In June, during the global press junket for Pixar’s 13th animated feature Brave, we were invited to a press conference at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. There, we got to hear from the executive producer and Chief Creative Officer at Disney, John Lasseter, producer Katherine Sarafian, director Mark Andrews, art director Tia Kratter and stars Kelly Macdonald and Kevin McKidd, on topics including Scots slang and how one character’s hair tells a story all over the world.
John, what marked Brave out for you as a project that was suited for Pixar, and what attracted you to make a film set in Scotland?
John Lasseter: First, I’ve always loved Scotland. I travelled, I was one of those American students in the summertime that you probably all get tired of around here. In the summer of 1979, I had just graduated from CalArts, and I toured all around Europe. I spent two weeks here and just absolutely fell in love with Scotland – the traditions, the customs, but also the people.
I found the people here so warm, wonderful, funny, and I just knew in my heart that this place was one of my favourite places on Earth, and so, seven years ago, when this idea was first pitched, I was very excited. Number one, it was different to anything else that Pixar had done, and that’s what we always strive to do at Pixar – new things, that are really different.
And number two – it kind of seems like the rest of Hollywood animation studios had turned their back on ever doing sincere fairytales again, and I’ve never understood that, because I still loved it, and I knew the audiences still loved it. And this was perfect, and I thought we’d do our first fairytale, and do it Pixar style.
So it was those two things, and also the character of Merida, our first female protagonist, which was very important to me, to find the right story to do that in, And I knew that this movie would stretch the studio, technically, artistically and story-wise in areas that we had never been in, so that was very exciting to me.
Pixar engages in these very long, intense periods of research, and that certainly shows up on screen. Can you talk about the process of preparing the film?
Katherine Sarafian: We started this journey, right here in Edinburgh, about six years ago, on a research trip, because it’s research, research, research. Pixar start in the truest sense of where you want to begin the story, which is by touching the rocks and the heather and the lichen, and breathing the air, and seeing the weather changes.
We got lots and lots of video footage and drawings and took those back to Emeryville, California, where we work, and shared them with our technical artists, who are so amazing and talented, and offered them this huge challenge. John has always said that art challenges technology, and that’s never truer than here on Brave.
But then also, technology inspires art, and there was a wonderful back and forth collaboration with our technical teams as we developed the technology for the hair, on wonderful characters, including Merida, and the cloth garments, the Scottish forests and the vegetation, and Tia and her team were really hands-on in developing that texture.
Tia Kratter: I just might add, the thing that we were inspired by, especially in the locations of Scotland is the beautiful chaos that exists. Nothing is perfect, it’s always this grand mix of beautiful vegetation. The computer doesn’t love chaos, but we sure do, and even in Merida’s hair, you see that, and that’s something we became really attached to and loved as we went on.
Mark, it’s quite a responsibility to be charged with creating Pixar’s first female protagonist, such an iconic character. How did you feel about that?
Mark Andrews: I think that all of Pixar’s movies have a very dynamic protagonist in them. We started out with a toy, first, and then we had a bug, and we’ve had an old man and a Boy Scout, and a fish, and some superheroes.
That this one is a female is fantastic, but I think that more importantly for the story, for all audiences to get on board with this character, she had to be this dynamic, powerful force of nature that we could get behind and care for. This is the most important part in creating this character.
Kelly and Kevin, did you advise the production team on certain aspects of Scottishness? How much of yourselves and your own backgrounds did you bring into the making of this film?
Kelly Macdonald: Well, for me, the description of Merida is so far removed from me, that if it was a live-action film, I think I wouldn’t have fit in the casting room. [Laughs] So, it was a real challenge – the teenage aspect of it wasn’t a challenge, that came really quickly.
It was a real learning curve for me, because I’ve never worked like this before, where I normally under-play, and you can’t get away with that on an animation. Luckily I was in a room with Mark Andrews, so I think he helped with that.
Kevin, you were under-playing it, being quite delicate…
Kevin McKidd: I thought I was being very subtle! No, it’s great fun to play these characters. I really don’t get asked to do Scottish any more – you know, it’s usually cod-American accents, so it was lovely. I think I was asked to play Young Macguffin and then Lord Macguffin came later, but Young Macguffin was to have this very thick, incomprehensible Scottish accent.
