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The Man Behind 'The Incredibles'

We talk with Brad Bird, who wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning film The Incredibles, about a suburban family with superpowers. The mix of average characters and extraordinary abilities has turned the animated characters into celebrities.


Other segments from the episode on April 6, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 6, 2005: Interview with Brad Bird; Review of Neville Brothers' “Walkin’ in the shadow of life” and a new Sonny Landreth's “Grant Street."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Brad Bird discusses his movie, "The Incredibles"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Unidentified Woman: So, Mr. Incredible, do you have a secret identity?

Mr. CRAIG T. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Every superhero has a secret
identity. I don't know a single one who doesn't. Who wants the pressure of
being super all the time?

GROSS: That's Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible, the father in a family of
superheroes, in the Academy Award-winning film "The Incredibles." It's now
out on DVD. And my guest is the creator, writer and director of the film,
Brad Bird. As film critic Michael Schrago(ph) wrote, `Bird is known in the
cartoon world as a visionary.' He also made the animated film "The Iron
Giant" and worked on the TV series "The Simpsons," "The Critic" and "King of
the Hill."

"The Incredibles" tells the story of two superheroes, Mr. Incredible and
Elastigirl, who get married and have three children with superpowers. But
they're forced to abandon their valiant efforts fighting crime and rescuing
the innocent after they are literally sentenced to a life in the suburbs,
where they must pretend to be average. This news report at the start of "The
Incredibles" explains why.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Unidentified Man #1: In a stunning turn of events, a superhero is being sued
for saving someone who apparently didn't want to be saved. The plaintiff,
Oliver Sansweet, who was foiled in his attempted suicide by Mr.
Incredible, has filed suit against the famed superhero in superior court.

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Sansweet didn't ask to be saved. Mr. Sansweet
didn't want to be saved. And the injury received from Mr. Incredible's
actions, so called, causes him daily pain.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Hey, I saved your life!

Mr. "OLIVER SANSWEET": You didn't save my life. You ruined my day. That's
what you did.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Listen, you little piece of...

Unidentified Man #3: My client has no further comment at this time.

Unidentified Man #1: Five days later another suit was filed by the victims of
the El train accident. Incredible's court losses costs the government
millions and open the floodgates for dozens of superhero lawsuits the world

Unidentified Woman: It is time for their secret identity to become their only
identity, time for them to join us or go away.

Unidentified Man #1: Under tremendous public pressure and the crushing
financial burden of an ever-mounting series of lawsuits, the government
quietly initiated the superhero relocation program. The supers will be
granted amnesty from responsibility for past actions, in exchange for the
promise to never again resume hero work. Where are they now? They are living
among us, average citizens, average heroes quietly and anonymously continuing
to make the world a better place.

GROSS: Brad Bird, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you come up with the premise
for "The Incredibles," the premise of the superheroes who have to go into the
witness protection program and live quietly and anonymously as if they were
average people?

Mr. BRAD BIRD (Director, "The Incredibles"): Well, I started with the Bob
character, and I think we've all known people who are still pretty young and
yet they kind of peaked early. They had--the high point of their life
happened maybe a little too early and--you know, the kind of guy that was the
star quarterback in high school and, you know, has never been able to
recapture that moment ever since. So I kind of wondered, `What if that
character were a superhero and he was still, you know, in the prime of his
life but had to stop being a superhero?' And then--so once you have that, you
know, thought, you just start asking questions. You know, why did he have to
quit? Are there other superheroes? Did they have to quit? Is he married?
Is she a superhero? Do they have kids? And do those kids have superpowers?
And it just kind of kept going from there.

GROSS: How did you decide what superpowers to give the character?

Mr. BIRD: I tried to base it on family archetypes, you know, like the dad is
always expected to be strong, so I made him very strong. Moms are always
pulled in a thousand different directions, so I had her kind of, you know,
able to stretch. Teen-agers are defensive and, you know, oftentimes very
self-conscious about themselves, so I had her be invisible and have protective
shields. Ten-year-old boys are energy balls that are bouncing off the walls,
so I had him have super speed. And babies are unrealized potential, so--you
know what I mean? You could either have great powers or no powers at all.

GROSS: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want?

Mr. BIRD: I would want the ability to conjure up financing for any idea...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. BIRD: ...I could come up with.

GROSS: What a great superpower.

Mr. BIRD: `Superfinance Man,' yeah.

