Animator Brad Bird only has a few projects to his name, but all of them have been exceptional. After writing, directing, and producing the hilarious animated "Family Dog" episode of Steven Spielberg's 1985 television series Amazing Stories and co-scripting the underrated science-fiction schmaltzer *batteries not included, Bird signed on to help manage the artistic production of such television series as The Simpsons, The Critic, and King Of The Hill, teaching animators how to make the most of their medium.
He brought the same iconoclastic creativity to his first feature, 1999's The Iron Giant, a terrifically funny, touching animated film based on a children's novel by Ted Hughes. The Iron Giant was an underexposed and underdistributed disappointment at the box office, but it impressed critics and animators alike. That opened doors for Bird to write and direct the justly anticipated, breathtaking CGI superhero adventure The Incredibles, the latest from Pixar, home of the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life, and Monsters, Inc. While touring to promote The Incredibles, Bird spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the joys of Pixar, his work on The Simpsons, and why Hollywood might decide that red shirts equal box-office gold.
The Onion: How did The Incredibles get started? Did you take the idea to Pixar, or did they court you to work with them?
Brad Bird: Kind of both. I'd known [Pixar founding member] John Lasseter for a long time, and I reconnected with him after I saw Toy Story, because I was so dazzled by it. Around when they were doing A Bug's Life, they started floating the idea of me coming out there. I was involved with some other stuff, and they were certainly busy with their stuff, but we kept talking over the years. When I finished Iron Giant, I knew The Incredibles was what I wanted to do next. I pitched it to Pixar, and they went for it right away. Their attitude was refreshingly simple. You know, it wasn't "You do a script, and then we'll look at the script and give you some notes, and then maybe in the future, blah blah blah," with three years of wasting my life. They were just like, "Great! Let's make it!" I'm like, "Yeah, this is the kind of studio I want to be at." Strong, secure people—I like that. In an industry filled with insecurity, masked with bravado, it was refreshing to have a bunch of people who were centered and relaxed and serious about film, and also just wanted to do stuff that they loved. That's what motivates me, so I felt like I was among kindred spirits.
O: The Incredibles has some unusual content—characters die, and there's some real emotional trauma and a little implied sex. Was there ever any concern over content or appropriateness?
BB: I think they were a little concerned at some early points. One of the first sequences that we did on story reels was this section where the mom and dad are fighting, and I think [Pixar] had a brief period where they were worried that I was going to make an animated Bergman film. But once they saw the stuff that came before it and after it, I think they were fine with it. God bless them for wanting to stay true to the nature of this story. That was unbelievably refreshing.
O: Current American animated features tend to throw in a lot of lowest-common-denominator gags aimed at young kids: fart jokes and body-humor jokes. Your sense of humor seems more wholesome than that. Is there a philosophy there?
BB: Well, I'm just trying to make the kind of movie that I'd want to see. That's probably the simplest answer. But I worked on eight seasons of The Simpsons, and we certainly had our lowbrow jokes. But we'd follow it right afterwards with a joke about Susan Sontag. Any time you think you're making a film for them, not you, that's a dangerous direction to head, because there's something patronizing about it.
Any time you think you can press a certain button and get a laugh, you're probably not pushing yourself. It's like when you go to a comedy club, and the less experienced comics get up and start pulling out the lewd jokes. It's like, "Yeah, you can get a laugh, but you're not gonna make history with that." Then you get the great guys, the guys we're still listening to. Have you ever heard a Nichols & May routine? I mean, that stuff is as contemporary as ever, and it's, what, 40 years old? My jaw still drops at how cool Nichols & May are. I think that's what I would like, to do something that's cool a hundred years from now.
O: You're credited as an executive consultant on The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, and The Critic. What was your work on those shows like?
BB: It involved consulting at key points of the production process. This was more with The Simpsons, less on King Of The Hill and The Critic. On The Simpsons—which is the most fun I've ever had in that role—it was going to the first table read, where you hear everyone do the part. Then it's getting it storyboarded and making sure the visuals support the ideas and push them further. Then it's getting down to making sure they play in motion, onscreen.
Even though our animation was very simplified, our filmmaking was not. James Brooks and Matt Groening and Sam Simon asked me to be a part of it because they liked Family Dog—they liked the fact that it had a live-action sensibility in terms of camera angles and cutting. When I first got into it, the visual language of television animation was very, very rudimentary. There was a standard way of handling things, and that had gotten into the art form itself, to where people were doing this stuff by rote. The rule was, whenever you go to a new location, you do an establishing shot, whenever somebody's moving, you have a medium shot, and whenever anybody's talking, you cut to whoever's talking. It's all done at eye level. You never have high angles or low angles or anything like that. That's TV animation; I'm not saying there weren't great camera angles in Chuck Jones or anything else. But on TV, that's the way they were doing it.
When I got in there with the storyboard artists, they were approaching things that way because that's the way they were trained. I said, "No, come on, man! We're doing a take on The Shining here. Let's look at how Kubrick uses his camera. His camera always has wide-angle lenses. Oftentimes, the compositions are symmetrical. Let's do a drawing that simulates a wide-angle lens. They're deep focus. Let's push things off and play on that." At first they were completely bewildered, and very soon they were into it. I said, "Look, we can't spend a lot of money on elaborate animation, but we can have sophisticated filmmaking." So I think the show is very visually distinctive.
