Iron without irony

With "The Iron Giant," cartoon whiz Brad Bird brings an elegiac Ted Hughes fable to life -- and he's not embarrassed about making you cry.


Michael Sragow
August 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Mention Brad Bird to animators or production artists and two words tend to crop up: "funny" and "brilliant." With a handful of credits to his name, Bird is known within the cartoon world as a visionary. In 1986, a decade before dysfunctional families became the mainstay of the American independent cinema, Bird wrote and directed a droll abused-mutt saga called "Family Dog" for Steven Spielberg's TV anthology "Amazing Stories." (This mini-masterpiece is available on MCA Home Video's "Amazing Stories: Book Two.") Almost immediately, Bird became as respected for what he wouldn't do as for what he did. He refused to join the team that spun "Family Dog" into a series -- he recognized that his woebegone mongrel's fluid, uncannily expressive way of moving could never be duplicated on a weekly schedule. To the astonishment of the producers, including Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, he jumped to the Fox network. Bird knew going in that the shows he became part of at Fox -- starting with "The Simpsons" (which began on "The Tracey Ullman Show" in 1987, and premiered as a series in 1989) -- depended more on verbal humor than on visual design. Without the taint of compromise, Bird had a ball directing two Krusty the Clown episodes and serving as executive consultant on "The Simpsons" (and then on "The Critic" in 1994 and '95 and "King of the Hill" in 1997).

Growing up in Corvallis, Ore., Bird plunged into animation at age 11, and three years later sent his version of "The Tortoise and the Hare" off to Disney. He became the protégé of Milt Kahl, one of "The Nine Old Men" who set the standard for classic Disney animation. (Kahl's credits ranged from "Ferdinand the Bull" in 1938 to "The Rescuers" in 1977.) Disney eventually awarded Bird a scholarship to the animation program of the California Institute of the Arts -- a spawning pond for phenoms, including Tim Burton and Pixar's John Lasseter -- and gave him a job as an animator. But Bird felt that in the drowsy Disney of the late '70s and early '80s, he was a troublemaker with nowhere to go. He left, and soon hooked up with Spielberg. Now, as the director of "The Iron Giant" (for Warner Bros.), he may boast the first non-Disney animated feature to approach a critical and box-office success akin to "Beauty and the Beast."

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"I hope the kids come to 'The Iron Giant,'" said Bird during a recent interview, "but I really hope the adults come, whether or not they have kids." Indeed, grown-ups will savor the wit and beauty of this modern fairy tale about a huge robot from outer space who washes up on the shores of "Rockwell, Maine," in 1957 and befriends a youngster named Hogarth Hughes. Bird and his collaborators take an odd, elegiac fable that the late British poet Ted Hughes wrote in 1968 (in the period when he was concentrating on children's literature, after the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, the mother of his kids) and turn it into a piquant variation on the best of all fish-out-of-water films: "E.T." The beguiling visuals meld a computer-generated Giant with humans who are drawn in an angular, caricature-like style a lot bolder than what you see in most Disney films; the ticklish period touches include a crawling-brain movie glimpsed on late-night TV and the beatnik stylings of a scrap collector and scrap artist named Dean.

When I voiced the reservation that the movie may lean too heavily on the heart-tugging aspects of "E.T.," Bird good-naturedly replied, "E.T. doesn't go kicking ass. He doesn't make the Army pay. Certainly you risk having your hip credentials taken away if you want to evoke anything sad or genuinely heartfelt. There's no more naked position to be caught in than trying to get people to feel something beyond comedy. But I think ultimately, for me, a film will never achieve a certain height if you don't attempt to engage the heart as well as the mind. I was and am willing to look foolish in an attempt to get you to feel something."

One of the wonderful things about "The Iron Giant" is the movie's sense of scale. "Size Matters" is what the ad said for the remake of "Godzilla" last year -- but it didn't in that movie, and here it does.

Because there were no other ideas in that film! To be the kind of director I want one day to be, you've got to be concerned with both the performances and the visual scheme and how they work together. That's why I wanted to shoot "The Iron Giant" in CinemaScope, even though I was warned that you don't ever want to shoot tall things in that kind of wide-screen. Steven Spielberg didn't shoot "Jurassic Park" in CinemaScope; I actually think that was because it is harder to compose, and he didn't need one more hassle to deal with. But I thought you could use CinemaScope to give scale to the Iron Giant, if you weren't trying to show the Giant all at once, if you could see a part of him and then follow things. People basically see in the dimensions of CinemaScope -- we see more at the sides. There's something immersive about the experience. Also, a lot of movies in the late '50s were shot in 'Scope, so I thought it was appropriate for a movie set in 1957. I wanted to advertise with the old CinemaScope logo -- we even had a mock-up of a poster saying we were in CinemaScope and Technicolor. But 20th Century Fox, which developed CinemaScope -- what, 50 years ago? -- was being a jerk about letting us use the logo, even though we were going to give them money. I got really angry at Fox because I did "King of the Hill" and "The Simpsons" with them, plus we were going to pay them. So what is this -- an offshoot of the Ted Turner-Rupert Murdoch feud? Get over it, you guys!

