35 Things We Learned from Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant' Commentary

Be honest. It got a little dusty in your room reading that and thinking of The Iron Giant.

The Iron Giant
Warner Bros.

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, we spend time with Brad Bird’s commentary for his beloved animated classic from 1999, The Iron Giant.

Be honest. It got a little dusty in your room reading that and thinking of The Iron Giant (1999). You teared up a bit. It’s okay. It happens to all of us. I’m sure it even happens to writer/director Brad Bird when he goes back and watches this animated classic from 1999. Well, that’s one of the things we’re about to find out here with the commentary track for this very film.

And, with Bird’s years at Pixar and his first, live-action feature, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, what better time do go back and see precisely what he, along with some of his top-notch animation team, has to say about The Iron Giant? So strap your boosters on, don’t be a gun, and enjoy what all we learned from the commentary track for The Iron Giant.

“You stay. I go. No following.”


The Iron Giant (1999)

Commentators: Brad Bird (writer, director), Jeffrey Lynch (story department head), Steve Markowski (designer for the Giant), Tony Fucile (head of animation)

  • Right over the specially designed Warner Brothers logo, Bird mentions the film begins and ends with beeps. The beeps at the beginning are the Sputnik beeps which then fade into the beeps at the end of the film. This is representative of the tone of the film and the characters in it, as well, the idea of going from paranoia to understanding and acceptance.
  • The opening shot was meant to represent and convey many different aspects important to the film’s story. The image of Sputnik represents paranoia. They had to show a storm going on somewhere on the Earth and that the Iron Giant’s star was headed straight for the storm’s eye. Then the shot had to go straight down into the storm. Bird mentions it was a very difficult shot to conceive and execute, and he was even told they wouldn’t be able to complete it due to budgetary constraints. His animation team made it work. Just like Tim Gunn always says.
  • One of the big questions Bird and Lynch faced was in how much they should reveal of the Giant early on. They wanted to keep the Giant interesting and grab the audience’s attention without giving away too much too early. This seems to always be a concern for filmmakers creating a story that involves an otherworldly creature. Some director’s just don’t even bother with subtlety.
  • Bird mentions the first version of the film’s opening scene would be included on the special edition DVD. This version was much more elaborate and included many more ships at sea including a large tanker with over 100 men on board. According to Bird each one of the men even had a backstory as well as a dog named Sparky. In that initial sequence was also another shot of the Giant, a silhouette of him walking away. I haven’t delved much into the DVD’s special features to verify this. I’d do it, but I’m engrossed in this now. Plus the remote is all the way over there.
  • There originally wasn’t supposed to be so much information given in the early scene in the diner. However, Bird and his crew felt they had to trim more and more unnecessary scenes and moments. This eventually made the information dump we get in this scene all the more important. Luckily, the nature of the scene made all the exposition seem more organic than it just being an information dump.
  • “He’s like the most unlocal local there.” Bird commenting on the Dean character. The commentators also go on to mention Dean was a member of the Beat Generation, which was considered somewhat threatening to the small-town society laid out in the film. It was also important to have this character be the first adult who understands that the Giant is not a threat, being an outsider to a certain extent himself.
  • The “Turbo Twinkie” was something Bird did when he was a kid. The animators were sort of skeptical about this when he initially brought it up to them, so a demonstration was in order. Tony Fucile took it upon himself to continue research in order to get the finished look perfect. “It was not very delicious,” says Fucile. Now I’m skeptical. I’ll be right back. Bird also mentions Eli Marienthal, who provided the voice for Hogarth Hughes, ate Twinkies while recording the dialogue. Now that’s method.
  • The scene of Hogarth preparing to investigate the noises he’s heard was the first work animated on the film. Bird mentions they wanted to play around with what they could do with the lighting in this scene as well as the one following. He had a hard time selling this point to the people at WB. As Bird mentions, in a story reel, this sequence looks dull, mostly due to the black and white nature of the reels. “You can’t capture the mystery or the suspense in a storyboard drawing,” says Lynch. It wasn’t until they showed the execs the sequence in color that they were convinced to leave the sequence in the film.
  • The sequence of shots where the Giant is revealed took nearly a year to complete from concept to full execution. The sequence incorporates many different elements and perspective changes, as Bird points out. It was Steve Markowski’s idea to have the Giant revealed in the background while standing in darkness and having the lights of his eyes turn towards our view.
  • The idea for The Iron Giant began as a 12-page outline Bird had written. With no one else on the project yet, he had nine months before he had to begin turning in storyboards and designs to the animators to complete. He mentions that for as elaborate and detailed as the film is, it was a very quick production.
  • As Bird and Markowski mention, the first time Hogarth runs into the Iron Giant is the most robotic the Giant is in the entire film. They wanted to gradually show the Giant picking up Hogarth’s mannerisms and acting more and more human as the story progressed. As mentioned later on in the scene when Hogarth confronts and talk to the Giant for the first time, the Giant learns these humanistic skills very quickly going from “pet to friend to hero” as Markowski says.
  • When Michael Kamen came in to score the scene when the Giant is knocked out from the electricity, he played a somber, almost funereal piece for Bird. Bird convinced him that this scene was more akin to a kid seeing a spaceship land in his back yard than something to be sad about. I don’t know about Bird, but when spaceships land in my back yard I break out The Cure. Always The Cure. I humbly apologize to any aliens landing in the foreseeable future.
  • One of the things Bird is very proud of in The Iron Giant is how real his characters feel. He mentions the audience reacting audibly when Hogarth gets hit in the face with a branch and how that’s a very difficult thing to pull from the audience when you’re dealing with animated characters. Audiences are so used to Wile Coyote falling off cliffs they’ve become accustomed to animated characters being more malleable than real people. “If you defy gravity and later on need to feel danger in the film, you have a really hard time convincing the audience how to do that,” says Bird.
  • There was a debate between Bird and Markowski with how the Giant perceived Hogarth, if he was fascinated by the boy or if he was more like a pet who was loyal but could tire easily. The loyal pet idea stuck early on in the film, at least, as indicated by the Giant nearly nodding off at one point while Hogarth is talking. Markowski was not a fan of animating the Giant’s eyes literally rolling as he fell asleep at one point. Guess you lost that argument, Markowski.
  • The landscape and settings in the film were created using Elastic Reality, something I hadn’t heard about until now. Hey, I’m not an animator. The trees and bushes in the woods are all still paintings that go through a software that warps and morphs them giving the perception that they are moving and lifelike.
