Few names in modern animation hold the cache that Brad Bird and his name has. The filmmaker has not only conquered that world, but in recent years also shown his live action prowess. This year, he retuned to animated fare and the Pixar world, crafting at long last a sequel to “The Incredibles,” considered by many to be his magnum opus. “Incredibles 2” more than lived up to the hype, emerging as the Oscar frontrunner in the Best Animated Feature race.
At a recent event being held in honor of the film, we were able to sit down with Bird for a chat about his latest success, but more than anything, a look at his career. Not only did we touch on “Incredibles 2,” Tom Cruise and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” was discussed as well in a fair amount of detail. We even hit on Bird’s time with “The Simpsons.” Expect to see his Pixar effort show up throughout the awards season, en route to, at the very least, an Academy Award nomination. If you haven’t been able to see “Incredibles 2” yet, shame on you. It’s available to own, rent, and stream right now, so there’s no excuses whatsoever. Not only is it one of the best animated efforts of 2018, it continues to cement the legacies of Bird and Pixar.
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: I just spoke to Holly Hunter a few minutes ago and she made me promise to tell you to keep putting her in movies. So, this is me keeping that promise.
Brad Bird: (Laughs)
JM: When you direct animation, it’s kind of like writing in a way, isn’t it? You can do whatever you want provided someone can create it for you. There’s no inherent limits to your imagination.
BB: That’s true of live action now too.
JM: So, when you then moved to live action, were people surprised? Was it a shock when you suggested they hang him (Tom Cruise) from the tallest building in the world?
BB: What was unusual about it was the star of the movie was willing to do that and…
JM: He probably would have been annoyed if he couldn’t do it.
BB: Well, he was also a producer so he’s going to do it and you’d better be okay with it. But I got really spoiled with Tom because he was willing to swing around out there and do it. When we shot it, when we were shooting it, we were worried that everyone was going to think it was a special effect. And then what happened is we were filming up there, and Tom was hanging on an edge in order to spring out and push out and swing wide and in order to hang on the edge he was overlooking a deck full of tourists. And the tourists were looking up and seeing Tom Cruise 20 feet above them and they started filming videos and saying hey, how’s it going’ and he’s like, busy. Right? But, it went out on the internet, and at first I was pissed because they ruined it, but then I realized it was actually good because they know that he’s actually there. It’s not a special effect.
JM: I’ve been there. I was on that tourist deck. You have to pay more to go higher, I think. But it’s ridiculously high. You look out and immediately think of the movie and how there must be something wrong with that man.
BB: (Laughs) Right. The top of the Empire State Building is a little over halfway.
JM: I’m scared of heights too, but oddly I wasn’t scared because it’s so tall that your brain doesn’t process that far up.
BB: Right. It’s like a plane.
JM: Or cartoon like. It’s not real, it can’t be. Because it doesn’t make sense. So your brain just acts like it’s fake. It was fascinating.
JM: I wonder how many people think of directing animation as different than directing live action?
BB: I don’t think they consciously think of it that way, but I think they do absolutely think of it that way. No one from animation has ever been nominated for Best Director and so I think people think of it as a technical process that is somehow done by committee or a machine.
JM: Walt Disney hovering over someone’s shoulder back in the day.
BB: Right. Directing is supervising a machine. And it kind of is anyways I guess, but it’s not seen as artistic in the way that live action is.
JM: I guess the image in people’s heads is a director standing there pointing the camera and then telling the actor to stand somewhere.
BB: It’s physical. And if it’s a made up environment, how then does someone direct? And the only thing that their mind can wrap itself around is that it’s a technical process filled with technicians, and they don’t understand it’s just as emotional, it’s just that the emotions are extended over a longer period of time.
JM: How would you break it down? Like if someone needed you to paint a picture for you. What is a day on set, when the set is the Pixar office?
BB: I would just say the language is the same. You’re still dealing with shots, camera angles that hopefully tell you something. You’re dealing with pacing, you’re dealing with characters and how to delineate them and how to get the audience connected with their emotions. You’re dealing with pace, you’re dealing with music and color and trying to coordinate all those things and you’re trying to tap into the mind of your crew and get them all aligned so they’re harmonic. So that’s exactly the same as live action. What’s different is that nothing is spontaneous in animation except for maybe voice recording.
JM: Having them do the lines over and over again?
BB: Or you sometimes don’t say the line, say the contents of the line but say it in a different way, and see what it sounds like. Maybe they do five ways and one of them is better than what you’ve written. You can do that occasionally. But it’s not a spontaneous process, where you can have happy accidents in animation. Happy accidents are more spread out.
JM: You were in a position to tell a billion dollar company that you don’t have a story yet and to wait for me to be ready, in terms of an “Incredibles” sequel. How does that work?
BB: How is it respected you mean?