You don't use CinemaScope just for scale, but also to isolate expressive moments -- like the way the giant cocks his head when he begins to appreciate his young friend Hogarth.

The shot where the car is pulling away from the forest? Yeah, people react to that. I wanted to have something that was a little bit haunting to Hogarth right there. Hogarth has been trying to tell his mom about the giant, and his mom is at the end of her rope and not listening to him. Hogarth may be sitting next to his mom, but his contact is with the giant, way on the other side of the woods, who cocks his head at him as he and his mom drive away. That's why I dissolve to a crude image of the giant with his head cocked that Hogarth is drawing at his desk at school.

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One movie-savvy friend said he was amazed that you pulled it off without "doing the old King Kong routine" -- cheating the size of the giant in different scenes.

But we do fudge a bit. The giant's size is not absolutely the same all the way through. But one thing I've learned about movies is that you can cheat all over the place as long as you cheat in the right spots. We had to when we were focusing in on him and Hogarth. The giant is meant to be 50 feet tall -- but sometimes he's 60, sometimes he's 40. But he should not, if we've done it right, feel smaller or larger at any time.

One thing that links "Family Dog" and "The Iron Giant" -- apart from the fact that each of the title critters can be triggered into a fierce attack mode -- is the use of perspective. The dog's-eye view in one, the giant's-eye view in the other.

One of the things I love most about movies is that they feel dreamlike, and dreams always have a perspective. And I think perspective is a great deal of what separates films from other dramatic arts. If I were doing a film about a basketball player I'd shoot everything 7 feet off the ground.

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How did "Family Dog" come about?

Basically, I'm a dog guy, although I do have cats now. As we say in "Family Dog," cats are low-maintenance. But I grew up with dogs, I relate to dogs. You've heard that women are cats and men are dogs? Well, I think that's kind of true, and I relate to dogs on that level -- I wear my emotions on my sleeve; my desires are sort of simple. Eat. Lay down. Sleep. Let me out to play. Happy!

Your dog is also misunderstood.

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He's misunderstood and always right in the middle of things. And as the youngest child when I was growing up I was always right in the middle of things without having a tremendous voice in what we did. We had four children and two parents, a unique upbringing. We had two dogs, and I watched how they dealt with things and imagined what it was like to be them. One was a poodle, but a macho standard poodle; he never felt more uncomfortable than when my mom, a couple of times, shaved him up into little poof balls. He was continually getting into trouble, fooling around with other dogs, leaping over fences and chasing sheep. He was a rogue, but he was wonderful. He caught on to me early and we were great friends; one of the earliest cartoon characters I did was based on him.

When I first got the idea for "Family Dog," I asked a guy I had known from school, Tim Burton, now the director, to design the characters because I loved the way he drew and I loved his take on suburbia -- slightly nightmarish and still sort of affectionate. And of course, years later, I have to live down everyone referring to it as "Tim Burton's 'Family Dog.'" Still, he's a very talented guy with an amazing point of view.

Was John Lasseter in the same class at CalArts?

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In fact, John uses the A113 thing I started in "Family Dog" -- he put it in "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life."

The A113 thing?

A113 was our classroom number. On "Family Dog" I put it on the license plate of the thieves' car. And I put it into every single one of my films, including my "Simpsons" episodes -- it's sort of my version of Hirschfeld's Nina.

After graduation, Lasseter, too, went the Disney route, then decided the studio was not for him. But he hooked up with Pixar, which was then at Lucasfilm. You struck out on your own.

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Disney was the only game in town, so when I left, my options were to quit animation or try to do it myself. I took some money that I had saved and did a test film that had several ideas for animated movies in rudimentary form. One of them was "Family Dog"; that caught Steven Spielberg's eye. He paid me to develop the storyboards. But I wanted to do the "Family Dog" stories as theatrical shorts, and he said there was no market for them. So the idea sat dormant for a couple of years until his TV series, "Amazing Stories," came along. I had written a live-action episode that he had really liked. When he invited me to come down to talk about other things, I brought with me another "Family Dog" I had done, in the interim, in storyboard form. He asked if I could do 22 minutes' worth and I said yeah. "Amazing Stories" had a big enough budget to do it right. We just had to plan way in advance. Fortunately, Steven was powerful enough to get a 44-episode commitment (the ratings weren't good enough for them to do two seasons otherwise), and one of the last episodes that came through was "Family Dog." It was a tremendous opportunity. And it was the only episode of the series that was not produced through Universal -- they gave us the money and the schedule and said, "Go, do it."

But you didn't stick with "Family Dog" when it was developed as a series.

