Incredibles. The Iron Giant. Ratatouille. Brad Bird is responsible for some of the best animated films in the last decade and a half, and in a fantastic new video essay by Kees van Dijkhuizen Jr., Bird outlines exactly what appeals to him about animation and what it can do as an art form.
This short is chock-full of nuggets of wisdom, beginning with Bird’s observation that modern films tend to focus more on the actions and pace of a narrative, rather than taking joy in the journey. “I think that a good filmmaker slows down,” he notes as Remy from Ratatouille scans the evening cityscape of Paris, and as Mr. Incredible takes in a wall of molten lava in The Incredibles. He notes that animation isn’t a genre, because that tends to lend the assumption that all cartoons are lighthearted fun. “Animation is an art form,” he says. Animated films can tell an incredible range of stories, and shouldn’t be limited to preconceptions of the medium.
Embracing conflict in animation makes films more realistic and imparts a lasting emotional punch
A deficiency that he points to in the animated world is the lack of consequences for characters. Saturday morning cartoons, he notes, are all about violence and conflict, but there’s never a lasting consequence for the characters. Not shying away from darker elements in a story helps to make them more realistic, and impart a much more powerful emotional punch.
The essay then goes into Bird’s writing process, which supports this underlying argument. Bird explains that he tries to jump right into the places of the story in characters lives where they’re in the most conflict with one another. “You find things out, quickly.” It’s that discovery process that drives his stories, and in keeping with the idea that filmmakers need to slow down, storytellers need to do the same, because you can’t force out good ideas; they have to come about in their own ways. Trying to over-control the process disrupts his natural flow when it comes to coming up with a good story.
The Iron Giant came out in Blu-ray earlier this year.