GROSS: And in public radio, that would be `Supergrant Person' or...

Mr. BIRD: There you go.

GROSS: ...`Superunderwriting Person.'

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you ever watch the old episodes of the original TV series

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, sure. With George Reeves?

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, uh-huh, you know, as a kid.

GROSS: You know, I love those old shows, and it's amazing how unadventurous
they are in their own way. You know, like...

Mr. BIRD: I imagine they wouldn't hold up too well.

GROSS: One of his archrivals would be like the strongman who throws a really
large ball at him, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: It's all got to be within the TV budget, you know. Yeah.

GROSS: So were you alluding to any of those episodes early in the movie when
Mr. Incredible's driving around the city and stopping crime?

Mr. BIRD: I wasn't trying to allude to anything specifically but just a
general feeling of, you know, this is a city filled with superheroes, and
there are bad doin's going on and, you know, the people necessary to shut
them down. I think that I also wanted to show that, you know, there were
several superheroes walking this beat, and they all kind of knew each other,
almost like punching into work, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird, and he wrote and directed "The Incredibles,"
and he also directed "Iron Giant." They're both on DVD now.

Now you're the voice of the costume designer in "The Incredibles," and this is
the character who--similar to the character in the "James Bond" movies, who
designs and then demonstrates all the new gizmos that Bond can use to, like,
fend off...

Mr. BIRD: Right.

GROSS: ...his archrivals. But, you know, what she does is she designs those
special protective costumes for the superheroes to wear.

Mr. BIRD: Right. And we've never really addressed that, have we? You know,
they always showed the hero--they always showed the hero--I mean, the few
times anybody bothered to explain where they got the costumes, they always
showed the muscle-bound hero, like, sewing in the basement suddenly, you know,
showing his sensitive side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: And I just didn't buy that. So I thought who--you know,
`Somebody's got to be designing these things, and it's got to be a cross
between a sort of flamboyant designer, because the costumes are flamboyant,
and a scientist.' So, yeah, that's kind of where E came from.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, the other thing I--what you're saying about the
costumes is, you know, why tights and a cape? Why is that such a popular
superhero costume?

Mr. BIRD: I think it's flourishy. I think that's got to be it. It's
something you can fling around dramatically and let blow in the wind. But
it's not very practical. I mean, it's very much kind of, well, Isadora
Duncan, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: I think so.

GROSS: For interpretive superheroes.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But it's funny because you really get to this in the movie. You know,
like, the designer refuses to use capes in her superhero costumes because
they're so impractical; they always get caught just as you're supposed to be
rescuing somebody.

Mr. BIRD: Right. Right. Yes. She's a practical designer.

GROSS: So why did you want to do the voice for this character, who's a woman?

Mr. BIRD: Well, you know, I didn't set out to do it. I just--we do temporary
soundtracks here at Pixar. I--most places probably do. But we cast within
the building when we're kind of designing the story reels. So, you know, with
a company that has 600 employees, as Pixar does, you can actually cast pretty
well within the building. And I did, like, three different voices for the
temp reels, thinking that all of them were going to get replaced. I did Bob,
and I did Syndrome and I did E. And everybody seemed to like E and connect
with her the way that I did her, so we just kind of left her in.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a scene from "The Incredibles," in which we'll hear
you as E, the costume designer for the superheroes. And in this scene she's
demonstrating all these new costumes that she's created for the Incredible
family. What she doesn't realize is that Mrs. Incredible, who she is
demonstrating these costumes to, doesn't know that Mr. Incredible is back in
the superhero world and actually commissioned a new uniform because...

Mr. BIRD: He's been moonlighting, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, he's been moonlighting an assignment. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) I started with the basics.

Ms. HOLLY HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Started?

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) Shh. Don't. Shh. I cut it a little roomy for
the free movement. The fabric is comfortable for sensitive skin.

(Soundbite of fire burst)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) It'll also withstand the temperature of over
1,000 degrees, completely bullet-proof...

(Soundbite of birds)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) ...and machine-washable, darling. That's a new

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) What on earth do you think the baby will be

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) Well, I'm sure I don't know, darling. Luck
favors the prepared. I didn't know the baby's powers, so I covered the

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Jack Jack doesn't have any powers.

