BRAVE – Behind the scenes of Pixars new animation with director Mark Andrews

We met up with team Pixar to talk about one of the years most anticipated animations, the Scottish themed BRAVE…

For their 13th feature length film, Pixar changed direction once again. Brave is the story of Merida (Kelly McDonald) a Scottish princess who wants to live her life her way, the film also marks the first time Pixar has had a female protagonist. Director Mark Andrews began his career in Pixar as story supervisor for The Incredibles and directed the brilliant short One Man Band. recently sat down with Mark Andrews at London’s Soho Hotel to talk Scotland, archery and the first Pixar princess.

Why did you change the title from it’s original name ‘The Bear and the Bow’?
MA: It was still a working title at the time. With each of the movies at Pixar, we have a short title – for example, The Incredibles was Hero and Ratatouille was just Rat – we use these shorter titles just for production and they were going around and around, should it be Brave and the Bow or The Bear King and his Daughter, Brave Hair was one… There were a lot of them floating around but we always called it brave just in short. Finally, we got down to it where we had to have a title and we just dropped everything else and went with brave, because we felt it sums up the heart of the movie.


Scotland looks magnificent in the film; did you spend long researching the look of the film?

MA: It was great. One of John Lasseter’s big philosophies at Pixar is Research, Research, Research… so for Nemo, if you are going to make a film about underwater, you are going to have to get underwater, if you are going to make a film about cars, you have to know everything about cars, down to the speckled paint and what it does. For Ratatouille we went to France, but for The Incredibles we missed out on a trip [laughs] but for this we had to go to Scotland to research to get the character of the film. We are not trying to portray it exactly, we are trying to get that character and that flavour just like Disney did in the old days with 101 Dalmations; it was a character written at the time. So we were over there for several weeks, there was actually more than one trip that we went on and we went everywhere from Edinburgh up to the Highlands, The Isle of Skye and castles. We went skinny dipping in lochs, we waded through the heather, we climbed boulders… It was fantastic.


Billy Connolly is the chieftain of his Highland Games; did he tell you how the Highland Games operate?

MA: Yeah we got a lot of information from Billy. Almost all of our cast is Scottish so we got a lot of information out of them, and the people who ran the Games. I am of Scottish descent, so I have done the Highland Games, and every year for my birthday I would have a mini Highland Games so I was the unofficial aficionado at Pixar of all things Scottish.


Why did you decide to name one of the triplets Hubert? It’s not a very Scottish name.

MA: It’s an ancient name, and very rarely used, and we felt that this was the most applicable time. We had to find another ‘H…’ name to round off the three.


Were you concerned about the Scottish accents being understood in the US?
MA: No, I don’t think we thought about it that much. We did have Reese Witherspoon when they started the project. She was on for quite some time and she was getting her Scottish accent down, she was working very hard and it was sounding great. As we were working on the movie, she had other movies all lining up so unfortunately we were unable to continue with her and we had to get a replacement. Luckily we found Kelly McDonald, who is Scottish and is fantastic in the part of Merida. She has that great teenager-like quality.


Are you going to subtitle the film?
MA: NO WAY! NO WAY! Kevin McKidd who plays both Lord and young McGuffin, uses a dialect that is from his area, and he would call up his mum to be reminded of how they say certain things during some of the recording sessions. We are going to leave it unintelligible, because that’s the gag.


Did you have to ask the Scottish actors to speak more slowly or more clearly in order to be understood?
MA: Absolutely, we had to tell Billy and Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane ‘For middle America, let’s just slow that down just a hair and enunciate a little bit more’. They understood, they were all for it. At the end of the day it has to be clear and understood.


Why do you think this period of Scottish history is so fascinating to filmmakers?
MA: I think when we were starting off, Brenda [Chapman] and I just had a love for Scotland; it’s just such a magnificent land and she wanted a setting that was magical – you can’t go to Scotland and not have that kind of experience. With our production designer, we would always be arguing back and forth about which exact period it was. It’s not actually a period in Scotland, we are talking fantasy Scotland between the 8th and 12th centuries. There are a lot of different mixes of ideas in there, they didn’t actually have stone castles until way later but we didn’t think you could watch a thing that is built with a bunch of timber and have it be dramatic. The kilts are a whole other issue as well. We had a fantasy Scotland and it was the character of that time period. When you go period there is much more for the audience to get into and understand it on this primal, visceral level. You are just going to be more accepting of the things that happen in the story; it is a little bit more rough and a little bit more unknown and you just go with it versus a modern day fairy tale.


