On December 15th, 2018, the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco hosted the third speaker in their “Nine Old Mentors” speaker series, Brad Bird. This series of lectures is in celebration of their special exhibition, “Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Masters of Animation.” The exhibition is running through January 7th and previous speakers in the series included Ron Musker & John Clements as a duo and Glen Keane.
Not that Brad Bird needs an introduction, but Disney fans know him best as the director of Pixar’s The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Incredibles 2. In addition, he played a crucial role in the development of The Simpsons and directed The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Disney’s Tomorrowland. In advance of his presentation, I was lucky enough to interview Brad about his early years as an animator at Disney and how the lessons he learned from the Nine Old Men are still being applied to his films today.
Alex: You were a teenager when you first visited Disney Animation and were a mentor before you graduated high school. Can you talk a little bit about your early memories at Disney?
Brad: Actually, I was a pre-teen when I first visited, I was eleven. George Bruns, who was a friend of friends of my parents, I met him and peppered him with questions and he offered to take me through Disney Animation the next time I was in LA so I made sure to bug my parents to get me to LA. He took me through the studio and I met a lot of the top people in animation. I remember meeting Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnson] for the first time and George said ‘This is Brad, he’s just started his first animated film and he wants to be an animator’ and I remember them smiling at me, but it was more of a ‘Yeah, you’re going to lose interest in this in about two weeks kid and we’ll never see you again,’ smile. I think they were shocked when I showed up three years later with a fifteen-minute long film. That’s when they threw open their doors and offered to assign me a mentor, Milt Kahl, who was one of the Nine.
Alex: And you were, if I’m not mistaken, a mentee at Disney Animation before they had an official mentorship program, right?
Brad: Yeah, that’s why I was given to Milt Kahl, they hadn’t had to deal with this before. They were blindly working on the assumption that their animators were going to live forever and then suddenly, when The Jungle Book and succeeding films were hits, they realized no one else is trained in this kind of animation. All the young people who were coming into the industry were being trained in really cheap television animation, nobody was really trained in feature film, big budget, animation that Disney did. They suddenly woke up and said ‘We’ve got to start cultivating this’ and I think I was one of the first to flag their interest. I know Richard Williams visited there when he was a kid, but they had many years to go with their animators before they started to think of actually bringing in new talent.
Alex: Ron Clements, John Musker, and Glen Keane gave presentations on the Nine Old Men and Milt Kahl is one that they all described as a little more elusive, as not being maybe very eloquent or able to summarize his process enough to give them helpful tips.
Brad: Right, that’s why he was not the ideal choice for a mentor, but I benefited from that because I don’t think they would have assigned me to him if I had come in three or four years later. I don’t think Milt would have been a good author of a book on animation because he would have to talk about it, and he stammered a little bit. But he could do a drawing that said everything. If you could hang around him and watch his process, I think that it was tremendously informative because every pose that he did, he would do variations of in little thumbnail sketches and try the phone on this ear, no, the phone on that ear, no, maybe if the phone is being cradled a little bit more, okay, maybe the phone is being gripped tightly, and he would do this for each one of the poses and come up with the strongest possible way to execute his scene. That’s why his scenes are like works of art in that you can look at them endlessly and find new things in them all the time. So, yes, verbally he may not have been able to talk you through a scene the way that Eric [Larson] could or even Frank and Ollie, but in terms of what he understood, what he knew about the process, and being an example of how thorough you need to be to be anywhere near as good as Milt. He was an excellent example because he analyzed things deeper, he didn’t give up on his scenes until they were really perfect, and he really got mad when people didn’t work as hard as he did. Watching him have those feelings and being as analytical as he was and willing to dig deep made a big impression on me. As a director I’m known for not letting scenes go, I will keep sending animators back. I’ll be direct and I won’t waste their time, but if I see a way to make it better I’m going to push for it until the clock runs out. I understand the clock, I don’t neglect the clock, but I try to squeeze every drop out of it. I drive animators slightly crazy because I keep pushing them to dig deeper and though they are very tired at the end of the film I think they’re gratified. Digging that deep I absolutely learned from Milt.
Alex: Eric Larson, as the kind of big wave of mentees came in through the studio, was considered the Godfather to many animators.