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) No? Well, it'll look fabulous anyway.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) Your boy's suit I designed to withstand enormous
friction without heating up or wearing out, a useful feature. Your daughter's
suit was tricky, but I finally created a sturdy material that will disappear
completely as she does.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) Your suit can stretch as far as you can without
injuring yourself and still retain its shape. Virtually indestructible.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) It breathes like Egyptian cotton. As an extra
feature, each suit contains a homing device, giving you the precise global
location of the wearer at the touch of a button.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) There, darling. What do you think?

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) What do I think? Bob is retired! I'm retired.
Our family is underground. You helped my husband to resume secret hero work
behind my back?

Mr. BIRD: (As Edna `E' Mode) I assumed you knew, darling. Why would he keep
secrets from you?

GROSS: That was my guest Brad Bird as the voice of E, the costume designer,
in "The Incredibles."

Now was the image already drawn for the costume designer when you started to
do the voice? Like, what comes first?

Mr. BIRD: Well, yes, we design the characters first. We know what their
function is, and we have a sense of where they're going to be in the story and
all that's going to be demanded of them. But we kind of decide how they look
first, and, you know, just take it from there, you know. And I found myself
falling into that voice. The character designers, Tony Fucile and Teddy
Newton, remind me that when I was talking to them about how E should look,
that I would fall into that voice. And I was just trying to describe (as Edna
`E' Mode) a certain character to--you know, this is how the character is.
She's like this.

And they would draw, you know, with that sort of in their brain. You're just
trying to think of ways to describe, you know, a character that seems clear to
you, and you're--but you've never seen it before. I mean, it's a type, but
it's also kind of a unique blend of things.

GROSS: Have you done voices for other movies or TV shows that you've worked

Mr. BIRD: You know, I did the dog barks in "Family Dog." We did--the
first thing that I ever directed was an episode of Steven Spielberg's show
"Amazing Stories" called "Family Dog." And I did all the dog sounds in
that. And I actually got more money from residuals for doing the barks and
stuff like that than I did for writing it and directing it.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

GROSS: So...

Mr. BIRD: That's the Animation Union for you.

GROSS: So what's the process like when you're casting voices, like finding
Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson, you know, for Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible?

Mr. BIRD: Well, I think it's just like any film; you're trying to find
somebody whose voice takes you somewhere and does something specific. I think
that a lot of people who make animated films think that big celebrity names is
going to, you know, mean something in terms of box office or--I don't know
what. But there is no correlation. There have been films with really big
actors that have just tanked and animated films with really small actors that
have done very well. And there's some wonderful actors, who I wouldn't
hesitate to work with in live action, who I would not want to be a voice in
animation because their voice is not that distinctive. There's nothing grabby
enough about it. It doesn't pull you in. And you really need to have that
because what takes an actor five seconds to say, it's going to take an
animator a month to animate. And that animator's going to hear that line over
and over and over again. So there has to be something really there to juice
up an animator and inspire the animators to do the best visual performance
they can do.

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird, the writer and director of "The Incredibles."
It's now out on DVD. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Fund Drive).

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird, the creator, writer and director of the movie
"The Incredibles," which is now out on DVD.

One thing that I think works really well about Craig T. Nelson is he has that
sense of being, like, macho and kind of suburban and conventional at the same
time, kind of like his character on "Coach."

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. He has a tremendous amount of range, and I think that this
film, in its weird way because it's animated, has reminded people of the range
that he's capable of. I think that he sounds big and can sound heroic when he
needs to, but he also sounds like he could live next door to you. And I just
thought he did a tremendous job, and the animators just absolutely loved
animating to him because there were all these nuances in his voice. And, you
know, he could sound absolutely like he could take your head off one second
and totally confused and like a little boy the next. And, you know, I was
just really happy with all the voices in our film. And, you know, I'm a huge
Holly Hunter fan, huge Sam Jackson fan. Jason Lee is great. You know, I
just--they did an extraordinary job.

GROSS: What did you like about Holly Hunter's voice?

Mr. BIRD: Holly Hunter, to me, besides being just, you know, one of the best
actresses we have now--I think that what struck me is that her voice can be
very vulnerable, but underneath it all there's something that's tough as
nails. And you just feel like she's just this very strong, diamond-hard, you
know--she's got her feet planted. And you don't feel like you could blow her
around this way or that.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene with Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) I thought you'd be back by 11.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) I said I'd be back later.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) I assumed you'd be back later. If you came back
at all, you'd be back later.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Well, I'm back, OK?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Is this rubble?

