Yes, Brave is Pixar's first "chick flick": a mother-daughter test of wills set in medieval Scotland. Inspired by Brenda Chapman's own tempestuous relationship with her teenage daughter, she wanted to turn the princess story on its head with a dose of modern reality. They just happen to be royalty, which raises the stakes with an entire kingdom in the balance. But it's certainly fun watching Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) and Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) butt heads. And then the story gets very Grimm with a magical twist. It's a bit like Freaky Friday only darker and much more ambitious.
Alas, Chapman butted heads with the Pixar brain trust after six-and-a-half years and was replaced by Mark Andrews, though she still retains director credit. For his part, Andrews credits Chapman with providing a great mother-daughter relationship, but suggests she couldn't see the forest through the trees, so he pared it down. Even Chapman agrees her story was way too complicated. But what an achievement: Pixar delves more deeply into human relations while creating a lush, organic world.
For Brave, Pixar overhauled its animation program, creating Presto (named in honor of the 2008 short). This allowed a lot more flexibility for previewing during animation and they could write tools right into it, such as the advanced simulation for Merida's hair, which was the most daunting task of all. Back on Monsters, Inc., they wanted Boo to have curly hair but it just wasn't possible to achieve the necessary hair to hair collision. But with Merida, technology caught up with need, with her wild, unkempt orange hair being such a vital part of her fiery personality.
"The basic model is the same for the hair but we realized two key things," explains simulation supervisor Claudia Chung. "Hair to hair collision is really slow, so in order to do that the engineers that created our simulator parallelized everything. They split the simulation into eight processors. Then we painted her and we don't see the color until the very end."
Speaking of hair, Merida's faithful Clydesdale, Angus, is arguably the best CG horse ever animated. The musculature is so believable and the hair flows just right. Credit goes to Presto once again as well as the simulation team. "The challenge with Angus was simulating so many layers and making sure his mane flows smoothly through the wind," Chung continues. "Unlike Merida, where her hair sims all at once, Angus' pieces sim separately because they all have to interact at the same time. Hers take eight cores to simulate and his takes 64 because of his eight layers. Also, Merida is the same setting out of the box, whereas Angus has different settings for mane and other clumps."
As far as clothing, the kilt was definitely a challenge in terms of layering and getting it to fall believably. "How do you model a kilt and make it look realistic?" Chung adds. "If the character moved, the folds would come out and come back together. We didn't want it to rigidly follow like a sculpted shape. And we couldn't flatten it because then you'd have nine yards of tartan. In the end, the tailors created a hybrid approach that was modeled and tailored into flat shapes.
"Simulation is finally at a point where we can be artistic. If [they] wanted Merida to have a different hair style, my reaction was no longer, 'Are you kidding me?!' It was more like: 'OK, let's do it -- let's figure it out artistically."
But when it came to recreating an authentic-looking Scotland, the surfacing and simulation teams included more detail than in any previous Pixar movie. Of course, the intensive research helped. As shading art director Tia Kratter says, it sure beats going on Google. "Going to Scotland was huge because of the whole sensory experience, especially for someone who specializes in surfacing. For the first time, our landscapes weren't heavy to render. To be able to render a shot in under 16 hours and have it be so dense with moss and grass is like dressing a character. The rock looked like someone took a photo of granite and put it all over. We needed to create imperfections for an organic feel. Lighting changes frequently: Our lighting team had to track the light or have real clouds with volume that block or accept light, so we picked the big panoramas."
For production designer Steve Pilcher, the turbulent skies of Scotland gave him the freedom to slowly bring in storm clouds to evoke Merida's turbulence. "Then you make sunlight peek through when you get into the darker forest," he says. "It's very theatrically lit to amplify the emotion. And with the fog you can diffuse the Highlands in the background, playing with silhouettes falling into shadows."
But getting the moss just right nearly eluded Pilcher. It took a last-minute experiment by TD Inigo Quilez to add that extra touch. "We were trying to get the moss to feel soft and have plenty of it and fall over these forms: Trees, tree roots, boulders, rocks to make it feel like hummocks," Pilcher says. "Up to a certain point it felt like steel wool but it had no sense of translucency or softness. It was a real technological challenge. We were set dressing all of our sets without that for years, and Inigo looked at these brushes I was using in Photoshop -- microscopic moss shapes -- and took a couple of them and created shading geometry. He created the ability to art-direct this stuff. You could orchestrate where it goes; add more color variations. What happened was it went over all this material and it looked so lush. It would show the translucency on a certain angle, it would blow in the wind. It made it look more believable with grass and clover. All this variation convinces the mind to let go and experience this thing in a very tactile way and a very convincing way."
That's the Pixar way.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com ), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com ), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.