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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Brad Bird

In her latest column, Nancy Cartwright catches up with former Simpsons' colleague turned animation auteur Brad Bird.

Nancy Cartwright.

Nancy Cartwright.

Brad Bird is the director of the Academy Award-winning films Ratatouille and The Incredibles, from Pixar Animation Studios. Prior to joining Pixar, Bird wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 1999 animated feature, The Iron Giant, which won the International Animated Film Society’s Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Theatrical Feature.

Bird’s credits include acting as executive consultant on The Simpsons and King of the Hill, the two longest running and most celebrated animated series on television. He also created, wrote, directed and co-produced the Family Dog episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and co-wrote the screenplay for the live-action feature *batteries not included.

Brad is currently preparing his next project, 1906, a live-action film.

Nancy Cartwright: When you were 11-years-old, you had taken a tour of the Walt Disney Studio and announced that you would one day be a part of their animation team.

Brad Bird: I didn't really announce I was going to be an animator. A friend of my parents went to Oregon State University with Disney composer George Bruns, and introduced me to him. Mr. Bruns was nice enough to offer to give me a tour through Disney and I immediately (with my parent's indulgence) took him up on it. George took me through the studio and introduced me to many Disney animation legends. When I met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, George said, "Brad's just started his first animated film." I remember Frank giving this look, this patient smile that said: "We've heard this one before. This kid will get bored with it in three weeks tops." Those guys were shocked when I sent them a completed 15-minute film three years later.

NC: What was it about your childhood that attracted you to animation?

Brad Bird.

Brad Bird.

BB: Like most kids, I loved cartoons and watched them constantly on television. I loved their broadness and imagination, that they felt so vital. I was also an enormous fan of the Walt-era animated features, which I found spellbinding. I started drawing at the age of three, and although my drawings were about average for a three-year-old, what was unusual about them is that they were sequential: they depicted different actions meant to be viewed in a certain order -- like a comic strip. I had the drawings in a pile and I would show the pictures while I did voices and such and explained the story out loud. I didn't figure this out until much later, but in my own crude, three-year-old way, I was trying to make movies from the very beginning.

NC: By the time you were 14-years-old, you completed your first animated short. How did you do this?

BB: I completed it right before my 14th birthday. One drawing at a time. It helped immensely to have two very supportive parents. I remember at one point I was deep into the film and losing steam. My mom told me about this big nationwide Kodak movie contest, and she said if I completed my film I could enter it. I sparked to the idea at first, then immediately became pessimistic; the film was only half-done at that point, and it would be a hell of a lot of work to finish it. My mom looked at me and nodded, saying, "Yeah, you're right: you'd never be able to finish the film in nine months." I became outraged and said, "What do mean I COULDN'T??" I got all fired up and instantly threw myself into making it happen. My mom knew exactly how to press my buttons. Of course, I went right down to the wire finishing it in time, and at the very end I was handing my mom all the pieces of film in the correct order and she was splicing them together. We made the deadline in the nick of time and the film won several awards... and most importantly, got Disney Studios all excited about me.

NC: Did you have a little studio in your basement/attic?

BB: Yeah! Basements always seem to be the place, aren't they? There was an empty space behind a wall that my dad made into a little workroom. He'd bought a used 8mm camera that was capable of shooting one frame at a time for me, and he jury-rigged it into a camera enlarger stand pointing down at a place where I'd slide my drawings into position to photograph. I got a cheap piece of pressboard and pinned up some cels from Disney features I'd bought at Disneyland (they were only a couple of bucks apiece back then) to inspire me. It was my own little hole-in-the-wall animation room.

Milt Kahl.

Milt Kahl.

NC: And was anyone mentoring you at the time?

BB: Nope, not through that first film. There wasn't much in the way of information about making animation at the time, but I had gotten a very simple little book that Disney had sold at Disneyland that had a few good tips, and a book that Preston Blair had done that was really my bible. But I had to learn by watching animation and by doing. You can see me learning animation in that first film. By the end of it the character's design had improved quite a bit and the animation was fairly assured. But I didn't have a teacher until after the film brought me to the attention of Disney studios. Then they had Milt Kahl mentor me. So I had the surreal experience of having to figure it out on my own as best I could to being instructed by one of the best animators in the history of the medium.