  • The two men Kent Mansley is interviewing after the train wreck are voiced by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two animators of classic Disney films and cartoons and two members of the famed Nine Old Men at Disney. They also provided their likenesses for the characters. As Bird states, they were huge influences on his career, as well as many other animators careers, I would assume.
  • Much of The Iron Giant, particularly what is playing on a television at any given time, serves as Brad Bird’s tribute to classic animation and the animators of the time period the film is set. At one point, a classic Maypo commercial is playing. Bird mentions he wanted to use the opening of the old Disney show, but the company didn’t allow him to use it. “They don’t like being paid tribute to so much,” states Bird.
  • Getting back to the idea of the Giant being like a big pet, this notion carries over into the scene where Hogarth is trying to hide the Giant’s hand from his mother. This sequence was also one of the only sequences in the film where the 2D (hand-drawn) and 3D (CGI) animation in the film were done by the same person, Richard Baneham. A conscious effort was put into having the hand whip its connector in the back like a dog would a tail. It’s also in this scene where Bird mentions what each scene was called during production. This sequence was called “Hand Over Foot”.
  • An early scene that didn’t make the final film involved Hogarth talking about comic books with his mother. It was scrapped, because Bird and his team didn’t think it was all that important. However, the idea came up again when they were trying to think of a scene showing Hogarth and the Giant bonding in a stationary location. It was supervising animators Dean Wellins’ idea to carry the comic book conversation over to this scene. This moment also served to show the Giant remembering or getting a feeling of who he is and continue his path towards becoming a hero in the film. It’s also a foreshadowing to the “Superman” moment at the end. Tears.
  • In the sequence where the Giant is carrying Hogarth in his hand at night, Bird points out a star moving to the left of the Moon in the top left corner of the frame. This is supposed to be Sputnik. They didn’t expect anyone to notice it, but they wanted to have it in there. At the time, people on Earth could actually see Sputnik orbiting the planet, one of the things that caused much paranoia in people in the United States, something Bird and his team wanted represented in the Giant.
  • The scene where Hogarth is hopped up on Espresso is the only scene in the film Bird animated himself. Because the character is talking and moving about so rapidly, Bird had to actually draw at least some part of every inbetween, the frames in an animated film between the key frames. Would you like to know more?
  • Eli Marienthal had a tough time making his voice shaky for the scene where he’s riding in the make-shift ride at the scrap yard. Bird had to get behind the actor and physically shake him to get it right. “I asked his permission first,” says Bird. Of course you did, Brad. Of course you did.
  • The scene in the scrapyard after the deer has been shot, according to Bird, was designed to show kid logic, the idea of Hogarth explaining something to the Giant as Hogarth is trying to understand it himself. It’s another scene depicting the Giant’s reflection on himself and his place in the Universe. “It’s a beautiful scene,” says Lynch. “It’s the first time you see the Giant really actively embracing humanity.”
  • The “interrogation” scene between Kent and Hogarth was, as Bird points out, a big bone of contention. It went through many different variations, one even involving Kent tying Hogarth up while he asks him about the Giant. Another idea that was scrapped was Kent Chloroforming Hogarth in order to get him to the barn. Naturally these ideas were all shot down to keep Kent from being too creepy. Granted, the kid gets Chloroformed at the end of the scene, but that’s not THAT creepy, right?
  • The showdown scene between Hogarth and Kent, when they are quietly watching each other in their respective bedrooms, was called “Contest of Wills” during production. This was another scene Bird mentions was considered dull when it was being pitched and only comes into its own when you actually see the finished product. It’s also during this scene where you see a brief glimpse of a picture of Hogarth’s father. Bird points out no one misses that piece of information that was originally brought up in a moment of dialogue.
  • Bird brings up the color scheme of the different sections of The Iron Giant. Up until the third act, everything is brushed with colors of Autumn, blue skies and brown leaves. Once the military shows up, the scheme goes darker and grayer. Color was intentionally pulled out of these moments in the film. It gets even colder when the Giant realizes he was designed to be a weapon and snow begins to fall.
  • The animators were concerned with the Giant believably saying the word “Superman” with its inflexible, machine mouth. According to Lynch, there was actual applause during dailies when they perfected how to achieve this. I’m glad they did. My tear ducts are glad they did.
  • Brad Bird’s son, Michael, provides the voice for one of the kids who spot the Giant through binoculars. Michael also did the voice of Hogarth during all the temp animation before production officially began.
  • Because of the changes of tone in the last 20 minutes of the movie, Bird mentions it was the most difficult and most fun work he did on the film. He had to find a believable and clear way to depict all the humor, action, emotion, and suspense going on near the end of the film. According to Lynch, there is video of a pitch where he and the animation department were up all night working out the details of the end of the film. Bird mentions he wishes they had had it in their budget to add a few minutes in the end section to include all the ideas Lynch and his team had come up with. I’m not sure if that video is on the DVD. Again, lazy.
  • Bird notes the difficulty of having to show the awesome strength of the Giant without him actually turning on the military and killing anyone. “If he actually killed guys who are just doing their job then he becomes an unsympathetic character.” Lynch mentions that when they storyboarded this section of the film they had the Giant killing people left and right.
  • Steve Markowski and storyboard artist Mark Andrews came up with the designs for all the weaponry that pops out of the Giant near the end of the film. He mentions one of the challenges above and beyond coming up with the designs for the weapons was finding a way for them to come out of the Giant, as if they had always been there but not revealed until now. An early idea had the weapons just popping out of the Giant, but it didn’t work until they decided to have him literally open up his chest revealing that, as Markowski says, “at his heart he’s basically a big weapon”. Markowski also says it had to looks very ’50s and cool. The tentacles coming out of the Giant’s back were an homage to the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds.
  • There was a debate on whether the Giant should just use his weaponry to destroy the missile rather than fly up to destroy it. According to Lynch, it was important for the Giant to not allow himself to become a weapon again for any reason.
  • “This is the scene that always gets me, where the Superman reference pays off.” – Steve Markowski. Me too, Steve. Me too.
  • Bird mentions the tonal shifts Michael Kamen had to work with in dealing with the music for The Iron Giant, how it goes from somber to bittersweet and almost cheerful in the next scene. Bird brings up the problems he had with Bambi as a child, how the scene after Bambi’s mom is shot it goes into birds singing and being happy. “I was always mad at the birds, because I was still feeling bad about the mother dying,” he says. He wanted to make sure they eased out of the sad moment rather than shift too much too quickly.
  • There was some debate on whether or not to show that the Giant could return, even though, as Bird points out, it was in the original treatment. The final scene of the movie initially took place in India. Bird wanted to show that life goes on. Life finds a way. I’ve gotta do Jurassic Park one of these days.