Brad: You bet, and I was under Eric as well because Milt retired after Madam Medusa on The Rescuers and Milt was long gone by the time I entered the studio to actually be an animator. Eric was in charge of the program when I became an animator and his attitude and everything was perfect for nurturing young talent because he was a very warm guy and he knew what he was doing. He was a wonderful teacher, he could explain things and do drawings for you that illustrated the point he was making and his demeanor was much more like a good teacher… Eric was very soft spoken and nurturing and Milt pushed you.
Alex: Did having those early relationships give you an edge or did you feel like you had better ground to stand on than the other mentees that you entered the studio formally with after Cal Arts?
Brad: I don’t know, I had a very weird thing happen, I had started another film when Disney became interested in me and it was more ambitious than my first film, I got maybe forty-five-seconds of it done, and it was going to be at Disney. It was going to be in color and they flipped out over it, but I suddenly realized I couldn’t really talk about anything other than animation that would interest my friends for maybe twenty seconds before their eyes would glaze over. I realized I was missing out on childhood because basically you come home and immediately start working on the film until it’s time to go to bed and then you get up, go to school, and you come back from school and work on the film. I realized this film was going to take me all the way through high school and I asked Disney if they wouldn’t mind if I stopped for a while. They weren’t happy about it but they were supportive, they were like ‘Yeah, you’ve got to do what you need to do.’ So I dropped out of animation at fifteen and did other stuff. I played sports, got into theater, photography, and drawing comic strips for the high school paper. When I got the scholarship to Cal Arts, I was the only one in the animation program who was going back into animation after taking several years off, while everyone else was just getting into animation. But suddenly I was in a school where I was surrounded by other people who were inspired by the same work that inspired me. For the first time in my life I could dig deep and talk about animation and all the things I’d been thinking for years because I didn’t know anybody that was into animation. That was a common experience for all of us in school, it was the first opportunity we’d ever had to be around other people who had opinions about animation … we talked late into the night expounding on theories about everything, on why Tex Avery was better than Fritz Frilieg. We went deep and that’s why a lot of us are still friends to this day, that process of meeting each other and being, one, a little competitive with each other, but also supportive of each other and all trying to mutually learn was a big thing for us.
Alex: Ward Kimball is a legendary personality among the Disney fan base and everyone who worked with him seems to have an incredibly eccentric or hilarious Ward Kimball story. Do you have a particular memory of Ward?
Brad: I was a big fan of him as well as everyone else and he was around, he came to our Producer Shows and came up to Cal Arts to talk. I think he was pretty much retired by the time we were entering the studio, but he was still very much around and he taught drawing classes and I took some of them. He gave me a compliment when I did Family Dog, he told me it was the funniest thing he’d seen since The Honeymooners. I don’t have a crazy eccentric story, I just got to know him a little bit over the years and he was always… like Milt, if you pushed him, he would tell you the hard truths. Whereas other animators were very careful to cultivate the more brochure version of Disney Studios and Disney Animation, Ward Kimball was a little more willing to be blunt, if you pushed him. That not only was about the history of what things were like when he was there, but it was also about your work. If you pushed him for an opinion about your work, usually he’d say whatever would be pleasant and not confrontational first. Then if you said ‘Really tell me what you think,’ then he would unload. He didn’t mince words, he would be critical and he was smart about it. He had very definite opinions on what worked and what didn’t and all you had to do was look at his body of work to realize that he knew what he was talking about. He was an amazing talent and I actually feature him a little more than some of the guys in this [presentation] because he had such a unique career at the studio, spanning all kinds of films and television and having a sort of weird relationship with Walt. Walt expected a lot from him and sometimes was not pleased by his efforts and other times he was… Kimball was the only one that Walt ever called a genius. That’s a word he would never say at the studio. He’s known as a guy that wouldn’t give a compliment easily and for him to say that about Kimball is amazing. Kimball ended up directing films and doing the space films for the Disneyland TV show that made a lot of impact on who eventually went into the space program. He had a very interesting career.
Alex: Woolie Reitherman was the primary Director at Disney Animation during your early days. Were there any lessons from him that helped you become a Director yourself?