What I loved about collaborating was that instead of just being a generalised thick Scottish accent that you couldn’t understand, Katherine was so interested in my local dialect and my area of Scotland, so I got to bring that to the party, and I feel very proud of that.
It’s such a creative, collaborative team, who’ll take ideas and run with them – I think it’s a testament to the quality of the work, that it’s very specific work, rather than generalised, and that’s not always the case in movies. It was great fun to get to speak in my own, crazy dialect.
John Lasseter: One of the things we were really interested in was for you to suggest your own slang from Scotland, and you did, quite a bit…
Kelly Macdonald: Yeah, that was fun, because you guys did an amazing job, writing a Scottish script in San Francisco, but there were a couple of certain things that just didn’t ring true, and we felt like we could discuss Scottish words, and words that we could substitute.
John Lasseter: It was very funny, because at one point, we started getting notes from different people around Disney, saying “We don’t understand these words! Change those words to something everyone can understand!” And we were like, “Yeah, no…” [Laughs]
We loved that because we don’t understand. We know that they’re true, and part of it, for me, was wanting the families who go to see it in Scotland to look up and go “Wow, they captured this place” and it was really important to have these great actors to help us with that. We really did tap into their upbringing in Scotland, to bring as much of true Scotland to the film.
How important do you think it is to show off Scotland in films, and what aspects of the film can children from other countries enjoy?
John Lasseter: Great question. When we create a movie that has a setting, it is really important for us to make it authentic, because even if you’re not from Scotland, everyone around the world watching that film can sense that authenticity, whether or not you know these words are true Scottish slang or not.
I believe that you always feel it. It’s the same authenticity that we have in Cars, about Route 66, the same authenticity that we have in Nemo, of the underwater look, where it’s not realistic, but it’s really believable, and I think that’s what’s so important. Secondarily, I just hope that people get inspired to come and visit Scotland from seeing this film too.
Mark Andrews: As storytellers, we want to transport an audience somewhere, and give them this experience of what being some place else, and the backdrop of Scotland is very personal to me. I’m in love with it, and to show off that character to any kid, no matter where you are, you’re gonna see this magical place. And if you are Scottish, you’re going to see Scotland in a way that you’ve never really seen it before.
Kelly, what’s the history of “Jings crivens, help ma boab”?
Kelly Macdonald: [Laughs] You’re rotten! I don’t know, I’ve just always known that saying. Blame my mum – yeah, I’m just like Merida, really, I’ve got to blame my mum.
You touched on being a rebellious teenager. Were you given support when you said you wanted to go into acting?
Kelly Macdonald: I wasn’t very rebellious, because I didn’t have much to rebel against. I started acting in Trainspotting, which was a very risky part, but you know, my mum’s completely supportive, and now claims she always knew this was the life I was going to lead. [Laughs]
Kevin McKidd: It’s from The Broons, isn’t it?
Can you give us any examples of words that Kelly and Kevin introduced into the script?
Mark Andrews: Scaffy, manky, gammy…
Kelly Macdonald: Gammy was mine!
Mark Andrews: Numpty!
Katherine Sarafian: Billy [Connolly] had a few, but some of them… not for Brave.
Mark Andrews: Because we’d always have to check – “Is that…?! What does that mean? Is that a body part? It’s not gonna work if it’s a body part. Oh, it’s a potato!” [Laughs]
Brave is the first fairytale from Pixar, and Disney has a lot of experience in that regard. Was there any advice exchanged or collaboration between the two?
John Lasseter: No, this was 100 per cent Pixar. In fact, this is a fairytale, but it’s kind of an anti-princess movie, because we really didn’t want to do a typical princess, sitting there waiting for her prince to come rescue her, or find true love and that kind of thing. It’s not a story about that at all, it’s about family, and I really love that aspect of the story, because it relates so much to families all over the world.
I think it’s really a fairytale that’s for everybody. Mark’s been really fantastic, in taking his directorial skill to bring the humour and the action and the emotion that transcends a typical fairytale, and it’s a Pixar fairytale.