How did you capture the movements for archery?
MA: I did archery when I was a kid. I was trained to be on the junior Olympic team when I was 15, so I have been doing archery my whole life. When it came to that it was just a natural thing for me. We put bows in the animators’ hands and did research, research, research because they had to know everything. We got right down to breaking down the mechanics, including how an arrow releases off the bow, there is this thing called the Archer’s Paradox; the bow and the string are in line and when the arrow is on it, it is actually at an angle, but the string is travelling faster than the tip of the arrow so it pushes it around and the tip of the arrow bends right back onto the line and that is why you get a straight shot. To slow that down and actually see that happen was great.


Why did you choose archery as Merida’s special skill?
MA: That was one thing that the character was doing from the start, before I came on to finish the film. Brenda [Chapman] wanted to give Merida something that was active. Merida can also swordfight, but they didn’t want to focus on that. There is something elegant about archery and it is useful for hunting. We wanted to really show off that type of skill. It was a natural choice and visually dramatic. It shows a precision and focus that describes who that character is.


There is a Pizza Planet truck in every Pixar movie so far, is there one in Brave?
MA: Yes, everything is in there. All the typical things, those little inside jokes, they are all in the movie; you gotta find them.


Speaking of inside jokes, how is Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger’s Scottish accent?
MA: It’s good! It’s not bad! He had a couple of goes at it, but he got it. His voice is also in there and if you can’t pick him out, we have done out job well.


What is the message of the movie for young girls?
MA: The message is to be brave. It is this coming of age story where this young woman finds herself on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and she is reconciling the difference between how the world wants her to be and how she wants to be seen in that world. The definition of brave to us is when you actually look inside yourself and own up to exactly what you are because what’s inside may not be what you want to be, and it may not be what the world wants you to be, so you have to be brave and be yourself.


The horse, Angus, is beautifully animated. Did the animators feel they had to beat the horse from Tangled?
MA: With animators there is always competition and that’s the great thing about the industry; we are always trying to outdo one another. I think some of the other studios are really gunning for the slot. Not to brag or boast or anything, but Pixar has been at the top in the industry for a long time and everybody’s getting up there. Dreamworks have been putting out some amazing stuff like How to Train Your Dragon and they are getting close to the mark, so every movie is just another opportunity to really do something. The thing about Tangled is that it was a straight up comedy and was super characterised; horses eyes are on the sides of their heads and they brought them right up to the front so it was more Madagascar-esque with it’s movement and stuff. It was funny, but it wasn’t a horse. We wanted a horse, a real horse in a real setting, where you could feel the atmosphere and feel the breath and everything but it had to still be a character. I think that’s what defines Pixar films; that we don’t go for the easy comedic stuff, we want it to have an honesty and a reality to it, while delivering the humour and the drama too.


How challenging was it to create Merida’s huge curly hair?
MA: Disney Animation have their own programmes and computer stuff and we have our own proprietary software, so it was all our own stuff that we have been developing. We have been doing hair since Monsters, Inc and hair is a big pain in the ass, and so are clothes. When this film started we said we are going kilts and hair… All the technicians crapped their pants because it is really hard, but everybody embraced it and win concurrence with making this film, they made a whole new platform of tools at Pixar to make this film, so we are actually doing two things at once on this film. We had this huge technological upgrade even just to make this film a realisation and to tell the story and it’s been amazing. We get nothing free in animation; everything has to be touched and doodled and stuff.


The characters look very different to the characters in all other Pixar films; did you draw inspiration from other films or comic books?
MA: No, we just had some great designers on board. We had done humans before; The Incredibles was the first time that it was all humans so we made a lot of discoveries there. Ratatouille has some of the best humans in the business so we made tons of discoveries there and then we have Brave where we just upped it. There were still issues with the character design; Merida’s face and Elinor’s face were so round that as soon as they dropped their chins they started looking like monkeys. In animation you get these smooth forms so we really had to watch it and keep everything real.


Did you design the characters with particular people in mind?
MA: No, believe it or not. Between this mother and daughter the mother being the queen, she has to be rigid because she serves the kingdom and she is political. She was designed to be very upright and noble and her hair… She has this long brown hair that is kept in perfect braids, so in contrast, her wild teenage daughter had to have wild hair and the colour had to be red for her fiery nature. The visuals always support what is happening in the story and that is something that we can really do in animation. It happens in live action too, just on a more subtle level.


