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Ratatouille - Brad Bird interview

Brad Bird, director of Ratatouille

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRAD Bird talks about some of the early challenges of bringing Ratatouille to the screen, some of the advances in animation that have been employed and why Remy the rat is blue rather than grey.

He also talks about working with top chefs to prepare the best dish possible for audiences and why Pixar continues to be special in terms of movie-making…

Q. Was Ratatouille a project you’d had your eye on for some time?
Brad Bird: No, in fact I was all ready to start work on another film. But first I was going to take some time off because I was pretty tired after The Incredibles. That was a really big movie in terms of all the stuff that we had to do – CG was still a fairly new way to make films and the pipeline was not figured out for a movie with that many different locations and things in it. We were learning as we were going and it was exhausting to get everything together. The Incredibles was always threatening to become out of control, or cost way too much. We have to be really clever and focused about where we spent our money so that we didn’t run out of it.

With Ratatouille I was just watching it in the same way I’d watch the development of any film. I was involved in the meetings because I’m a part of that core group that goes over all the films. So I was aware of it, I loved the idea, I loved the way it was looking and all of that. But John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] felt it wasn’t coming together story-wise, so right before I went on vacation after The Incredibles they asked me to come in and work with the people who were in charge of the film at that point for two weeks. So I went through it with the cards and worked with the structure and I got about halfway through act three and it was time for my vacation, so I said: “Well, you guys can see how it’s going, what connects to what, so get to the ending and it’ll be great. Good luck! I’ll see you guys later…”

What happened next?
Brad Bird: I was on vacation for two or three days and I got a call from John. He said it reminded him of Toy Story 2, where it was an idea that we all loved but it wasn’t there yet. I said I thought it was fine and continued my vacation. Then two days after that I got a call with John and Ed on the line during which they basically said they liked what I’d done to the structure but they felt it was game time essentially. That meant it was going to have to go into production soon and it wasn’t ready. The look was great, as was the premise, but they weren’t getting enough out of the premise. So they asked me if I would step in. I wasn’t looking at it at all and it pretty much wrecked the vacation because suddenly to consider stepping in on it with the time constraint was a big decision. They could have delayed the release date but it was important at that particular time to come out on time. We’d worked very hard as a company to get to a film a year without sacrificing quality. They didn’t want to sacrifice it on this so that meant a Herculean effort would have to be pulled together.

We knew the studio was capable of doing it because of Toy Story 2. They essentially took the early version of that movie and just tossed it in the trash bin and kept the basic idea but started from scratch. They re-wrote it and re-made it in about nine months, which is unbelievably fast for an animated feature. But they had the advantage of already knowing who the characters were and they knew how they would act – so they were able to do it but it almost killed the studio. This was different because it was a new film with new characters and it had not been figured out. So, I said I’d do it and told them I’d commit to two things:

Firstly, I guaranteed that the animation would start on time, which was scary because it was soon and you had to know that the thing you’re putting in the animation is not going to change a lot. When the story around it is in flux, that’s scary! And secondly, it would look great. But to do that you have to make decisions quickly and you can’t change them because it’s too late. So, it was a real challenge but I think some kind of magic has happened – the same kind of magic that happened on Toy Story 2 where everybody rallied and focused.

Q. Have you done things that viewers have never seen before?
Brad Bird: Yes but that becomes less and less significant with each year because there are fewer dragons to slay. I could tell you about breakthroughs but they’re getting to be so subtle that you’d have to be some kind of computer guy to really recognise them. From an audience standpoint, it’s not going to look that different. I think we have achieved a richness in the atmosphere of the film, I think there’s a depth to the shadows that we’ve never had before, and I think our food in the movie looks delicious and is completely computer generated.

There are things we developed for the fish in Nemo and for the skin in The Incredibles called sub-surface scattering, which is light penetrating the first layer of skin, or fruit, or fish scales, and going underneath, bouncing around underneath and back through the skin. If you do that with a grape, it makes the grape look more delicious. It’s light penetrating the skin, getting affected by the skin, then hitting stuff underneath the skin, disturbing things and coming back through the skin. It’s subtle but it’s the different between plastic and something that looks like you could eat. But our food in the movie had to look delicious because we’re talking about gourmet restaurants. It can’t look like plastic food.

