An Interview With Brad Bird
March 1, 2012

An Interview With Brad Bird

Freelance writer Johannes Wolters in Cologne, Germany, had an opportunity to talk with Brad Bird, Academy Award-winning director, animator, and screenwriter. He is well known for writing and directing Disney/Pixar’s CG animated features The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). Prior to that, he directed the animated film The Iron Giant (1999) from Warner Brothers.
In late 2011, he stepped out of the animation realm and into the live-action world by directingMission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which opened at the end of December. The fourth installment in the Mission Impossible series of American spy films, Ghost Protocol follows its predecessors with edge-of-your-seat action and thrilling stunts. The film was partially shot with IMAX cameras, which made up approximately 30 minutes of the film's runtime. According to reports, Bird insisted that certain scenes of the film be shot in IMAX as opposed to 3D, because he felt that the IMAX format offered the viewer more immersion due to its brighter, higher-quality image, which is projected on a larger screen, without the need for specialized glasses. Bird also had stated that IMAX format would bring back "a level of showmanship" to the presentation of Hollywood films, which he believes the industry has lost due to its emphasis on screening films in multiplexes as opposed to grand theaters.

Here, Bird discusses his foray into live action and how it compares to animation.

In your fantastic short video message at the 2011 Annie Awards Ceremony, we could see you held in captivity by kidnappers Tom Cruise (who plays the lead character IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Ghost Protocol) and Simon Pegg (who plays new field agent Benji Dunn), and you had to read a prewritten statement in favor of live-action moviemaking. How was that experience?

Brad Bird (laughs) Oh that, it was touch and go, you know... They made sure that I got fed and I survived the process.

Did you find the wonder and the magic as well in live action as you did in animation?

Brad Bird: Yes! But maybe in a different way! Spontaneity is something that animation does not excel at. And you kind of have to imitate spontaneity rather than ‘have’ it. So that part of life action was really fun, having things happen right there on the set in front of the camera and, hopefully, you had them rolling to capture it. But both of those worlds are magical to me, even so, I know all about the technology involved there. There is still something very mysterious about that process to me!

Many fans of your animated movies wonder if you will come back to animation or if you will stay in live action. What is so interesting about each?

Brad Bird: I think they are both great. I think they have different strengths and different weaknesses, but they are both film and both storytelling, and I would hope to do more of both of them. I hope I do not have to choose because I don´t know what I would choose, if I had to. But I don´t think I do. Ideally, I will be able to work on whatever project that is most interesting to me at the moment, and do that project in whatever medium I thought was best. I think what is wonderful about animation is a sense of caricature of being able to capture the essence of something and push it a little further and make it a little bit more of whatever it is. That said, I think you can tell any kind of story in animation. I don´t think it’s a children´s medium the way so many people think that it is. The same with live action. You know, film is film. As I said before, spontaneity is something that happens in live-action films. You get all those wonderful actors together and things can happen. So I love both of them, and I think it is the medium of film that I am interested in, whether it’s live action or animation. 

But you choose to be an animator in the first place, you did your first animation at the age of 14.

Brad Bird: (proud) Actually, it was earlier than that! I started animation at the age of 11. And I finished my first film when I was 14. It took me three years to make, and it is about 15 minutes long. And that´s the film that brought me to the attention of the Disney studios.

Why didn´t you choose to go into live action there and then, right from the beginning?

Brad Bird: Well, I didn´t figure this out until much later, but I started drawing at the age of three. And the very first drawings I did were sequential. One picture would show some creature, and it would be very simple crude drawings. They were not really great drawings, but they were meant to be viewed in a certain order. You know, a guy would be coming into the room in the first drawing, and then on the next drawing the guy would sit down, and the next drawing the guy would eat a meal, and then the third drawing it goes on, something like that. They were meant to be seen in order. I think from the very beginning I was trying to make movies. So I kept drawing, and I loved animated films. 

Around the age of 11, we knew this guy who had done animation in college, he explained how you did it. So my parents got me a camera that could shoot one frame at a time, and I started making films. As soon as I started making animated films where I had to decide which shot would be in a close-up, I had to decide which shot would be wide or if there was a pan from one thing to another, I started paying attention to filmmaking in live-action films. And I became very interested in that. I started reading scripts, and I tried to educate myself about film in general. Because I started noticing, that this is a very basic thing, but you know it was a revelation to me that certain directors were making better movies all the time and that it was not a mechanical process, it was a artistic one. You know, Hitchcock: Why did chills always go up my spine when I saw a Hitchcock film? He was doing something that was particular to him. And then I started noticing that certain directors were great with comedy, certain directors were great with action, and I started really paying attention to the whole medium of film. 

Do you have some favorites?

Brad Bird: Oh yes, but I have so many favorites that this would become a very long talk if I would describe them all. 

When you went to study animation at CalArts, you ended up in classroom A113 together with John Lasseter, Nancy Beiman, John Musker, and many other later famous people.

Brad Bird: That´s right. I was the first guy to do A113 in a movie. I put it in the first film that I directed, it was called ‘Family Dog,’ which was an episode in Steven Spielberg`s Amazing Stories, and that was the first time that the classroom number ever appeared in an animated film. And than John (Lasseter) started doing it in the Pixar films, and then some other friends started joining in. It was funny, you know, it’s become kind of ‘the thing.’ 

So what did you learn in A113 that you brought it over to Mission Impossible. The way you direct an animated movie is quite contrary to shooting a live-action movie—for instance, you edit the film before you start animating it. 

