Pixar's Braintrust on the Making of 'Brave' and the Studio's First Princess
Pixar's first ode to girl power not only changed directors midstream but also forged a new animation system called Presto.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
One day when his three boys were fighting with their sister over what to watch on television, Mark Andrews asked his 12-year-old daughter to give the boys some time to watch a show. She fired back: "I can't do anything. They get away with murder."
For Andrews, one of two directors behind Brave, it was a moment of inspiration that reverberated throughout the making of the animated feature. "I instantly wrote that down and brought it in the next day to put into Brave," he says.
Brave strikes out into new territory for Pixar Animation Studios because it's centered on the company's first female protagonist -- a Scottish princess named Merida -- whose story is built around her relationship with her mother, Queen Elinor, that has become fractured and eventually is mended.
"I pulled a lot of experience from my own family," says Andrews. "I have a daughter and three sons, just like King Fergus and Queen Elinor. A lot of the lines of Merida were right out of my daughter's mouth."
The film's story was conceived by Brenda Chapman, the project's first director, as a "love letter" to her feisty daughter. "My daughter was the heart and soul of the piece," she says. "I wanted to do a story that had a female protagonist. My daughter was about four at the time and just questioning me at every turn."
Additionally, Chapman wanted to concentrate on the relationship between mother and daughter because mothers often are absent or replaced by evil stepmothers in traditional fairy tales. "I went through many fairy tales looking for a mother-and-daughter story, and I just didn't find one," says Chapman. "I'd find some with a mother, but she would disappear for no apparent reason, and a prince would show up to save the day. So I decided to try to create my own story."
Looking for the right setting for her original tale, initially titled The Bear and the Bow, she began working with production designer Steve Pilcher seven years ago. "Merida is an independent spirit, a child of nature," says Chapman. "She is an adventurer carving her own path, so we wanted a look that was wild and untamed." They found it during the course of two research trips to Scotland, particularly in an area known as the Dark Mile -- which Pilcher describes as "a dark forest full of moss and rock and boulders" -- and a castle called Dunnottar, set on a cliff.
"It was rustic and ruined and beautiful," attests shading art director Tia Kratter. "We thought we were going to have the king and queen's castle on the shores of a loch, but Dunnottar was so beautiful, set on a lone cliff, that we changed the location of the castle in the film."
The team also had some fun. "Every night we would either eat in an old inn or go to a local pub to see that convivial atmosphere of eating around a big common table. That lent itself to the family-meal sequence," says Kratter, chuckling. "I took it upon myself to sample a different type of scotch every night."
In late 2010, however, with the film's release only 18 months away, Pixar heads John Lasseter and Ed Catmull decided to take the project from Chapman, one of the directors on DreamWorks Animation's 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, and turn it over to Andrews, who had directed the 2005 Oscar-nominated short One Man Band for Pixar and had been serving as a consultant on Brave. While the studio had replaced directors midproject before -- Brad Bird, for example, was not the original helmer of the 2007 Oscar-winning hit Ratatouille -- it did take a short-term publicity hit given that Chapman was the first female director entrusted with a Pixar title.
Brave producer Katherine Sarafian, Chapman and Andrews all cite "creative differences" when asked to address the change, though they insist the finished film kept to Chapman's vision. "I do feel, in the end, the female voice is still very much there," says Chapman.
Adds Sarafian: "Merida's personality traits and spiritedness that Brenda had brought forth were hopefully further developed by the story artists and Mark Andrews. Everyone in our brain trust, they all wanted that film [Chapman conceived]. It was more building on the vision and seeing it through, making both Merida and her mother as appealing as possible and honing the relationships."
Andrews says Chapman set down a structure that remained in place, but a key challenge moving forward was establishing the right balance in the movie's central parent-child relationship. The filmmakers didn't want the mother to appear too mean, but if they made her too nice, then Merida became unlikable. "We had to see both people's point of view," says Andrews. "I think the answer was the scene where they are talking to each other -- without really talking to each other." Each expresses her perspective about the other while in separate rooms in the castle.
