He made the beloved hand-drawn Iron Giant in 1999, he won the Academy Award for The Incredibles in 2004 and this year he delivered one of the best reviewed animated films in the last two decades with Ratatouille. He is probably the most exciting animation director at work today. But talking to Brad Bird, it is obvious that he is as dedicated to fundamentals of character and story as any live-action film-maker.
'Sometimes when I'm writing, I find that I go for the kind of moment I am supposed to go for,' he says. 'But it never feels right when I do that. In Ratatouille, when Remy gets the review from Anton Ego at the end, I was supposed to ramp it up in action and humour, but instead it felt natural to go with a very quiet, slow, contemplative scene with a lot of voiceover. It was everything you're supposed not to do. One of the wonderful things about Pixar is that they will let me trust my instincts, and I think that scene worked.'
He says that occasionally he will buy a how-to book about screenwriting and the book inevitably starts talking about Chinatown by Robert Towne as the perfect screenplay. 'I have had the good fortune to get to know Robert Towne and ask him how he got into that screenplay and he says that he was feeling in the dark when he wrote it and that he was mystified by the way it turned out. There is no answer. There is no formula. You have to be the audience when you are writing. If some weird idea presents itself to you, don't throw it out.'
Ratatouille has many of those weird ideas, says Bird, and he says it benefited from a shortened production schedule. Bird was drafted in when another director fell out. When he came on, there was a team in place on the film, as well as the basic premise and character design, but he felt he had to start from scratch on the screenplay.
'It was like a film school thesis project,' he says. 'Here are your parameters, you have this amount of time and ... go. I had about 18 months to do Ratatouille which was way less time than I had on The Incredibles. In fact, instead of the stage where we had temp people doing character voices, I would write stuff on this film and it would go straight away to actors. That actually worked in my favour because I didn't get too familiar with the moments. When you do get too familiar, it means that you are not as spontaneous with the actors as you could be.'
While he selects actors carefully, Bird says he spends as much time working with animators. 'We spend a great deal of time talking about the music of movement,' he explains. 'In music, there are silences and the length of that silence is part of the music. Motion is the same thing for animators. More movement does not mean better movement. Sometimes the best animation can mean no movement at all.'
PICTURES OF IRAN
When Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis opens in the US through Sony Pictures Classics (SPC) on December 25, it will be the end of a year of triumph for the black-and-white animated film based on Satrapi's graphic novels about her life as a teenager during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The film won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes this year, played Telluride and Toronto and was the closing night film of the New York Film Festival last month. But for Sony Classics, it marks a first, since it is not only a front-runner for the foreign-language film award but also for the animated feature Oscar.
SPC co-president Michael Barker says he is confident that the film will play well to the feature animation committee. 'I've had many closing nights at the New York Film Festival but have never seen an ovation like this one.'
The committee will be viewing the original French-language version of the film, featuring the voice talents of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux. SPC's English-language version, which features Mastroianni and Deneuve alongside Sean Penn and Gena Rowlands, will be released towards the end of the US run. The English version will be used to kick off the film's TV and DVD play as well as its long-term educational applications.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
In addition to Ratatouille and Persepolis, there is a strong field of animated films up for nomination in 2007. DreamWorks SKG delivered Bee Movie, a comedy featuring the humour of Jerry Seinfeld, as well as Shrek The Third, which aims to follow its predecessors to Oscar nominations. Paramount and Warner Bros present action adventure Beowulf, the second experiment by Robert Zemeckis with motion capture animation after The Polar Express. Disney also released Meet The Robinsons, Fox had a summer smash with The Simpsons Movie, Sony unveiled its second in-house animated feature Surf's Up, Warner Bros and The Weinstein Company teamed up on TMNT and Lionsgate released Happily N'Ever After.