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) It was just a little workout, just to stay

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) You know how I feel about that, Bob. Darn you,
we can't blow cover again.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) The building was coming down anyway. I...

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) What? You knocked down a building?

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) It was on fire, structurally unsound. It was
coming down anyway.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Tell me you haven't been listening to the police
scanner again.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Look, I performed a public service. You act
like that's a bad thing.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) It is a bad thing, Bob. Uprooting our family
again, so you can relive the glory days is a very bad thing.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Reliving the glory days is better than acting
like they didn't happen.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Yes, they happened, but this, our family, is
what's happening now, Bob. And you are missing this. I can't believe you
don't want to go to your own son's graduation.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) It's not a graduation. He is moving from the
fourth grade to the fifth grade.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) It's a ceremony!

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) It's psychotic. They keep creating new ways
to celebrate mediocrity. But if someone is genuinely exceptional, then it...

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) This is not about you, Bob. This is about

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) You want to do something for Dash? Then let
him actually compete. Let him go out for sports.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) I will not be made the enemy here. You know why
we can't do that.

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) Because he'd be great.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) This is not about you!

GROSS: That's Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter in a scene from "The
Incredibles." My guest is the writer and director of the film, Brad Bird.
And "The Incredibles" is now out on DVD.

I was really glad to hear the voice of Sarah Vowell in the movie because,
among other things, Sarah Vowell is a contributor to the public radio program
"This American Life."

Mr. BIRD: Yes. Great show.

GROSS: And how did--now she is not a professional actress. How did you think
of her for the role as the teen-age daughter?

Mr. BIRD: Well, not to put in a plug for NPR, but I'm a big fan of "This
American Life." And I'd listened to it quite a few years, and I was aware of
her, and I was aware of the pieces that she'd written and thought she was
terrific. But I was listening to the radio, driving along when we were
casting the film, and I went, `That's Violet. That's Violet.' And we asked
her--we tracked her down. We actually animated a little piece of animation to
a segment from "This American Life," where she's blowing off cannons or
something with her father. And just to show that it could work, we animated a
little--kind of an early version of Violet to that little piece of sound. And
we asked Sarah to be a part of it.

And at first her agent was like, `She doesn't do this. She's a serious, you
know, writer. And, you know, I'm not going to take this to her. If you want
to go to her, you can, but I'm not going to bring it to her.' So we went to
Sarah and said, `Hey, you know, your agent has been properly, you know--he's
thrown water on us, so he's done his job. But we'd love it if you'd be a part
of this.' And she was just, you know, thrilled. She came down, and we showed
her that test, and we shot some stuff from--I mean, recorded some lines the
film with her, and it just worked really well. And we had a blast, and I
think she's great.

GROSS: Yeah, me, too. Let's hear a scene from "The Incredibles" with Sarah
Vowell as the teen-age daughter.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Ms. SARAH VOWELL: (As Violet Parr) I'm not the only kid to be sent to the
office, you know.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Other kids don't have superpowers. Now it's
perfectly normal for you...

Ms. VOWELL: (As Violet Parr) Normal? What do you know about normal? What
does anyone in this family know about normal?

Ms. HUNTER: (As Elastigirl) Now wait a minute, young lady.

Ms. VOWELL: (As Violet Parr) We act normal, Mom. I want to be normal. The
only normal one is Jack Jack, and he's not even toilet trained.

(Soundbite of baby noises)

Ms. VOWELL: (As Violet Parr) Lucky--oh, I meant for not being normal.

GROSS: We heard Sarah Vowell in a scene from "The Incredibles." It's now out
on DVD and includes many extras, including a piece by Sarah Vowell about her
experiences making the film. The writer and director of "The Incredibles,"
Brad Bird, will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more with Brad Bird, the man behind the Pixar hit "The

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brad Bird. He created,
wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning film "The Incredibles." It's now
out on DVD with lots of extras. Let's hear another scene from it. This
family of superheroes has been forced by society to suppress their superpowers
and live like an average suburban family. The Incredibles' son, Dash, has
been having trouble in school. Here he is in the car with his mother, Helen
Parr, aka Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter.

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Dash, this is the third time this year you've
been sent to the office. You need to find a better outlet, a more
constructive outlet.

SPENCER FOX: (As Dash) Maybe I could if you'd let me go out for sports.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen) Honey, you know why we can't do that.

