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AWARDS: 2005 Academy Award for best animated feature film: “The Incredibles”; 2005 Annie Award for directing in an animated feature production, Voice acting in an animated feature production, Writing in an nnimated feature production: “The Incredibles.” CURRENT CREDIT: Directed and wrote Disney/Pixar’s rodent-with-a-heart-of-a-chef adventure “Ratatouille”; slated to direct “1906” for 2009 release. MEMBERSHIPS: Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, ASIFA. Academy member since 2004
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re working on your first live-action feature, Warner Bros.’ “1906.” How is the work going?
Brad Bird: I’m not in a position to talk about it more than that except to say that I’m excited about it and it’s a big project. A lot of people don’t realize that in all my years wandering through development hell wasteland, half of what I wanted to make were live-action films and half were animated. The animated ones were the first I got to make, which led to other animation. My ideal career would be to bounce from genre to genre, from musicals to Westerns to political comedies. And also to go between live-action and animation. I don’t consider animation a genre — it’s a medium that can do any genre.
THR: But computer animation does seem to have captured your particular creative talents. Is it the form of animation you prefer to work in?
Bird: Film is the most wonderful medium invented. It’s recorded dreaming. And I think people need to recognize that the language of film — using angles and shots and color and music and performance — is essentially the same from medium to medium. I’m not one of those people who believe that CG is superior to every other form of animation. It’s not. It’s simply another tool that you can use to express yourself.
THR: By the time you took over “Ratatouille” from the previous director, Jan Pinkava, you only had a year and a half to put it all together for its original release date. What was that like?
Bird: There was a wonderful basis to start with. It was a magnificent idea, and the looks that had been developed were all wonderful, but the story had proven to be a tricky one to get to work. I had to very quickly get under the hood and try to make it work. It was a very scary thing for me. I joked to the crew that it was like the “Wallace & Gromit” film where Gromit is slapping down track in front of the moving train. In a strange way, TV proved to be the best education I could have possibly gotten. Working on (Fox’s) “The Simpsons,” I wasn’t only around brilliant writers, but we had pretty ambitious stories. And the decisions had to be made immediately because another show was coming down the conveyer belt. I saw some amazing saves where the episodes were done, didn’t work and one night of brilliant restructuring turned it into a brilliant episode. It absolutely saved me on (1999’s) “The Iron Giant” and this film, both films that were done pretty quickly.
THR: Arguably, it’s risky to make a movie with a rat as the protagonist. Was it hard to make those animals likable?
Bird: When I got involved with the film, they had dealt with peoples’ aversion to rats by making them little humans, shortening their tales, making them walk on two legs, de-ratifying them, so to speak. I really pushed to put them on all fours and give them rat behaviors, so we could see our main character choosing to emulate humans. It was a visual barometer of how he feels. In front of his dad, he has to go on all fours; when he feels shame, he goes back to rat physicality. It was a way to physicalize his emotional state.
THR: What are you most proud about with regards to “Ratatouille”?
Bird: That it assumes the audience is not stupid. I think also it feels a little bit European; its origins probably have something to do with it and the fact that it didn’t originate with me. I tried to be respectful to the rhythm and feels of a foreign film, without copying or being dishonest. I’m proud of the studio for rallying behind it. All the tools were assembled and built carefully, but we used them fairly quickly. They indulged me. Once John (Lasseter) and Ed (Catmull) and Andrew (Stanton) asked me to take this on, they said, “We don’t have time to give the notes we normally do. We’re here if you have any questions,” and I certainly took advantage of that when I felt I was getting too close and needed perspective. But they knew the time for pondering was gone, and they really trusted me.
THR: How did winning the Oscar for 2004’s “The Incredibles” affect you creatively?
Bird: I don’t think it changed me. Probably the best practical thing that it did — which probably could be said of awards in general — is that it makes people relax a little bit about turning over the keys to the car to you. Hollywood, underneath its cocky suntanned exterior, is a place of very frightened people. I don’t really like to work with frightened people. I like to work with people excited about possibilities who can’t wait to explore them. If the award un-frightens people about me making a film with them, then it’s an incredibly useful thing. It’s not just an honor, which it is, it’s practical.
THR: Are we in a golden age for animation?
Bird: What’s most refreshing about this age is that adults realize that animation isn’t just for kids. It never has been, but it’s a hard perception to change, and we’re wearing it down like water on stone. In the sense that people are making more films than ever, which I think is a really good thing, and people are willing to back more films, I think that’s wonderful. I’d like to see more variety in the kinds of stories being told. That is the only thing that would keep me from saying it’s a golden age. It’s on the edge of a golden age or could soon be a golden age. People need to branch out — and that goes for film in general. We need to start surprising people again.
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