An Interview by Michael Barrier
Elsewhere on the site, in my review
of Pixar's The Incredibles, I say this:
"It's the best of Pixar's six features, and the first computer-animated
feature I've seen that gives me hope that the medium may eventually
have the same capacity for artistic expression as hand-drawn animation.
[Brad] Bird [as writer and director] surely deserves most of the
credit for this breakthrough, and probably all of it."
seen The Incredibles three times now, and my admiration for
the film has increased each time I've seen it. That doesn't happen
very often with recent animated films.
The Incredibles has many other admirers: it was nominated
for a total of four Academy Awards, including best animated feature
and best original screenplay. When the Los Angeles Times asked
me to write about The Incredibles for its February 27, 2005,
Oscar preview edition, I was happy to accept the commission. I asked
Brad Bird if he could make time for a telephone interview, on very
short notice, and he was able to do so. We talked on the evening
of February 16, 2005.
Barrier: I've been astonished by how precise the parallels
have been that some people have drawn between the film and certain
superhero comic books, like Powers, Watchmen, and
Fantastic Four. I gather from other interviews, though, that
you really haven't been that much of a comic-book reader, and really
haven't been consciously influenced by these comic books. What kind
of feedback have you been getting from fans about these supposed
influences, and how have you been responding?
Bird: I was not a big comic-book reader. I read a few, when
I was little, but I was really much more into things like "Peanuts"
and "B.C."funny strips. I got my heroes secondhand,
from television and movies, to a certain extent. When fans ask if
I was influenced by issue 47 of Whoeverman, I have no idea
what they're talking about. I'm perfectly willing to believe that
I'm not the first to come up with certain ideas involving superheroes;
it's probably the most well-trod turf on the planet. If there are
similarities, it's simply because the same thoughts that occurred
to other people also occurred to me. I'd be astonished if anyone
could come up with any truly original powers that were at all interesting
That's not the part of the story that I'm interested in, anyway.
The part that I'm interested in is all the personal stuff. I tried
to base the powers on family archetypes. The father is always expected
to be strong, so I had him have strength. Moms are always pulled
in a million different directions, so I had her be elastic. Teenagers
are insecure and defensive, so I had her be invisible and have protective
shields. Ten-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls, so I had
him be speed. And babies are unknownthey may have great powers,
they may have none.
Barrier: Since the film has come out, and you've heard these
comic books invoked, have you read any of them?
No, I haven't. I'm only now catching up on movies that have
come out. I have three kids and a wife, and any moments that aren't
dedicated to working on this film in some way, or family, are immediately
reserved for sleep. I'm now in a rush to see all these other films
that came out this year. I even mentioned on the Dennis Miller show
that I met Annette Bening last week, and I told her I thought she
was great in Finding Juliaand then I went, "No,
no, no! Being Julia, Finding Neverland. It's confusing
because I'm gulping them down too fast now. And it's not only films,
I'm pretty unaware of anything that's going on in popular culture
right now. I'm behind on books, I don't know what's happening in
musicI had the Grammies on the other night and I'd only heard
a couple of the songs before. I've got to play catchup now. Don't'
get me wrongI'm interested, but the pile of stuff I have to
look at is just ungodly.
Barrier: Had you even heard of Powers before?
Bird: No, no. I've heard of Watchmen. Other people
have mentioned that aspects of it are similar to Incredibles,
I think something about the superheroes being retired. I know it's
very highly regarded; if you're going to be compared to something,
it's nice if it's something good.
Barrier: Speaking of the films you've been watchingfor
original screenplay you're up against four live-action films that
have generally gotten very strong reviews, and of course one of
them, The Aviator, was nominated for best picture. If you
had to choose between the two Oscars you've been nominated for,
for best original screenplay and best animated feature, which one
would be the most significant to you?
Bird: No one's ever won the best original screenplay for
an animated film before, and I think some of the best stories that
have been put on film, have been for animated films. I suppose best
original screenplay would be a little more special, for the reason
that you're competing against all films, without any qualifications,
and the fact that no animated film has ever won it before. To [win]
any kind of an Oscar is an honor, but when you're being compared
against a much wider group of movies and then found one of the best,
it may even mean a little more.
Barrier: When the Academy created the best animated feature
Oscar a few years ago, a lot of people felt that was a ghettoization
of animation, essentially foreclosing what happened in 1991, when
Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture. The
Incredibles was very high on a lot of best picture listsJoe
Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said it was the best
picture of the year, for example.
