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Recently, I met up for an hourlong lunch in Los Angeles with Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian, the co-director (with Brenda Chapman) and PGA-nominated producer, respectively, of Pixar’s animated feature Brave. The summer blockbuster won the best animated feature film Golden Globe last month and the best animated film BAFTA Award this month, and is nominated for — and stands a good chance of winning — the best animated feature Oscar, which will be presented on Feb. 24. During our time together we talked about their lives, careers and the challenges they faced while making Pixar’s first film featuring a female protagonist and last film guided in-part by the late Steve Jobs.
Sarafian, an Armenian-American, has been at Pixar since the beginning. A trained artist, she was originally recruited to the San Francisco-area dream factory to be an animator. However, during the making of A Bug’s Life (1998), Jobs, who headed the company at the time, urged her to transition from the art department into marketing. She did that, and eventually became a producer — and one of the studio’s biggest champions.
Andrews, who is built like a tough-guy but is irrepressibly goofy and exuberant, has been at Pixar since 1999, when animator Brad Bird was recruited from Warner Bros. and brought with him 12 of his closest collaborators, including Andrews. Bird nicknamed the group “The Dirty Dozen” because, Andrews explains, “We weren’t bred at Pixar,” meaning that they marched to a very different beat than the more corporate-style folks who were already at the studio.
On Andrews’ first day at the company, Sarafian recalls, Bird reviewed storyboards and gave out notes during a meeting. Afterwards, Sarafian asked Andrews when the updates could be expected. Without even meaning to be rude he said, “You get it when you get it,” got up and walked out. She concluded that he was “unmanageable,” but came to be very impressed with the quality of his work, and before long they had become close collaborators and friends.
Like her colleagues at Pixar she affectionately calls him “Mandrews,” a nickname inspired by his Pixar email address. “I don’t think I’ve ever called you Mark,” she says to him.
* * *
Andrews began drawing fully-formed people at the age of three, and, as a kid, enjoyed watching Warner Bros. cartoons and Japanese animation on television. He got his first formal training in animation through a course at City College, through which he learned about CalArts, the noted visual and performing arts school established by Walt Disney in the early sixties as a sort of farm system for his animation studio. “Draw and please my parents with a college degree?” he recalls marveling. He applied and got in.
After graduating, Andrews secured an internship at Disney — at the end of which he was the only one of five interns who did not get hired by the studio. (“It was because I rocked the boat,” he speculates.) He freelanced for a while as a storyboard artist before landing his first real gig at Hanna-Barbera animating the TV show The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. Working in television, he learned how to produce a lot of animation in a little amount of time — 2.5 hours of footage in a year, he says, which is vastly more than the 80 or 90 minutes that a whole team produces in the same amount of time while working on a film.
His productivity — and product — did not unnoticed, at least by Bird, a former animator for Fox television’s The Simpsons who had since moved on to Warner Bros. Bird, Andrews explains, “was already known in animation as the guy who was gonna change the industry” because, he explains, “he wanted to push the types of stories that were being told out of strictly kiddie fare into PG and PG-13” and make “something everybody could enjoy.” So Andrews jumped when he hired him to work as a storyboard artist and eventually an animator on two animated features at WB, Quest for Camelot (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999). “We spoke the same language right off the bat,” he says.
After The Iron Giant came out, Pixar came calling for Bird, and Andrews went along for the ride. At the time, the studio was run creatively by John Lasseter, technologically by Ed Catmull, and corporately by the late Steve Jobs. Andrews invokes Star Trek to define the trio: “John was Bones because he’s all passion and fire; Ed was Spock; and Steve was Kirk, who was a blend of both.” Sarafian says that for Jobs, who was not an animator or a filmmaker, working at Pixar marked “the first time in his life or career that he was around people who knew how to do something better than he did” — but, she hastens to add, he frequently proved himself to be “the smartest guy in the room.”
Not long after his arrival, Andrews was made head of story on The Incredibles, which would come out in 2004, and story supervisor on Ratatouille, which would come out in 2007. In-between, he was offered — thanks to Bird’s advocacy of him — his first chance to direct: he served as co-director, with Andrew Jimenez, of the short One Man Band, which would come out in 2005 and earn a best animated short Oscar nomination.
At Pixar, Andrews explains, shorts are sort of “the proving ground” to see “not only if you can come up with a story and make it good and very entertaining, but how you work with other people.” (Pixar has attached one to the theatrical reel of each of their features, and also produces shorts for the ABC Family and Disney channels, as well as DVD releases.) Sarafian notes that “about half” of the people who have directed features for Pixar first directed shorts for the studio. “I guess I passed the test,” Andrews cracks, because he was entrusted with the direction of Brave — but only after an awkward, if not all that uncommon, personnel shuffle.
Brenda Chapman, another CalArts alum and veteran animator, had been at Pixar since 2003. Prior to that, she had worked at Disney and then made her name at DreamWorks Animation, where she became the first female to direct an animated feature at a major studio, The Prince of Egypt (1998). Her volatile relationship with her young daughter inspired her to embark on Brave, a fairy tale set in Scotland about a similar mother-child dynamic.
Andrews first became aware of the project when he came across some artwork at Pixar featuring a Scottish kilt. A proud descendant of Scots who wore a kilt to his wedding — he has also worn one to the office every Friday for years, spawning “Kilt Fridays” — and who traveled to Scotland for his honeymoon, he approached Chapman, who he knew of but had not previously met, and offered to help her in any way he could. She welcomed his counsel about all things Scotland — he joined her and others on a 12-day research trip in 2006, serving as an unofficial tour guide — and the two became “really close,” he says.
However, in October 2010, 18 months before a finished print of the film was due, Pixar removed Chapman from the film and replaced her with Andrews. “We weren’t quite where we needed to be,” Sarafian explains, and the clock was running out. While such actions occur with a fair degree of frequency — the original directors of six of the 13 features that Pixar has made were replaced, include those working on Ratatouille and Toy Story 2 (1999) — Sarafian says, “We don’t talk about it a lot.” She grants that it is generally devastating for the filmmaker whose title is revoked, particularly because it means that it is highly unlikely that the person will again be entrusted with a directing assignment. (Even though Chapman retained a co-directing credit on Brave, she was clearly nonplussed, expressing her displeasure through the press and leaving Pixar very soon after the film was released to work as a consultant at Lucasfilm before ultimately returning to DreamWorks Animation.)
But, despite the internal drama, production on the film marched on. “Mark came in and brought a new energy and just really built on what Brenda had done,” Sarafian explains. Each day for the rest of the production, Andrews says, they would meet in the morning, formulate a game-plan and attend meetings and make calls together. He oversaw the day-to-day progress of the film, while she had “to put out fires” that he started, he laughs. And, in the end, they got it done in time for a June 22, 2012 release.
Both say they have found it immensely gratifying to hear how many people have emotionally connected with the parent-child relationship at the center of the film, which Andrews acknowledges is “a darker story than Pixar’s ever told before” and not the easiest of sells. Sarafian notes that it was also the last film made in-part under the watch of the late Jobs, who both Andrews and she revered. “He saw reels, and he was excited that we were making it and it embodies the spirit of animation and family story that was important to him,” she says. “I hope that he would have been really happy with the final movie.”
Others certainly seem to be. Over a half-year after its theatrical release, Andrews and Sarafian are having to make frequent trips down from San Francisco to Los Angeles to attend one awards show or another on behalf of their film. Andrews says that he’s frequently asked, “What was it like to make the movie?” His response? “I completely forget!”
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