In Disney-Pixar’s new animated film, BRAVE, Merida (Kelly MacDonald) takes control of her destiny after a competition to win her hand goes pear shaped. Forced to take matters into her own hands, she visits a witch who’s able to not only change our raven-haired heroine’s fate but also her mother’s. Director Mark Andrews and Producer Katherine Sarafian have created somewhat of a fairy tale with this film, which is unlike anything Pixar has done before.
We (along with many other journalists) sat down with Andrews and Sarafian during the film’s press conference to discuss their story inspirations, the intricate technical animation, and where they fit within the Pixar universe.
So the princess doesn’t want to get married and mother turns into bear – this is reminiscent of THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE. How did this story evolve, where did bear come into play?
MA: I think the bear aspect … there’s all these things in Celtic mythology about transformation into animals, so that was something that we pulled from to put into the film. We knew we wanted this relationship between this parent and child, this mother/daughter, and by making them a Queen and a Princess and royalty, you had this very traditional society that she wants to break with and find her own sense of person, so by having her mother, i.e. society, be in her way of what she’s not ready to accept yet, she gets a little selfish and she gets desperate. So that advent of magic in the story was there so that we can illustrate visually the consequences of a mistake. She just wanted her mother to change her mind, but the spell goes totally bad and she gets more than she bargained for. But also, in the great traditions of folk tales, it’s breaking that dynamic that puts us in a situation where people can actually see their true selves and what everything’s really about.
KS: Particularly when you’re able to make mommy – we turned somebody into an animal – they’re mute. You’ve got a core issue in this movie – they don’t listen to each other; somebody can’t talk, all they can do is listen, and that was part of that character development as well.
What elements did you pay particular attention to achieve texturization and characterization?
KS: It is all research, research, research. Every Pixar film, we do our research. In our case, we went to Scotland twice, and we went way, way deep in. We touched everything, we stole heather – we brought it back with us, we smelled the smells, looked at the skies and talked to locals and heard the rhythm of the language. All of that was really important – sketching, drawing, photographing, video – brought it all back and looked at it in Emeryville, California and tried to create this world that was very much hand-in-hand, like Merida says, the land is as much a part of us as we are of it. We wanted this character in the movie of Scotland, this movie would not work on a neighborhood on Hollywood Boulevard. You’ve got that tie to the land, the ruggedness of it and the change of it. You’ve got a diverse landscape, which is a place where change happens.
MA: Yeah, and we also didn’t want to design it so that it was super graphic and slick because then you wouldn’t get a sense of Scotland at all because it is such a place of texture and variation, that became part of the look. Just achieving that and doing a hyper-realistic sense of that – the trees twist in Scotland, we twisted them even more; the standing stones are big, we made them gigantic; there’s mist around everywhere, I smoked the set – put atmosphere in every aspect of BRAVE to get that look because here we have an opportunity to not just put in some fantasy place, it’s Scotland, and it’s an ancient Scotland. We want to transport the audience there, so if you’ve ever been to Scotland, you go, ‘Yep, that’s right!’ And if you’ve never been to Scotland, now when you go, you’re going to go, ‘Wow, just like in BRAVE!’ Which will be weird, because it’s animated.
How was this different from other Pixar projects you’ve done?
MA: I don’t think it was different, per se. Each film has its own challenges and story problems. I was head of story on THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE and those were very different in aspects of their story, and I think that’s one thing for me as the storyteller that gets me out of bed every morning is that I know I’m going to encounter something I haven’t encountered before with whatever story I’m going to be working on. And BRAVE was chock-full of story challenges. Just to get the balances right, just to make this mother and daughter appealing so that you didn’t hate the mother because she was too MOMMIE DEAREST and you didn’t hate the daughter because she’s just a stinkin’ teenager and we all hate teenagers…
KS: We love teenagers!
MA: I was a teenager, I hated being a teenager. No, but you know what I mean. So to get those appealing things right so that we understood what they were coming from, the positions that they were coming from where we cared about what happened to them, that’s a challenge in and of itself. What about producing?
KS: Well, definitely one difference was that we were going into an ancient time period – Pixar’s never done that before, we’ve never gone way back in time. Stuff looked different then, teeth were crooked in this region, there’s something growing on everything, the castles are worn and rundown, no clean, sharp surfaces – the computer likes clean, sharp surfaces – so this was completely as difficult as you can make things for our technology and our teams.