Q. Why is Remy blue?
Brad Bird: I think there are rats that give the impression of being blue – they’re not actually blue but light hits them in a certain way and we just exaggerated that. I think it was a way to toss him out from the other rats and it’s a way to abstract that he’s an outsider a little bit. It just seemed to work. Again, we didn’t get too intellectual about those decisions – they just felt right and we went with it. A lot of it is instinct. Sometimes, there’s logical sense and there’s movie sense and I tend to go to movie sense when I choose between the two. There are some really absurd things that the audience does not question because of the way they are presented.

Q. Did you go to Paris as part of the research?
Brad Bird: I did but it was only once and it was a short visit. We hit some really great restaurants. It was interesting, too, because they took us to a French restaurant that had been really, really great 20 years ago and was kind of on the slide a little bit. And we went to one that was up and coming with this great female chef, which was very rare. So I put a little bit of that into Colette because she had just been awarded two stars – the first female chef to get two stars. She’s on her way up and she’s awesome. We got to talk to her. And then we went to what is currently considered the top restaurant in Paris. So, all three of those experiences were really different. They were all really good but you noticed things about them. It’s a whole world and it’s fascinating.

Q. Did you have any professional cooks on the team?
Brad Bird: We did. It was strange for me to come onto the project because the film is about rats, France and fine cooking and I don’t know anything about any of those things! I had to learn quickly. One of my criticisms of the film at that point was that a lot of research had been done on gourmet cooking and none of it was in the movie. We’d had Anthony Bourdain come here to speak – I didn’t hear him because I was doing The Incredibles at that point. But all these people were brought in and all of this great stuff was presented and digested and yet none of it was in the film. I was like: “How could you do this? This is not uninteresting to an audience! Don’t assume that because this is an animated film that cooking is a burden, how dull! Take the attitude that cooking, if you really start to investigate it, is interesting.”

The people who are in these kitchens are interesting characters. They’re not complete snobs but earthy people who just happen to love food. Like it suggests in the film, some of them have had very colourful lives. Some have been in jail, some have been lawyers and decided not to do it anymore. They’re really interesting people and what they do is hard. It’s good stuff for storytelling. It’s the same as working at Pixar. We have 800 people now. Some of them majored in physics at college and decided they wanted to do cartoons. Some of them had worked in gourmet restaurants, so I took them out, bought them a beer and said: “Tell me about it! What kind of stuff goes on in the kitchen?”

Q. Have your eating habits changed since making the movie?
Brad Bird: I can say that I like really good food. I’ve been to some really nice restaurants. But I have to limit my time in them or I’m going to become as fat as Chef Gusteau!

Q. What makes this movie special compared to other Pixar movies that have come before it?
Brad Bird: Well, I think they’re all special in their own way. It’s kind of like talking about children and asking which one of your children is special? They’re all special. But I think what makes Pixar films special versus many other studios is that they are original projects – they’re not bought and they come out of a personal desire of the people who make them to see them on screen. I think some of the things that make Ratatouille different – and again it’s not planned – are some of the inherent things in Jan Pinkava’s original idea and also some of the things I and other people have added. There’s something kind of fairytale-ish about it and a whimsically magical quality to it, which is kind of new for Pixar.

Q. How do you overcome comparisons with other talking animal animated movies?
Brad Bird: The one thing that I noticed was when people first heard of the idea of this film they tended to throw us in the same basket with all those talking animal/wise-cracking animal films. But I think that if we show even the first minute of this movie people are going to know this is different. I think our opening shot sets it apart. I even feel strongly enough that you could put any minute of this movie up against the best minutes of those other films.

I’m proud of this studio and I think they don’t take anything for granted. They have stage fright with every film, which is a healthy thing to have because it means you respect the audience and know that they’ve seen all these other films so you should bring something special, bring it with conviction and you should try to top yourself. We’re not always going to succeed and there are a lot of other studios out there making films but I’m proud of this place for never taking the audience for granted. They always want to do something fresh and interesting and that’s the best business plan that a place could have.

b>Read our review of Ratatouille

  1. This is terrific. I’m so glad Brad Bird and Pixar exist…I’m afraid there wouldn’t be any animated films worth watching otherwise. Brad adds hints of artistic brilliance to everything he touches and Pixar supports it, and that is truly delicious in this age of “fast-food” animation.

    Erin    Oct 11    #