Brave’s filmmakers talk Pixar storytelling and creating a real-kid hero 

Brave’s filmmakers talk Pixar storytelling and creating a real-kid hero 

Pixar’s animated adventure Brave has gotten a lot of press for its firsts. Until now, the studio behind the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up, and more has never made a movie with a female protagonist. In spite of its long association with Disney, Pixar has never made a fairy-tale film, or a film set in the historical past. The studio also got some unwanted irate media attention in 2010 when representatives boasted about Brave’s Brenda Chapman being its first female director—then fired her from the feature a month later. She’s credited as co-director on the final film, along with Mark Andrews, who took over the story of a young Scottish princess and expert archer named Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald). In Brave, Merida fights against her domineering mother (Emma Thompson), who insists Merida should marry into an ally clan; but her attempts to change her mother’s mind with magic backfire spectacularly, leaving her with bigger problems than she started with. 

This is the first full-length project for Andrews, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated Pixar short “One-Man Band,” worked as a storyboard artist on films including The Iron Giant and Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, and helped develop the scripts for Pixar’s Ratatouille and The Incredibles. (He also co-wrote the screenplay for John Carter, with novelist Michael Chabon and director/Pixar vet Andrew Stanton.) Andrews and Brave producer Katherine Sarafian—who’s worked in various capacities on Pixar films from A Bug’s Life to the Toy Story films to The Incredibles—recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss Brave’s story development, Chapman’s contributions and firing, and why The Hunger Games had people at Disney “crapping their pants.”

The A.V. Club: Are you guys and the makers of The Hunger Games getting sponsored by the archery industry? Is the Big Archery lobby a going concern for moviemakers now?

Mark Andrews: Yes, the archery industry has paid us to do this movie!

AVC: It’s fun timing, considering the wave of girls getting into archery after The Hunger Games—if their interest is flagging now that it’s been out a couple of months, they might pick it back up after Brave.

Katherine Sarafian: And it’s an Olympic year, so we couldn’t have asked for more of a convergence. We started this movie with the initial pitch of Merida as an archer back in 2005, and The Hunger Games hadn’t even been written yet. And now here we are; it’s all coming together.

AVC: About that original pitch—Pixar has made the point of how many firsts Brave represents: first female protagonist, first fairy tale, etc. Did any of that come into consideration at the studio, in the process of picking a new project?

MA: No, no.

KS: I think it [would] screw up our story process. If we think in firsts, it starts to put a boundary around what the movie is going to be, or we start becoming a slave to, “What was a princess before?” and, “What a girl should do,” or you start getting into artificial constraints.

MA: You’re serving the wrong master. You’re serving this idea of a genre, or what something should be, instead of going, “I need to make a character that is going to be appealing, that’s going to be inspirational, that’s going to be strong, that’s going to have a great arc so I’m going to care about this person, and be invested in this person.” Who is that? Regardless of whether they’re a woman, a man, a fish, a rat, a car, a bug, a toy. That’s where we always start. We start with the core. It is always the character, and the story is driven by the character. We just keep focus on that. We’re just, “Stop! Stop! I don’t care that it’s a girl, or our first princess, or that Disney has done these kinds of things before! We’re doing it our way! Just shut up, sit back!” We just focus on that; to make that character compelling, we have to do that.

AVC: Disney’s Princess franchise is a huge moneymaker for them, and this is Pixar’s first princess to be incorporated into the Disney product line. Did they have any kind of input or influence?

MA: No.

KS: We have a pretty big wall up between the companies. When we were purchased—Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006—at the time, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter, they worked with [Disney chief executive] Bob Iger and the team on the deal, and it was very specifically structured that Pixar would remain Pixar and have its own independent oversight of its projects, because Disney wanted to buy Pixar for what Pixar did, rather than to turn it into something else. So we have a barrier up. We can ask them, “Hey, want to—”

MA: It’s like they got a free princess. And they want to put her in the Day-Glo, you know, bright blues, and we’re going, “No! Don’t do that! She’s this!” [Gestures at Brave poster.] So [looking at the Princesses lineup] it’s like, beautiful gowns, beautiful gowns, beautiful gowns, maid. At the end of the row there.

AVC: You mentioned making Merida inspirational. That isn’t necessarily on most people’s lists for a children’s-movie character. How important is that factor?

MA: The one thing I love about telling stories is, we spend our whole lives going in and out of being better or worse, in our own character. But in a movie, the character transforms into the best they’re going to be. So you take a whole life, what we live, that we have to constantly work at, and we shove it down into 80 minutes so we can see what this person goes through. We can see the human condition at high speed. That creates more intensity and more stakes in the story, but what we get out of that is like [claps], “That person overcame everything, and boy, that’s inspirational. That’s what I’m going to do.” It empowers us.

