Brad Bird and Janeane Garofalo have a sit down at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss film, animation and the mediums in between.
This is going to be a long one, ladies and gents. My apologies if this becomes TL;DR material.
Here’s the short of it:
I was able to see Brad Bird speak at The Tribeca Film Festival. For the hour, he discussed the changes and challenges he faced with moving from animation to live action features. The audience was shown a set of clips – one from Ratatouille, one from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and one from his latest film, Tomorrowland. Near the last half of the interview, Bird fielded questions from the audience. I had a great time.
And here’s the Interstellar 3-Hour Neverending Edition:
When I was a kid, there used to be this show on network television called Amazing Stories. Produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, it ran for about 2 years or so between 1985 and 1987. It was kind of like a cross between Darkroom, Tales From the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone. One of my favorite episodes was “The Family Dog”. The big push with The Family Dog was that it was produced by Tim Burton and the animation style was the basis for his future films The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie. I loved it. It was weird and funny, about a family that adopts a dog only to find that their house is robbed, with the dog inside and failing to stop the intruders. The dog is sent to a canine boarding school, where he’s reforged into a “white hot ball of canine terror” by Miss LeStrange (voiced by The Exorcist’s Mercedes McCambridge). There’s more to it, but after recording the show and watching it a zillion times, I paid attention to who wrote it.
And that’s how I started following Brad Bird.
Bird would later go on work on Batteries Not Included, and spent some time on the Simpsons before directing and writing The Iron Giant for Warner Brothers. While the movie wasn’t the commercial hit everyone hoped, it put Bird on Disney / Pixar’s radar, who brought him on to do both The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Pixar would end up adding Bird to their Brain Trust, that includes Pete Docter, John Lassiter and Andrew Stanton. Bird’s big jump from Animation to Live Action would come with 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Next month (as of this writing), he’ll release Tomorrowland, which he shared writing responsibilities with Prometheus / Lost writer Damon Lindelof.
Bird was on hand at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Director Series in an interview hosted by his Ratatouille star, Janeane Garofalo. I was able to attend this, and took as many notes as I could. Some of this may be a little sketchy, based off of both what I wrote & how I interpreted it, to which I apologize beforehand. Although we were able to use phones for pictures, we couldn’t record anything. Assume that most of the questions and answers here are somewhat paraphrased. More than likely, you can find recaps of the interview at the Tribeca Film Festival website.
At first, Janeane was a little curious about what she should ask, opening the floor with her humor, which had everyone laughing.
Question – So you said something about a tour taken as a child?
Bird spoke about a tour he took of Disney Studios, back when he was about 11. He saw the Jungle Book as a kid and just loved it. He also realized that there were all of these cool jobs in animation. According to Bird, he owned an album with some of actor Jonathan Winter’s voiceover work and would listen to that as well. Though his parents who knew a composer at Disney, they were able to meet with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Both Ollie and Frank were two of the original animators responsible for most of the Disney Classics, known as the Nine Old Men. Unexpectedly, Bird went home and ended up creating a 15 minute film for the animators. After that, they were eager to mentor him.
Garafolo praised Bird on how he’s taken Narrative storytelling to another level but asked about technical challenges in Animation.
Bird noted that from a tech standpoint, The Incredibles was a harder film to create because the design abilities were just being born. An example of this is the wet hair textures after the plane crash sequence. At the time, that was one of the latest things that Pixar learned to do. By the time Ratatouille came along, there were a number of improves, which made things easier. Bird went on to say that “People think there’s an easy “Make Movie” button that will produce work.” However, if you want imperfections, the computers had to be taught this. In Ratatouille, Bird described how working on the floors, the lighting needed to have a variant because tiles may be higher or lower than others or have damages. The computer would normally smooth out the surface, but they had to reprogram the system to support natural flaws. A later question that came up dealt with focus, where Bird found that CGI Cameras can act like real cameras. When you normally focus on something small with a regular camera, the depth of field becomes small. The computer would assume that the director wanted a high Depth of Field throughout, but again, Bird and Pixar had to train the machines to un-learn that.
At one point, Janeane started a question and asked about different genres in Animation to which Brad replied “Animation is a medium, not a genre.” There was a bit of back and forth chuckling between them, and their chemistry is just cool.
“With the actors you choose, how much control do you have in that?” Bird’s response was along the lines of it all being about actor interest. He had to “woo” Peter O’Toole for Ratatouille. Some actors thing that voice acting is easy, but it can be difficult. What takes an actor 5 minutes to say may take an animator weeks to come up (with regards to facial animations and the like, I’m guessing). Patton Oswalt would say sometimes that he was beat after a run. My personal speculation on this is that with animating, sometimes re-recording needs to happen to get a phrase sound right. I could be off here, but that was my interpretation of the statement. The audience was presented with a clip from Ratatouille where Linguini is introduced to Collette for the first time.