NC: You received a scholarship by Disney to attend California Institute of the Arts and fellow student and future Pixar Co-Founder John Lasseter and you became friends. Obviously your relationship continued to be cultivated over the years. At the time, did you and John map out your future careers together, or did you and he just hook up later on?

BB: I not only met John Lasseter at Cal Arts, but also John Musker, Henry Selick, Darrell Van Citters -- who has his own company, Renegade Animation, now. Jerry Rees and others there too. We all had a passion for the medium and a desire to create the kind of films that had inspired us, but I can't say that we mapped our careers together. I left school to work at Disney while Lasseter stayed and made some great student films. I had been fired by Disney by the time John got there. He went to work for George Lucas and I went to work for Steven Spielberg, and we kept casually in touch. I was flabbergasted by Toy Story, which I thought was brilliant and called John to tell him so. He started talking to me about joining Pixar while I was doing Iron Giant ... and things went from there.

Family Dog is a fan favorite.

Family Dog is a fan favorite.

NC: You were the creator (writer, director and co-producer) of the Family Dog episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. How did that come about?

BB: When I got fired from Disney for "rocking the boat," I was at a crossroads. Disney was really the only game in town if you wanted to do full animation and I had definite differences with their creative direction. It was unfortunate because there was really no other place to do top-quality stuff, so I risked spending my own money to do a little test film of ideas that I wanted to do in animation and see if I could get anyone interested in producing. The test film was called "A Portfolio of Projects" and it had several ideas for animated films large and small. The big project was an animated adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit, and one of the small projects was Family Dog. I took the film to Spielberg, and after a long time he got around to seeing it and paid me a small amount of money to storyboard it. I hired Tim Burton, who had designed the characters for the original test reel, to draw the boards for a couple of weeks. I finished the boards in Tim's style, and Steven really liked it. But I was pitching Family Dog as a theatrical short, and ultimately Steven felt that there was no viable economic model for that. It wasn't until several years later (when I had written a live-action script for Amazing Stories that Steven liked) that Steven suggested doing several Family Dog cartoons as a single Amazing Stories episode. And that's how we made it.

NC: What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?

BB: It was great. Not only was Steven one of my favorite filmmakers, but he was powerful enough to clear space that allowed us creative freedom. There were something like 44 episodes of Amazing Stories, many of which were directed by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood and, of course, Spielberg himself ... but our episode was the only negative pickup, meaning that they gave us the money and the deadline and it was up to us to figure out how to make it happen. That was an amazing opportunity, simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. I'm proud to say we came in on time and on budget, we were one of the cheapest episodes and one of the highest rated. We also had the first digitally recorded soundtrack on network television. Looking back, our young crew was filled with an astonishing number of people who did great things afterward.

NC: How did that influence your career?

BB: Well it brought me some opportunities, only some of which I was smart enough to capitalize on. But sadly, I had to spend many more years in what is called "development hell" before I got the chance to direct a movie.

NC: I met you when you worked at Klasky-Csupo, the first animation studio to produce The Simpsons' one-minute shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. What contributions did you make in developing those "bumpers" into the half-hour series?

