Brad Bird: Inside the Pixar movie-making machine
The ‘Incredibles 2’ director on the Disney studio’s secret sauce, and keeping his distance from corporate nonsense
Last month, Disney and Pixar’s Incredibles 2 broke the box office record for the best animated opening of all time and the biggest opening for a PG-rated film. The film earned $180 million in its first weekend in theatres, leaping over Finding Dory, the previous record holder, which had a $135 million launch in 2016.
Pixar sequels haven’t all been so successful. Finding Dory made money yet disappointed many fans of the original Finding Nemo. Monsters University disappointed everyone. Cars had few defenders from the get-go. But Incredibles 2, which has now taken $646,829,514 globally, is that rarest of things: a sequel that stands toe to toe with the original.
That’s good news for Pixar at a moment when it really needs some. Last month, in the wake of allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation announced that its chief creative officer, John Lasseter, would be departing both studios at the end of 2018. Jennifer Lee, the director of Frozen, has been named chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out, will be chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios.
Two weeks after Incredibles 2 made its impressive US debut, Cassandra Smolcic, a former Pixar employee, wrote a damning account of her years as graphic designer at Pixar. “It was devastating to learn, right from the start, that women were open targets for disrespect and harassment,” she said in an essay for Variety. She went on to describe a “sexist and misogynistic culture” that entailed being taken out of meetings for Cars 2 “because Lasseter ‘has a hard time controlling himself’ around young women”.
Tellingly not one of Pixar’s 20 feature films to date has been directed by a woman. Brenda Chapman, who originated the movie Brave, was controversially taken off the project in 2010 following “creative disagreements”.
“I would attribute it to larger issues in society,” says Incredibles 2 producer Nicole Grindle on the company’s gender imbalance. “More women were involved in film in the beginning and then men found it interesting and bumped all the women out of the way. So I think there is a wider bias. I don’t think men, in general, were guardians at the gate. It’s more that they created an all-male environment where others aren’t going to feel comfortable. Now that we’re aware of this, we’re doing our utmost to get more women into animation programmes. When we did a presentation on imbalance, John’s response was very positive. How do we get a 50-50 split on men and women in our writing department? Do we fire people or hire more? We’ve more than doubled the number of women since then.”
Brad Bird, director of Incredibles 2, is diplomatic about Lasseter’s departure: “You know these times are not conducive to nuance,” he tells me. “Everything is broken down into 100 per cent pro or 100 per cent con. So it’s not an easy thing to discuss. [Lasseter] has been hugely influential at the studio in many ways.”
One can understand his reticence. Bird has known Lasseter since the mid-1970s, when they and Tim Burton were among the first graduates of the animation programme at the California Institute of the Arts. Bird had worked as an animator on The Plague Dogs and The Fox and the Hound, written the screenplay for Batteries Not Included, and directed his first feature, The Iron Giant, before he pitched the idea for The Incredibles to Pixar in March 2000.
The Iron Giant may now be regarded as a classic (and was, accordingly, given lots of nostalgic love in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One earlier this year), but at the turn-of-the-millennium, it was seen as a film that had made back just $31 million of an $80 million budget.
“Hollywood is not a complicated place,” says Bird, channelling the Incredible Hulk. “If you make money, money good. You good.”
It required Lasseter to shepherd The Incredibles into the world, shielding Bird from anxious Disney executives.
“The first film would never have got made at Disney – who didn’t have a lot of confidence in The Incredibles – without John,” says Bird. “There was a divide between us and them, and he bridged that. He had tremendous courage in protecting the project.
“In spite of how big and complicated these films are, they are not corporate films. This is really well-honed machinery put in service of personal vision. The degree to which the films work is tied to how personal they are. Up is personal to Pete Docter. Finding Nemo is personal for Andrew Stanton. Toy Story is personal to John Lasseter. I think that’s our secret sauce at Pixar. These movies are personal visions that the process at Pixar protects.
“They manage to keep distance from all the corporate nonsense. And by doing so, they serve the corporation well. Because allowing people to tell stories the way they want to allows them to create something that is loved by people, and ultimately, that’s good for the money-makers.”
Incredibles 2 picks up where the original film left off, with Bob “Mr Incredible” and Helen “Elastigirl” Parr (Craig T Nelson and Holly Hunter); their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack; and their old pal Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L Jackson), frantically attempting to save the city from the Underminer, the villain introduced at the end of the first film. Together, they manage the save, but not without considerable mess. The superhero programme is immediately shut down, and the family is forced to live in a motel until a mysterious tycoon arrives with an offer for Elastigirl to come out of retirement.
Some 14 years have elapsed since The Incredibles was released. In the intervening years, Bird has diversified into live action cinema with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland, and the ranks of the Avengers have swelled into a head-spinning multitude with a dizzying number of tentpole releases and spin-offs. At a moment when cinema-goers are asking “Which one is this again?” Bird was, he admits, a bit fretful about returning to gifted folk in Lycra.
“Even when I made the first film I felt that there were too many superhero movies,” he says. “It made me reticent. I felt there was a decent chance people would be sick of them by now. But that feeling didn’t last very long, because I got excited about the same things that got me excited about the first film. I didn’t think about it as a superhero film. I thought about how superheroes could be used to comment on the family and roles within the family.”
When Bird created The Incredibles, Violet was bald throughout the development period, as the technology to create her hair wasn’t completed until the end of production. His toolbox for Incredibles 2 was a good deal more sophisticated.
“I went straight from promoting The Incredibles into the chaos of the Ratatouille schedule,” he recalls. “And even in that short period of time, the characters had become much richer. We had conquered a number of problems. When we made the first film, we tried like crazy and largely achieved what we wanted. Now the characters are exactly what we wanted them to be when we made the first film.”
Grindle says, “We can move more and create quicker and we can produce something much earlier that will approximate the final image. The director can look and say ‘That’s working’ and ‘That’s not working.’ ”
That speed came in handy when, in late 2016, it was announced that Incredibles 2 would swap its summer 2019 release slot with Toy Story 4. (This is the second time the troubled TS4, which was initially scheduled for release in June 2017, has been pushed back.)
“It was a conversation,” smiles Grindle. “They did us the favour of asking if we wanted to be moved up by a year. Which was terrifying but there was an upside to it. It injects a certain amount of energy into the process. It focuses the mind. Brad is good at making decisions quickly.”
“There wasn’t a hell of a lot of choice,” adds Bird. “They deemed us further along than Toy Story 4 at that moment. But we’ve been here before. The exact same thing happened with The Incredibles and Cars.”
The right story
Bird talks about “finding the right story” when speaking about the long delay between Incredibles films. If it sounds like an old-school answer, that’s because Bird is old-school. Before he helped to develop The Simpsons from one-minute shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show into, well, The Simpsons, Bird was mentored by Milt Kahl, one of Disney’s original animators.
“It was a tremendous influence on me,” says Bird. “The first time I ever really got to work with artists was with the Disney masters. I’d never had any formal training at that point. They opened up a way of thinking to me that was really meaningful. The way those guys talked about their characters was incredible. And the ways they worked out how to indicate what was going on in their characters’ heads. They talked about the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ as they called it, between the eyes and mouth, being the key to visual storytelling.
“The more I’ve become involved in different arts, the more applications I’ve seen for the way they approached things. They were always thinking about where their characters were coming from and where they were going. Like with theatre, when you walk on the stage, you’re not coming from nowhere. The character has just had something happen to them, even if it’s banal, even if they’ve just spent half an hour in a coffee shop.”
- The Incredibles 2 opens June 13th
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