6 Filmmaking Tips From Brad Bird

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Disney/PIxar

Brad Bird cares about character development. He sets and specifies narrative stakes. He’s dedicated to meticulous world-building. He is amongst a steadily diminishing class of blockbuster directors: people who see themselves, first and foremost, as storytellers, not custodians of fleeting spectacle. That’s why, despite the mixed reviews that Tomorrowland is receiving, Bird’s is a cinematic voice that has earned sustained faith (plus, our reviewer-in-chief Rob Hunter fully endorses Bird’s latest). After all, he’s one of few sources of optimism in contemporary Hollywood.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director so skilled that even his adaptation of a Disney theme park ride produces high expectations.

“Directing is About Getting Hit from a Million Different Angles”

“…Imagine being suffocated by questions…Everyone just wants the answer. But from your perspective, it looks like you’re being hit left and right. And sometimes you don’t even know after awhile what anybody’s talking about. It’s non-stop and it’s relentless and everything is being given equal weight. If somebody is in Shading, they really need to know if you care what’s on the wall. Now, that may be number ten on your list at the moment ‐ you’ve got your giant plot problem and a scene that has to go into production ‐ [but] now you can’t go, ‘Get away from me!’ because that person is just trying to do their job.”

“Sometimes I want to strangle somebody because I have something on my mind, but instead of strangling them I say, ‘Give me ten minutes,’ because in ten minutes I won’t want to strangle them. In ten minutes I will have done something that will have taken off some of the pressures so that I can hear what they’re trying to say. Everybody is just trying to do their job, and you want them to do their jobs as well as possible.”

“…One of the worst things is when you’re in a review process looking at the screen in a theater and you’re all together. Everybody is working their butts off, everybody’s tired, and they’re just looking for you to say ‘Approved.’ They’re willing it into your head. You can feel all fifty people saying, ‘Say approved!’…And you KNOW that it’s not what it needs to be.”

For what looks like a promotional interview, Bird seems to be letting off some serious steam in his frank recollections on the big stresses of high-stakes, long-term collaboration. But I can’t think of another director we’ve covered for this feature who so explicitly details why directors must maintain a firm, confident far-sightedness throughout all stages of production than the extended quote above.

Never give in to the building temptation of being agreeable for its own sake. Every short-term concession can transform into a long-term regret. Remember that the production process will end one day, but the final product will outlive you. And animation, especially, is all about the details.

Appeal to the Kid in Your Collaborators

Bird is once again straightforward about the “grueling” process of filmmaking, which is hardly an adjective one would automatically associate with a director who provides such immersive fun throughout his filmmaking, and who unfolds a story that feels so natural and sharply realized that it seems effortless. But that’s exactly the point. Maintaining a “sense of play” and surrounding oneself with creative people who are able to tap into imaginations that knew no bounds throughout their childhood ‐ the very reason they aspired to a creative industry in the first place ‐ is key for keeping inspiration alive throughout the exhausting process of filmmaking. It’s the strange juggling act of combining a kid’s imagination and an adult work ethic.

Work with Creatives Frustrated with the Established Way of Doing Things

“So I said, ‘Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.’ A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well.”

Nothing drains a potent sense of artistry quite like entering a creative field only to find out that it isn’t what you expected it to be. Bird attracts himself to the exact people who can’t find the standards they posited for themselves earlier in their career, or have even given up on finding them, and uses that energy to do something new. Not to mention, it’s entirely thematically appropriate to encourage malcontents to jump aboard a production like The Incredibles, which opens with an office functionary who longs to return to an exceptional life of superheroism.

Even Fabricated Worlds Should Bear a History

Time Out: “I read a piece on recent animation, called the Art of Degradation.”

Bird: “That thinking, there’s precedent for that. At the time that George Lucas made the first Star Wars space was always presented as pristine. And he wanted to show that they may be fabulous vehicles but they’ve been driven some miles. And, without anyone thinking about it or thinking that was going to help make it a pop hit, everybody believed in that world, because it looked inhabited. Well, the same is true with animation. We want to weave a spell here and make believe this. And although there’s not even remotely believable about a rat actually being able to cook in a French restaurant, if we get a lot of the other details right, they’ll go along with us, with our preposterous notion. If we make it believable. And that’s part of making it believable.”

Animation, specifically studio animation, is under considerable pressure to look dazzling and sleek. But more important than a pristine look is a vision that is evidently lived-in, which allows audiences to overcome the disconnect from reality inherent to animated filmmaking. A world in which everything is fabricated from scratch especially needs to look like a world in which its characters have actually lived. And this is borne out through attention to details and by applying an informed, coherent, and meticulous sense of history to said details. Ratatouille succeeded at this as few works of studio animation have.

Storyboards are a Rehearsal

What We’ve Learned: Never Underestimate the Unique Power of a Large Screen

While Bird is speaking specifically here of his decision to shoot part of his first live-action feature in IMAX, the point applies to his filmmaking more generally. To return to this post’s first quote, it’s evident that Bird takes very seriously the fact that films have a posterity that endures long after the completion of any fleeting production process, grueling or otherwise. What’s essential for Bird, as variously articulated across many of his interviews, is that it is both a) very difficult, and b) of utmost importance that a filmmaker maintain a long view of the film’s lifetime through every step of the production process. No decision is too small, and no on-set tension is too big to take the easy way out.

Months or perhaps years from the start of your production, audiences will see your film knowing and caring little to nothing of your filmmaking process, and you do not want to have made any decision that compromises the strict standards you should have for realizing the world of the film. And if you make films specifically for the big screen, as Bird does, you shouldn’t do anything that could undercut the majesty and unique power of that experience.

More filmmaking tips here.