Bird: Yes, and Premiere magazine just came out with
their cross-section of all the top critics in America, and it was
No. 3 for the year. On Rotten Tomatoes, a website that cross-references
movie reviews from all over the country, Incredibles was
the highest rated film of the year.
Barrier: Which would suggest that if there wasn't an Oscar
for best animated feature, The Incredibles might have
been nominated for best picture.
Bird: You're not the first one to mention that.
Barrier: Do you think the effect of the best animated feature
Oscar has been to make it more difficult for a film like The
Incredibles to win an Oscar outside that category?
Bird: I think some voters who may truthfully believe that
an animated film is one of the five best of the year may feel like
if they nominate you for best animated film they're off the hook.
I certainly don't want to be complainingthe film has been
very well received, and to be nominated for four Oscars is wonderful.
But you don't have to look very deep to see that people treat animation
differently. We went through the same thing on The Simpsons
with the Emmy award for best comedy. No one denies Simpsons
is one of the best comedies ever to appear on televsion, but has
it ever been nominated with other comedies? As far as Incredibles
goes, I can tell when people like the film, and yet when they come
up to congratulate me many say, "My kid loves it." It's
almost like they're embarrassed to admit an animated film got to
them. But for a filmmaker who works in animation, when you work
so hard to realize a moment, draw the audience in, and tell a story
as well as you possibly can in a medium that's very difficult to
masteryou feel like it's the thirties and you're in the Negro
Leagues, or something. You may play some of the best ball, but you're
never going to get to the World Series.
[But] let's not let animated filmmakers off the hook. I think many
cater to that [prejudice] by continually talking down to their audience.
When I say that I'm not talking about the good stuff. I'm talking
about the majority of animation.
Barrier: You're saying that animation's problem is that
it has been conceived as being for a juvenile audience.
Bird: Of course. And many filmmakers do nothing to fight
Barrier: In that connection, it's striking to me that every
time I watch The Incredibles the adult nature of the relationships
becomes more and more obvious.
Bird: Well, yes. In some ways, that's made it harder to
disregard [the film]. It was discussed in The New York Times
not once, not twice, but three times. Sometimes I felt people got
silly with their analysis of it, the Ayn Rand nonsense for example,
but for the most part, the mere fact that a mainstream animated
film was being thought provocative at all, I took as a tremendous
win. I was happy about that.
Another thing: Walt Disney has cast such a long shadow over animation,
and Disney itself was more of a producer's studio than a director's
studio. That has helped [encourage] the idea that [animation] is
a process, rather than an art that's guided by a vision. Walt Disney
was in effect the director of those great films. He wasn't a good
director when he was [literally] directing, as a viewing of any
of the few short films he's credited as director make clear, but
he was an excellent director in terms of directing his directors.
But I think that notion, that it's a system that creates an animated
film, and not a person, has been kind of bound up in how people
perceive animation. The John Lasseters and the Miyazakis of the
world are in the minority. For the most part, we have films that
are directed by two or three guys, and which one is the author?
Barrier: They're anonymous.
Bird: I don't think that's always the case. I think that
John Musker and Ron Clements have a signature style. But in many
cases a studio will put two or three people together as co-directors
who may not even like each other or respect each other's work. It's
used as a way to diffuse power rather than coalesce a vision.
Barrier: You've laid the groundwork in The Incredibles
for a more mature sort of animated film, but I haven't seen
anything about what you have in mind for your next feature. Are
you thinking of something that's more specifically adult than anything
that's been done before, or is this simply too big a leap even now
for animated films to make?