BB: Jim Brooks and Sam Simon had seen Family Dog and liked its cinematic style. People don't remember, but at that particular time television animation had an incredibly rudimentary visual style; every story started with an establishing shot, medium shots when the characters traveled, close ups when they talked -- the camera cutting to whoever's talking, etc., all done at eye-level. There were no long takes, no fast cutting... it was all dictated by what could be produced quickly and cheaply. Family Dog was just the opposite, it had extreme camera angles with pushed perspective, looooonnnnnggg uninterrupted shots, rapid-fire cutting at certain points, massive pans... everything under the sun. I was a huge fan of Jim Brooks and also of Matt Groening's comic strip Life in Hell. So when they asked me if I'd be interested in helping out on The Simpsons I jumped at the chance. I was not as familiar with Sam Simon's work, but I very quickly realized that he was a brilliant guy as well, and an unsung hero in those crucial early seasons of the show. The Simpsons one-minutes for Tracey Ullman were really funny, but turning them into a full-fledged series was a big challenge -- a half-hour show is exponentially more complicated than a one-minute film. The scripts were brilliant. What I think I brought to it was a cinematic style that helped tell these very sophisticated stories in a uniquely visual way. The show already had two very talented directors in David Silverman and Wes Archer, who had worked on the one-minutes, but I think I was a valuable sounding board for supervising the visual storytelling. I looked at the episodes as miniature movies and I pushed the storyboard artists into looking at filmmakers like Kubrick and Welles for inspiration, rather than emphasizing that they had to get it out fast. We all had to work our collective asses off to get the show out, but I recognized that the material and vocal performances were way better than anything I'd ever gotten to do at Disney, and knew it was a golden opportunity.

NC: Iron Giant got so little marketing and promotion yet has become a bit of a classic thanks to the DVD distribution. What did you learn about being an artist and dealing with the studio system?

BB: I learned that you have very little chance to succeed without studio support. It's even more crucial today, when the marketplace is so glutted. I learned how hard you have to fight to retain a vision and how you absolutely have to be willing to lose. They will completely take advantage of you unless they can see in your eyes that you are prepared to lose it all. The most important things to take away from it are that Warners was the first company to give me a chance to direct a movie and I'm grateful for that. When I got that chance, I made the movie responsibly, got every dime of the budget on the screen and got to make the film I wanted to make. All those things are valuable.

Bird got into character as Edna Mode in The Incredibles.

Bird got into character as Edna Mode in The Incredibles.

NC: The Incredibles was the star of the night at the 31st Annual Annie Awards celebration, walking away with Best Animated Feature and 9 other categories. The title of the film describes it all. What obstacles or barriers do you feel you have to overcome in order to continue producing such amazing products?

BB: Even if you've had the good fortune of making films that turned out well, there is no guarantee that your next film will continue the trend. Unless you're remaking the same film, each film is like starting from scratch, with its own set of challenges that you may or may not meet. I never feel that I've hit upon some magic formula. The filmmaking process remains as mysterious to me now as it was on my first film. The only thing I'm sure of is that while a certain amount of stage fright is healthy, I know enough never to panic and that it pays to have the attitude of a "perpetual student" and be alive to the wonderful surprises that always happen on a film, and to take advantage of them when they come.

NC: What advise do have for someone interested in writing and/or animating for film or television?

BB: Look outside of your chosen medium for inspiration. Go to plays, look at paintings, listen to any kind of music that you find inspiring, read books, see the world, etc. Too much modern work feels like rehash, so anytime you can bring your own life experiences or your experiences with other art to the medium of film or television, it is a revitalizing thing. Filmed entertainment is the greatest art form there is, but it needs be constantly cross-pollinated to stay vital.

NC: You are very much a "family guy" yourself with three gorgeous sons. How do you balance family-life with your career?

BB: The responsibility and surprises that having a family brings is one of the things that feeds creativity, and the patience you learn as a parent is very helpful in learning how to manage creative people. But keeping the right balance between work and family is not something that I feel I've mastered... it is something that I'm working on every day ... and I can't say I've always gotten it right.

NC: Can you tell us about the project you are currently working on?

BB: It's an epic love story/mystery with quite a bit of action and comedy in it called 1906. It takes place in San Francisco in the period right before and including the great earthquake and fire that destroyed the city. And it's a live-action film.

NC: What is your proudest achievement so far artistically?

BB: That I've managed to make several original films that are different from one another, and that I was able to make them the way I wanted. It took me a long time to find people with enough vision to give me the chance, but I did find them eventually... and I'm very lucky.

NC: Thank you, Brad, for taking the time for this interview! And keep making us smile.

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.