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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

Bird films high with Pixar

Brad Bird, like all the Pixar directors, comes off as a regular guy, albeit one who is obviously chuffed to be doing what he loves most. With a resume that includes working on "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" and an impressive debut feature with 1999's "Iron Giant," Bird seems a natural choice as new blood for the Pixar directorial team. He joined the company in 2000, and it is certainly giving "The Incredibles" the type of support Dreamworks never put behind "Iron Giant."

News photo
"The Incredibles" director Brad Bird in Tokyo, holding the character he does the voice for, Edna Mode.

With Bird writing the script as well as directing (and giving voice to his most hilarious character, superhero costume designer Edna Mode), "The Incredibles" retains Pixar's individualistic, director-driven approach that has given them a hit with all six of their films so far, this one included. In an interview at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel, Bird discussed a few aspects of making modern animation.

What was the original idea for this film? The characters, or the story, or . . . ?

It started with the Bob character, then just asking questions from there. The idea was a retired superhero, looking back on it, like a star high-school athlete who never has that experience again. So you think, if he's retired and looking back, why is he retired? Well . . . lawsuits! Yeah, that's good. Is he married? Uh, yeah. Does she have superpowers? Do they have kids? It just goes from there, you keep asking questions and answering them. And as you do, the situation starts to get defined, and you begin to see ways you can play with those characters. It's an ongoing process of addition and subtraction; you keep adding ideas and taking away the ones that don't seem to be getting you anything. The sad part about making a film is many of the ideas you end up letting go of are as good as the ones you keep, it's just that you can't have them all.

In a normal film, people have the luxury of shooting a lot and hacking it together later in the editing room. But when you're creating everything from scratch . . .

You can't waste anything. You try and explore and reject before you get into production. We work with [the editing software] Story Reel, try to get it up and represent it well, but you make the call at that stage. You try not to get to animation and then reject something because it's unbelievably expensive.

So do you prepare a lot by storyboarding?

Storyboarding in animation is like rehearsing a play, where you get up and have people walk around and start to block things out. You'll see what is and isn't working and change things. It's not about rewriting dialogue or anything like that; it's about visualizing it.

Your last film, "Iron Giant," had a certain look, whereas this one looks very Pixar. Is there a specific look Pixar's aiming for, and how do you achieve that?

Well, some of what people call the "Pixar look" is just putting something in 3D. The designs of the characters were originally conceived as a hand-drawn project, and we used that same artwork to guide us when we did it in 3D, and the look of the characters is exactly the same. I think it feels like part of the Pixar canon, but it also has a look that reminds many people of "Iron Giant."

It's interesting how you put it, though, that people have come to identify 3D computer animation with Pixar. It shows how much they've defined the medium.

Well, yeah, but a lot of people thought that "Shark's Tale" or "Shrek" were done by Pixar. At Pixar, we're like, "hmmm?" You feel like your work is obviously different. But we did try to do some things on "The Incredibles" that were a little different.

It seems like the old limitations in computer animation have been surpassed. Is there anything technically that would still be a problem to do?

Well, we certainly had our hands full on this film. If you were to list "the 10 Hardest Things to do in CG Animation," we did all of them, in large amounts. Certainly, some things came down to the wire. To the point that we were talking about Violet having short hair because we couldn't get the hair right. Finally someone put the right combination of things together and we had hair, thank God. But a lot of the film was like that, we were just on the edge of failure at almost every point. Within not too long, everything's gonna be solved. Certainly it's that way in live-action now, where there's nothing they can't do effects-wise. You know, "The Lord of the Rings" would have been impossible even 10 years ago. But that's not the real mystery of filmmaking.

The real issue is whether there are characters that you care about, and a story you're getting sucked into. And if those two things aren't there, it doesn't matter how many doohickies you throw in, none of that's going to matter. And I think people forget that. They think if you have a lot of elaborate effects sequences [emits a loud cough that sounds suspiciously like the name of a recent vampire-hunter film] that it will be a good movie, but it's not true.

Because the characters aren't there.

Yeah! You don't care!

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