KS: I think we found it important to tell a story that was grounded in something true. Real relationships. Because maybe people out there are inspired by people with superpowers, or things that are really fantastical, but we wanted to create a hero who was real. Her skills, those were not given to her by magic; they are things she practiced. She practiced her archery all her life. She practiced her sword-fighting. These are skills she earns. She’s a real kid. A real person. A real teen. Which also means that she makes big old mistakes and screws things up. She’s actually not aspirational or inspirational for a good amount of the movie. She’s just kind of making a mess of things. And it’s about finding that true bravery in her heart that gets her to be somebody that you root for, but you actually can see her as someone you want to be more like by the end. If we’ve done our job. 

AVC: What was that first pitch like? What did the story look like at its inception?

KS: See, neither of us was there, because development is its own separate thing at Pixar.

MA: It wasn’t a story; it was an idea about a character. Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio, so it comes from us, from the directors, stuff that happens in our own lives. So Brenda [Chapman] went to John [Lasseter] with an idea about her own relationship with her daughter. She had this very willful, speaks-her-mind 6-year-old, and she projected ahead and said, “Okay, I’m having problems with this, what’s she going to be like when she’s a teenager and all hell breaks loose?” And John loved that idea, that core idea, so that’s what kicked off the story. Setting it in Scotland, Brenda loves Scotland; it’s all write-what-you-know. I have Scottish ancestry and an affinity for Scotland, and have read many legends of Scotland and Scottish history and old folk tales that come out of the Celtic isles. So it’s just a ripe ground welling up with ideas to inspire you to pick what you want to start constructing the story.

KS: Right. We start with this idea. So we go from idea to pitch to treatment to script and storyboarding to tear it all down and start over again to—

MA and KS: [In unison.] Tear it all down and start over from scratch again.

KS: Every three or four months, we’d look at the movie as a whole, put it in storyboard form or whatever shape it’s in, and then we’d get in the room afterward and think, “Huh. Well, that’s kind of a mess,” and we’d take it apart, and we’d put it back together. We’d do that over and over again for four to six years—

MA: Until it’s less of a mess every time.

KS: Each screening, you learn something, either what’s broken or what’s actually working, but it takes years, because we never accept that we’ve got it. There’s always something that you can keep improving upon. 

AVC: Where was the film in that process when Brenda was taken off the project and Mark came on as director?

KS: We were midway through, I’d say. We were in production, we’d animated some scenes, but the story and script—I’d say it’s done, but it’s “done” so many times. She’d done a few versions of the script, and then Mark did a few versions of the script. 

MA: Once I came on 18 months ago, I took the story, adapted what was there, just going through the process over and over again, saying “What works? What doesn’t work? Here’s the stuff that doesn’t work; get that out of there. That leaves big holes. How do we fill this?” I fill them one way, look at it, “Nope. Take out those pieces, do it again.” So I did it four times. I put the movie up four times in a year.

KS: Yeah, that’s a quick turnaround. To answer your question more specifically, at the time Mark came on, the world was very much established. It’s this castle, this family, the characters. We’d built them, we knew how to animate them. We were testing them out—

MA: The rough structure of what was going to happen.

KS: The rough structure of the story, the beginning, middle, and end; some of those setpieces are going to remain the same, but you’re executing them in a different way. Mark added a few characters, and we got rid of some scenes, but the overall framework, the sets, the characters and stuff already existed.

MA: The assets were all built.

KS: As we say in the computer-animation world.

MA: When it came to the story, the structure was there. I didn’t want to vary from the structure, because I thought that was there, and Pixar knew it was there, but it was like, “How do you line up all these other elements that could possibly work or not work?” Telling the story from [Merida’s] point of view was a big deal, and then locking in some of these other themes that had been floating around, but not super-utilized. That’s when it really comes into focus. 

AVC: Was there a specific direction Brenda wanted to take the story that the studio didn’t?

KS: I think the core idea and overall direction and goal of the movie is something [Mark] and Brenda shared, and that’s where we’ve landed as a hybrid of both their talents. Otherwise, it wasn’t one specific thing. It’s a zillion things, because we go through the movie and the creative process for so long, and so many times, that we chalk it up to creative differences.

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AVC: One thing that makes the film seem ambitious and unusual is that it doesn’t really have a villain. The villain is pride, or lack of communication.

MA: Yeah, that’s right.

KS: Well, you’ve got Mordu, who’s a big obstacle, but is not necessarily the villain.

AVC: And he’s barely in the film.

MA: There’s no antagonist. Except yourself.

AVC: Does that make structuring difficult?

