The following phone interview with Brad Bird at Warner Bros. Feature Animation on Monday, October 27, 1997. It was one of a series of brief interviews I did for a story for The Hollywood Reporter and/or Animation Magazine. When I talked to Bird, The Iron Giant was just getting into animation and there was considerable buzz about the project in the animation community. Although The Iron Giant is often seen as his big breakthrough (critically, if not financially), he had already established himself with The Family Dog episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and his work on The Simpsons, and to a lesser extent on other TV shows, such as King of the Hill. His earlier attempt to do an animated feature version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit (detailed here) may have been on his mind when he talked to me. (The transcript has been slightly edited.)
Harvey Deneroff: You’re in animation now, aren’t you?
BB: Yes. We started rough animation. We have a pretty small team at this point, just have a small core group and then we’re expanding month by month. But, yeah, we’re into animation.
Deneroff: You’ve been involved with animation for a number of years. Do you see any trends that seem important?
Bird: Well, I’m hoping that people see that there’s a new audience. Meaning, I have felt that people [in the industry] only see the Disney audience. The problem is that Disney’s, traditionally, has been the only studio that lavished any time on building an animation team, and they were willing to be patient and train people, and get people going.
When Disney started making huge amounts of money, of course, everyone else jumped into the pond. And they’ve just sort of thrown money at it on a sort of a short-term level. And the problem, in the longer view, has been that Disney has only done one kind of film in animation. And then when those kinds of films succeed, it has been taken as a vote for that kind of movie, rather than a vote for Disney’s methods. In other words, Disney’s acting was better, their drawing was more expressive, their balance of color was better, their layouts were better, their backgrounds were better; and yet what people take from it, is the kinds of stories they take.
And when people attempted other kinds of stories, they always did it with bad direction, bad writing, bad animation, bad layouts and bad color. Then, when the films tank, they blamed… Well, they went outside of the fairy tale and the public domain [and the] musical. Disney used to do different kinds of films from that. But lately, it’s, you know, find the familiar title and have five Broadway tunes on it.
Whenever anybody’s attempted something different, like Cool World, if it doesn’t succeed, they blame the type of film, rather than the quality of the work. And if anybody bothers to look at it, there’s a lot of really bad animation in Cool World, and it’s pretty obvious.
At the same time, I feel like there’s a big indication that there’s a huge teenage audience for animation. If you look at things like The Simpsons or King of the Hill, that kind of stuff, there’s a large adult audience for it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you have great quality animation, you usually have very safe, traditional kind of boring stories. If you have exciting stories, or clever writing, you usually have bargain basement animation.
I think the average episode of The Simpsons, and I stress the word “average,” has more great laughs in it than most of these big budget animated features do. More laughs, good laughs in 22 minutes than a lot of these big-ass features do in an hour-and-a-half. Yet, I feel like teenagers love good animation, but they don’t love it so much that they want to see a musical of fluffy bunnies.
Deneroff: Hasn’t something like Beavis and Butt-head Do America prove that?
Bird: Well, no. To Hollywood types, it proves that cheap-ass animation with fart jokes [are] successful. They don’t analyze it any further than that. In other words, they think that in order for it to be profitable that they have to then follow the Beavis and Butt-head formula of spending a dollar ninety-eight on the animation. Because they would whip out their calculators and say, “Well, Beavis and Butt-head made 60 [million] domestically.” Then they would say, “Geez, with the budgets that we’re spending, that would imply that you would have to spend under 20 for it to be a success.” And my point is, who are the people seeing the Star Wars films, or James Cameron’s latest? And why wouldn’t they love seeing something that was both elaborate and outside of animation’s traditional area?
We are attempting this kind of [thing, but], you can only go a step at a time. When the budgets get above a certain point, you have to take smaller steps, and kind of bring the studio along with you. But we’re attempting to take some small steps outside the traditional way of doing it.
I would say, I hope the new trend includes alternatives to musical[s], and that they would also address what I think is a very large, untapped, young adult audience. That would be where I think things are headed. But studios are very conservative and very tentatively making these steps.
By the same token, if Disney starts failing at it, everyone assumes that that means animation is over. I think that there is more misreading of trends in animation than any other of the film community. If Cool World fails, then all adult-themed animation is doomed. And if Disney fails, all of animation is doomed. And it’s not like, “Well, hey, man, you know, maybe people are tired of five songs and a familiar story.” … That’s like if George Lucas hit a rough patch, somebody would suddenly say, “Well, people are tired of science fiction.” It’s ridiculous! It’s the kind of idiotic statement that never seems to go out of style in Hollywood.
Deneroff: George Lucas has made some bombs, but nobody ever thinks of them.
Bird: Yeah. But the point [is], animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling. People are constantly analyzing it and misanalysing it as if it is a genre. It isn’t a genre. It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals, it could mystery, it can do anything. Because Disney has been the only one that’s lavished any care on it, people [then] think it’s the only kind that can be told successfully.
It’s as if John Ford were the only guy to do westerns. Then, they just said, “Well, the only way to do a Western and succeed is the John Ford way.” It’s because John Ford, for the sake of this argument, is the only guy who’s carefully composing his shots and having good actors and all of that. You could also make a Sergio Leone western, or as Peckingpah, or a Howard Hawks. The problem is getting somebody to put that kind of effort into building the team and spending what you need to spend, and then pushing them in a slightly different direction.
If those Disney animators, in the past, had done a science fiction film, it would have been a killer. But that’s not what they did with it. It has to do with quality and storytelling. It’s not the limitations of the medium. People have made those misassumptions because anytime somebody goes outside of that area, anytime somebody goes outside of the turf that Disney has traditionally done, they do it without the Disney expertise, without Disney-level artists.
It sounds like I’m plugging Disney, but I’m using Disney as a way to say quality.
If I could sit down and sort of distill this, I could get this in a couple of sentences for you. But I’m giving you the big baggy, sloppy, slabby version of it. …
…. I actually thought that the Fleischer Supermans were very forward looking.
Deneroff: Oh, yes. And I know that Warner Bros. TV, when they set up the Batman series …
Bird: Looked at that stuff.
Deneroff: … they showed all that stuff and said, This is what we want. …
Bird: I’m pretty glad they did, though.