FOX: (As Dash) But I promise I'll slow up. I'll only be the best by a tiny

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen) Dashiell Robert Parr, you are an incredibly
competitive boy and a bit of a show-off. The last thing you need is

FOX: (As Dash) You always say, `Do your best,' but you don't really mean it.
Why can't I do the best I can do?

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen) Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in.
And to fit in, we just gotta be like everybody else.

FOX: (As Dash) But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of.
Our powers made us special.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen) Everyone's special, Dash.

FOX: (As Dash) Which is another way of saying no one is.

GROSS: In addition to writing and directing "The Incredibles," my guest, Brad
Bird, also wrote and directed the animated film "The Iron Giant" and worked on
the TV series "The Simpsons," "The Critic" and "King of the Hill."

What exactly does the director do in an animated film?

Mr. BIRD: (Laughs) This is the famous question that always pushes my buttons.
Basically an animation director does--the important part of the animation
director's job is exactly the same as a live-action film. You're still
dealing with performances. You're still dealing with: Does the audience
understand what the character is thinking from moment to moment? You're still
staging stuff in the frame. You're still talking to the production designer
about color and how color flows from one sequence to another. You still talk
to the musicians about how--what the style of music you want is. You know,
for instance, on this film, I wanted kind of a retro-style like spy movies and
adventure movies from the early '60s.

GROSS: With bongos.

Mr. BIRD: With bongos. Gotta have bongos. But all of those things, you
know, when you're dealing with--when you're recording the voices, you're
talking to the actors about what the character is feeling and what we need to
hear in the voice, and when to play with the script directly the way it's
going or when to play against it. And it's all of the same stuff.

What's different is that it takes longer. You're under a roof so that you
don't have to deal with weather. You're segmented; your performance is--you
have to direct the actors doing the voice one-half of the performance, and
then you have to direct the visual half with the animators. But still, you're
saying, `That gesture is too busy; simplify it.' `Slow down that turn so that
we can see his eye at this point.' And you know, `I'm not getting the feeling
of pain here. He's saying something that is positive, but he feels pain about
it.' So it's all the kinds of stuff that you would do in telling a story, any

GROSS: Now you've worked with hand-drawn animation, like on "The Simpsons."

Mr. BIRD: Yes.

GROSS: And you've worked with computer-generated animation, like in "The
Incredibles." What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Mr. BIRD: Well, I think the advantage to hand-drawn animation is that if an
idea occurs to you or a character occurs to you, you can just draw it. If you
suddenly realize you need to have a new character or a new scene, you could
draw it in a day or two and give those drawings to a talented animator, and
they could start animating right away.

In CG animation, computer graphics animation, the building of the character
part takes months and months and months and months, because all of the
controls that define how the muscles move and how, you know, the facial
controls--there's something like 160 controls in the face alone. All of those
have to be tried, and bugs have to be found, and it takes forever.

Now once you have those characters built, though, animation goes a little
faster in CG than it does in hand-drawn, and it is more flexible in terms of
being able to reiterate. If you animate a scene one way and want to adjust a
couple of things, it's much easier in CG to do it because you're not dealing
with drawings. You're just dealing with information that you can change how
that information gets defined. You know, so I would say both of them are
hard, both of them are long processes, but CG has more flexibility in terms of
the camera work and reiterating, and hand-drawn has more flexibility in terms
of getting it going much more quickly.

But, see, here I am talking about this kind of stuff, and this is just feeding
into the supertechnical, you know, viewpoint of animation. And, you know, I
know that it's fascinating because it's technical, but it also, you
know--that's beside the point. The point is: Do you care about the
characters? Are you drawn into the story? And are we surprising you as
filmmakers? And that's the real--that's what separates the good films from
the other films. You know, in hand-drawn animation, they would always say,
`If you laid each drawing end to end, they would go to Pluto and back three
times.' Well, that doesn't--you know, you could do a billion bad drawings,
and it won't even transport you to want to keep the thing on. You know,
you'll turn it off if it is not interesting or involving. But people always
want to go there with animation, don't you think?

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I mean, my test is kind of, am I enjoying the images but at
the same time forgetting that I'm watching something animated and thinking I'm
watching people?

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, and that's the big thing, I think, is, you know, did we make
you forget you were watching, you know, an animated film? And I was really
gratified that so many people came up to me after this saying that, you know,
they forget it was animation, like, a minute into the film, and that they were
genuinely worried about our little digital creations and were they going to
make it through, you know, the missile attack and all this stuff?