MA: The message that I think we want to get across, we kind of say it upfront. One of the themes of BRAVE is following our fate, and are things decided for us, i.e. traditions and things like this, which are important, but they can have this dogma on us, on an individual. So, is fate [ascribed] to us, is it set out before us, is it things we have to follow, or do we have control of our own destiny? I think that’s one thing is, we can have control of our own destinies if we are brave enough to look inside ourselves and find out what that really is.
As far as technology goes, what could you get away with now that you couldn’t have years ago? How has it changed?
KS: I think you could tell this story three or four years ago, or even ten years ago, but you’d be telling it very differently because we have built on every film we’ve done. So in RATATOUILLE, there were humans in that movie, and THE INCREDIBLES – Mark and I met working on THE INCREDIBLES – there were humans in that movie, our ability to create and animate humans in a believable way has grown with each of those films. So we built on that, and so I think we would’ve just been farther back in our experience if we’d tried it earlier. But really, hair and cloth were very, very big in this movie, very difficult. We both started out in THE INCREDIBLES where just trying to get Bob’s necktie and shirt and jacket, three layers, to work together while sitting down and sitting still was extremely difficult. And now we’re at a place where we can put eight layers on King Fergus – kilt and tunic and sword and scabbard and a bear cloak – those are things we just didn’t know how to do before. So we’ve learned from every film. And, of course, Merida’s hair, we had discussions on past films – do we need to give the characters a haircut? – even Violet on THE INCREDIBLES because it’s so long and difficult to simulate, and here we were able to make this hair and make it move and make it wet, make it blow in the wind, make it directable. So those are all things that we built on our experiences with past films.
MA: Brad Bird was very jealous.
KS: Yes, Brad Bird said, ‘You can do that?’
MA: Yeah, but that’s what happens is we do something once, we learn the next time. The animators just going into the rigging of the characters on BRAVE is so much more advanced with the controls that they didn’t have on RATATOUILLE, which was better than THE INCREDIBLES, which was better than any human that they had done before. So with every film, we break new ground and we come up with new ideas, and it’s another chance to improve what we’ve done before. And that’s just kind of a blanket across all the technology of BRAVE.
KS: Also, as an original story, as a non-sequel, we had an opportunity to create something completely new in a look. It’s not like we were trying to mimic or harkens back to something – like in TOY STORY 3 [where] Andy needed to look like a grown up Andy, but he couldn’t look like a totally different character – but we didn’t have any box that we had to stay in for a look.
First, a little darker because of the bear – it’s a little scary. Toward’s the end it was tied up and a little sad. Was this an effort to be like past Disney films where more at stake like BAMBI, FOX & THE HOUND, and DUMBO with mother? Second, This seemed like a familiar story with female protagonist being rebel, tomboy, recycled story we’ve seen in various incarnations. Were there options besides young girl who wants to chart her own path?
KS: It is a little bit more dark and intense and it has these moments, and we definitely believed that balancing them with heart and humor was the way to go. But we didn’t want to shy away from that. We wanted to show real consequences to her actions. We were definitely inspired by the old Grimm’s tales and dark tales we grew up with where life’s not easy and it’s not all great and touchy-feely. There’s hard (?) stuff that can happen. She needed to make a choice that would have real impact, it needed to have that intensity to it. That said, this is a PG movie, and it’s advertised as a PG movie, so every parent is going to know what sensitivity his or her child has, but it’s a PG movie for sure. And we wanted it to be, we didn’t want to shy away from that.
MA: Every story has been done before, there is no “new thing” out there really, just the veneer is new. But there is such a comment in today’s society about being the individual, following your bliss that every character in almost every film has that – not to be understood – I think a departure we’ve done is there are consequences, we can’t be selfish that way. We also live in a world with other people, so we have to be able to find a way with the compromise between following our bliss and not being told what to do, but fit in a world where things are asked of us. And that is what maturity is. So, I haven’t seen any other film that tackles maturity. The thing that I went to a lot in making this film is comparing it to PETER PAN where Wendy is sitting there going, ‘I’m getting kicked out of the nursery!’ Big deal. She realizes that’s ok because she’s pretty much grown up and she sees everything as childish now. So she’s made that turn. While on this, Merida is that classic character where she’s stuck between adolescence and adulthood, and when you transfer to adulthood, when you transform – which is another theme of the movie – into adulthood, there’s real harsh things that consequences for our actions and our decisions that we have to keep in mind, that are going to affect us and others, so Merida goes on this big journey to become mature, to realize not only do I have to be myself, but I also have to be myself in such a way that isn’t I’m just blind to everybody else, I need to incorporate my loved ones and others. So I think, in that aspect, it’s very unique.
KS: We do love the classic tales that you refer to and always inspired by the Disney greats, but, really inspired by them but wanting to make, instead of a Disney fairytale to make a Pixar hero that was quite different. So actually, we don’t see her as a tomboy at all. We tried to construct a character who is not at all ashamed of being a girl – she doesn’t want to be a boy, she doesn’t wish she were a boy – she wears a dress, she’s happy to wear a dress, she’s quite feminine, but she’s also athletic and adventurous I think more like, hopefully, the girls we know nowadays, the girls we know…
MA: Or the Celtic girls from the past. If you wore a kilt in the past, when you got trained in your martial arts, you got trained by a woman, not a guy. The girls fought alongside the men naked and covered in blue paint.
What was your most memorable moment?
KS: I would say that first Scotland research trip in 2006, that was very special because it was really the first time we connected story to place in a real way. In our heads it made sense – back in Emeryville, California it’s a Scottish-set adventure. It was not until we got there – saw it, smelled, saw the skies changing, touched it and listened to the rhythms of the accents and the people and the storytellers – that we really sort of got it, why there is such folklore and legend, and even magic, tales from that region. It’s a real thing. We could feel it. And also, there’s, of course, an amount of bonding that happens on that trip when 12 gentlemen are sharing a dorm room together that makes you go into battle with each other for a long haul and you stick together because you’re family by then. And, boy, were you guys family.
MA: Closer than brothers.
KS: You need to be. These movies are a marathon, not a sprint, and you’re in it and you want to be with this community of people. So there’s a closeness formed there.
MA: Yeah, we knew there was a great potential in the movie just in the setting, and we had all these aspects of it, this great parent/child relationship and the setting and the world and stuff like that. I’m a history buff and a Middle Ages buff and a myth & legends buff. So there was lots to pull from. But until we got there and were actually talking to our guides and people who lived there – one thing that I really brought back is that there’s a story in Scotland about everything. We’d just be traveling along the road and [I’d ask], ‘Hey, Bob, what about that tree?’ He [says] (in thick Scottish brogue), ‘That tree is where they tied up…the warrior Celt, but then he…’ – ‘Well what about that mountain?’ – ‘That’s where the giants fell dead after they were beaten to death by the…’ – ‘What about that lake?’ – ‘I kissed my first girlfriend at that lake and she was a selkie and she ran away with the fairies!’ I mean, everything had a story that you’re just … when you’re working on an original story, you’re going, ‘Where the hell do I start? Which one do you pick?’ because you’re inspired by everything. So we just grabbed everything and took license with it. The fire falls in the movie – there are no fire falls in Scotland, but there are fire falls at Yosemite National Park. It actually happens. So, I’m putting those two things together because it’s a story, and everybody’s telling a story, and there’s a story behind everything that happens in Brave. So you could only get that by being there, by having gone there.
This is one of the most bear-like bears in animation. What was your approach to incorporating human characteristics?
MA: There is only one bear in the movie, and that’s when mom turns into the bear, when she transforms and goes on all four. That’s the most bear-like. And then we have the human in the bear suit, which we called ‘mom bear,’ when Elinor is in the bear and she’s acting. And then we have Mordu, which I didn’t want to be a bear at all, I wanted it to be a monster. He had to be a monster. So he’s not even remotely shaped like a bear with those tiny little hips and everything. So we messed around with the anatomy. But it was to get the biggest contrast we could between all three of them so the audience could tell the difference and see that progression of this curse that’s going to happen. And with the actual bear, we have lots of footage on bearing roaming around, and our animators go in for those details about the elbows out and the way they roll their paws and they way they swing their head and that [growl], dead look they have, so they can get that. But when we got to mom bear, they’re trying to put a bear in this standing-up thing, the anatomy doesn’t work. Forget the bear, we just want a human in a bear suit, and let’s work with the limitations of the anatomy. She can’t turn her head and she can’t bend her arms like that, she doesn’t have hands, we have to use her nails and all those things. Just great, rich source material for an animator to grab onto…it’s where they were born, an animator is always born in a pantomime, when you start off in school learning to animate flour sacks and inanimate objects. So a person in a bear suit where you can’t articulate with dialogue, it all comes down to going back to their roots. And they all just dove right onto that.
BRAVEopens on June 22.