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Brad Bird combines the mundane with the fantastic in the very credible The Incredibles, but not before triggering a certain expression on the faces of animators which he calls the Pixar Glaze, as he explains to Andrew L. Urban.

Brad Bird, quietly dressed and well mannered, sporting spectacles, does not look like a superhero … although, now I come to think of it, neither does this mild mannered reporter chap who came in wearing glasses…. But to some people, Brad Bird IS a superhero – of sorts. He walked in to Pixar’s headquarters with the idea for a film about superheros, The Incredibles, who were, under the costumes, ordinary human beings with families and family conflicts. The word that echoed round the Pixar building ominously was “human” – and all that went with it: hair, clothing, skin, muscles, eyes…. and soon the Pixar Glaze was a common look that Bird saw on the faces of long time Pixar employees.

Bird became “well acquainted with the Pixar Glaze, where these complete technical geniuses would just grow pale and start looking at each other like ‘Does he know what he’s asking?’ But no one ever gave up – every problem found a solution that kept pushing the film’s creativity. It’s a real testament to Pixar that they kept coming up with magic from thin air.” And a testament to Bird that he came with a great story from the same thin air.

"the essence of humanity in animated characters"

He used to be Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) 15 years ago, now he’s a bored and flabby Mr Suburban insurance clerk. After an outbreak of incredible bad luck that turned the populace against superheros, the Incredible family went incognito. Mum Helen, previously Elastigirl, (Helen Hunt) is now feeding a toddler, their third child. The older ones Dash (Spencer Fox) and his big sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) also have secret superpowers, which comes in handy once the family is accidentally propelled back into the job of saving the world. The danger comes from Syndrome (Jason Lee), a disenchanted fan of Mr Incredible, who has invented some serious weaponry to show the world what he’s made of. But the family isn’t always united or at peace with each other, under the strain of it all.

The magic Pixar came up with, under Bird’s direction, is a film that captures the essence of humanity in animated characters, but not just by the animation techniques – that’s Pixar’s job – but by their personalities and the creative juices that flowed from Bird himself.

Bird, now sitting next to me at a corner table in a Sydney hotel bar, is 30 something but boyish looking (a perfect disguise for genius, superhero or filmmaking wunderkind) with light hair and a roundish face that animates easily from serious to smiling. And in time, to expressive and laughing. But first things first. Although Bird has been talking to Pixar ever since he made the universally acclaimed animation sci-fi movie, The Iron Giant (1999), he didn’t really grasp the enormity of some of the things he wanted to do with The Incredibles. 

For instance, “one example that would make no impact on you at all if you are a normal person. It’s a close up of Bob working his hand through the arm of his old super-suit and sticking his fingers out of the hole that has been worn through it. Nothing spectacular about it; if it were live action, you wouldn’t even pause to look at it. That scene took one of the smartest guys at Pixar about two and a half months to do. And it’s barely four seconds long.”

"Haaaaargh! Magnificent, how did they do it?"

Bird says that “if there is full house watching the film and only two of them are computer graphics people, I will hear them in that scene and I will be able to identify who they are, because they will go ‘Haaaaargh! Magnificent, how did they do it?!’” 

By contrast, to prove the difference between animating humans and objects, he says destroying a building is a piece of cake, as he re-enacts a possible conversation about it: “Destroy a building? No problem. How tall do you want the building to be? Do you want it to shatter in chunks or kind of vapourise? Would you like debris to rain down… perhaps a variety of these things? How many square blocks would you like to destroy? You want cheese with that?” He laughs.

All that is a piece of cake. “But if I had one guy grab another guy by the shirt…. ‘Screeech!’” he yells loudly, “and the Pixar Glaze would happen…it’s very difficult for the computer to do organic things.”

But not knowing exactly how impossible some of his demands were made it easier to ask, a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’. “One of the golden things about being the director was that I didn’t have to worry about how hard it was to do some of the things.”

The Incredibles is perhaps the most ironic of titles, considering that the reason we connect so easily with the Parr family of suburban superheroes is that they are most definitely credible. “They are a family learning to balance their individual lives with their love for one another,” says Bird. “It’s also a comedy about superheroes discovering their more ordinary human side. As I wrote, I wanted to create a world filled with pop culture references – with spy movie gadgets and comic book super powers and outrageous evil villains using ingenious devices – but at the same time, to create a story within that world that is very much about family. I really poured everything in my heart into the story. All these personal things – about being a husband, being a father, the idea of getting older, the importance of family, what work means and what it feels like to think you’re losing the things that you love.”

"the juxtaposition of 'the mundane … and the fantastic'"

Bird’s ‘guiding notion’ throughout the writing and the making of the film was the juxtaposition of “the mundane … and the fantastic” It was his mantra: “My idea was that you should not be in the fantastic very long without having something mundane happen. And if you’re in the mundane, you don’t stay in the mundane very long before the fantastic happens. So you have Bob when he comes home from his office and he has trouble with the car – which we can all relate to. But his trouble has to do with his having super strength and not being able to control it…so he gets angry and he picks up the car ready to throw it, and there’s a neighbourhood kid staring at him – so there’s the mundane again.”

But Bird’s massive creative outburst also injects a wonderfully realised baddie into the story – the genius who wants to terrorise the world. But this one is a disgruntled fan of Mr Incredible, perhaps the most scary of all evil genius types. At first we know him as Buddy Pine, an irritating little guy who stalks Mr Incredible – in his heyday, that is. Years later, he returns as Sydnrome, the spurned fan from hell.

Then there is my favourite, Edna E Mode, the fast talking (with an accent) bob haired, short and fesity designer who has to make new outfits for The Incredibles. It’s a roaring comedy rotuine from start to finish, superbly conceived. And it’s Bird doing the voice, as if we needed proof that he really is a superhero as far as filmmaking goes.

Of course, Bird also had to face being an outsider walking into Pixar’s talented, necessarily self-confident and well bonded group of filmmakers. Although he had been talking to Pixar for a couple of years about working together, Pixar was a little reluctant at first to take him on as well as his own project. Pixar had never taken in an outside project before. They had never done a film with human characters before. They had never allowed a newcomer to take the reins before. Needless to say, he had some animosity and scepticism to overcome.

"No brainer, let’s make it!"

But they let him pitch; he brought his illustrations, his story line, he had a little music … “it took about 20 minutes and they went for it right away. It was very refreshing after dealing with Hollywood, to have them very simply say ‘No brainer, let’s make it!” And just move from there.”

Yeah, but that was before Bird started to talk about hands working through clothing, or hands grabbing shirts; that was pre-Pixar Glaze, and Pixar has never been the same since.

Published December 23, 2004

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