I learned a lot from being part of that process because there were such brilliant writers on The Simpsons, and I got to have a ringside seat. Some scripts sailed through, some got reworked endlessly, some got ruined right before they went to the air, and some got saved right before they went to the air with brilliant bits of editing and rejiggering. It was like the most condensed storytelling school that I could have gone to, and that saved me on Iron Giant, because I learned to troubleshoot. When an area wasn't a good area to invest time into, I could see it coming, and we could move away from it early on. I would not have been able to survive it if I hadn't gone through the boot camp of The Simpsons, where you had one episode coming after another, and you couldn't linger over decisions.
O: What was it like transitioning to computer animation for The Incredibles?
BB: What's easy and what's hard in CG is very different from hand-drawn. If you invent a character and want to get it into animation as soon as possible, you can turn it around in a couple of weeks or so in hand-drawn, if you have the right people and they're good at what they do. In CG, it takes over a year to just get a character built so that animation can begin. It's easy to blow up a city in CG, but it's hard for a character to grab another character's shirt. You could have some really spectacular scene, and [the animation staff] would just go, "No problem. How many of those do you need?" But one character touching another character's hair: "Aaah! No! Isn't there anything else you could do?" I mean, I had to budget shirt-grabs. The kind of scenes that would make a computer guy flip out with how good they are would sail right past the average moviegoer. But if we do it right, no one will pay attention to it. My producer, John Walker, called it a no-win situation, because if we do a really good job, no one will notice it.
O: If someone told you that you could only work in cel animation or in CGI for the rest of your career, which do you think you'd pick?
BB: I don't know. That's interesting. I love certain things about each medium. I love the graphic quality and the imperfection of 2D, and that it's very tactile in a way that CG hasn't quite got yet. At the same time, CG allows freedom with camera movement and lighting that I wish we had in 2D. It allows you a degree of control, too, with tiny facial changes that are very difficult or impossible in hand-drawn animation. Once you get down to less than the width of a pencil line between frames, it's difficult for somebody to control that. Whereas in CG, because you can get it down to one pixel, you can do really subtle stuff with the eyes, and the audience can detect it. I don't know. I just love the medium of film, and I want to do different techniques for different stories.
Right now, and hopefully it will be short-lived, everybody thinks that if they do any idea in CG, it will be a box-office smash. Unfortunately, we all know from Hollywood history, in two years we're going to be deluged with bad CG films. When the majority of them fail—which they will, because a bad story in CG isn't any better than a bad story in 2D—the inevitable headline from the geniuses that always comment on these things will be "Audiences Losing Interest In CG." Well, no, they won't be losing interest in CG, any more than they have interest in CG now. They're interested in characters and stories, and to the extent that a film has those things, hopefully they'll succeed. And if they fail in those areas, they'll fail.
O: Do you have a theory about why it's so hard for Hollywood to understand the value of a good, solid story?
BB: Film is an expensive medium. It's hard and expensive to get a bunch of people together to operate all this equipment to create the illusion of a dream. The more fantastic a dream is, the more machinery needs to be involved. Businessmen want to feel secure in their investment, especially when they're spending millions of dollars, so they're constantly trying to avoid the scary reality that a story is an ethereal thing. It's too vague. It's too ill-defined. No one wants to hear, "Who knows? I think this will work." Which is basically what films are. They're gut instinct, you know, "Let's give it a shot." Any good filmmaker will tell you that they don't know what's going to succeed. They're just trying to make a good film, and hopefully it'll catch. All of the best movies are ones that defied a certain amount of conventional wisdom.
But business is all based on conventional wisdom. There are far-thinking businessmen who manage to see things new ways and think ahead of the curve, but they're always in the minority. Most people are playing catch-up. Any time Hollywood can glom on to the illusion of security, they go for it. So if two films have been made where the lead character was wearing a red shirt, and they both succeeded, you can bet they're going to slap a red shirt on their guy in the new film. "Red shirts! They like red shirts nowadays!" Well, no, they don't. It's a coincidence. Now, everybody thinks that if they buy a computer, they are guaranteed success. You can buy a computer. You cannot buy a surefire story. That requires instinct, and instinct is scary. So they do anything to give them the placebo they need to make it through the night, what with the large amount of money and resources they're rolling the dice on. Because they don't like the idea that they're rolling the dice.
O: In one interview, you described The Iron Giant as a "halfway step" between "what Hollywood can understand about feature-length character animation and where I think animation should go." Where do you think animation should go?
BB: I think what I was saying was that there were enough elements in The Iron Giant that people were familiar with. Having a boy protagonist makes people feel like it's in the kid zone, which is what they're comfortable with. That's the animation box that you're supposed to stay in. But animation can do any genre; it's unfortunately limited by what people are willing to pay for. I think you could make an animated horror film. You could make an animated film about divorce if you wanted to, and make a good one, if it were done in the right way and took advantage of the medium. I would love to see there be all kinds of films made in animation. I think The Incredibles represents a further step. I don't think there's another animated film like it right now. If we succeed, there will be.
I was very happy to be a supporting player on The Simpsons, because I didn't feel like there was any TV animation like that. I feel like we changed the rulebook. The audience was always there, but no one had the vision to see that there were adults who liked animation, too. I don't see it as a kiddie medium. I see it as an art form that can address any audience that it cares to address.