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How Brad Bird Went From Disney Apprentice To Oscar-Winner And Architect Of “Tomorrowland”

From working under legend Ward Kimball, and learning to stay loose on The Simpsons to jumping to live action (NBD) and corralling Clooney in his driveway, Brad Bird shares lessons from a creative career.

How Brad Bird Went From Disney Apprentice To Oscar-Winner And Architect Of “Tomorrowland”
[Photo: Kimberley French, courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.]

In Tomorrowland, a precocious boy inventor gets schooled at the 1964 World’s Fair by a stern futurist who advises him to work harder on his jetpack. “Young Frank” grows up to become a bitter recluse, played by George Clooney. Tomorrowland director Brad Bird also started young but unlike Frank, he’s remained a true believer in the beauty of invention dating to his teenage apprenticeship with the masterful Disney animators who created Bambi, Pinocchio, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. “It was like being a young actor and getting to work with Brando,” Bird recalls.

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Taking a look back at his warm and witty body of work, Bird talks to Co.Create about learning to draw from Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men,” the “Jokes Versus Story” debate at The Simpsons, the epiphany behind his first Oscar-winning film The Incredibles, the thrill of discovering actors who “pop” for Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol and the fringe benefit of getting story notes from Clooney after landing the actor/writer/director for Tomorrowland.

The Disney Sorcerers’ Apprentice

At age 11, Oregon native Bird set pencil to paper and three years later completed his first animated short. He mailed the cartoon to Disney execs in Burbank, California, who were so impressed they invited Bird to study with the veteran artists responsible for Disney’s first golden age of animation. “They basically said ‘Any time you’re in L.A., the door’s open and you can work with our guys,'” recalls Bird. “I’d go down there for a week or two at a time staying with family friends who’d drop me off every morning at the Disney studio. They set up a little room for me and I was given assignments by these people. It was staggering for me.”

Bird took drawing lessons from Ward Kimball (Cinderella) and formed a particularly strong bond with Bambi animator Milt Kahl. “Milt was incredibly exacting and he didn’t like laziness,” says Bird. “‘Don’t just go with the first thing that comes to your mind.’ Milt impressed on me at an early age that it was possible to achieve success if you’re willing to put in the time and explore many avenues. But it wouldn’t happen by just doing things half-assed.”

Simpsons: “Bootcamp for Storytelling”

On the strength of his TV cartoon short Family Dog, Bird joined The Simpsons as a writer, director, and producer for the series’ first eight seasons. “The Simpsons was like bootcamp for storytelling because there were so many scripts coming down the conveyor belt that you couldn’t linger over any one decision or you’d screw up the next 10 episodes,” Bird recalls. “Even though it’s a goofy show, scripts were very sophisticated, packing about 45 minutes worth of material in 22 minutes. I learned a hell of a lot about being thorough but also moving quickly and trying to stay loose.”

Bird had no problem tapping into the show’s spare-no-target sensibility. “Coming out of the northwestern quadrant of the country, there’s a sense of humor that (Simpsons creator) Matt Groening has, David Lynch has, The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson has. It’s a way of looking at things when it rains a lot and I was very comfortable with that.”

Within The Simpsons braintrust, Bird says, “There were basically two camps. One camp was ‘Funniest joke wins, no matter what.’ And the other camp was: ‘Yeah jokes are great but story and character are more important. And I was always in the camp where the jokes must flow from story and character.”

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Buying Freedom With Efficiency on The Iron Giant

In 1999 Bird made his first feature, the boy-and-his-robot Cold War cartoon Iron Giant. “The most hair-raising aspect of that project had to do with the fact that Warner Brothers went into animation when Disney musicals were making a fortune,” Bird recalls. “Checks flew in every direction but by the time we got there, the studio were shutting down the division, which was both wonderful and terrible: ‘You can go anywhere you want on this luxury ship, you can run around naked in first class, just know that the angle of the floor is going to change rapidly and in a couple of hours you’re all going to be at the bottom of the sea.'”

