Brad Bird belonged to the legendary class at Cal arts that included the likes of Glenn Keane, Tim Burton, Henry Selick. His early work included the marvelous Family Dog episode of Amazing Stories (with characters designed by Burton) and the groundbreaking early seasons of The Simpsons (the show never recovered from his departure). His animated feature The Iron Giant has become a beloved classic, but it’s at Pixar where his work has earned the most attention. The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) each earned Bird an Oscar. He returns to the Incredi-world with The Incredibles 2, opening in U.S. theaters this Friday, and like his previous work, this latest effort has already drawn copious praise. He discussed the film at length during a recent press conference.
Question: What was behind the decision to pick the new movie up right after the first, instead of having an older Violet, an older Dash, an older Jack-Jack?
Brad Bird: I just thought it was kind of bold and weird. People tend to take the time that passes very literally. And they think that linearly, the characters should have aged. But if they age, their superpowers don’t reflect the part of life that they’re in and their role in the family. I worked on the first eight seasons of The Simpsons. And the Simpsons haven’t aged a day and they’re still on the air. So it worked for them. Why not us?
Q: The visuals in this film are outstanding. Tell us about working with Ralph Eggleston, your production designer, and what you came up with for that look.
BB: Ralph is an amazing talent. He came onto the first film when we were just having trouble with the size of it, and helped Lou Romano out to get it done. We were a smaller studio, and the film was larger than we were. But Ralph loves movies like most people at Pixar. He really loves films, and he’s always reading a new book, and he has a thing to show you. And he’s always disgorging art and books and things that he found and sketches he’s made. He’s just kind of spewing them out in every direction all the time. The film really benefited from this fuel.
The house that the family wound up in is a great example. He suddenly came in one day and we had already put a lot of effort in another house… and we were under a lot of pressure because they took a year off of our schedule. And he said, “Okay I have this idea for the house. And it’s really going to screw things up for everyone including me. But I just have to say it: the house should not work for them. It should be initially impressive, but then you get in there and everything is wrong for a family. There are these things that are beautiful originally, but they become like this problem. There’s no real place for the baby’s room: there’s a fireplace in the baby’s room for no reason.” I’m listening to everything he’s saying, “that’s going to ruin everything; we’re gonna have to start again. But he’s totally right… and damn, why is he right?” So I agreed to it. And it totally screwed up everything that I had set up. Suddenly everything was a giant problem. and yet, it was right because Ralph was right. The Parrs aren’t in a comfortable place yet. They have to find their way there. That was a way of making the surroundings help tell the story… which is really what good production design is.
Q: You always said you had an idea you were developing for an Incredibles sequel. Now that you finally did it, has the idea always been this? Or how has it evolved since the first one?
BB: The idea of the role switch – the assignment going to Helen rather than Bob – I had when we were promoting the first film. And I also had the unexploded bomb of Jack-Jack’s powers: the audience knew that he had them, but the Parrs did not. I had other notions that I just wanted to see in an Incredibles movie and some things like the raccoon fight that were originally done for the first movie had to be dropped.
The thing that always seemed to change was the villain, and that caused a lot of anxiety as we were working on it. You change the villain and you have to make adjustments for it across all levels of the productions. But I think that we wound up with the right version of this movie.
The first Incredibles was the only project that came outside of Pixar and was pitched to Pixar. I had drawings. I had designs. I had an outline of the whole thing. If they didn’t want to make it, I was going to take it somewhere else. But I came with a villain that was a different villain than we wound up with. And in exploring an alternate opening when I came to Pixar, I introduced a villain that we killed off in the opening sequence and that was a better villain than the one that we had. And suddenly we had Syndrome. The villain always seems to come last with these movies.
Q: In the 14 years since the first movie came out, here’s been a sea change in pop culture. Superheroes were not the dominant force then that they are now. How much did that affect or not affect the process of developing this movie?
BB: I immediately banned three point landings. You know that. [Laughter.] There was a dark moment when all the machinery was kicked into gear, and I realized how saturated the market was going to be. Are people going to be just sick of this in two years? It was a dark moment. Then I realized that what excited me about the idea in the first place was not the superheroes. It was the family dynamic, and people’s roles in different parts of their lives and how superheroes are essentially a twisted lemon that you squeeze on top of this. It’s not what the movie is about. And then I got excited again.
Q: How did you guys decide to give Jack-Jack an animal villain?
BB: That was one of our key artists on the first film who helped to sign the characters. His name is Teddy Newton. He had this idea back on the original film: a gang of raccoons that Jack-Jack kind of confronts. It went a lot darker believe it or not. But the idea always just killed me because raccoons look vaguely like robbers. It doesn’t matter that it’s garbage. Jack-Jack doesn’t know that. He just knows that he’s being robbed… and he must do something about it. I loved that. It was so visual and clear. And it was such an off-the-wall idea that I couldn’t wait to do it if we got another Incredibles going.
Q: In the film, you used footage from Outer Limits and Johnny Quest. What was the thought behind that?
BB: One of my personal rules in an animated film is that if they’re watching something on TV, it should be animated. Johnny Quest is an animated show, and it’s the style of the film: that kind of action -adventure style from the early 60s. So it fits with our film. With The Outer Limits, we only used the beginning of it because it’s still abstract. It’s still lines and things. It’s not visual photographs, and that part fit really well with the Screenslaver thing. Because they’re talking about taking control of your TV in that clip. When I saw that as a kid, that scared the crap out of me.
Johnny Quest came from that era too. I loved that show. I think it made a huge imprint on me. A lot of people don’t remember that it wasn’t made for Saturday morning. It was made for prime time. It came on at night. And adults watched it, and people died in it, and it had everything an eight-year-old wants in entertainment. It has mummies. It has pterodactyls and guns. And a kid from another country who can levitate things. And a bodyguard who has a fling with a girl that might be dangerous. And lasers and hydrofoils and jetpacks and reptiles and robot spies, and I just about exploded!
That may have rubbed off on this movie.