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Brad Bird, the adapter/director of the warmhearted animated feature The Iron Giant, made his name with edgier fare: He created TV's Family Dog, and worked on such series as The Simpsons, The Critic and King of the Hill. On a recent visit to Phoenix, he explained his contribution to the state of cartoon art:
New Times: Your title on The Simpsons was "executive consultant." What, exactly, does that mean?
Brad Bird: It's kind of an umbrella term that means professional kibitzer. When they first approached me about doing the show, they wanted me to have input in the scripts. But when I got there, the scripts weren't the problem; they were great scripts, and, if anything, I was there to learn. Where they weren't so good was at presenting the scripts. There was a kind of bland visual approach. Most people don't comment on the filmmaking of The Simpsons, but it's pretty sophisticated, and I hope I had something to do with that.
NT: Such as?
BB: Camera angles, cutting, extended takes versus rapid takes. When we did parodies, being accurate in parodying the technique as well as the content. There was a tendency at the time to shoot everything from eye level, always open with an establishing shot, go to a medium shot where they're moving, go to a close-up when they're talking. I tried to tell them that you could establish something with a close-up. Like, early on, I had them open with a close-up of a pancake. And they said, "You can't," and I said, "Sure you can, and then pull back."
NT: Did you have a hand in the subliminal density of the show's gags?
BB: Yeah, we put [in] gags that we called "geek gags," because only people with VCR freeze frames could ever get them. Like, whenever we'd pass between the floorboards, we'd put stuff in there, skeletons and stuff. Or, we'd always be coy about which state Springfield was in -- somebody's shadow would pass in front of the map, that sort of thing. All of that was totally intentional.
NT: So how did you come to do The Iron Giant?
BB: Well, the material had been at Warner Bros. Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff had been developing it as a musical. I saw the image of the giant robot and the boy at a Warner Bros. open house, and, months later when they asked me if there was anything they had in development that I was interested in, I remembered that picture of the big metal man and the little boy, and I said I'd like to read the book.
NT: What did you think of Ted Hughes' book?
BB: I liked it. But I had my own take on the story line that was pretty different. And Des and Pete were cool enough to recognize that my story wasn't best done as a musical.
NT: Did you expect any resistance to not doing it as a musical, since animated kids' movies customarily are?
BB: Well, of course. Every single thing that this film does differently from the typical animated film was questioned at one point or another. It's just that Warner Bros. was cool to listen to me when I said, "Because every other animated film would do it this way, that's why we should zag while everybody else is zigging."
NT: Do you have a history with robots?
BB: I was raised by robots. No, certainly giant robots are right in there in that little box of favorite things from childhood, along with Superman and Warner Bros. cartoons and slingshots and Disney and Star Wars and, you know, The Wizard of Oz. I think there's something endlessly intriguing about a giant robot. I think, to kids, it represents power that they don't have, that only adults have. It's kind of like having a big guy at school to protect you from the bullies. -- M.V. Moorhead