With just three films, Brad Bird has cemented his reputation as a top-tier filmmaker. The director won the Best Animated Feature Oscar twice, for Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), which grossed a combined $1.3 billion worldwide. That résumé, which also includes the 1999 toon The Iron Giant, convinced Tom Cruise that Bird was his go-to guy to helm the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (due in theaters Dec. 16). And despite never having directed a live-action feature, Bird jumped at the opportunity.
The Incredibles truly announced the arrival of Brad Bird. The project represented a number of breakthroughs for Pixar. It was the animation studio’s first film with human protagonists, its first PG rating, by far its longest feature (115 minutes) at that point, and its first movie directed and written by only one person. EW recently checked in with Bird to chat about The Incredibles, which just debuted on Blu-ray in a snazzy four-disc package. Click through to read the interview, in which Bird discusses the film’s influence on the animation industry, the biggest challenges in getting it made, and why the director has switched to live-action filmmaking.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back, what are you most proud of accomplishing with The Incredibles?
BRAD BIRD: I think we changed a little bit what people thought these [animated] films should be about. There are a number of things that were considered against the grain at the time. First of all, the last time anybody spent money on an animated superhero [movie] was the very first superhero movie — the animated Superman [shorts] done by the Fleischers [Fleischer Studios released 17 shorts from 1941-43]. Every bit of animation on superheroes done since then has been on television kind of budgets, and nobody had really thought about doing a feature animated film about superheroes, so that was thing No. 1.
Thing No. 2 was that one of the things generally acknowledged as difficult to do well in CG animation was humans, and so you would just basically try to minimize their role and not keep them on screen too long. When [humans] had been done, a lot of animators thought they looked pretty lousy. There was too much attention to the wrong kind of details with the pores, the skin, and each individual eyelash — it starts to look photorealistic and yet disturbing at the same time.
So I think we changed the trend. We deliberately simplified a lot of things with the humans. We simplified the musculature, we simplified details like the farther away you got from the face, the more we minimized the ears [so that] there are no details inside of the ears. There was a lot of thought put into how we could caricature our characters — Bob has big hands and tiny feet. I think that a lot of CG films that you see now are drafted off this stuff that we did back then. If you look at the style of humans, it’s definitely been affected, or infected [laughs], by what we did.
You came to Pixar with your own team, as an outside filmmaker coming into the studio. Initially, was there any uneasiness directed toward you?
They knew who we were. I think the weird thing for me was the animators at Pixar were kind of cloistered at that point. They considered themselves off on their own in this little offshoot environment. They were the underdogs not too many years before I arrived. They still had a little bit of that status, and when I came in, they were strangely insecure, like, “Brad has his guys and they’re just gonna not use us.” And what they didn’t really grasp at that point was how good they were. They thought I was going to bring in guys with more years in the animation industry, and they were feeling insecure about that because, for a lot of them, their first jobs were at Pixar.
It was all kind of silly. The monsters are always scariest before you see them. I think they pretty soon relaxed and knew how much I respected the work that they had done prior to our arrival, and that I was really grateful to have such a wonderful pool of talent to draw from.
And they quickly realized how much you were going to work them. At one point during the Blu-ray’s The Incredibles Revisited feature, it cuts to an exasperated animator saying, “Brad has worn us out!”
[laughs] Well, the funny thing was there were all these things that were supposed to be challenging. And we didn’t just do one of them — we did all of them! And we did them all at once with a longer film [and] without trying to spend more money than the previous film. So we had to be really diligent about our preparation because, otherwise, the budget would have gone way out of control.
We had double to three times the number of sets of any Pixar movie, we had more shots, we had more effects in them, we had humans, we had lots of costume changes, and we were underwater, we were in outer space, we were in two different cities. There came this unease that settled through everybody of like, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” We were going into areas that nobody felt certain about, so that was a real challenge, but the kind of challenge you relish as a filmmaker.
You had some resistance outside Pixar, as well. For instance, on the Blu-ray, you mention that a Disney executive told you, “There are things that animation can and can’t do.”
What was crazy was, things had gone well up until that point. Another person underneath that person had already seen the presentation and liked it, so we thought this would be a nice love fest. We went into this meeting and could hear [the executive] coming down the hall, just shouting ahead of himself before he even got in the room: “I don’t know why we’re doing this” and “It’s a live-action film!”
Speaking of live-action films, you’re currently directing a little one [Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol]. In your acceptance speech at this year’s Annie Awards, you jokingly implied that the live-action film community had kidnapped you. When your Pixar colleagues learned that you would be leaving them to direct this, was there a kidding sense of betrayal?
I wouldn’t say betrayal. I have a really good relationship with Pixar. I really respect that studio, and I respected it way before I got there. It’s the finest group of people you could ever want to work with. I hope to do other things with them, and I think they do with me.
It’s just a matter of following where your interest lies. I’ve wanted to make a live-action film for a long time. I’ve tried to make live-action films almost as long as I’ve tried to make animated films. I had a period of time where half the projects I was trying to get off the ground were live-action. It was just that animation was the first one that went, and then once you do one, you kind of find yourself rolling into another one. So it was time for me to do [live-action]. I have many projects I want to do. Some of them are live-action, some of them are animation, and some of them are a blend. It’s just about what’s the best medium for a story.
How’s Mission: Impossible gone so far?
It was a very challenging shoot. It’s a big film and we had to move around a lot. We were doing a lot of physical effects live — we weren’t using special effects. And so it was physically a real challenge.
Did you come across situations where you wish it was an animated film?
Yes and no. The wonderful thing about animation is you have absolute control over every frame. The nightmare of animation is that you have absolute control over every frame. Literally, you have to decide upon everything, and you don’t get anything for free. You can’t go to a location and simply say, “This looks good,” and shoot there. You have to discuss what kind of trees, is it a railyard, how wide are the tracks, are the tracks new or old? The amount of planning you have to do is just jaw-dropping.
So that part of it I’m not sorry to be away from [laughs]. But there are pleasures to be had in both mediums. With live-action, you’re trying to catch little moments of lightning in a bottle. In animation you’re trying to do that too, but you’re doing it one volt at a time.
I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Cruise dangling from that Dubai skyscraper [the Burj Khalifa].
[laughs] He did dangle! That’s not a special effect.
And it wouldn’t be the same with animation…
You could do it, but there wouldn’t be any life and limb being risked.
Or YouTube videos of Tom waving to people inside the building. Real quick, after Mission: Impossible, is 1906 [a disaster film about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake] your next project?
I don’t know. It’s all about getting the story to work, and the canvas is so big on it that it’s easy to bust down its movie-sized walls and go rampaging throughout the countryside. The problem has always been scaling it and containing it in a movie-sized length. It’s really a movie that wants to be a miniseries. But if you did it as a miniseries, then you’d have to do it for the small screen, and the story demands to be told on a big screen. So we’re still working on it.