Interview

David Ehrlich

@davidehrlich

Illustration

Michael Parkin

Brad Bird: ‘The greatest special effect is caring about a character’

The director on Tomorrowland, his favourite filmmakers and the current state of hand-drawn animation.

LWLies talks to the Pixar godhead behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille who has shifted recently into live-action filmmaking. Tomorrowland A World Beyond, starring George Clooney and Britt Robertson, is his follow-up to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and explores an illusive futuristic utopia which holds the key to man’s fate.

LWLies: Legend has it that when you were 11 years old, you took a tour of Walt Disney World, during which you abruptly announced to your parents that you were going to work for Disney as an animator one day. Is that an apocryphal story, or is that the way it really went?

Bird: Well, everything is true except for me announcing that I’m going to work at the studio someday. The first time I went there I was 11, and I met all of the top animators. I was just starting to get interested in animation, and interested to the degree that I hunted people down – anyone who knew anybody at Disney. A friend of my parents went to school with [The Jungle Book composer] George Bruns. I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, and Oregon State University is where Mr Bruns went to school. I met him, I had a million questions for him about Disney, and he offered to take me to the studios if I could get down to Los Angeles. So he introduced me to all the top people, and they were very nice to me, but there was this look in their eyes…

I remember Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, because when I met them George said, ‘He’s working on his first animated film!’ And they kind of gave me this little smile like, ‘You’re gonna lose interest in two weeks, kid, and we’ll never see ya again.’ And they were kinda shocked when I showed up three years later with a 15-minute film. So once I had that film, they kind of flung their doors open and were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. They were just starting to get the idea that their animators weren’t going to live forever, and nobody was being trained in that level of animation, so I was kind of the first… When Frank Thomas signed my Illusion of Life book, he wrote: ‘To the only old-timer in the new generation.’ I thought that was cool.

I have a working theory that, to some degree, each of your films are about incredible things that are hiding in plain sight.

Heh. Yeah, I think that’s true. I think all of the most important questions in life aren’t provable. You can’t prove that somebody loves you. You can feel it, you can be convinced of it, but there’s no test, there’s no way to measure or record it. There’s no way to explain why a joke is funny, you just know it and it does it for you or it doesn’t. All of the most fundamental questions – is there life beyond this? Is there an organising force? Is there a God? All of those questions that baffle everybody are also unprovable, and I think there’s a lot of mystery and wonder to life that is just in every moment, sitting around us, waiting to be revealed.

One of the things that tickled me about Walt Disney when I was young is that he seemed to exist in that place, either in a state of wonder or pursuing wonder. Wonder could be found in education, wonder could be found in creativity and imagining the future – he seemed to be sort of an impresario of wonder. One of his many quotes that I love is: ‘I don’t make movies to make money, I make money to make movies.’ In other words, every time that he got money rained down on him, he didn’t stick it in a pile and caress it, he immediately threw it out into something else, and that was really inspiring to me, because what inspired him was doing stuff and making things.

Given your love for Disney and how clearly it manifests in this movie, I’m curious how formed the project was when you first came onboard. Were the concept and the script still fluid, or did Damon Lindelof have a draft that was set in stone?

Yeah, it was still fluid. Damon and Jeff Jensen had concocted a history that predated the events of the movie. It was all about this secret society that existed, and they knew their history and it was a fascinating history. So they had this iceberg. And even in the film we could only show the tip of the iceberg, but they had the iceberg even then, and we still had to figure out what to reveal of it for the movie. Many of the things they had back then are still in the film, but there are also a lot of things that changed once we started working on it together.

Speaking to your lack of experience directing live-action, you’ve said that you spent most of your time on the set of Mission: Impossible in listening mode. Did you feel a lot more confident this time out, and did that allow you to comport yourself differently?

I was in listening mode mainly before we started shooting on Mission. It got to the point that a couple of crew veterans were afraid that I wasn’t going to step up, because a director is supposed to be somebody who gets out there and starts barking. Once we started shooting, I had very definite ideas about what I wanted, but I also have a lot of respect for experience, and I had a lot of talented, experienced people on the crew of Mission, and I wanted to hear what they had to say – maybe I would agree with them, or maybe I wouldn’t, but I would be stupid not to hear what they had to say.

I think that attitude was a byproduct of being mentored by Disney’s master animators at a young age, because these guys were in their late ’60s and early’70s and they were at the height of their powers, and their attitude was not, ‘I know everything, so shut up and let me tell you how to do it,’ their attitude was the attitude of a student. They said, ‘When you get to the end of a film, that’s when you just start to feel like you understand the character, and you want to go back and fix every scene you did. But now it’s over and you have a new film and you’re back to not knowing anything.’ So if the best guys in the world had the attitude of the student, then I should too, because anyone who is not open to learning something new or trying to grab something that is just beyond their reach… well, that’s what makes art great, and that’s what makes being on Earth great. For as long as you’ve got, I think you should always be pressing and stretching.

It sounds like one of the hardest things for your crews might be adjusting to a director who actually values their input and treats them decently.