With the clock ticking, Bird and his team moved quickly. “We bought our freedom in storytelling by hitting very aggressive production numbers,” he says. “As long as we pumped out footage, the studio basically left it up to us to make the movie and not to be micro-managed.”

the IncrediblesPhoto: courtesy of Pixar Animation

Character-Driven Super Powers

Iron Giant fizzled at the box office but earned massive critical acclaim and brought Bird to the attention of Pixar. There, he put his own twist on the superhero genre in 2004 with The Incredibles, about a squabbling family of superheros living in a witness protection program who put their differences aside to save the world.

In characteristic Bird fashion, character dictated form, and form dictated function. He says, “I gave each character powers that were emblematic of their position in the family. The dad is required to be strong; the mother is pulled in a million different directions and supposed to adapt to changing circumstances, so her power is elasticity; teenage girls are insecure and a little defensive and want to be invisible, so she had shields and invisibility; and 10-year-old boys are full of energy, so he has great speed.”

Bird, a father of three, knew little about superhero mythologies when he began dreaming up The Incredibles story. “I’m really more of a Peanuts fan,” he says. “As I started to dig into comic books and superheroes, I soon realized every single idiotic power has been done by somebody, even if they only printed it in two issues of some comic book. And then I realized I’m not really that interested in the superpower stuff anyway. What I’m interested in is, ‘How can I use superheroes to explore the family dynamic?'”


Mission: Transition to Live Action

After creating his second Oscar-winner Ratatouille, Bird made the rare transition from animation to live action in 2011 when he steered Tom Cruise through the $700 million-grossing Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol. He quips, “Mission: Impossible was an established vehicle that I was encouraged to drive into new sections of town.”

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Directing live action for the first time was not as big a deal for Bird as one might imagine. During a 2004 interview, Bird said, “It bothers me when animation is separated out as if it’s a junior version of film or something. I don’t look at it that way. To me, it’s all about close-ups, medium shots, color, music, performance, characters, writing. How you do it in animation is a little different from live-action, but the important stuff is the same.”

concept Tomorrowland artwork by Syd Mead

Getting Actors to “Pop”

Bird did learn one valuable live-action lesson when he assembled the Mission: Impossible cast: Certain actors cause unexplainable things to happen when they get in front of a camera. “For Mission, I worked with top actors in several different countries, Russia, India, France, and all of them shared this quality of just popping when they got on the screen. I’d bring them in to test, and they’d just go “bam!” when you put them on film. Then you find out, ‘Oh this guy’s a big star in his country.’ It’s like the first time I saw Toshirô Mifune, he’s speaking Japanese in some old black and white movie but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him because he just grabs the screen and makes it his bitch.”

Bird used his star quality radar when he picked 11-year old actress Raffey Cassidy to go toe to toe with Clooney in Tomorrowland. “Some people just command your attention and that’s true of young people like Raffey too,” he says. “You can’t bottle it, but when somebody has that quality and passes by, you have to grab it.”


Catching Clooney

Teaming up on Tomorrowland, Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof risked rejection by pleading their case with the Hollywood star they couldn’t get out of their minds during the script stage. “As we were writing Tomorrowland, Damon and I constantly referred to Frank as a George Clooney kind of character but strangely never thought of actually asking him,” Bird says. “Then one day we stared at each other and went, ‘Hey what if we go to George with this?’ He met us at the driveway of his house in L.A. and said in the nicest possible way, ‘You know I don’t really do these kind of movies but I’m happy to hear what you have to say.'” The in-person pitch ensued, and, Bird laughs, “We managed to rope him into it.”

Clooney had never made a PG-rated Disney movie before, but Tomorrowland’s activist message struck a chord, Bird says. “George is a believer in causes and he’s not afraid to step out early about things that mean something to him. That quality is good for the character, but also the fact that George is a writer and producer and director was really helpful. Toward the end when we were doing re-shoots, he had some really smart notes so that was like a bonus. Yes, we got him as an actor, but we also got his sensibilities as a filmmaker.”

Throughout his showbiz career, Bird’s approach to selling himself and his work owes much to childhood advice from his parents. As he tried to figure out the next step for the cartoon that would launched his career at Disney, Bird recalls, “They were very encouraging. My parents told me “Go to the top and if you get turned down, go to the next one. Even if you get turned down many times, the first person who agrees to talk to you will be the best possible person you can get.'”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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