Janeane apologized for her French here. There was a bit of laughter as Bird shared a story of how with Janeane, she didn’t seem to take praise very well. He would have to pretty much tell her she sucked to motivate her, even though she did good. The conversation then moved on to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Ghost Protocol happened as Bird was working on a pet project he called 1906, the adaptation of James Dalessandro’s novel on the events surrounding the San Francisco earthquake during that year. He was very animated in discussing 1906. It was a rich project, but there were some problems getting all of the elements Bird needed into the story at the time. He didn’t want to make it a life project (without working on anything else), so he paused to jump onto Ghost Protocol. The audience was then shown the Hallway sequence from the movie, where Simon Pegg and Tom Cruise mask their entrance into a room in the Kremlin. The scene picked up some chuckles from the Audience with Pegg’s “face in the camera” moment.
A question came up on whether he was hindered in any way, working on a big project like Ghost Protocol. Bird wasn’t really hindered, but what attracted him to the film was that the franchise was willing to let him accommodate his individual style. The Brian DePalma version of the first Mission Impossible was different from John Woo’s work on the 2nd and J.J. Abrams work on the 3rd film. Bird added that he was given the chance to do “five out of six things” he wanted to do in a spy movie. Both Cruise and Abrahams were behind Bird on the film and he felt protected by them. On Cruise in particular, he praised his work ethic, pointing out that it was easy to have him climb the Burj Khalifa in Dubai because he keeps himself fit for every film. Garofalo took a moment to reference the HBO Documentary “Going Clear” with a “LRH” remark. “We could go on about that all day.” She said, though they moved on to their next topic.
Before continuing, Bird made a quick gesture to the screen and pointed out to the audience that he and Cruise talked about some Silent classic films and comedies. These were part of the influence for that particular hallway scene.
Janeane brought up a question on the toll with working on a big film (after doing animated features). Bird’s response was that it was like being thrown in the deep end of a shark infested pool. He jumped to work with Cruise and Abrams, and it was a lot of fun. “Big canvas stuff”, were the words used.
Control on Post Production came up (in terms of how much he had). So far, so good, was the reply. Bird stood up, leaned down to the floor of the stage and knocked on it. “Knock on wood.” He said as he sat back down with a smile before adding that he only had to bark a few times, if any.
With that, we were given a sneak peek at Bird’s latest project, Tomorrowland. In checking online, I found that it was an expanded version of the one showcased at Disney’s D23 Event last year. Unfortunately, the clip we were shown isn’t online in any form (at least I can’t find it online), so I’ll have to explain it here:
The scene opens with a young child sitting on a bus, holding quite a large bag. Screeching to a halt, the bus driver opens the door and announces the stop. The driver tells everyone to “enjoy the future”. As the patrons go to leave the bus, they’re suddenly blocked by the boy’s bag, which falls into the main aisle. The passengers give him some weird looks, but he smiles, apologizes and scoops up the bag, making his way off of the bus.
We’re given his perspective, a behind the character shot that showcases that he’s at the entrance of a festival. At the bottom of the screen, a caption appears, informing the audience that we’re at the 1964 World’s Fair, held in Queens, New York. We’re given a wider shot and it’s very much like Disneyworld, it’s bustling with people walking around and enjoying themselves. We focus on one area, with a name like The Hall of Invention. The boy enters and plops his bag on top a table where we find David Nix (Hugh Laurie) staring at him with a look of annoyance on his face. Note that his name isn’t given to the audience and that I’ve pulled it from the Internet Movie Database.
The boy unzips the bag, explaining that he had to partly disassemble it (it looking a lot like a vacuum cleaner) for transportation. As Nix looks on, he asks the boy who he is and what the contraption is supposed to be. The boy introduces himself as Frank Walker and states with pride that the device is a jetpack. He goes on to say that he’s still working on it, and as he says this, we’re given a quick cut to him standing in an open field. Wearing the jetpack, he dons a pair of goggles, a flight helmet and we see two sets of controls by each hand. The look is pretty much the whole James Bond Thunderball look.
The shot cuts back to the boy standing at the table, who adds…”though it doesn’t quite exactly….”
We’re back at the field, and the kid clicks the power button. Instead of shooting straight up high into the air, he is vaulted forward, bounces and taken through some cornfields about a good hundred yards out. The first thing I thought of was The Rocketeer (also a Disney Production).