Best in Commentary

“The Giant was animated by Andrew Brownlow and Mike Swofford.” – Brad Bird

“Storyboarded by Kevin O’Brien. A tough one.” – Jeffrey Lynch

“This creates another tough dilemma, because now that you’ve seen the destructive ability of this giant, it’s very easy to think of him as not being the Giant any more.” – Jeffrey Lynch

Final Thoughts

The Iron Giant is such a classic, it pains me to say this commentary isn’t an equal work of genius. There are great anecdotes about the voice acting, but much of the commentary falls into one of two categories. It’s either Bird talking us through specific scenes, telling us what is going on, what it works out with the information being delivered, and how it fits in with the themes of the film, or it’s name dropping.

Yes, I know those first two examples of Best in Commentary are NOT the best this commentary has to offer, but it’s certainly representative. Much of The Iron Giant commentary revolves around who animated what and the commentators throwing out names of people who worked on the film. That’s all well and good. I understand wanting to give credit to the people you worked with on a film, but the commentary here gets bogged down with “Richard Baneham animated this” or “John Bermudes animated that”. In fact, one of the last things Bird mentions on the commentary is how there were so many people he wasn’t able to name individually but that they’re listed in the end credits. Yes, in the end credits, not on the commentary track. Okay, cynicism aside, the film remains a wonderful classic, and it’s good to know great film makers like Brad Bird are moving onward and upward in the industry. I know that’s not about the commentary, but I didn’t want to end on a sour note.


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