MA: No. Not at all. There’s either external or internal things that you’re working against. In most films that have a villain, that’s an external thing. Your world’s falling apart, that’s an external thing. So this was very much about one person’s internal struggle, and the whole film’s about transformation. Literally, there’s transformation in the film, and magic is transformational just in its essence. So there are a lot of things lining up there, and as a storyteller, I go, [whispers] “Ooooh, that’s juicy.” It’s like theoretical physicists, when they write out E=mc², they know it’s right because it’s elegant. So when all these ideas fold into one thing, it’s the same thing, I find the elegance in that. And because Merida is the one who causes the problem in the first place, and she solves the problem, it’s like, “I don’t need a villain. That’s enough!” There are no villains in our world, really. Most of our lives are filled with, “I’ve caused the problem myself. Why did I cause the problem?” It’s our own agendas. It’s our own vanity. It’s our pride. It’s our envy, all those things. You can understand where those characters are coming from, and I don’t have to spend gas explaining the villain’s point of view.

KS: I’m going to disagree with Mark, while agreeing with him. 

MA: Listen to this, because the way she’s able to do this is amazing.

KS: I think it actually is hard. I’m not a story person. That’s not my innate talent. I’m a storyteller, but I use different skills to tell a story. When you have a plain old villain, there are some easy things you can fall back on, like, “If my character defeats the villain in some way, everybody lives happily ever after.” I think it’s a harder route to do it the way that we chose to do it. So it may not have been that hard for [Mark], but for the non-story among us, it’s like, your viewers are coming with you on an inward journey, which means that the onus is on us to really help viewers access this character. Understand her, empathize with her, and be along for that whole ride. It’s not quite as simple as, “Hey, look at this big villain,” and it’s obvious to everyone what to do. So I think it’s harder. You really need your audience with your character the whole time, because they don’t have an easy foil they can point to. She has some unpleasant characteristics. She’s got some teenage quirks that are not all great. [Laughs.] She talks back and all these things. How do we root for her anyway? How do we make her appealing anyway? That’s a tall order, I think.

AVC: How much of that was in design? She looks so unusual, with the giant, complicated hair, which is almost always the brightest thing on screen. 

KS: Every single aspect of her design was very carefully thought out. By the time you look at her before she even speaks or moves, you get a sense of who this person is. We knew from the beginning she needed to be very independent and steadfast and forthright. That she had an untamed quality, as a child of the outdoors. She’s athletic. Even her dress, we built it for maximum movement. Her favorite dress, in contrast to the one she doesn’t like wearing, allows her to ride her horse, shoot arrows, do all this stuff, move about. So the hair really did need to have an untamed quality, and even a color that was rare and special and unique. All of those were specific design inspirations.

MA: She had to be built in contrast to her mother, right? If the parent is the calm, cool, collected one that has everything under control and knows how things are going to be, well then this character, when they walk onscreen you go, “Yup, I know who’s the wild and crazy one who’s going to be talking back and is going to speak her mind and doesn’t care what anybody thinks.” That’s Merida, right? Big red hair, contrasting with her cool, blue outfit that looks like it’s torn at the sleeves and across the top, versus her mom who’s in this bejeweled gown with long sleeves, and she moves very specifically. It’s all created to serve the story of their character and who they are. 

KS: The mom’s hair bound up like that.

MA: Yeah.

AVC: Mark, what was your initial involvement in the film before Brenda was fired?

MA: I was like an unofficial consultant on all things medieval and Scottish. This was my playground. I’m walking down the halls, and all of a sudden I see guys in kilts, and I’m like, “What the… is going on here?” Girls with bows and standing-stone drawings, I’m all, “Who’s doing Scotland?” And Brenda’s there, and I’m all, “Are you doing a movie in Scotland?” She said, “Yeah, I’m doing this movie, and this girl is in Scotland,” and I said, “If you need anything, let me know. In fact, here are all my books on Scotland.” And I started telling her stories of old Celtic myths, Scottish myths, and all that stuff and, “What time period are you setting it in?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Well, the fourth century is like this, and the ninth century is like this, and the 12th century is like this.” So I was just a resource, an outside resource they would go to, so much so that they invited me along on the research trip that we took in 2006.

KS: Brenda, Mark, and I were on the research trip in 2006 with our storyboard artists, and I think that was when a lot of the major setpieces of the story and landscape, the connection of landscape to story point really came together on that trip. From the standing stones to the Blackhouse Village where the witch’s cottage would be.

AVC: There’s something I didn’t quite follow in that, they had you as an unofficial resource on Scotland before you knew that they were doing the movie on Scotland?

KS: No, we knew we were going to do it in Scotland and [to Mark] you were providing additional resources, and then we did the research trip.

