It was widely advertised as “the best reviewed film of 2007.” It was the ninth-highest grossing film of the year, and it was my favorite film, too. “I’m so grateful to hear you say that,” said Brad Bird, the genius behind Ratatouille. “Especially because you said it was your favorite film of the year. It’s nice to come out of the ghetto,” he laughed over the phone in a car traveling home to his children. “You didn’t say your favorite cartoon.”
Bird can’t remember exactly when he realized Ratatouille was going to be great, even though he was there the whole time. “It’s a bit like asking, ‘What was going through your head when you jumped out of the airplane?’” he said. “You just hope the chute opens.”
The film, begun by another animator, famously became Bird’s reluctant project, which he rewrote extensively and somehow, as with The Incredibles, managed to make larger than mere entertainment. “There are so many things that go wrong that you’re trying to fix. Something’s always on fire and you’re trying to put it out, until suddenly someone says it’s beautiful. Pretty soon, you stop putting out fires. You’re done, and then somebody says they like it. I knew that I liked it, but I might be crazy.”
If not insane, Bird is clearly a wickedly determined fellow. Born in Montana in 1957, he made his first animated film, with mentoring by Disney veteran Milt Kahl, before he had been issued his driver’s permit. After a CalArts and Disney studio education, Bird flew the coop for the then-fledgling Klasky Csupo animation group. He became instrumental in developing The Simpsons as a sitcom, had a special hand in developing Krusty and Sideshow Bob, and later made his own stunning feature film, The Iron Giant. He pitched The Incredibles to Pixar, famed for computer (3-d) animation, and won what is no doubt his first of many Academy Awards.
He does regret not being part of The Simpsons Movie. “Of course I loved it; they’re my old home team. I wanted to help, but at the time, I had my nostrils just barely out of the water working on Ratatouille,” said Bird.
Though now connected intimately with Pixar’s fate in many minds, Bird is emphatically not abandoning old-school animation. “There’s a lot of great stuff out there in 2-d, including The Simpsons Movie and other films like Persepolis,” he said. Yet Bird-who will speak to film fest audiences on these and other filmmaking matters on Saturday, February 2, at the Lobero Theatre-borders on the philosophical, describing things like deep focus in “shots” made without cameras and the believable versatility animation allowed him when orchestrating complicated scenes in a French restaurant kitchen. “It’s a small place for a cook, but to a rat, it’s almost a universe,” he said. “And it changes throughout the film-the busy kitchen is one place, but it’s entirely different when Remy’s cleaning it up while it’s raining outside.”
As for Pixar, Bird said it’s “a delightful place to work. But people aren’t rooting for it the way they were at first. And they work hard there. They kill themselves to get the smallest thing right. And nobody rests on their laurels.” At any given time, there were between 260 and 300 people working on Ratatouille, including nearly 80 animators. That’s almost impossible to coordinate, but it helped because the animation is serving a story that borders on the archetypal. He thinks Ratatouille resonates “like Cyrano.” And I don’t think he’s joking.
Stories should always trump techniques, according to Bird. “My next film is a live-action movie, which I can’t talk about too much. It’s called 1906. And that’s my ideal future, to be able to shift between live action and animation. Because it’s all about characters and about stories. That and finding the best ways to reach the audience.”
4•1•1 Brad Bird will discuss his work on Saturday, February 2, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido Street). See sbiff.org or call 963-0761.