The Brave director discusses how he handled the pressure of rewriting the Pixar rulebook.
Mark Andrews has been a part of the Pixar family since 2004, ever since becoming Brad Bird's right-hand man on The Incredibles. Now he's turned director for the computer animation giant, taking the reins on the studio's thirteenth feature, Brave. LWLies met up with Andrews in Edinburgh recently to chat about how he handled the pressure of rewriting the Pixar rulebook.
LWLies: People talk about the culture at Pixar, how it’s like a big family. What is it like for you as effectively the boss, having to steer the ship and making sure every in the team is happy?
Andrews: Honestly, I don’t know how I do it. I don’t have a plan when I go in. I’ve been storyboarding and been a storyteller for the last 20 years and so to come onboard and direct a feature was just such an incredible experience. Pixar had asked me to direct a film around the time of The Incredibles, so I’ve been in development for a long time. But things always seemed to come up that stalled the process; like I’d be working on Ratatouille for a few years and after that John Carter came up and I decided to do that with Andrew [Stanton]. I get out of that and then finally Brave happened. But I’m an in-the-trenches kinda guy. I don’t sit there and dictate to you, I’m very much charging the hill with my team. I sit down with everyone and communicate with everyone.
You’re very hands on?
Absolutely. Perhaps too much so in HR’s case. Just kidding... But I like to get to know everyone fully and that’s important because it’s an extremely collaborative project. There’s this misnomer that the director needs to have all the answers, right. Ultimately I have to decide what direction we as a team will take, but that doesn’t mean I have all of the answers all of the time. That’s why I have a team of experienced guys around me, to help me find the answers when I’m stuck or when I don’t know where to go.
You mention that Pixar first approached you around 2004. How does that selection process work? Is it like, ‘It’s this guy’s time’ or do you have a say in what Pixar project you do?
They invest in the person. They’re not just looking at who’s a good leader and who can get the film done. Those things are important, but in this case they were interested in me, in what stories I wanted to tell. I proved myself on The Incredibles, and I think they just wanted to see what I could do after that point. That’s what’s great about Pixar, they back the individual: Pete Docter has his own style of film and John [Lasseter] has his. I think that’s one thing that’s really great about the Pixar style; there really is no singular style. The only real constant is the quality of storytelling that you’re going to get. That’s the high bar that’s consistent.
Do you look at those guys for inspiration, or do you approach it in completely your own way?
Totally my own way. Everyone has their own way of doing things. How do you put your pants on when you get up in the morning? Is it socks first? Ultimately we’re telling a great story and there is no single formula to that. Storytelling is such an alchemical process; it’s this weird organic, mystical process. In Hollywood they just don’t spend the time on finding what makes a great story. It’s in and out and on to the next thing. Whereas Pixar will push back a release date by a year or six months in order to complete the story at the level that they set.
You’ve worked with live-action before. Did that experience help you when approaching Brave?
Yeah, the instantaneous feedback versus the slow-motion process of CG animation is something that really helped me, because it’s about finding answers quickly and learning what works and what doesn’t. The proof is always in the pudding, but the trial-and-error process you go through works best when start to process the results more quickly.
Brave is progressive in that it features the first Pixar female protagonist, but there are a lot of traditional Disney-style elements in there as well. Why did you, and Pixar, want to tell this story now?
It was organic, really. I mean, the film was supposed to come out two years ago but the story wasn’t ready so they held off. Up came in and took its place because it was further along. Pixar is the king of technological innovation, but they also innovate in the way they tell stories. I mean who knew a love story between robots was gonna be a hit? Or a fantasy adventure with an old man and a Korean boy scout? Or a rat that can cook? Or Toys?! Everything is new ground, but the cool thing about Brave is that having a traditional fairy tale backdrop allowed us to go a bit darker. You’re not going to get something that’s egregious or way out of line, but I think Brave is much more in keeping with the original Grimm’s fairy tales, which really warned children about the dangers of the adult world. There are lessons there. It’s those same kind of warnings wrapped up in this nice allegory. Pixar was getting... it’s not the reason that we did this, but we knew the film was going to come out and people were going to react to the fact that it is a little darker. But you’ve still got comedy and a lot of charm and adventure.
Is it more challenging to do something traditional, because the audience is so familiar with it? You have to give them something new.
Yeah, it’s never easy. I adapted John Carter and that wasn’t as easy as coming up with an original story. But I think with Brave, just that it’s a little darker and a little scarier because whatever box was closing around Pixar trying to define it, we’ve just bust right out of it.
How would you describe your creative vision?
I like to be real and in the moment, somewhere where I can really capture the spontaneity of filmmaking. Computer animation can be so clinical and perfect, but we don’t respond to perfection, we respond to messiness. I was constantly telling my artists and animators to challenge their creative eye, because often they’d be moving the characters in a way that looked right on paper but in reality would not have made sense because these characters are wearing kilts and carrying heavy swords or whatever. Actors often say that they never truly become the character until they wear the clothes. It’s exactly the same thing here. So putting that in their head allowed the details to come through and the authenticity to come through. There’s a film called Captain Blood, an old Errol Flynn film, where they’re onboard a ship but it’s really a set. So what they did with the camera was they set it up and rolled it forward, and rolled it back, to give the illusion that they were at sea. It doesn’t matter how you set about creating the illusion, but you have to make it feel real for the audience.