GROSS: Right. Because you have to create, you know, animated versions of
people, do you find yourself studying people really carefully and just--you're
like, how does the mouth move when you smile? What happens to the shoulder
when you sit?

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, I think that's a particular thing that animators do.
Animators are observers. And you know, everybody's different, but if you were
to generalize about a type of person, animators tend to be the kind that hang
back and kind of watch. And they're oftentimes really funny people, very
talented, because they have to be good at so many different things. But they
also are great mimics, a lot of them. They can imitate themselves almost
like, you know, Marcel Marceau or somebody. They can imitate people walking.
And everybody has a unique walk, and everybody has a unique way of picking up
a glass of water or doing anything, any activity that you can name. And
that's something that oftentimes is not in animation, that's really only in
great animation, is the individual way that people move.

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird, and he wrote and directed "The Incredibles,"
which is now out on DVD. And he also wrote and directed "Iron Giant," which
is also out on DVD.

What were some of the cartoons and animated movies that you grew up on?

Mr. BIRD: Well, you know, all the classics, you know, "Bugs Bunny." You
gotta have "Bugs Bunny" in there for any balanced diet. It wasn't much in the
animation department, but I loved "Rocky & Bullwinkle" because it was so
absurd. And a lot of those writers went on to do "Mary Tyler Moore," you
know. So I really thought Jay Ward cartoons were funny. And I loved Disney,
you know. I was transported by Disney; you know, the great old Disney films
done during Walt's lifetime, I was just dazzled by.

GROSS: You got started working at Disney. Did you work with any of the older

Mr. BIRD: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...who made some of the classics?

Mr. BIRD: Absolutely. And my first teachers in animation were those guys.
I started animating at the age of 11, and I finished my first film three years
later. I was almost 14. And I sent it down to them, and they were just
starting to realize that they didn't have anybody to replace those guys
because all the studios had closed down their animation divisions except for
Disney. And nobody was being taught full animation; it was all this
television stuff. So they brought me--they kind of opened their doors to me
and invited me to work with Milt Kahl, who was one of the Nine Old Men, and I
got to know Milt and Eric Larson and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and, to a
lesser extent, Marc Davis and Ward Kimball and a lot of those guys that are

GROSS: What were the Nine Old Men that you referred to?

Mr. BIRD: They were nicknamed the Nine Old Men by Walt Disney. They were a
group of animators that basically were the core group that went from film to
film. Really there weren't nine. I mean, there were nine, but mainly it was
a group of about five or six of them that were on all the films. And they
were responsible for everything from "Snow White" through "Fox and the Hound."

GROSS: So what was some of the best advice Milt Kahl gave you when you were
getting started?

Mr. BIRD: He really beat into me that even though he was an outstanding
draftsman, you know, I would say to him, you know, (in childlike voice) `Aw,
man, you're the most amazing draftsman ever, Mr. Kahl,' and he'd say,
(imitating Kahl) `Well, jeez, I'm not that good a draftsman. I just--you
know, I don't quit so easy,' you know. And that was really what he pounded
into my head was that these guys just didn't let go of their scenes. They
just went back and went back and went back and really tried to plus them and
make the most entertaining character-oriented statement at every moment.

And if you look at a film like, you know, "Lady and the Tramp," the scene
where Tramp meets Jock and Trusty and Lady, every single one of those dogs,
you can not only tell which ones have collars and which ones don't by the way
they move, but you can tell which ones are old and which ones are young, which
ones are male and which ones are female. And I'm talking about if you blacked
them in so that they were silhouettes. It is so broken down perfectly on how
someone moves when they feel legitimate and the freedom that the one without a
collar feels to just flop down in the middle of a yard and own the place.
That kind of analysis in animation is just extraordinary and very inspiring to

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird. He wrote and directed "The Incredibles," which
is now out on DVD. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Brad Bird. He wrote and directed "The Incredibles," which
is now out on DVD.

You worked on "The Simpsons" for a few years and...

Mr. BIRD: I did.

GROSS: Yeah. What was your...

Mr. BIRD: First eight seasons.

GROSS: Wow. That's a long time.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

GROSS: What were your jobs with the show?