We started this before Disney bought Pixar, so six years ago, I was made Chief Creative Officer of Disney animation, and at the time they said they weren’t doing any sincere fairytales, so we changed that. We did Tangled, based on Rapunzel, which came out last year, and before that, The Princess And The Frog, and it was about taking those stories and making them work for today’s audiences.
As with Brave, each of these two have very strong characters that drive the story, and that’s one thing from a storytelling point of view – you want your main character to be the one who’s driving the story and making changes in the story. You don’t want them to be passive, sitting there, waiting on everyone else. That’s one of the things that we focus on, but Brave is 100 per cent pure Pixar.
The technological breakthroughs in this film are the mesmerising hair and the tactile fabric. Is there an exact point in working through that when you go “That’s it, we’ve got it – we’ve sorted the hair”?
Mark Andrews: Like we were saying before, the art drives the technology and her design, and what we want to do with her. We want to say make it central to her character – it’s the reason why Elinor looks the way she looks, and Fergus is so massive, and all the lords and the triplets look the way they look, because we’re telling the story visually.
We design her and we say that’s what we want, and then our team has got to create it. We know it’s going to move, and it’s got to animate, and it’s just got to move right. We don’t know what the hurdles are, or if we have the technology or not, we’ve just got to dive into it to figure it out.
You guys have seen it, it looks great, because it’s just part of that authenticity of the story – it’s just there. If it moved wrong, it’s not as good, it’d pull you out of the story. So we see it and we go “Have we got hair? We’ve got hair for now”, until we run into another story point, where somebody concocts something that we haven’t done yet.
We’ve done hair before – we had it in The Incredibles with Violet and whatnot, but just not to this level, so it’s always this evolution that is driven by what the story needs and what the story dictates.
Katherine Sarafian: And with Merida’s hair, we got it, we got it to do what the story needs it to do, and when we’ve reached that point, we move onto other issues, and then the story will serve up a new challenge – let’s get it wet. Suddenly everyone’s got to get wet, so we look at it again, and we keep working on it until it does everything the story needs it to do, and only then do we stop.
Tia Kratter: I’ll contend, that from an artist’s point of view, you never stop. I wrapped on Brave about three months ago, but in these first two rows, right here, there is a perfect Merida skin and perfect curly hair with a beautiful colour, right there in the second row. And I immediately saw you and now I just keep thinking “Oh my God, where were you six years ago?!” [Laughter]
John Lasseter: One of the things is that everything in a Pixar film is there to help tell the story, and we begin to create this incredible head of hair, just because we thought it represented, in a visual way, her character and her spirit. If you compare that to the mother, whose hair is very beautiful, but all bound up, it represented her, and her spirit, and who she was.
There’s a great scene towards the beginning where the mom is brushing and stuffing the loose hair into this headdress, and the mom is saying “You look so beautiful.” And it’s such a great story moment that everyone in the audience just gets, because you’ve just seen Merida out with her horse. Climbing mountains, shooting arrows, living life and being herself, and loving it, and now her mother stuffs her into this super-tight dress, in which all you can do is stand there and not move.
That’s exactly like the mom – she’s forcing her, visually, into herself. And there’s this fun little thing where she keeps shaking down a little bit of her hair, and mom keeps tucking it back in – that’s storytelling. Everything that Tia and the art department does is supporting the telling of the story, because our movies are translated in up to 40 different languages. In great animation, as Chuck Jones said, you should be able to turn the sound off and still tell what’s going on.
Every one of those languages is going to have to find a word for “scaffy” and “gammy”.
Could you explain the decision to replace Brenda Chapman as director?
John Lasseter: We’ve done it before, it’s not the first time. Brenda pitched the story to me and developed it early on, and did a fantastic job, and at a certain point, as with Ratatouille, Toy Story 2 and Cars 2, there are times in our studio where you just have to make changes – high up, or down low, we don’t mind shifting things around, because it is about making the best possible movie.
Thank you to John Lasseter, Katherine Sarafian, Mark Andrews, Tia Kratter, Kelly McDonald and Kevin McKidd.
You can read our interview with director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian here, our interview with art director Tia Kratter here, and our interviews with Kelly MacDonald, Kevin McKidd and Robbie Coltrane here.
Brave is out on Monday the 13th August in the UK.