Bird: I don't know. It's never moved fast enough for me,
and yet I can't complain, because the two films I've made are the
films I wanted to make. The Iron Giant was a film where I
was essentially given a completely dysfunctional unit and a very
short amount of time to turn it around. I had nine months to prepare
the film from my twelve-page outline to handing out scenes, with
an animation department that was completely screwed up. We had half
the time and a third of the money and a dysfunctional department,
but there was a certain amount of freedom, too. They were shutting
down the division as we were making the film, so, as long as we
produced on time and on budget, we were left alone, which is a great
advantage. And it turned out that there was a great deal of talent
at the Warners feature animation division, it just needed to be
I'm getting off the subject. Before Iron Giant, I spent
years on projects that were too big a leap for investment people
to make. I developed "The Spirit" for years. I had a project
with Turner Animation called Ray Gunn, which was an animated
film-noir science-fiction thing. It was funny and action-packed,
but it was a little darker than most mainstream animated films,
so it never got cleared for takeoff. I feel like Iron Giant
was a step in the direction I wanted to go, in that it brought things
like the Cold War in, and it didn't have songs, but it had a boy
protagonist. Studio people could understand that, and there was
the appeal of a giant robot. I feel like Incredibles was
a little further step. I do think quality adult animation is going
to happen, but I don't know how far you can push it. The further
you want to push the stories, the lower your budget is going to
have to be. If you accept that, in animation it means you have to
give up certain the quality of the movement itself. It's not like
a live-action film where you have to scale down the number of locations
(although that can be affected, too). It's more about compromising
how much your character actually moves and expresses itself. More
expressivityin hand-drawn, especiallymeans more drawings,
means more money.
Barrier: You mentioned "The Spirit," and I wanted
to ask you about Will Eisner.
Bird: "The Spirit" is only comic-book crime fighter
I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was
interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a film
director that I liked [who] talked about "The Spirit"
being "cinematic." So I started to read it, and I thought,
wow! It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and
the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn't have the
rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics.
It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, '47, '48.
Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short
stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end.
I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting.
So I got all the reprints of "The Spirit" I could lay
my hands on.
Barrier: You said you'd tried to develop a feature of "The
Spirit" some time ago and couldn't make it fly. Is that the
sort of thing that would be conceivable now that The Incredibles
has broken the ground for it?
Bird: I don't know. I think they're developing a live-action
version of "The Spirit." For me, it almost seems like
it's past. I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of
think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right
now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that's considered the kiss
of death. I don't think you could get any money for a big animated
feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn. For whatever reasons,
people perceive CG as being the magic thing that will turn any bad
idea good. Maybe five years from now they'll realize that any medium
is fine if the characters draw you in and the story is well told.
But right now, I think it's probably very difficult to find financing
for an ambitious hand-drawn film. You can probably get a movie based
on a TV show and up the per-minute cost a little bit from the average
episode. Hand-drawn features that are based on TV shows can happen,
but they already have their audience locked in.
Barrier: Having worked in CG, could you return to hand-drawn
animation yourself now, without feeling a dislocation?
Bird: I could absolutely do a hand-drawn film. That said,
there are certain things about working in CG that I do truly prefer.
I love the minute control over facial animation, whereas in hand-drawn,
once you get down to the width of a pencil line between drawings
it's very difficult to control, because the line itself becomes
more active than any movement it's supposed to represent. And I
love being able to move the camera in space. That said, there is
a look, and a tactile feel, to hand-drawn that computer just can't
replicatecomputer has its own thing, and it's a wonderful
medium, and I would love to do other things with that medium, but
hand-drawn is also something that you can't get any other way
so I hate to see it abandoned. Just as I don't wish to see Nick
Park abandon clay animation, until he wants to abandon clay. I love
"Wallace and Gromit" just the way it is, and I look forward
to any stop motion that Henry Selick wants to do. Stop motion is
probably the closest thing to CG that there is, and yet it doesn't
look the same. It has its own feel, a little more "touchy."
I think in the future, people will be combining these things in
all sorts of weird ways. If you look at some of the student films
that are being done now, they're combining hand-drawn elements with
computer with stop motion with clay, and they're all being put on
the screen at once. I think that's fascinating, and we're only at
the beginning of it. There have been very clear delineations between
the arts, and I think those lines are going to be crossed and disappear.
Barrier: Sounds like Cal Arts.
Bird: Yeah, kind of. Maybe the ideal version of Cal Arts.
To answer your question about what's next, I have not actually
stopped working on this thing [The Incredibles] yet. It seems
like there's always something new to promote. I think the minute
the DVD comes out I'm actually going to be done, which will be amazing.
I love being [at Pixar], and I have a lot of ideas, all kinds of
different things. I've also developed several live-action projects
over the years that, like many of my animated projects, haven't
gotten off the ground. Maybe now that I've made some films, I'll
encounter less resistance to those ideas, because I'm still committed
to getting them made. I love the medium of film, and any way to
tell a story on film, whether it be live action or animated or a
blend, I'm up for. I think film is the best medium there is on the
face of the earth, because it combines all arts into one. So I have
no shortage of ideas, and the minute all this activity slows down
enough for me to think, I'll get to work on something new.
[Posted February 27, 2005]