MA: Additional resources, yeah. They were just kind of exploring and dabbling in it, and some of their first research books on Scotland were my books. I had just gotten back. I’m like, “Here’s some books on Scotland. Here’s books on Highland warriors. Here’s books on these myths and legends and stuff.”

KS: We knew it’d be Scotland, but we got a lot of help from the research part on what kind of Scotland from Mark and his books, and then that research trip. 

MA: Yeah, I didn’t know what Brenda was doing. I knew she was pitching something, but I didn’t know what it was. So until the stuff starts showing up on the development wall, then I’m all, “What is going on here? This is cool!”

AVC: You mentioned the transformation theme early on. Disney’s already done a fairly recent movie about somebody who’s turned into a bear and learns how to listen and relate to family. Brother Bear has some of the same story beats. Was that ever a concern?

KS: No, I’ve never seen it. [To Mark] Have you seen it?

MA: Yeah. I saw it. I mean, it’s very different, because he wants vengeance; it’s about changing his heart from hate to not-hate. I think this is very different. That was an outside thing doing something to him, and he wants to get revenge. It’s more of a movie about racism, if anything. We looked at it, a bunch of our guys looked at it, one of our storyboard artists had actually done layout on it, and just really knew how to draw bears. That’s about as far as it went, because that magic was very in-your-face magic, and we weren’t going there with this. The whole idea of [getting] turned into a bear, that is an accident versus, “The universe is cursing you.” There were enough differences; no one really batted an eye. More people started crapping their pants as soon as Hunger Games was going to come out. Then everyone was going [sucks in air, shouts], “Now no one is going to see Brave! They’re stealing our thunder!” But this is Hollywood. This is what they always do. They always freak out when something even remotely similar is about to come out. 

AVC: Which is weird considering how often they do a film specifically because someone else is doing a film on the same subject.

KS: Right, right. Copycat syndrome.

MA: But I think that’s why. If the film’s already been made, and we want to make another transformation movie about a bear, now somebody else can do it, but we won’t freak out or anything. 

AVC: Ed Catmull has done interviews about the fact that Brave was made on a completely new computer system, but he hasn’t gone into specifics. What did that involve?

KS: Well, the specifics are deeply, deeply nerdy, so that’s probably why even Ed, nerd of them all, wouldn’t go into all the details. But we adopted a completely new suite of software for layout, animation, and garment and hair simulation; that’s three big parts of the pipeline. Usually, if you’re going to adopt new software you’re like, “Oh, we’ll just do it for layout, we’ll just do it for animation.” We did it for the big three, the front end of our movie. So it was quite elaborate and quite difficult. It’s a separate software team working alongside us; we all holed up in the same building, the Brave crew and software development, for a good year in what we called Jersey, one of our buildings, so that we could share a mind about what the software needed to do. [As an aside] I forgot rigging, too. Four of our processes. 

MA: Rigging. Lighting. 

KS: It was extremely intricate and a long process, because you’re inventing the technology to make the movie while you’re making the movie, and it’s bugs, bugs, bugs. It’s all buggy.

MA: “What do we need to do to build this building?” “Well, we need a steel girder.” “We don’t have a steel girder.” [Shouts.] “Make a steel girder!”

KS: It’s quite difficult. So one show, one film is going to be the first to adopt the new software, and it’s going to be like swallowing an extremely uncomfortable pill. 

MA: That was us.

KS: We were like, “Hey, let’s take it!”

AVC: But what did it ultimately bring to the film?

MA: It brought tons of stuff. We get this question, “What’s the new technological advancement in Brave?” And it’s actually everything. It’s all under-the-hood stuff. There’s more real-time information playback for our artists. There’s more fluid back-and-forth between the departments, so I don’t even have to know that you’ve done something—as soon as I open up my scene, bloooop! The things are all arranged, and all the new stuff has been updated and added, and I go, “Ohhhh.” Real-time back-and-forth.

KS: We have three riggers, and they can work on a model at the same time—unheard of. It used to be, you do it, you check it, someone else checks into it, checks out. But a lot of it had to do with the kind of movement we were able to get out of her character that our old software would not allow. Muscle systems—

MA: Muscle systems, we have volumetric sim. So it’s the mass of your volume, I don’t have to animate it. I go like this [slaps his upper arm], and the arm shakes, depending on how hard. So we go, “Hey, we can use that on hair, too.” We don’t have to animate it, you just [slaps fist], and the hair shakes. Two levels of that. They rigged hair and cloth. Instead of points and stuff like that. So it’s a lot of under-the-hood mechanics that overall give you… this. [Gestures proudly at Brave poster.]