"Family Dog" is told from the dog's point of view, and he's not like Garfield -- he doesn't tell you what he feels, you have to pick it up from his movement. I didn't think you could do the movement well shipping the work overseas. The producers thought they could solve the budget and scheduling problems; I didn't see how.

I think they thought I was against TV animation; they must have been shocked when I showed up on "The Simpsons" a month later. But "The Simpsons" could be done well on a TV schedule -- it's visually more crude, more soundtrack-based, and it doesn't have to be any more than it is. It's just fine.

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How did you become the go-to guy whenever there was a Krusty the Clown episode?

Krusty is Matt Groening's creation, but I love Krusty. Matt and I both come from Oregon; I actually know what clown he was basing Krusty on. Krusty is a complete perversion of this really rather wholesome guy. And he is my favorite Simpsons character -- he's tremendously tormented but at the same time he's at peace with some of the worst sides of himself. For several seasons I'd animate at least one Krusty scene. I had my hand in as a consultant. I was part of the process on every episode. But I'd actually request to animate Krusty's scenes because he cracked me up. Like the Halloween episode where Bart can control everything happening in Springfield and he makes Krusty work nonstop, without sleep -- and Krusty says, "All thanks to one little boy WHO WON'T LET ME STOP!" Sideshow Bob is another one; I can't analyze it any more than to say these two characters are hilarious.

Was working on your own project again, "The Iron Giant," like working on "Family Dog"?

Even though on "The Iron Giant" we were with a very large studio, Warner Bros., we were kind of a rogue outfit, with an unbelievable amount of freedom. They paid for it, and it went through them, and we were using all of their facilities and three-quarters of their crew. But earlier they had tried, as everyone tries, not only to imitate the kind of films that Disney makes and the way they make them, but the actual management structure, too. They tried to micromanage "Quest for Camelot" like Disney micromanages its features, and it didn't work for them. It went over budget and no one was really pleased with how it came out. When we came through, they hammered us to make our budget lower, but as long as we stayed within those parameters and showed them we could do it, they left us alone to an unbelievable degree. And I think that's why the film works as well as it does, however well that is. If we had an idea, we could put it into play -- we didn't have to go up the salmon run of vice presidents.

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Was the theme of regeneration in Ted Hughes' book part of the hook for you?

Yeah. One of the things that was good in the book was that the Iron Giant goes all to pieces. There is a wonderful section where the hand crawls up and picks up the eye and turns the eye around to find the arm. It is wonderful but it is slow, and it would have used up a good five minutes of screen time, which is incredibly precious in an animated film, because animated films are so short. But Tim McCanlies, the screenwriter, urged me to have something like that, and we put it in there, in a quicker version, from the beginning. The book was Ted Hughes' way of dealing with his wife's death and trying to tell his kids that things go on. I thought that was very important to have in the movie. To me the key mythological parts have to do with men and machines, and the boy getting to be like a father to the giant and the giant being the child.

And the idea that there can be a soul to a machine ...

Yeah, that there can be. Not to get too film-school pretentious about it, but there's something in this film about our relationship to our own mechanical sophistication. We're constantly at odds with our own inventiveness. Every technological leap we take, it's never just a plus. It's always, "This could cure cancer, and it could also make you have five eyes." So we have to deal with our technological sophistication versus our spiritual sophistication -- and technology always seems to be ahead of where we are spiritually. The machine in the movie ends up representing our own inventive side of ourselves and begs the question: Is it a good thing, or is it a dangerous thing?

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Is that theme part of why you kept a rural setting?

That, and having a machine walking around the countryside was also more visually interesting to me than having him walk around a city.

You also retain the Iron Giant lumbering through the ocean.

At the beginning of the book, he drops off a cliff, then emerges from the water without having any explanation of his origins. I like that Hughes didn't explain his origins, but I didn't like him just coming out of the sea. I didn't want any of those movie-audience questions -- like I ask when I'm in the audience -- such as, "How come he didn't rust?" "Is he from a civilization? Why don't they take a submarine down and find it?" Immediately, in an odd way, if he comes from space, it's easier to convince an audience that this could happen. And it becomes a bigger story. It's about what's outside ourselves. When we think of water, we think of going in; when we think of space, we think of going out. But I let him crash into the sea, because I thought that was cool, too, and for a moment you think that he's a lighthouse, until the two lights split and you realize it's something with two eyes.

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The choice of setting the film in the '50s -- was that to make it a homage to '50s sci-fi?

There's a little "Invaders From Mars," a little "The Day the Earth Stood Still." But I also wanted that time period because it presented a wholesome surface, yet beneath the wholesome surface was this incredible paranoia. We were all going to die in a freak-out.

There's also a beatnik, Dean, representing the cool side of the '50s.

"Kent Mansley," the national security agent -- he's representing the Ward Cleaver side, and Dean is representing the rebel side. To me that's America in a nutshell.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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