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Lean, Mean Fighting Machine:
How Brad Bird Made The Iron Giant

by Bob Miller

Courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

Imagine: An American animated feature with no song-and-dance routines. No goofy sidekick characters. No foppish villains. No fart gags. And no condescending to the audience.

This is the kind of film many in the animation industry dreams to work on, in an atmosphere where the studio allows creativity to flourish, under the guidance and vision of an experienced, talented director. No committee approvals. No micro-management. Just teamwork, bringing to life a compelling, entertaining story.

A One Man Army
It's a revolutionary approach in today's animation industry, one that Brad Bird had to sell to skeptical executives at Warner Bros., who had been burned by the dismal failure of Quest for Camelot.

"I'm interested in showing that animated films are films first, and animation second," Bird says. "We want to have something for adults, as well as children. Animation is storytelling. Storytelling can be anything. Hopefully, The Iron Giant is a step in that direction.

"I just pitched them the idea of, 'What if a gun had a soul?' They saw the dramatic possibilities in that idea. I pitched them the story line, the way I saw it, and they went for it."

Bird notes The Iron Giant differs in many ways from contemporary animated features. "It's wide screen rather than being 1:8:5. It's a story that not very many people know and certainly this is a very different version from the book [The Iron Man, by British author Ted Hughes], even if you have read it. It takes place during this century, in the not-too-distant past, using the Cold War as a backdrop.

"It's also like the old Walt Disney films, in that they had moments of quiet and moments that were very character-based. Slower-paced moments as well as faster-paced moments.

"Something that bothers me about film in general these days -- and this goes for animation as well -- is this notion that something has to be in your face every second. There has to be activity or sound effects or cuts or music blaring. It's almost as if the audience has the remote and they're going to change channels. It's an attitude of panic, for short attention spans, rather than assuming the audience doesn't have a short attention span and can get engaged in the story, and get involved in the quieter pleasures of character and milking the moment."

Bird also points out, "We don't have the obnoxious celebrity sidekick, the goofy sidekick. We don't have five tunes. And we don't have a foppish villain."

Bird admits that the executives at Warner Bros. had concerns that the film had few characters to exploit as merchandise. "I know that they were concerned about that, and they did make suggestions that I add more characters and pets and sidekicks to make it more merchandisable in their eyes. I just said the story wasn't about that. If they were interested in telling the story, they should let it be what it wants to be."

Bird credits the studio for seeing things his way, naming Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Courtney Vallenti, and earlier in the production, Billy Gerber (who has since moved on to another position at the studio). "If you gave Lorenzo and Courtney a good argument, they'd listen to it."

A Quest For Something Better
Bird also had to overcome the stigma of the previous animated film, Quest for Camelot, whose cost overruns and production nightmares made Warners reconsider their commitment to feature animation.

"In some ways, there was a stigma," Bird says, "and in some ways it gave us an opportunity. They were trying to do a very big thing to set up an animation company from scratch. They and everyone else tries to follow the Disney model, not only in terms of the story, but also the method by which it was produced. The Disney model is sort of a micro-managed thing, where every single decision is combed over by a huge number of people. It works very well for Disney, but I don't think it worked very well for Warner Bros. They had more management than they had artists, almost, during Quest for Camelot. It was a troubled production. I don't think Warner Bros. was ultimately very satisfied with the result.

Courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

"When we came along, we had to have a significantly smaller budget and shorter production schedule than Quest for Camelot. They did leave us alone if we kept it in control and showed them we were producing the film responsibly and getting it done on time and doing stuff that was good. So we were definitely watched closely. But when we were delivering, they were good enough to stay away and let us make the film. That was one of the most wonderful things about this film. They truly let us make it.

"This film was made by this animation team. It was not a committee thing at all. We made it. I don't think any other studio can say that to the level that we can.

"The tradeoff is that we had one-third of the money of a Disney or DreamWorks film, and half of the production schedule. We have a few rough edges on our film, but we also have a lot of heart."

How did Bird reduce costs? For one thing, he reduced the bureaucracy. "Bureaucracy is quite an expensive thing," he says. "We didn't have that. We simplified certain things. We spent a lot of extra effort on the planning. A lot of the shot planning was being very elaborate in our animatics.

"We solved a lot of our problems in that part of the process. What that helped us do, is when it came time to do the actual scene, most of our questions had been answered. So we didn't waffle a lot. We knew where we were heading. Even though we were changing the film all the time, we weren't waiting until a later stage of the process to answer certain questions.

"We were under a tight schedule on a tight budget, but if we had a good idea, I didn't have to check it with a number of people. I could just put it in. It was the strangest feeling. I kept glancing around my shoulder expecting somebody to stop me. But nobody would say, 'No.' Which never happens," Bird says with a laugh.

"When you empower your animation team to really make the film with you, so they don't feel like worker drones, that brings out the best in everybody, because they feel very invested in the film. We weren't the most experienced animation team on the planet. Three-quarters of the team came from Quest for Camelot, but a lot of them were ill-used on that project. They weren't super-experienced, but they were very talented, and if you pointed them in the right direction, they could deliver. So I'm very proud of the work of the team, because everybody rallied. Even though we didn't have the time or the money to do what we did, we did it anyway."

Bird names some of those who especially helped him realize his vision: "Allison Abbate did a very good job of producing it. Tony Fucili was our supervisor of animation, and he's certainly experienced and a wonderful talent. Steve Marcowski headed up the animation of the Giant. I also want to credit Tim McCanlies [co-writer of the screenplay with Bird, based on Bird's story]. We had a great story team, headed by Jeff Lynch. Michael Caine did a great job on the music. Everybody really pulled together."

Courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

Creating A Giant
To design the Iron Giant, Bird recruited filmmaker Joe Johnston (Rocketeer, October Sky), who had drawn key designs for the original Star Wars trilogy. "Joe's a friend of mine and my wife," Bird says. "We've known him for years and I was able to lure him to do a little bit of moonlighting. He did the very first designs of the Giant, and Mark Whiting, our production designer, and Steve Markowski, our head Giant animator, added several things to it and refined it. Joe did a great job."

Bird had to blend the Giant's CG (computer-generated) animation with the hand-drawn animation of Hogarth, the boy who befriends him. "The common rap of CG and traditional animation blends, is that you could always tell where one ends and the other begins," the director says. "If we did that in a film where the whole film is based on a relationship between a CG character and a traditionally-animated character, we were doomed to fail."

Bird's solution?

"Well, we just tried to remove all the things that separate hand-drawn stuff from CGI. Rather than trying to make the hand-drawn stuff have the look of CGI, we thought we should try to make the CGI look hand-drawn.

"We even created a software program to wobble the lines of the Giant just a little bit. Not enough to make them look like they're badly-drawn, but to make them a little less perfect than they would normally be. It's a very subtle effect. You can't see it a lot. A lot of people don't know that the Giant is computer-animated, and that, to me, says that we did our job. If we did our job, you won't feel that there's any difference."

Another approach Bird tried was putting the Giant "on twos" when he was seen with other characters that were animated "on twos" [a new pose every other frame].

"We tried to be as cognizant of that as possible, because it's something that the computer doesn't want to do," Bird relates. "You have to tell the computer to do it. It will always assume that you want everything on ones, because that's the way it's designed. So you have to target where you want to go on twos, and pull those frames out. We did a mixture of ones and twos, which is what our animation is. It's ones for faster action, and twos for slower action.

"We simplified the lighting on the characters as well. The relationship between the boy and the Giant is the core of the movie. The key to us was to make them seem like they're inhabiting the same world."

One plot point the movie doesn't address is, why is the Iron Giant on Earth? It's a subject that Bird is reluctant to discuss in detail.

"The people at Warner Bros. asked that question very early on," he says. "I didn't want to answer it because once you start to answer it, it becomes a Pandora's Box and the whole movie becomes about the Iron Giant's back story. The minute you start to talk about it, you explain a little and it begs more questions which beg more answers which beg more questions. Pretty soon it becomes a movie about a warrior race of robots and not a movie about a boy and a giant metal man.

"It was more important for me to make the Giant emblematic of our own situation on Earth; where he really doesn't know where he came from or why he's here or where he's going, and we don't either. It's the stuff that religious leaders have fought about for thousands of years.

"We did have one sequence that I really would have liked to have in there, where there's indications of

where he came from. It was a dream that the Giant had. It suggested that he came from a whole planet full of them, and there was a war going on, but it was intermingled with scenes that we had seen during the course of the movie: watching Hogarth turn off the power switch at the power station, [watching] the deer and so on. So it was done in an abstract manner. It could have been interpreted several different ways, like a dream is.

"We had some images that suggested that there was a convoy of these robots. He got loose of the convoy and was floating in space for awhile and landed on Earth. But we certainly don't go into it.

"A lot of times you can be more profound when you suggest things and you don't say them. Our intention was to make it bigger by leaving more to the imagination."

A Sequel?
But isn't the back story something Bird would develop for a sequel?

"Not by me," he responds. "And even the ending was not me saying that I want to do a sequel.

"It was two things. One, it was saying that souls don't die. In an abstract way that was what it was saying. In another way, it was a very mild little homage to the ending of all those monster movies, where they'd say 'The End ... or is it?' At one point I stupidly considered putting that into the title, but I thought it was cheap. So, I didn't.

"That was the intention of it. If anybody reads it as me trying to set up a sequel, I would have no idea where to go with a sequel. I don't think I'd be interested in doing it, myself.

"Let's put it this way: One thing that I really don't like about animation is there seems to be this pathological urge: if you ever do something well, you can't rest until you've done a crappy version of it. I can't think of a character that hasn't been ruined, where they've done several bad versions of it to end the cycle.

"Now I see Disney taking its feature characters and putting them on Saturday morning shows and videos, and I just go, 'Why?' Even though they're pretty well done by TV standards, if you're going to do something for TV, design it for TV. Don't do a cheap version of something you did really well for the movie."

As for a potential Iron Giant sequel movie or TV series, Brad Bird says, "I just hope they get interested in other things. There's a million things to do. Some projects totally lend themselves to sequels and others don't. Godfather II is a great film and obviously the Star Wars films. Particularly The Empire Strikes Back. The original James Bond ones. But I'm not a big fan of the Jaws II kind of sequel where you've done everything that you needed to do with the first one, then you're just going for the money. I hope that they wouldn't do a sequel unless they came up with a fantastic idea, and I hope that they would want to do it as well as we've done it, at the very least."

Bob Miller is an animation professional who has written extensively about the industry for Starlog, Comics Scene, Animation Magazine, Animato!, Animation Planet, Comics Buyer's Guide, and APATOONS. He currently works as storyboard supervisor for John R. Dilworth on Courage, the Cowardly Dog, coming this fall to the Cartoon Network.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.