Brad: It’s funny, I have a lot of respect for him in holding the department together, but he also had some questionable taste. I think I was influenced by what Milt and Frank thought about some of Woolie’s decisions as a director. He would do something terrific like hold the department together and make films that were effective, but he would also sometimes try to cut corners by reusing a piece of old animation for a new film, which just made Milt furious. After Walt died he would choose to do things that I don’t think Walt would have embraced, like having psychedelic lights in Paris of 1912 in The Aristocats and having them say ‘Groovy, mama, groovy.’ That’s stuff that doesn’t age particularly well, those are Woolie decisions, and you would never see a decision like that in Disney’s lifetime. Woolie is a mixed bag, and he’s underrated as an animator. He’s a really gifted animator and I don’t think that it’s often highlighted that he could do sensitive scenes, I show one in my talk that he animated. I actually have a lot of respect for Woolie even though I may not agree with all of his choices as a director.
Alex: I think it’s very cool to see the Kem Webber chairs around Pixar when I visit and that was obviously custom made for Disney Animation, I’m sure you used it there, but seeing it every day in the halls at Pixar, does that take you back often?
Brad: It does a little bit. More importantly, I feel like the DNA of Disney storytelling survived and got transmuted to Pixar. When John [Lasseter], Andrew [Stanton], and Joe Ranft came here with Pete Docter, their concerns about personalities, character animation, movement telling you who the character was, and the importance of story is very much from the Disney method. Toy Story, even though it was not like any other Disney film at the time, the DNA of characters who absolutely believe the world that they were inhabiting and the analysis of who the characters were is absolutely true to Walt Disney’s feelings about believable characters and story. That to me was something that started to get lost with Disney animation, and was retained at Pixar. I think it’s back at Disney now, but I think when we were there we were almost discouraged from… by the way this is after Frank and Ollie had left and there were no more master animators running things, but we were almost discouraged from doing anything unique on any characters. If you did something unique, they would often say ‘Tone it down,’ and you would have to tone it down until there was almost no quality at all to your scene in terms of uniqueness. And then they would say ‘Fine’ and it’s what would end up in the movie, even though it’s not what you wanted to do at all. So that’s part of my presentation a little bit, too, is what about all the things these geniuses trained us to do? Were they always supported when we went out into the industry without them around? They weren’t always supportive, but it’s important that we learned them because we took them to other films and sometimes to other places. I mean, I did Iron Giant at Warner Brothers and Warner Brothers had never been known for feature animation before that. But the rules that I brought to Warner Brothers were Disney rules… not Disney rules, I would say the training that I brought to Warner Brothers was Disney training. Old school Disney training.
Alex: The Nine Old Men exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum closes on January 7th. Have you have a chance to visit that?
Brad: I have, my son Jack, who Jack-Jack is actually named after, is into animation and we were actually both going to see it again because I had to kind of rush through it the first time. I only had like an hour or so and it’s the kind of thing that I like to linger around so we’re going to go back and check it out again.
Alex: When you were in there, did you see anything that really stuck with you or that you remember fondly about working with them? Or anything that surprised you? Because it gets very personal into their art.
Brad: I can’t seem to remember right now, I would say that the whole thing lit me up. Studying those guy’s work and appreciating their differences and the fact that they all brought something significant to this really stunning body of work, it just reminds me of all that. That to me is the Disney Museum in a nutshell. Whenever I feel in need of a boost, I go there and I come out charged because it’s an amazing body of work that Walt presided over. The amount of really wonderful work that got generated under his guidance during his relatively short life span, I mean he died at age sixty-five, which is considered practically young these days. And the mind boggles when you think of him living until eighty-five or something, what would have happened if he lived twenty more years? I mean, EPCOT would exist and it might be a very effective lab for the cities of the future and we might not even be dealing with global warming at this point, I don’t know. But when you think about the kind of impact that he made with a relatively small number of people working with him, it’s really astounding. So the museum, I always try to stay in close touch with the museum and do things for it when I can because I love it so much. And it’s really a great museum.
Disney fans can visit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The official website has details on hours, upcoming events, and limited galleries that can help you plan your trip.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.