[Laughs] Yeah, I do, but I also am vocal. In any situation you can go a million different ways, and talented people will have very good reasons for going different directions, but you can’t go in all of those directions. So you have a period where you’re open, and then you have a period where you say “This is where we’re going, and we’re not going anywhere else.”

Your two live-action films have both involved large-scale special effects. Is there any crossover there with working in animation? Does the same skill set apply?

Definitely, in the sense that – when you animate – you’re forced to pre-imagine things. In animation, you’re not just trying to imagine perspectives and sets, you’re imagining gestures. You’re imagining the moment when a character’s heart breaks down to 1/24th of a second. Animation actually got me into filmmaking, which sounds like a strange thing to say, because once I had to figure out which shot was a close-up and all of that because I had to draw it, I started noticing that craftsmanship in live-action films.

I noticed that certain directors were more effective at getting you to feel chills, or to laugh, or getting you to feel emotional about a character. It became very interesting to me why that was. Why does Hitchcock succeed at getting a chill to go up your spine right at this moment? How has he constructed it? How has he laid it out? Why does John Ford let you feel the open spaces in the West? Why does Kurosawa get you caring about the samurai?

I’m really glad you mention Kurosawa, because I’ve always felt that the scene in Ratatouille in which Remy is scurrying through Gusteau’s kitchen has always evoked the Seven Samurai sequence in which the samurai are touring the village at the beginning. I can’t think of any two films that do a better job of intuitively acclimatising viewers to geography so that the film’s climactic action sequences can exploit it later.

Oh, thank you! Well, my favourite directors are ones who are always cognisant of space, because one of the things that’s interesting in film is that your camera is existing in space. It’s the art form that deals in space and time more specifically than others. Your camera is continually in different places in space, and you’re looking at it during time that is fixed – it’s not like a book where the time is somewhat determined by the reader. My favourite filmmakers are able to constantly update you as to where things are.

I like action films, and a lot of people shoot action very haphazardly, they just shoot a whole bunch of coverage and have some good editor put it together in a coherent fashion, but my favourite action directors, like James Cameron or Spielberg or John McTiernan back when he was directing the first Die Hard film, you know exactly where everyone is at every second, and it makes it thrilling because it’s like you’re in the room. You know the layout out of the room. You know that guy is behind the sofa and he’s ready to spring out at any second and he’s ten feet away from this guy who doesn’t even know he’s there. It’s not just a series of close-ups put together with loud noises, it’s orchestrated. James Cameron is an expert at continually maintaining a coherency, and doing it at a very high speed. It’s an art.

Recently there’s been news that you’ve begun writing the screenplay for The Incredibles 2. What’s interesting about The Incredibles is that it was written long before superhero movies came to completely dominate the zeitgeist, and any sequel you write will inevitably be informed by how the genre has evolved. Are there any developments in particular that you’d like to touch on in a new superhero movie of your own?

Well, I worry if you comment too much on other movies that you might just be coasting off their good will. There was a very lazy trend in comedy where somebody would start singing the theme song from The Flintstones and you’re supposed to dig on it just because you recognise it. So I don’t like that, I think that movies ought to work in and of themselves. However… I would say that the superhero movie turf right now is very trodden over – it’s kind of like a field that’s had too many games on it, and it’s just dried up dirt at this point.

So the challenge with doing a new Incredibles movie is how do you be surprising? How do you do it in a way that zigs when other films that zag. I think that the greatest special effect is caring about a character. A lot of movies seem to forget that, and they bring out a lot of fireballs and then wonder why the fireballs don’t have that much impact, no matter how loud and how big they are. But the truth is that the fireball isn’t that exciting unless you care about the person running from it.

So the challenge is to make something that’s surprising and stays connected with the characters – the super stuff that they do is the least interesting thing. It can be fun, and certainly I had a blast getting to do the action sequences in The Incredibles, but that’s the dessert. Every movie is kind of a risk, and you’re thrown into a new pool and you haven’t learned how to swim in it yet, so I’m going to bumble along and make the same mistakes that I usually do and hopefully spot them and correct them, but what excites me about it is seeing if I can go into a medium that’s kind of wearing itself out and have a fresh take on it and have fun with those characters – I really love those characters and that aspect of getting to be with them again is exciting to me.

Speaking of arenas that may need to be revitalised, we are your thoughts on the current state of hand-drawn animation?

Well, I love hand-drawn animation, and I think the point of view that it’s outmoded is incredibly myopic. Obviously The Incredibles isn’t going to be hand-drawn because it’s going to be in the style of the one we made, but I do hope to return to hand-drawn animation at some point, and I have a couple of ideas that I think would be really good as hand-drawn stories. I think that it’s beautiful and I think that it has a quality that can’t be matched in any other way. There’s a really cool, organic imperfection to it that is wonderful, and it’s still incredibly magical to my eyes. When I watch Milt Kahl animation from The Jungle Book, I’ve seen it 100 times but it’s still brand new to me – it’s like a Beatles song. When I see Mowgli trying to climb a tree that’s way too big for him to get a grip on, that’s just poetry.

Published 19 May 2015

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