Thursday, September 17, 2015

Brad Bird Talks 2D Again...


Animation mastermind Brad Bird continues to make the rounds because The Iron Giant: Signature Edition was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. A few days ago, he talked about what was going on with The Incredibles II, now he's talking about traditional animation again...

Bird of course is an outspoken admirer of animation, Walt Disney's films - which many writers and even Disney themselves tend to write off as outdated children's films, and he goes as far as challenging generalizations and nonsensical things people often say about animation.

"And, next time I hear, 'What's it like working in the animation genre?' I'm going to punch that person!" - From the DVD/Blu-ray commentary for The Incredibles...

On top of that, he's created three marvelous animated films that also challenge the audience, showing them what the medium can really do. The Iron Giant is a poignant boy-and-his-fantastical-pet tale with a 1950s Cold War backdrop, The Incredibles is a wonderful self-assured and action-packed superhero film/spy film/family drama with lots of comedy mixed in, and Ratatouille is a delightfully unconventional buddy movie about cooking. All three films didn't pander to any particular audience, but they played to the adults in the audience and thus they are beloved... On the live-action end, there's the non-stop thrills of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, one of the best action blockbusters of the last five years, and then there's the ambitious and adamantly optimistic Tomorrowland.

Bird's only traditionally animated film is The Iron Giant, and like many a non-Disney animated movie of the 1990s, it was a box office dud. This was because Warner Bros. completely botched the marketing campaign for it, and while the film has picked up new fans over time thanks to home media and TV airings, Warner Bros. has sat on it for years and years. The last DVD edition of it was released in 2004, and Bird was campaigning for a good Blu-ray set with a lot of bonus features that WB kept turning down. The revised Iron Giant, dubbed the "Signature Edition", is coming to theaters... But as a limited release, a Fathom Events release that'll play on September 30th and October 4th only. It'll be followed by a digital-only release, no physical media edition seems to be in the cards at the moment... (Update 9/18/2015: One is coming, confirmed by Brad Bird on his twitter.)

With that in mind, here's what Bird had to say about 2D when interviewed by Collider...

"I actually think it’s a lot more valid than other people do. I think the industry tends to like to think in the narrow sort of mindset of a businessman, and businessman absolutes, and movies really exist in a much grayer region of dreams and stuff like that, and instinct is prized in movies, it’s not prized with the businessmen in movies, but movies themselves often reward instinct rather than pie charts. And what has not been done is that there’s been no American animation done on Disney-level quality that has really gone into different genres. For instance, there’s never been a horror movie in animation executed at Disney-level quality and hand-drawn, I’m not talking about CG I’m talking about hand-drawn, but it doesn’t take a lot to imagine how cool that would be. If you think of the scariest parts of Snow White or Pinocchio or Fantasia with Night on Bald Mountain, you could do something really scary in animation and I think if you did it right, if you did it with all the art that Spielberg did Jaws, I think that it would be an amazing experience because there’s something intuitive about when people are drawing directly with their hands."

He's totally right about all of that. Plus, an adult-oriented animated horror film done on a big budget with excellent animation would be quite a sight to see...

"The problem is that every time people have deviated from the Disney playbook in hand-drawn animation, they’ve done so with staff that are nowhere near Disney-level talent or Disney-level budgets. So you have things like Heavy Metal, which not all of them are great, but a couple of them are really interesting, but they didn’t have the money or the artists to pull them off at the level that maybe they should’ve been pulled off."

The omnibus Heavy Metal, for me, is a fascinating film in many ways. I don't consider it to be good, but it's definitely something that animation needed in the dry days of the late 1970s/early 1980s, and we certainly need something that's a little similar today. Visually and story-wise, that is. Heavy Metal is pretty much another R-rated animated movie with sex and violence and swearing, it's quite sexist, and dumb, it doesn't really have anything to say, though at the same time it's got a lot of creativity in it (the film is cocktail of high fantasy, sci-fi, futuristic cities, spacey stuff, barbarians and warriors, World War II horror, zombies, and whatnot), a lot of out-there surrealism, and stories that you don't usually see American animation tackle. A Heavy Metal-esque animated film, but something that's actually mature and actually "adult", would be something I'd be all over!


Animation-wise, it's sometimes hard to watch, for all the reasons Bird listed. It was not a Disney-level picture in terms of the budget. Some segments in the film have decent animation and lovely backgrounds, other segments have very rough movements and ugly rotoscoping. It's a film that in some scenes looks very awesome in stills, but not in motion... Had something like Heavy Metal been done with a bigger budget, it would've been a real sight to see in 1981 or now. It was a success back when it was released, but it didn't kick off any adults-only animation renaissance, much like how Ralph Bakshi's first few films didn't spark a renaissance in the 1970s. Instead we got a few crumby wannabes, Heavy Metal spawned Rock 'n' Rule and maybe to a much lesser extent The Black Cauldron and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, but that was about it...

"Whereas in live-action film there are all kinds of new films being done in different genres where people can really execute an idea at a top level. It’s just that animation rewards grooming a team and keeping a team in place. That’s why when studios try to emulate Disney on the quick-and-cheap they always fail, because Disney has refined their animation team over years, they have a history of it, people go to Disney and know that there’s going to be a job after the movie, there’s going to be another movie. And when you assemble animation teams the way you do a live-action film, you’re often struggling a bit to get a cohesive team together, so if you have a team that works well together, you’re hoping for another film so that you can refine the team."

Add in the costs of animation in general, and it's quite true, yet again...

"But for someone like me who wants to move back and forth between animation and live-action, that becomes its own challenge, but I absolutely think that hand-drawn animation is valid and I actually hope to do one in the future with a large budget and a longer schedule than we had on Iron Giant. [emphasis mine]"

Bird has talked about wanting to direct a big 2D feature, but how is he going to make that dream a reality in a landscape where traditional animation is considered to be something that audiences "moved on" from? I guess no amount of "the 2D flops released at the beginning of the 2000s were films no one wanted to see!" rants will convince suits otherwise, not after Minions clearing $1.1 billion worldwide like it was nothing, to say nothing of the success of several other recent computer-animated films...

I could waffle on about this all day, I really could. I could bring up how The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh weren't well-marketed, or how Disney's management hurt 2D in both the early 2000s and a few years ago, or how people need to realize that CG was a big fad in the early 2000s, and that people flocked to bad CG films at the time like Shark Tale and Chicken Little just because of their visuals. As we all know, audiences are choosier today. If a new CG film is playing and very few people want to see it, it won't take off, no amount of CG gloss will convince them to buy a ticket.

The same applies to hand-drawn animation. I bet you, if someone made a traditionally animated movie that a ton of people wanted to see (regardless of the actual movie's quality), it would be a smash hit at the box office. That's the nut to crack, but executives - like Bird said - think one way. They go by one or two things: "2D flops a decade ago" and "CG makes big money". And that's that...

So, here's hoping Brad Bird could be the one to challenge the business world's perception of 2D animation. Can he? Will he? Will someone else be the one do it? Sound off below!

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