A Dreamer Walking

Brad Bird – An Observation – Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.

 

Invisible Ink- Be the Drama Queen!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 9, 2011

Did you know rats can’t cook? Did you know fish can’t talk, balloons can’t fly houses, monsters are not in your closet waiting to scare you, toys are not alive, cars don’t have emotions, humans do not have superpowers, robots can’t fall in love, and ants can’t invent things? Many of the most popular films ever to come out of Hollywood are the ones that are most illogical. I mean think about it. There is no such thing as a Jedi who can use some magical force to read your feelings and there is no such world populated by blue aliens and floating islands called Pandora. Why do we go to movies which show these things if they are not really real?

You might be the kind of person who does not like fantasy. You might only go to movies like Schindler’s List or Pursuit of Happyness, movies which are based on true stories. So at least those movies are real, right? Have you ever seen someone in real life who had a personal theme song play whenever he showed great emotion? Have you ever been in one place one second and then dozens of miles away in the next second in real life? The fact is all film is an illusion. Every action and camera move is thought out before hand. The lighting and most of the props have been planned out way before anything is actually shot. The goal for  filmmakers has never been to give you complete reality, you can just go outside if you want that. The goal is to give you an emotion which hopefully is more real to you then most of the emotions you have through real life.

Personally you can not convince me the animals in the Disney animated movie Bambi were just a bunch of drawings. You can not convince me the emotions I saw in the movie Schindler’s List were not real in some way. Characters like Wall-E, Thumper, or Forrest Gump have become just as real to me as any character I run into while going on a walk or shopping. In fact, these fictional characters have impacted me in ways few real people have.

In the book Invisible Ink Brian McDonald quotes famous director Billy Wilder, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion“. Movies do not need to hit on logical truths all the time, what they need to hit on are emotional truths. Sometimes exaggerating logical truths can help highlight an emotional truth. No one does this better then Pixar in my opinion. Rats can not cook, however the premise of the Pixar movie Ratatouille is a ambitious rat, in Remy, venturing out to become a chef. As illogical as the premise is we as the audience are thrilled when we see Remy begin to succeed in his ambitions. The fact that Remy is a rat gives us even more fuel to root for him because we know he is fighting a huge uphill battle, I mean most restaurants are forced to close if it is discovered rats are in the kitchen. We begin to see Remy as a symbol of a man overcoming the impossible in order to fulfill his dreams. The idea of a rat wanting to cook captures us because emotionally it hits on a truth which is extremely real and relevant. Watching Remy succeed in being a chef allows us to realize we are capable of succeeding in things which we are told by the world are impossible or closed off.

It is the filmmakers job to become the drama queen. Film and stage acting are the places where we are allowed to let it all out and use everything to further our point. The reason why we have music playing in the background or use quick cuts is so we can get across to the audience a very real idea. The reason it takes so long to plan out the camera moves, acting, lighting, and set design is because we want all those things to further the actual emotional theme of our film.

A good man to study in order to see to what effect you can use cinema to further your theme is Martin Scorsese. Some of his earlier movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull went against many rules of filmmaking at the time. In Taxi Driver there were times where Scorsese would just wonder off of the main character, use fades to show his character moving across long distances, and shoot medium shot of a character talking to another without having the other character in frame. These very gutsy techniques worked because Scorsese understood how they were contributing to the theme of his film. He didn’t care if he showed more blood then what would be realistic from something like a gunshot wound, if he point was being made. (Check out this LINK to read more about how I feel Scorsese is a perfecter in using the elements of cinema).

Everything needs to be about the theme of the film. You must figure out how to get the most drama out of the performances and camera shots. Sometimes in order to get a curtain point across you need to go completely against logic. You must be careful to not lose your audience through going too abstract and it is important to stay true to some rules. In a movie like Ratatouille we are introduced to a rat who wants to cook and we are able to except this concept. However, we still need to see Remy go through the obstacles of becoming a cook. We still need to buy into him as a character and relate too the struggles he goes through.

I actually think Billy Wilder’s statement, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion“, is slightly misleading. We do need things to be logical in some ways if we want to generate believable emotions from them. However, they do not need to be logical in the way “rats can’t cook” or “houses can’t fly” are. We need what we see in the movies to make logical sense emotionally to us. They must hit on a core belief we have as human beings. If someone falls in love with another character in a movie but the relationship has not connected with us as the audience, we will call it corny. If a character dies on screen but it doesn’t feel believable, we won’t be effected by the loss.

Make the character, environment, and story resonate with us as the audience through what ever rout you think is best. I do not need to believe characters like Wall-E and Forrest Gump live in the world I call “reality”. However, I need to have the characters and stories you tell become something I can believe in. But first the stories you create need to become real in the realm you call your “imagination”. When they become real there you can start translating them to film.

The Character INTRODUCTION!!!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on August 27, 2010

Unlike real life (as you can see above), the introduction of a character in film is very important. I just watched a commentary on the Pixar movie Ratatouille where Brad Bird went into detail on what he was thinking through out the film making process of Ratatouille. I have come across very few who are as good at explaining their process and philosophy on film making as Brad Bird. In the Ratatouille commentary Brad emphasized the importance of introducing a Character. It is a art that seems to have been lost with this generation of filmmakers.

Every main character in Ratatouille has a very unique and telling way of being introduced. The main Character Remy, a rat obsessed about becoming a cook, is introduced to us crashing through a window with a cook book in his hands. This introduction is very telling of who Remy is as a Character. The breaking of glass represents the kayos that is going on in Remy’s life, the book represents his passion for cooking, the two are together because they are directly related to each other, the kayos Remy finds himself in is because of his weird obsession on fine cooking. There is also Emile who is Remy’s brother, he is a very soft spoken rat who will eat absolutely anything, naturally he is introduced to the audience sitting down in a very relaxed position eating garbage. Skinner the villain of the picture is introduced so we can see only his hat hovering over the counter like a shark before it attacks.

I look at some of my favorite movies of all time, such as Schindler’s List and I see some very clever introductions that express exactly who the characters are. With Oskar Schindler we are introduced through him getting ready to go to an expensive dinner, immediately we can tell that he wants to look richer then he really is, he scrambles to find the money he will need for the dinner, very prudently he puts on his cloths and the last thing he puts is his small Nazi badge, telling us who his allegiance is with. We do not hear Schindler speak before we know exactly what he is about. Within the first five minutes of meeting Schindler we see his eye for woman, his way with handling money to get what he wants, and his hospitable charm he uses to gain reconnection.

You can look at many of Steven Spielberg’s movies and see his genius with introducing his characters. Whether it is Indiana Jones and his very stylized intro where we hear the hero theme and we have a extreme close up revealing our hero’s face or the subtle into of Tom Hanks’ character John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, where we see a bunch of solders getting ready to storm Omaha Beach and we are introduced to the shaking hand of John Miller looking just like the rest of the people he is with, trying to throw off the idea that he is a “hero” and making him just a solder like the rest of the people he is with. You can tell that Steven puts thought in what we see first and how it represents who the character is as a whole.

A good filmmaker will take the extra time to find the perfect way to introduce a character to the audience. The first impression means a lot, we build opinions right away, the filmmaker needs to make sure they are the right opinions. I am not saying that we should always have huge introductions, they can often be very subtle you do not want to consciously draw attention. The question you want to ask yourself is, am I expressing who this character is?