What Brad Bird is watching (and thinks you should, too)

The director shares a bunch of his favorite live action films, animated features and musicals.

At the VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, director Brad Bird just presented a fascinating analysis with his masterclass,  ‘The Animator as Actor’. Here he showed various live action and animated films that contained character performances that Bird has himself latched onto in crafting his own films, or that he recommends animators should consider in their work.

The films included Casablanca, Dr Strangelove, The Big Lebowski, The Jungle Book, Lady and the Trap, Pinocchio and Apocalypse Now (for this last film, Bird showed a clip of Marlon Brando bringing his fist to his head; the scene was directly referenced in a moment in The Incredibles when Elastigirl is talking to her children in the cave in that film).


After his talk, I got to sit down with the director, and since Bird had already run through in his masterclass some of his own film history highlights that seemed relevant to animators, I asked him about some recent things he’s seen that have inspired him, and that perhaps he would recommend that other people in animation also watch. So, here are those things – which include both recent and semi-recent pieces of entertainment, in Bird’s own words, plus why the director considers the animated Jungle Book one of the most influential films on his career.

Brad Bird at VIEW Conference 2019. Photo by Rob Redman.

Live action films

I love the Coen brothers version of True Grit. That’s a film I could see a million times and I just loved it. I liked the sequel to Blade Runner a lot and I felt that was very underrated. It was a film that I liked the first time I saw it. I didn’t love it. I felt like it was solid, but I said, I do want to see it again. The second time I saw it, I thought I have to see it a third time. The third time I saw it, there were so many things that I didn’t get the first time that I saw; it got perpetually deeper and deeper as a film to me. I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. I love The Revenant. I tend to gravitate toward filmmakers more than a given specifically.

Animated features

What I tend to like the most are films that deviate from the norm. So a a film like Persepolis gets a lot of points for me because it’s so unlike anything else being done. I’m not saying it’s a perfect film, but I am saying it gets a lot of points for being so unique and original and doing something different with the medium.

I think one of the problems that has happened with computer generated animation is the sameness of it. The fact that it almost all looks like it’s coming from one studio and that the pacing is kind of hyperactive and the rhythm of the comedy is the same. Anyone who tries to do something different like Persepolis or the Spider-Verse films – the graphic approach – that gets a lot of points from me.

Bird during his ‘The Animator as Actor’ talk.

Musicals

I loved Hamilton. It could so easily been terrible, because the idea of doing rap with a president or someone who was a founding father 200 years ago – it sounds like an insane idea. And yet that medium was used in a way to get to the truth of what happened back then in a way that was much more memorable than if it had been a dry history lesson.

And even though the actors didn’t look anything like the people they were playing, and even though the medium of rap is not naturalistic, it’s impressionistic, and even though it seems like it would burn itself out after about 10 minutes, it was, in fact, a three hour show that was always completely involving.

I felt like I understood history better. I had also read the book, every page is thick with detail. And I thought, how can this person turn this into a musical and done in three hours? It was one of the most invigorating experiences because it was done so creatively. And so in a way that was moving and surprising and completely fresh. So that was one that was hugely influential to me.

The impact of The Jungle Book

It’s a treasure trove of brilliant character animation. It’s not the best film structurally. It’s not the best film, direction-wise. It’s not the best Disney film, art direction-wise. I can name a lot of other films that people talk about more than The Jungle Book, but in terms of characters that are very different from each other, it’s incredible. It’s just an ocean of great entertaining animation acting, I think it’s like a goldmine.

I don’t think anything’s matched it in terms of the amount of great characters. King Louie, Shere Khan, Mowgli, Colonel Hathi. They’re all very unique and very sharply delineated characters. I think that tells you everything you need to know in film about acting in animation.

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