Brad Bird, writer and director of some of Pixar’s most successful films, sat down with Sean Smith of Entertainment Weekly as part of the film festival, to discuss his life-long obsession with animation. And with one Oscar under his belt for “The Incredibles” and another nomination for “Ratatouille” in 2008, it’s clear that Bird’s persistence and talent have won the admiration of both the entertainment industry and audiences worldwide.
“It’s rare for me to talk to a director who has never made a bad film,” Smith admitted at the start of the conversation. Starbucks beverage in hand, Bird sat casually in his director’s chair, as if the full house at the Lobero Theatre was no more intimidating than his home living room. It is this sense of ease, along with expert knowledge and a witty sense of humor that makes Bird an inspirational speaker.
Bird’s love of animation began at an early age when he realized that most of his childhood drawings were sequential. At 11, he started his first animated film and was finished three years later. Enrolling in the California Institute of the Arts, he was determined to resurrect animation from its deathbed, as it lay overrun, by what Bird referred to as “horrible, inbred and deformed Flintstone babies.”
But the difference that Bird strove for was not immediately recognized. He spent years after his graduation from CalArts, trapped in “bureaucratic hell,” struggling to pitch his ideas and often feeling discouraged, as project after project ended up buried in the studio catacombs. Bird wanted to create meaningful characters and did not regret denying studio suggestions to add irritating sidekicks and hip hop music to “The Iron Giant.”
Somewhere in that studio wasteland, Bird had an epiphany. There was a big closed door, he explained, and he was going to be a dog and just wait there. They’d have to open it some time for food and water anyway, he joked. “Because if I leave, I knew the door will open and I wanted to be there,” he said to the many audience members, who having experience with the industry, seemed to understand all too well.
Bird’s waiting paid off. He was offered a dream contract at Pixar, the powerhouse of creativity that had an unbeatable record of 3D animated hits. He managed to fill big shoes, creating two more popular films for the already successful studio.
When asked where he finds inspiration for his lovable stories, Bird said that the most important element is to keep the audience engaged, because if the viewer cares about the characters, the special effects have a far greater impact. “Animation at its best is more about the feeling of things than the reality,” Brad said with confidence.
Bird cares about his characters to the extent that he sometimes plays them. At Smith’s request, Bird treated the audience to a sample of his Edna Mode voice, the tiny, but ruthless costume designer from “The Incredibles.” Originally, a woman was going to be hired to do the voice, but Bird ultimately took on the role, although he was hesitant to publicize this fact, not wanting audiences to see Edna and “think of a big middle- aged white guy doing the voice.”
The inspiration for “Ratatouille” came largely from Bird’s own experiences. He explained his connection with a rat who tried to do the one thing that he loved over huge obstacles. And like Rémy, the rat with a dream to be a chef, Bird has been an ultimate success, cooking up dish after dish of clever animated entertainment and proving that the enjoyment of animation is in no way limited to children.
“We just try to make films that we want to see,” Bird said, “and we hope that everyone else will go along for the ride.”