Brad Bird: I think that the advantage in doing animation is that you have to be very clear on what you really want because you can´t shoot things a number of different ways and decide later. You have to say, ‘The camera has to go here and we go here.’ You have to know when your cuts will fall, and you have to time things out in advance; it really makes you think about what you want. When I got on Mission, it was a large film with not enough preparation time and a very tight budget—even though it was a very large budget, it was a very tight budget for the size of movie we were making. We were making, I think, the biggest Mission Impossible film physically, but we were not the most expensive [of the series]. We had to be ready to move, and we had to move very quickly. I think that being able to previsualize stuff in my head was a great advantage because I could see it before we did it.

Can you compare animators to actors?

Brad Bird: Absolutely. I think this is a very apt comparision and one that, for some reason, a lot of people are resistant to make, particularly the Screen Actor´s Guild! (laughs) They always see animation as a somehow unfair competition rather than as fellow actors. And I think that they should see the animators as fellow actors, because it’s the same process in terms of thinking. It is just a different process in terms of realizing it on film. But really good animators think a scene through as thoroughly as really good screen actors do. And they think about what a gesture means. And how one character would walk versus another, and how much the way somebody sits or the way they furrow their brow tells you about who they are and what they have been through! You know, there are a lot of bad animators just as well as there are bad actors. But the very best animators are as thorough and serious about what they do as the best actors are. 

Can an actor be as precise in timing as an animator?

Brad Bird: Yes, I think so, particularly when they have the kind of experience that somebody like Tom Cruise does, or Jeremy Renner. I think that they are incredibly detailed. In animation, you are working toward refining an approach, where as an actor may try things in different directions, and you then sculpt it in the editing room a little bit. And actors like Tom and Jeremy will give you several different variations of something that is still from a single point of view but it has slightly different emphasis. That is magic in the editing room because you can shape things in different ways. 

Film, even though it is technological, is a very alive medium. When they do that, they are reaffirming the fact that it is a living medium and it is constantly changing what it needs. When you are making a story in film, sometimes you sense a problem, that something is out of rhythm; the tendency is to go to where you are feeling the problem, but in actuality, because all the scenes are interconnected, the problem maybe is five minutes before in some other scene that you thought was working. It is almost like a living thing, a film. Because the needs of the film are constantly changing in front of your eyes a little bit. It is wonderful to have those options that really good actors can give you.    
Again you collaborated with composer Michael Giacchino. How important is music to your filmmaking?

Brad Bird: It is very important, and I have a very good relationship with Michael, and Michael also has a very good relationship with JJ [Abrams] who did the last Mission Impossible; he also did JJ´s other movies and a lot of TV stuff for JJ. Music is incredibly important, and it is very nerve-racking because it comes at the very end of the process and yet it is a very right in the heart of the film´s emotional center. So if it is wrong, the music can completely take down all the other work. But if it is great, it can take all the work to a new level. Michael is a wonderful composer, and he is did a great job on this film, as well. 

So he was the only guy you could take with you going to live action.

Brad Bird: Yes, that´s right, but you know, on some level film is film. You still use close-ups and medium shots and long shots and...

You were never afraid?

Brad Bird: Oh sure, I was afraid. I am afraid every time! I think, that is helpful. Don´t you?

True! Always! 

(Big Laugh on both sides)

Brad Bird: But I had a lot of help! I had a really really fantastic, experienced crew. I had a fantastic cinematographer with Robert Elswit and a great production designer, Jim Bissell—a first-rate crew, Paul Hirsch who edited Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, he also was the editor on the first Mission Impossible, and was the editor on Ghost Protocol. Any given area you want to discuss, we had a great team, so I had plenty of help, and that eliminates some of the fear. The cast and Tom himself were amazing resources for making movies, Tom knows so much about the process beyond the acting, which he is brilliant at, and he was very helpful. 

How did you work together with ILM?

Brad Bird: I know those guys pretty well. We brought John Knoll over, who also did the first Mission Impossible, and he is an effects genius, but all of these guys live around me. You know, George Lucas started Pixar really, so it is all in the Bay Area community of filmmakers. It was a great chance to work with John officially, but I have known John for a little while. 

What is the Brad Bird touch to Mission Impossible? Certainly you have seen the old series, you have seen the other movies. What is your thing?

Brad Bird: Oh, I don´t know. I am probably not the best person to talk about my own style, whatever that is. I just sort of so do what I think I would want to see. I suppose my favorite set piece from the Mission Impossible films was the black vault sequence from the very first film, when Tom Cruise is suspending down in that room and has to get the computer file. But my favorite Mission Impossible was the last one, the one that JJ did, because it got more into the personalities of the characters—it was a little more emotional. I hope I got some good influence there in terms of wanting the intricate set pieces of the first film and the emotional quality of JJ´s film. But I suppose I have sort of a slightly irreverent tone, maybe. I really enjoy the component of humor in movies. I think that suspense movies offers you different kinds of humor because of the pressure involved that you have on the characters, but beyond that, I couldn´t tell you. You have to tell me, what the difference is.

I like the look Tom Cruise is giving to the broken high-tech glove while he is climbing this incredible skyscraper. 

Brad Bird: (laughs) Oh, thank you very much. We have some more of those scenes in the movie. 

Those gloves look like the design from “The Incredibles.” 

Brad Bird: I think that you can tell from that film that I enjoy spy movies. I mean, even though ‘Incredibles’ was a super-hero film, you know there is the spy kind of vibe to that film. Absolutely, it is not, I guess, that biggest stretch between Impossible to Incredible (laughs). So, yeah, I definitely had fun with those aspects of the film, those technological aspects, and having something difficult for our characters to overcome. I responded to that. In this film, Ethan doesn´t pick the crew—usually he picks his team, but this time he has the team thrust upon him. And then the team is isolated. You know they are going into ghost protocol, where they can´t talk to the office and they have no support, they have no safe house. The dramatic pressure was something what I thought would lend itself to an entertaining and interesting movie. And I think that is what we have made.

Images © 2011 Paramount Pictures.