Mr. BIRD: I suppose the simplest way to describe what I did was I directed
the directors. The show--Jim Brooks and Sam Simon and Matt Groening had seen
"Family Dog," which I did for "Amazing Stories," and they liked the fact that
even though the characters were very design-y, that the filmmaking was more
like a live-action film. There were long takes and jump cuts and extreme high
angles. And so they brought me in to write on one of the scripts, write a
script or two and kind of help the show work visually.

Once I got there, I realized, you know, they don't need any help in the
writing department at all. I mean, I'm there to learn. You know, just plunk
me down and let me watch all these great writers at work. Where I could help
them, though, was in selling their ideas visually. We did not have the kind
of budget or schedule that we could do really sophisticated animation, but we
did have enough time to do sophisticated storytelling.

So I got in there and tried to get the board artists to be more influenced by
great filmmakers. You know, I had them look at Kubrick and David Lean and
Woody Allen and all kinds of things to get the visual storytelling to be on
the same level as the writing. And it was really rewarding for me. It was
like going to a film-school boot camp, because we had--in the course of my
time there, I worked on probably 180 stories, all of which had beginnings and
middles and endings and real problems that had to be solved, you know, before
we left the room, because the next episode was coming down the conveyor belt.
So I really--a lot of what I learned on working on "The Simpsons" I was able
to apply in both "Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles."

GROSS: Do you have a favorite moment or a favorite character on "The
Simpsons" that you worked hard on?

Mr. BIRD: I loved Krusty the Klown. And I grew up in...

GROSS: Krusty's great.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. I grew up in Oregon, so I actually knew the clown that
Krusty was very loosely based on. And I went up to Matt and said, `Is that
based on Rusty Nailes?' And he was like, `You know Rusty Nailes?' And I mean,
he's nothing like Rusty Nailes. He's a lot more decrepit. But I just...

GROSS: Well, he's a Borscht Belt clown.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, he's a Borscht Belt clown, and he's--you know, for some
reason, he never really takes the makeup off. And I just think he's really
bizarre, and yet I really empathize with him in some weird way, even though
he's pretty much kind of a despicable character. Any chance I had to work
with him I loved, and I also loved Sideshow Bob.

GROSS: So what is one of the things that you contributed to Krusty lore?

Mr. BIRD: It was not really gags, per se. It was more like the way he kind
of held up his arms and moved around and related. I did--I ended up asking
for scenes where he would go kind of insane in the course of a scene. There
was a scene in one of the Halloween episodes where Bart makes him just do "The
Krusty Show" 24 hours a day for, like, a week straight, and he starts having a
nervous breakdown. And so I requested that scene to show him just having this
nervous breakdown. And I think that a lot of animators based what they did
with him afterwards on that.

GROSS: One last question. You know, "The Incredibles" is now on DVD with a
lot of cool extras in it. There's, like, outtakes. There's a couple of
shorts that, you know, haven't played in theaters and interviews and so on.
Sarah Vowell has a thing on there. Is it something that you enjoy, or is it
just like more work to do to have to go into a movie knowing that there's
going to have to be all these extras and commentaries eventually for the DVD

Mr. BIRD: Well, I would say it's a little bit of both. I would say for the
most part it's a blast because, you know, we like making films and we like
playing with ideas. And any chance we get to have a little bit of real estate
to play around, we're going to take it. You know, most of the people who work
here at Pixar have big DVD collections themselves and enjoy DVDs. So we enjoy
making extra stuff.

The drag part about it is that the schedules on these things are getting so
crunched that we are just barely hitting the tape finishing the film and we've
got to, you know, run another four miles for the DVD, and we're tired, you
know. So I would say that part of it is not so great; I wish we had a little
more time at the end of the film process. But as far as doing the extra
stuff, we enjoy it, you know. We like--this is a fun job.

GROSS: Well, Brad Bird, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.

Mr. BIRD: Terry, it's been a great pleasure. I love this show.

GROSS: Brad Bird wrote and directed "The Incredibles."

(Soundbite of "The Incredibles")

Mr. NELSON: (As Mr. Incredible) No matter how many times you save the world,
it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. I mean, sometimes I just
want it to stay saved, you know, for a little bit. I feel like the maid. `I
just cleaned up this mess. Could we keep it clean for 10 minutes?'