“…Fly.” The boy says, finishing his pitch.
“And what would this be used for?” Nix asks, looking from the machine to Walker.
“It would be fun.” Walker responds.
Nix shoots him down, stating that fun isn’t what anyone’s looking for. Clearly, he seems to already be looking at the idea of monetizing or weaponizing it.
“If someone walked up to me and showed me a jetpack, I’d think that would be pretty fun.” Walker says something to this effect. A young girl in a dress comes into view just off of Nix’s left, who’s been watching this play out. She approaches Walker and asks him a few questions that leave him at loss for answers, which the audience seemed to really enjoy. After the stammering on Walker’s part, Nix interrupts the girl (who we find is named Athena) and sends Walker on his way. The girl watches on.
We find Walker sitting on a bench outside, clutching his bag. People walk back and forth around him. To his right, we see Athena take a seat next him on the bench, but facing the other direction. They talk for a bit without looking at each other.
“Look over there, at your five o’clock.” She says. Walker looks ahead and to his left and then to his right, a little unsure. She looks at him as if he’s little crazy and gestures to her left. “Don’t know what 5 O’Clock is, it’s that way.” Which brings more audience response of chuckles. Looking in the direction she points out, she sees Nix pass by with someone else. Athena asks him to follow them, “but not too close”. She then proceeds to put something in his hand and leaves. Opening it, it reveals one of the Tomorrowland pins before fading to black and cutting to a scene where he’s in his garage, arguing with his father (played by Chris Bauer, True Blood’s Andy Bellefleur).
“But I can make it work! I can figure it out!” Frank says. His father asks him to let it go and stop tinkering with these silly notions. There seemed to be a divide between the theme of Frank’s optimism and his father’s point of view before we fade to black again and the lights come up.
The audience loved it. On Tomorrowland, Bird pointed out that he and Lindelof asked “Why did the Future change?” The attitude of the world was “We can figure it out.”, Which seems missing today. The magic of World’s Fairs are dispersed. Janeane shot back that are a number of people out there that are changing things and used Elon Musk as an example. Bird added that the Zeitgeist is doom and gloom, and any hope of a bright future is somewhat stemmed. People seem resigned that we’re going down. “You have to do things, to change things.”, He said. On a personal note, there appears to be a lot of Optimism in Tomorrowland, something that Bird seems to carry with him.
Brad Bird took questions like Syndrome – “You! Up there in the back with the red hat! Your question, give it to me!!”
After all that, a few questions from the audience were given. This was fun, with Janeane started the picking and then Brad targeting the hands that flew up. It was like watching Syndome use his wrist lasers in The Incredibles. They included the following:
What was the Sixth Thing (for the 5 out of 6 things he was able to do in a spy film)?
“That would be giving up the idea.” Bird laughed. Most of the ideas are reusable somewhere else. He had a concept for an animated version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, but some of the ideas for that feature ended up becoming part of The Iron Giant.
How do you handle lighting in Animation vs. Live Action?
– When dealing with lighting, it’s almost the same way. A shorthand of cinematographer’s work was used to build setups. I can kind of see where Bird is coming from there. If you look at How to Train Your Dragon 2, the cinematography there was assisted by Roger Deakins. Lighting’s just as important in animation as it is in any medium. It’s just teaching the computer to handle it or drawing from that (at least, that’s my thought on it all).
How different is TV Work from movies?
“If you slow down, you can get eaten alive.” Bird said. He used the I Love Lucy chocolate assembly line as a reference here, stating that he learned a great deal on his time with the Simpsons. TV forces one to make very quick decisions. Iron Giant’s budget was different from Ratatouille’s and there was room to build more from that.
On creating genuine peril:
Bird loved that Disney wasn’t afraid of creating general fear in children, citing Pinocchio’s donkey transformation as something that terrified him. If animation should do anything, it should try a “balls out horror movie”. Dead Space: Downfall came to mind, personally.
Ever consider doing a live action / animated feature (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)
– Some of those work and can play together. Others come out pretty bad, like the Pagemaster. Bird wouldn’t be entirely opposed to doing one, but he didn’t appear to be too enthralled about it.
What are your processes for generating Ideas?
Here, Bird said that it’s different for each film. As an example, he wanted to do a film called “Ray Gun”. The idea came from a song he heard on the radio that he thought sounded like the Peter Gunn theme. Janeane smiled and caught the song right away – “Planet Claire” by the B52’s. Basically, it’s coming up with answers that entertain you.
With that, he and Janeane thanked the audience to tons of applause, and a bit of optimism. Below is the song that Bird was referencing: