Two of the three of us here at Copper Pot have a background in animation. Not actually animating, mind you, but working around the talented story artists, designers and cadre of other supremely creative individuals needed to make an animated feature. It stands to reason, then, that we hold Brad Bird in high regard. Mr. Bird’s achievements have been well-documented by countless others and this post isn’t meant to rehash what’s already been said. Rather, after hearing Mr. Bird speak at Lincoln Center on the eve of the release of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I thought it would be good to share some of his wisdom.
In the hour-plus Q&A, he touched on all the standard topics: how the Iron Giant came to be, his work on The Simpsons and why Pixar constantly turns out stories that transcend animation. But, for me, two points stood out.
The first came about when he discussed how he started in the industry. As a child, Mr. Bird said his parents offered him some simple advice: when trying to break into animation, they told him he should start at the top of the pyramid. In other words, if Disney was the pinnacle of animation, he should start there. If they said no, he could work his way down the line, thereby assuring that the first person that said yes to him would be the best caliber talent he could work with. Of course, Disney said yes and he went on to be mentored by the remaining members of Disney’s Nine Old Men. It’s a deceptively basic strategy and one I found inspirational. As Chad often points out to me, the worst someone could say is “no.” There’s a degree of fearlessness required to work in entertainment and Mr. Bird’s comment was a reminder of how many careers can be derailed by the fear of rejection.
The other bit I took away from Mr. Bird’s Q&A relates somewhat to how Pixar tells stories, but is solid advice for the rest of the entertainment industry. In referencing a past job, Mr. Bird talked about how he had worked for a studio that had “45 things in development.” He added, “If you have 45 things in development, you basically have nothing in development.” That it was almost a throwaway remark is a testament to how deeply story-telling is ingrained in him, but its meaning shouldn’t be lost on any studio that aims to tell meaningful stories, be it a major one like Disney or an independent like Copper Pot. It was a confirmation from a master that films can’t be made on a whim, rather the ones that last, the ones we can’t forget, are the ones that are made with a singular focus. When that focus is lost, you wind up with a loosely connected plot with forgettable characters and no heart.
It was refreshing to see that a top filmmaker in his prime can work within the confines of the studio system to create works that will not only reach the masses, but also endure and be loved for generations.