BB: Well I don’t think it was me. I think it was more Pixar. With the exception of “The Iron Giant,” I have done all of my best work under an umbrella. Somebody’s umbrella. On “The Simpsons,” it was Jim Brooks‘ umbrella. On “Amazing Stories” it was Steven Spielberg’s umbrella. I was under in some ways Tom’s umbrella on “Mission Impossible.” And I’ve been under Pixar’s for my Pixar movie. “Iron Giant” I kind of had to fend for myself a bit, and it was exhausting, but it worked out okay in the long run. So I don’t know that it was…if it had been all Disney I don’t know that they would have allowed me. Maybe they would have. I like to think that they would respect me that much. But I do know that Pixar was like, when you’re ready, we’re ready.
JM: Which is a unique situation.
BB: Very unique and I don’t take it for granted.
JM: It is rare though that there is an animation brand like that. That’s not easy to find.
BB: But how do you get that brand?
JM: You make great movies for about two decades.
BB: And you hopefully create an environment where artists feel respected and protected. That’s really what the Disney company has been protected by Walt’s legacy, meaning Walt built that brand. And he was a singular person who had many shots to sell things out and he didn’t take them when the company went, when everyone was first dealing with television, Walt Disney is the only person to hold on to all of the stuff and didn’t put everything on television, which meant that Michael Eisner, however many years later, had easy exploitation to put the Disney features on DVD, because their value was pumped up because Walt was smart enough to not release them when every other studio did. So, the fact that that brand name has some appeal to it was because that guy stuck to his guns. And they don’t see it because it’s half a century off, but if he hadn’t done all of that stuff and not listened to the financial people of his day, they would no longer have a legacy to exploit.
JM: Even back when I was a kid, there would be limited availability for the clamshell VHS releases. Buy it now before it goes back in the vault!
BB: Which is their amended version of Disney re-releasing his films every seven years so there’d be a new proper people to see it.
JM: Yeah. Especially younger audiences. So suddenly there’s different generations enjoying the same thing. That’s actually something you do very well. Even going back to “The Simpsons,” which was for more than one age group. My generation grew up on it. Those seasons you worked on were some of the height of television comedy.
BB: Oh thanks! Did you know that we tried…in some ways the prejudice towards animation existed back then, because we tried for years for “The Simpsons” to be nominated in the Comedy category, not the Animation category. And after fighting about it, and not me Jim Brooks fighting. Finally after, like, three years they allowed us to compete in the Comedy category. No one nominated us. Two years in a row we got skunked! And then we went slinking back to Animation where we were competing against “Muppet Babies” and stuff. And you could argue that in those years that we were not the best comedy. I would say that we were some of those years, but you could argue “Seinfeld” was better. But there’s no way we weren’t among the top five.
JM: No, I would argue the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons” stack up as the best ten seasons of any show.
BB: Oh wow. Great.
JM: I mean, they’re way beyond that now, and it’s become an institution as much as anything.
BB: And they’re still making them!
JM: You can pick out any two or three episodes from those first dozen seasons or so and they could be an all-time episode of comedy. Or just that they’re fully-realized adventures. Even in the early seasons before Homer was an idiot, they were telling a different story.
BM: Thank you, that’s generous. You know, I was just saying the show was always, the writing staff was always divided almost close to 50/50 between funniest joke wins but not at if it comes at the expense of character. And I was one of the guys, I was in the latter camp and I would argue about Homer being too stupid.
JM: The stuff you created, it stays with people. “The Incredibles” obviously. Making “The Iron Giant” but then seeing it show up in “Ready Player One.” Your creations have become cultural touchstones.
BB: Wow. Well, thank you.
JM: And obviously getting Tom Cruise to hang off a building. Allowing him essentially.
BM: I mean, he knows that if he’s doing it, people can tell.
JM: It’s true. You can do almost anything with CGI now…
BB: That’s right.
JM: A movie can honestly have anything if the budget is high enough and there’s enough time. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you know in your head that real is still better. He’s a good example where you know. Or even just with Pixar, it’s not real, but you watch Pixar animation and you know it’s something different than anything else.
BB: What’s weird is that computer has in many ways leveled the playing field, where somebody can be fairly experienced at it, and on first glance it looks surprisingly close to people’s work who know what they’re doing. But I think if you watch any stretch of it, like if instead of watching ten seconds of it, you watched five minutes of it, you start to see and feel the difference between the really good studios and the wannabe studios. But the computer wants to render whether you know what you’re doing or not.
JM: It makes you have to be more of a craftsman. You can fake computer animation for a bit, but it doesn’t sustain.
BB: Yeah. But what’s funny is in hand-drawn animation, you couldn’t do that. I mean, when people tried to do Disney animation back in the 60s, it was clear that they were the B and C players.
JM: Before we wrap up, what’s next?
BB: We have a live action film that I want to do, and it has about 20 minutes of animation in it. It should be different.
JM: Different is always good.
BB: Yes. Very nice to talk with you!