Iconic director: brad bird
Though animation is thought of as a child-orientated medium, there is an obvious emotional depth achieved through unique characters and environments. Brad Bird’s films, for example, are cinematically intelligent, heartfelt and fun. Bird uses underdogs, possibly in the hope to represent how those on the margins of society can bring value to the very society that shuns them. Though Bird spends his time creating stories about others, his own tale is fascinating.
Bird finished his first film before he was 14, The Tortoise and The Hare. Disney Studios must have been impressed with the film because they invited Bird to come work for them under the leadership of Milt Kahl. After working on and off at Disney, and graduating high school, Disney presented him with a scholarship to attend the California Institute of Arts.
Though Bird did work at Disney after his degree, he was involved in countless arguments about the traditional methods of animation carried out by the studio. He was eventually fired because he was in search of more innovative techniques. Bird states in a few interviews that between his time as an animator at Disney, and his move to television he had enough money to sustain himself, but he craved a return to creating his own films. Bird worked on Rugrats, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons. One of Bird’s most iconic projects while working for the Simpsons team was Do the Bartman (1990). Bird spent a few weeks on the music video. The video was a challenging process because of the heavy animation demands. The demand was to have every character up to this date have a cameo in the video. All the hard work paid off as it became a huge sensation. Also, it’s worth to note that while Bird spent significant amount of time working on Do the Bartman, he also was the creator of Bart’s nemesis, Sideshow Bob.
It may surprise many to learn that Bird’s first attempt to move from television to film was not the The Iron Giant (1999). Instead Bird had previously pitched Ray Gun, a detective animation, but the studio wanted something different, and this resulted in a cult classic. The Iron Giant is set in a small American town at the time of the cold war where Hogarth Hughes, a child of a single mother, is shunned from his peers, but comes into his own by making friends with a mechanical giant. The film uses pans, zooms, shot reverse shots and a shaky cam in a way which makes Bird’s animation style feel more cinematic. The cinematic quality was cultivated by his Warner Bros. team who used a new software at the time, after effects, to animate the storyboard. Another innovation was to digitally animate the Iron Giant. Bird says that the hardest thing about making the Giant, was the software’s inability to make imperfections which would come naturally from drawn animation. Bird feared that the clean lines of the Giant would make him not blend into the drawn world, and he pushed his team to create hand drawn imperfections in the software.
After these software innovations were accomplished, Bird focused on the voices of the characters. Bird and Warner Bros. executives argued over the actors, but in the end, Bird achieved creative freedom. It is shocking who he chose for some of the characters. For example, Jennifer Aniston voices Hogarth’s mother Annie Hughes, but never was her star status used to sell the film and you would actually never know it was Aniston. Bird thought not of who sells, but who fits; a commitment Bird has to his auteur animation.
Sadly, Bird’s dedication did not coincide with Warner Bros.’s. The Iron Giant did not perform well at the box office. Bird himself has recounted his experience seeing The Iron Giant in the cinema in The Making of the Iron Giant (1999). He says he was shocked because his film was in one of the smallest theatres in the cinema, and the heading for the showtimes was written on a piece of paper and taped to the board, while the cut-out poster was ripped. Naturally there were only a few in the theatre with him. The poor advertising and the connections he had within other production companies meant that this was his first and last Warner Brother’s feature film.
Bird then moved onto Pixar where he made The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). In both these films there is something fantastic, such as a family with super powers or a rat who is a chef, in the midst of mundanity, a melodramatic home or a failing restaurant. Bird wears glasses, has a voice which screams west coast, wears normal clothing and for all appearances seems normal. However, Bird’s knowledge never fails to impress. From technique to history, and his hilarious stories involving things like the naming of Ratatouille in his TIFF 2018 talk, he has something of his characters, representing a special light in his own mundanity. His passion about his projects is undeniable as he stresses to push through others to find the ‘you’. Maybe he asks people to do this because he had to and does not regret it. His efforts to make the perfect film is shown through practice. For example, he voiced Edna “E” Mode in The Incredibles because he felt no voice actor could do the voice he imagined. His position as director allows his intriguing imagination the freedom to exist. The relatable flaws of his characters help the audience to sympathise, because they are always faced with a society that demands conformity. Possibly Bird seeks the acceptance to change many unforgiving societies.
Brad Bird started his career when he was 11, and it continues strong. His determination to stick to his imagination creates touching films. His attention to imperfections and quirks enables any person to enjoy a spectacle with a heart and a message.