While the king helps the queen communicate through role-playing -- he plays Merida -- the film's editor cut back and forth between the parents and their daughter, allowing the audience to see what mother and daughter are feeling. "I think that was a real breakthrough after I came on board," says Andrews
Another change: The dramatic moment when the queen transforms into a bear was moved inside the castle. "Originally the bear changed outside the castle in isolation, and it was really scary," says Andrews. Having it happen inside the castle, with King Fergus and his pals nearby, added comedy to the mix.
Throughout, the Pixar "brain trust" -- Lasseter and such directors as Bird, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter -- offered advice. And though they are all men, Andrews says they understood the relationship between Merida and her mother. "We were focused on a parent-child dynamic -- that is the same whether it's a son or daughter," he says.
Merida's most striking feature, her fiery red hair, came to reflect her untamed personality. But her curly locks posed a challenge for Pixar's research-and-development team. On previous movies, the studio had used a fur-and-hair system created for Sulley, the big blue guy in 2001's Monsters, Inc. But that wouldn't work for Brave.
"Merida's wild, curly red hair supports her personality, so we wanted to make sure it was fantastic," says Steve May, the film's supervising technical director and Pixar's chief technology officer. "But curly hair is really hard to do. Computationally, that was complicated. You also want it to be soft and beautiful, but it has to hold this curly shape. Those things are kind of in conflict. With the old system, if we wanted it to maintain the shape of her hair, it would give us stiff hair." So a new hair-simulation program was devised.
For the first time, Pixar also used a proprietary animation system dubbed Presto, replacing the previous system, Marionette, which the studio had used since its 1986 Oscar-nominated short Luxo Jr. that featured the desk lamp used in the Pixar logo. The new system was designed to feel less like a technical tool and more like a creative one because, says May, "over the last 15 years, animators have become much more artists, and there are far fewer that are computer scientists and programmers."
Pixar also developed software used to add textures that enhanced the look of the Scottish highlands. "The trees, ground and rocks in the forest are covered with millions of pieces of vegetation, moss, clovers and grass," explains May. "A custom system was developed to procedurally grow these objects. We give the computer certain 'rules' to follow, such as put certain plants in the shade, and we set these rules so the computer would go through the process of distributing the plants on surfaces without a person having to place each one by hand. The result is you get this soft, lush texture."
Released June 22, Brave also became the first feature to take advantage of Dolby's immersive Atmos sound system, which could be heard by moviegoers in the first 14 theaters then equipped for it. The film's mix was led by seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom at Skywalker Sound.
"We did the mix we normally would then did an enhanced mix," says Rydstrom. Atmos allowed the filmmakers to "change the spatial feeling," he adds, citing a scene in which Merida storms into the castle, throwing open large doors. "We took the creaking and banging of the doors up to the ceiling speakers so it felt like the doors were 40 feet tall. We could get the additional vertical space."
Although skeptics wondered whether Pixar should be playing in the world of Disney princesses, there was an audience waiting for the film. The $185 million production went on to gross $535 million worldwide.
More importantly for Chapman, she recalls how when the film debuted, her daughter -- now 13 -- was "proud and excited" knowing she was its inspiration. "When she sees a kid with a Merida doll, she says, 'That's me.' It makes me very happy because I always meant it to be sort of a love letter to my daughter."
Joking that creation of the story was like a "long therapy session," Chapman adds: "I tried to portray in the film that Elinor and Merida learn something from each other. Neither are right, and neither are really wrong. They both make mistakes, but they learn to look at each other and accept each other for who they were."
Andrews admits he, too, learned something about parenting while making the movie. "You have to see things from their point of view," he says of his kids. Now, when he is playing with them, "I'm just a person playing with other people that I love. That was a clue to how to make Merida and Elinor's relationship work -- the first time we see them in the film, they are playing. That's my parental advice: We have to play with our kids. We have to do the action figures; we have to listen to Justin Bieber."