hear a voice as I’m writing. When I came on “Ratatouille,” they were far enough along that a certain actor had been hired who wasn’t what I pictured for [Anton] Ego. I heard Peter O’Toole: “He would be great.” Casting said, “Isn’t he old?” “Maybe he is.” Right around then I heard a radio interview with him. He was saying how he refused to be typecast as yet another butler: “I won’t do it!” “That’s him, come on, he’s totally there!” I absolutely heard him as that character and was delighted when he said “yes.”
Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener, their acting is both simple and subtle and full of complications you can hear in their voices. It does seem like their acting ability can connect with you. When you get a great voice, it’s a gauntlet thrown to the animators. It forces them to up their game.
When you put voice actors in the same space, it’s not as flexible. We put them in separate booths if we want to play with timing. People’s schedules are crazy. You learn to be good at communicating what the characters are doing and feeling so they end up harmonious. Holly and Craig had not met until this film. All those scenes together, I challenge you to tell they’re not in the room together!
A lot of people get behind the glass booth and feel like they’re in a fish bowl. They feel lost out there. I’m always in the room with them when they’re recording, and play the other parts. I leap at them, coax and get them in a mood. They tend to like that. I’m in the room to provide the other energy, anything they need. Holly likes to play with that.
How do you keep the converging action sequences in the finale from going haywire?
Keeping coherency with the different threads was a challenge: Helen is flying the sky jet, Bob is underwater with the other guys on the boat. Any time you’re crosscutting, you don’t want people wondering what someone else is doing: “What’s happening to so and so?” Hopefully, the film is already there.
You can only halfway plan it; you see it playing back to you in the editing. That’s a complicated Rubik’s Cube. Only a few of the great directors can place action so that it’s clear: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Miller, John McTiernan in the “Die Hard” films. I have huge respect for those guys. Animation pre-visualizing helped me with “Mission Impossible [Ghost Protocol].”
Animation directors don’t get no respect?
I maintain directing is directing. You’re still coming up with shots, dealing with space, trying to convey what characters are thinking, figure out the changes needed to make the film clear moment by moment. I challenge anyone to say that “Snow White” wasn’t one of the best-directed movies of 1937. It was, but they couldn’t give it a real Academy Award nomination. As an Oscar fan, how could Alfonso Cuarón not get nominated for “Children of Men” or Spielberg for “Jaws”? John Lasseter was not nominated for “Toy Story,” but that debut film kicked ass!