GROSS: "The Incredibles" is now out on DVD with lots of extras. This is

(Fund Drive)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: New Orleans is a city rich in musical history but has
trouble keeping up with the times

New Orleans is a city rich in musical history. It was the original
headquarters of jazz and a source of powerful early R&B. But critic Milo
Miles says the city has had trouble keeping up with the times and not becoming
a theme-park version of itself. Two acts who have broken out on recent
releases are guitarist Sonny Landreth and the venerable Neville Brothers.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) People moving out, people moving in. Why?
Because of the color of their skin.

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: (Singing) Run, run, run, but you sure can't hide.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm coming...

MILO MILES reporting:

Ah, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, New Orleans. No other city has music so
woven into its fabric. But for a long time now, the very richness of this
musical legacy has been a problem for New Orleans' performers. Since the
early '70s when a style of lean funk began there, the city at best has revived
its older styles without providing innovations that catch on, which only adds
to the sense that it's a place with more past than future. On top of that,
too many New Orleans songwriters seem stuck on vintage themes--New Orleans
itself, its party spirit, its music--which only adds to the sense that its
become a very insular place.

The first family of modern New Orleans pop, the Neville Brothers, released the
gorgeous, incisive album "Yellow Moon" in 1989. Then for years, they
incarnated the Crescent City's underachievement. Oldest brother Art Neville
came through serious illness and back surgery in 2001 with a renewed sense of
urgency about music. He said he felt he was walking in the shadows of life
which became the title of last year's album, their most alert and militant
since "Yellow Moon." Most media attention was given to The Nevilles' updated
version of The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion." Far better is the cover of
The Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon," which show how The Nevilles have pulled
together as a potent harmony unit. Aaron even reins in the overdecorated
malismas of his recent middle-of-the-road pop vocals.

(Soundbite of music)

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: (Singing) By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion. But the wicked carried us away in
captivity, required from us a song. How can we sing King Alfa song in a
strange land. Cause the wicked carried us away...

MILES: The brothers may think they're doing hip-hop, but it more sounds like
a grand, greasy assimilation of George Clinton's P-funk. Much credit must be
given Aaron's son Ivan on keyboards and Art's son Ian on guitar.
Incorporating the youngsters hasn't always worked for The Nevilles before, but
here it's current events. The Nevilles sound more current, which makes their
album more of an event.

(Soundbite of music)

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: (Rapping) Well, it's the funk representative always
coming with the pos not the negative, never sending mixed messages to young
adults, 'cause if they are, they're doing wrong ...(unintelligible). Ain't
nothing but the ...(unintelligible) coming out the trunk, and who's going to
stop us from making a nasty dunk. You won't treat me like a fat man; like a
skunk man? It's not Batman, but it's the gas man ...(unintelligible) when it
comes to the funk, no one can outdo us. It don't get no funkier than me, look
in the dictionary next to the word funky, you see a picture of me.

Unidentified Man #2: (Rapping) Yeah, and The Neville Brothers.

MILES: While The Neville Brothers revive themselves as subject matter, Sonny
Landreth captures boundless high spirits of New Orleans with a stage
performance. Landreth has earned praise as a guitar ace with Zydeco great
Clifton Chanier and songwriter John Hiatt. After several uneven solo outings,
Landreth has made the album of his solo career with the live set "Grant
Street." And selling it to guitar nuts is an easy score. It's just Landreth
singing and picking with bassist David Ranson and drummer Kevin Blevins. But
you will not believe one guitar is getting all that sound and playing all
those lines at the same time. But "Grant Street" is not about technique.
It's about the feel of Grant Street Dance Hall, about evoking a spot with its
own soul no matter what, as Landreth puts it. You know, like the place this
tune is named after, Congo Square.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Landreth sticks to familiar subjects of heartbreak and hard times,
though his vocals are warmer and wilder than ever before. But it's that
elusive New Orleans shimmy he catches in his six strings that matters. This
is a nuance party time, not endless boogie. And I'd like to include a nod to
the luscious, overcrowded language of New Orleans here. A particularly fine
track on "Grant Street" is called "Not USS Zydeco, Not Zydeco Mobile, But USS
Zydeco Oldsmobile." Perfect.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. He reviewed "Walking in the Shadow of
Life" by The Neville Brothers and "Grant Street" by Sonny Landreth.


GROSS: I'm Terri Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SONNY LANDRETH: (Singing) You can tame the horses under the road,
through thick and thin without ...(unintelligible) you ever feel, she's
held you, but your ...(unintelligible) squeeze ...(unintelligible)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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