Was it difficult for you to relate to Merida as a character?
MA: Not hard, and that sounds like a lie, but at the end of the day, being a storyteller, this is about relationships. I am a father of four; I have a daughter who is the oldest and I have three little boys so it was pretty appropriate directing this film. It is a parent and child story and I am a parent and I know what they are going through. We have all been kids at some point and we were all at that transition point and we all kind of rebelled, so it is all drawing from that. I don’t think there is anything that uniquely makes it female. As a storyteller, that is what I was focussing on; the relationship between people who are talking to each other but not really listening and that is what they need to do at the end to fix that relationship that they had at the beginning.


This is the first time that a Pixar movie has had a female protagonist, is there a reason why it has taken so long?
MA: None. We don’t plan these things out in advance and Pixar is a director driven studio, so it just happens to be what we wanted to do at the time. We don’t have a master plan, it is just whatever inspires us and it just happens when it happens.


How does it feel to have a movie with the first female protagonist in the first fairy tale from Pixar?
MA: We don’t like to use the word fairy tale, because it is not actually a fairy tale, although we do have magic in it. It is more a fantasy. There is magic involved and there is a witch, but those are the classic things in all the Scottish myths, so we don’t like to use fairy tale in the classic sense. Fairy tales have already been done and we all know what those are, so this is more a fantasy comedy adventure.


Brave is slightly darker than previous Pixar movies, was there any difficulty in pitching this story?
MA: John [Lasseter] loved it and I think that goes to what I love about Pixar, which is not only do they push innovation through technology but now even story wise, what you are going to get from Pixar is completely different. Who thought that a movie about an old man and some Asian boy scout was going to be a hit? We do pride ourselves on our films and we can go a little darker. Why not? John really embraced that, he constantly fights for that and loves the idea that Pixar can do anything. I think that’s what Pixar’s motto is; we do what we want.


What was it like working with Billy Connolly?
MA: The man is a consummate storyteller, I think the British isles are full of storytellers, especially in Scotland; every rock has a story in Scotland. Billy and I would work for a couple of minutes on a line, and then there would be 15 minutes of [imitates Billy Connolly’s voice] ‘So… Let me tell you a story…’ and we were just in stitches. We had Billy in to get some pick up lines on video conferencing, we scheduled two hours, but we did it all in 30 minutes. He stayed with the guys in the booth for another two hours just chatting and having a good time. He just lives life, you know. We were asking Billy, Kelly [McDonald], Kevin [McKidd] and Emma [Thompson] if they had any Scottish phrases that we hadn’t thought of or researched that they could bring to it. Kelly brought ‘manky’ [laughs]


Was Merida going to meet her Prince Charming at any stage of the story?
MA: No, we wanted a strong female lead. I want my daughter to grow up with strong female role models; you get yourself out of your own mess, you don’t need some guy to come in and cut through thorny vines to rescue you. You can pull yourself out. That’s the thing we were going after in the story; you have to solve your own problems. For parents; we have been through it, and we know what hell is coming and we are trying to spare our child that hell by advising them. Ultimately the only way they are going to learn is by doing it their own way, so we have to let go. Elinor comes to that realisation that she has to trust that it will happen and not force it.


How does it feel to bring the princess story that Disney are famous for to Pixar?
MA: Well this isn’t a classic princess story, she just happens to be a princess because it heightens the stakes of the story. If she was a scullery maid and she wants to be different? Big Whoop! Where are the stakes in that? From a story standpoint, we really wanted to raise the stakes so we had to put the characters in an environment that has the most heat. The biggest change is, Merida is going to be a queen some day and doesn’t want to be, so that heightens the story.


Were there any Scottish films you watched to prepare for this film?

MA: The animators just dove right in to every Scottish film because we were analysing how the Scots speak. The sounds that a Scot makes with their accent come out very specifically in the mouth so we really studied those so we could get it right. Again that’s research, research, research.


Why do you think feature length animation is still mostly aimed at children, there are loads of live action films that could have worked better as animated?

MA: There used to be an argument; ‘why aren’t we doing this animated?’. For The Incredibles we got asked why we were doing it animated because Spy Kids was coming out around the same time. The other question is, why is every animated film a talking animal film? Is that the only reason that it should be animated? It doesn’t make any sense; it’s all that medium based argument. To me, it’s just another way. In Japan they already have adult orientated films. Everybody is different. Movie making is hard, and to realise some of these visions… Some of these places just don’t exist. The effects industry has been a revolution for period pieces. The visual effects and animation are coming closer together and in 20 years there is not going to be a difference. As soon as they crack faster rendering powers, you are going to see all the old time actors back, resurrected from the dead.


Interview by Brogen Hayes,
With thanks to Disney Ireland. 

BRAVE hits Irish cinemas in August.
Keep an eye on for video interviews with the cast of BRAVE!