With Pixar’s latest feature, Brave, hitting US theatres today, expectations are running high that the studio has yet another hit on its hands. Reviews have primarily been positive, though this decidedly “different” Pixar film has its share of critics. A directorial change involving Brenda Chapman, whose original story still forms the backbone of the movie, certainly adds to the notion that the production has been far from problem-free. Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Katherine Sarafian and talk about her stepping up as producer, deftly handling the mid-film directorial change and bringing Pixar’s Scottish epic to completion.
Dan Sarto: How did you first get involved in the film? What part of your career at Pixar do you feel prepared you to produce this film?
Katherine Sarafian: That’s a great question. I actually answered that in a journal entry I wrote to myself recently. I was thinking, “How did we pull this off?” From a personal and professional standpoint, this is one of those jobs, I’ve got to say, where everything I’ve done in my life to this point is what has prepared me for this. Producing this film was something that really called upon all of my abilities and talents and experiences more so than other jobs that I’ve done.
My professional preparation really involved working my way up through the ranks at the studio. I’ve spent 18 years at Pixar. Starting from Toy Story, having a front row seat, actually a back row seat in my case. I was writing notes in animation dailies. When you watch John Lasseter direct a movie, even as early as Toy Story, when we as a studio were still figuring out, “How do we do this? How does this work? What are our processes, what are our routines?” Morning dailies? OK, that’s a routine. That’s what we do. Take notes, see what kind of stuff you would look at to plus a scene. Someone would say, “Move slinky dog to the left.” To me that’s good direction. To John, it’s “As slinky dog moves left, we’re going to do blah blah blah that evokes the personality, the meaning of the scene, his motivation...” I’m like, “What? Wow!” So it was occurring to me from the first day I was there, I had a front row seat to that process as my animation education. Then, working my way up through Pixar, working for great mentors, great people, has provided a lot of my preparation.
I’d say one of the most helpful pieces of business I ever did was being the art department manager on A Bug’s Life. It came out in 1998, which is a long time ago. And yet, a lot of my big, big learning about how the relationships [on a movie crew] work, how the artists at Pixar think, and how we get that on the screen, came from managing production designers and art directors. That was really helpful. That art and the story art, they go hand in hand, they’re everything, providing the blueprints for our technical teams. If those relationships don’t work, that communication doesn’t work, because they speak different languages, science and art, then we’re nowhere. So my ability and role as facilitator, a conduit, a translator, called on all my skills.
DS: How did the change in directors affect the film from a story, design and leadership dynamic standpoint?
KS: I came onto the project at the end of 2006. I was on the first research trip to Scotland with both Brenda [Chapman] and Mark [Andrews]. Brenda was on as director and Mark was our unofficial Scottish consultant. He came along at Brenda’s invitation to help us navigate some of the Scottish-isms, which was great. From the beginning we had a clear direction for the aesthetic of the film. So character design and set design were all coming together really well. That has pretty much been retained under Mark. So, you won’t find dramatic design differences. There of course were some new sets and scenes that were added later in the game. But, the character design and look of the film were pretty much established. The world was unchanged when Mark came on, though we did have new locations based on new story sequences.
I have to give a lot of credit to Pixar crews. They’re extremely professional, extremely talented and extremely collaborative. They roll with changes. These movies, everything is changing constantly. This is a very fluid process, particularly at Pixar and I think at a lot of other studios as well. Especially at Pixar, we’ll change the movie out from under you in a moment. We’ve found a better way to do that scene so we’ll pull footage back. It’s very, very difficult to handle that if you’re like, “I have to know what I’m doing.” You don’t go into this business if you have to have a tight blueprint from day 1. Obviously for us, the first draft of the script is the beginning of a long creative odyssey. We’ve never shot the first draft of any of our scripts.
In terms of the team rolling with changes, the dynamic, we’ve had director changes on so many of our films. Obviously industry-wide, it happens. At Pixar, it’s happened quite a bit, even as recently as Cars 2, Ratatouille, Toy Story 2 of course farther back. People understand why it has to happen and how it’s part of the process. I think that’s why they were able to handle it. It’s not like this has never happened.
DS: It’s not unique.
KS: Right. They also know the leadership of our studio doesn’t take this lightly. They don’t pop to these decisions. The film gets to the 18 months-to-release mark and if we’re not where we need to be, we always have to shake it up in some way. Sometimes it’s get a little extra help. Sometimes is a big brain trust screening. Sometimes it’s a director change. Sometimes it’s artistic change. Sometimes it’s a character that gets thrown out. A casting change. It could be any number of things. But the director change has been done before and people have to brace themselves for it and [say] OK, we’re going to press on. I think the dynamic on the crew didn’t change that much. We screen the movie every 3 or 4 months as story reels. So we just treated Mark coming on as, “It’s screening time again. Everybody hunker down.” He [Mark] goes and hides in the story room with the story team and focuses on story. Everybody waits for their inventory. So they had to wait more than a couple of weeks and just keep working on the stuff that we knew was stable. Luckily, he was part of the project along the way as a brain trust member, so he was familiar enough with it. He wasn’t coming in saying, “What’s this movie?”
DS: As producer, when do you say, “Ok, that’s good, that’s enough?” You’re managing hundreds of perfectionists, such high achievers. It must be tough.
KS: That’s one of the hardest things to do. I have said, “Enough is enough” several times. Yet, I’ve also been quite easily convinced that “enough wasn’t enough” in several cases. If my artists give really compelling reasons why making it better makes a difference for the story, I may go to the director and say [to the artist], “Do you really need this?” He’ll [the director] always say [to the artist], “Why?” Sometimes he said he needs it and he didn’t have a good reason why. He [the director] would say, “Actually, yah, if we do this other thing, it will serve the story just as well and it’s faster.” I’ll say, “Great.” So we have a really good argument system in place. You need it? Yes. Why? Hmmm. Could we do it another way? Yah, we can do it this way. Will it serve the story the same way? Yes. Ok. Done. We can do it that other way. So, we look for work-arounds. We rarely say, “No, we can’t.” I will say, “We’re out of time. This ship is sailing. Think really carefully. Do you really, really want this?”
We changed something as recently as three and a half weeks ago at Skywalker Ranch in the sound mix. The reason was so good, for why Angus had to do a certain thing in the moment, my job at that point wasn’t to say, “No, we can’t,” it was to say, “How quickly can the animators get up here and get briefed on this shot. We’re going to meet with John Lasseter at the same time so we don’t get it wrong. We’re only doing it once.” To facilitate that, I see that more as my job than saying, “No, enough is enough.”
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.