Tia Kratter interview: Brave’s art direction, Monsters Inc and more

In the second of our interviews with the makers of Brave, we talk to art director Tia Kratter about the movie, Monsters Inc, and much more…

Brave is the most visually astonishing Pixar film yet, and it immediately made me want to go out and buy the accompanying Art Of… book, just to look at its handsome visuals from storyboard to screen. The book is well worth buying, but the person responsible for a great deal of the film’s aesthetic is art director Tia Kratter.

If you don’t know her name, you’ve seen her work as a background artist throughout the Disney renaissance, in films such as The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty And The Beast, and in a personal guilty pleasure for this writer, Rover Dangerfield. She started working for Pixar on the first Toy Story, and has since worked on Monsters Inc and Cars, before ascending to the role of art director for their latest feature.

Through the course of the day, I met Tia in a roundtable interview and then sat down to chat with her about the look of Brave, her thoughts on 3D and her long-standing April Fools’ Day tradition.

On the inspiration of Scotland

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We came here, going up and down the Royal Mile – that’s where I gathered all the reference for tartans, and also the reference for all the stonework on the castles. Then we drove up to Dunottar, to see that great castle on the North Sea, and across the Highlands.

I knew that it was going to be green, but I thought it would be golf-course green. I grew up in California, and if you don’t know California, it’s like you know nothing about the world outside of the state. It was a really bad stereotype, but all I had was “green”, so to find that it was so many colours of green, and so thick, caught me off guard the most. It’s absolutely beautiful.

I do love Scotland, so I will tell you straight out, we do have historical inaccuracies. The tartan, with the plaid that we have, didn’t exist in the 10th or 11th century, and we chose to put that in because that is such an iconic identifier for Scotland. Hopefully, we didn’t distract from the natural beauty by adding this. Then we have some other little inaccuracies, like some people turning into bears. [Laughs] So, we hope that the viewer is able to let go and fall into the world.

On animating hair

We knew from the beginning that Merida’s hair was going to be one of our technical challenges. When we know that something’s going to be a challenge, those processes tend to go pretty smoothly. She has that one piece of hair that Elinor tucks in and she pulls back out – that piece of hair is part of her personality, so the animators didn’t let that get lost in the rest of her hair. It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t turn out to be one of the more difficult things. 

On Monsters Inc. I must have done a hundred different drawings of Sullivan, trying to get his colours or his patterns right. You never quite know what’s going to sit easily, and what’s going to be the challenge. I think that might be why these films take a little while.

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There’s this drawing of Boo, where initially she had hair like Merida. And the technical team at the time came back to us and said “We can’t do this shot. Someday, we would like to do it, but we’re not capable of doing it. You’re gonna have one furry character in the film and that’s all we can handle, because it gets too hard to render.”

So back then, it was Sullivan, and we had one other furry character – he’s George, the guy who gets shaved. That’s why we shaved him so many times, he was much easier to render when he was shaven. As time went on, and we learned more, the turning point was Ratatouille, because you have hundreds of rats with hair. By the time we got to Brave, we knew we could do it – thank goodness, because it’s gorgeous!

[After the roundtable interview, I sat down for a one-on-one chat with Tia, in which we talked more about Merida’s hair, working at Pixar and Tia’s career in Disney animation.] 

First off, I want to say well done on the film, because generally, the thing about Pixar, to me, is that there’s always something visual that impresses me, that I’ve never seen before in animation. In Brave, there were about 12 things – Merida’s hair, the backdrops, the landscapes are all astonishing.

Thank you!

You were telling us earlier, in the design demonstration, about Merida’s hair being very ginger, very orange, in order to stand out from the landscapes. Was that a decision you came to very early in the production?

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It was before I came onto the film. You know, some things are just really easy and they evolve really easily. Some things, you keep trying and trying and trying, until you figure out something that works and feels good. Her hair, from the very beginning, was red. I don’t remember it ever being anything else.

So, that was an easy one. We knew it was gonna be red, and super-crazy. All we had to do was make it. And so, my part of the job was really easy, I just kept saying that hair is never one colour. Mine’s exaggerated, but for most people, it’s not one colour, so I kept trying to build in a variety of orange and yellows and reds, so that it felt richer. I like it too, I think it looks great.

I hope there’s this whole new – you know, sometimes, redheads get teased, or sometimes, kids will have red hair, and they won’t like it, because us adults point it out often. It’s so unique!

It kind of comes and goes, yeah – you have all those Weasley kids with red hair in Harry Potter, and that’s almost become the subject of teasing itself. Kids are weird, with teasing.

Kids are weird, and adults point it out because it’s unique, and so cool. But I’m hoping that this sort of lets kids know, really, that’s it’s actually great to have red hair; it’s good to be unique and headstrong and all those other things that Merida is.

It really stands out, particularly in the concept art, alongside all those greens and all that gorgeous detail in the Highlands.

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It’s hard to imagine that the landscapes were, at one point in the production, covered in snow for the majority of the movie. When the decision to lose the snow came around, did someone go, “Phew, it’s a good thing we animated all of this forest underneath”, or did you have to actually start from scratch on re-doing the detail of the landscapes?

It was a little bit of each. We had modelled a lot of it, we just hadn’t gone quite as dense as we thought we needed to, because we were gonna model it and then cover it in snow. Then they say “OK, we’re changing this whole thing. 

So, luckily, we had these assets, we had the models already built. We just needed to dress them into our locations, probably ten times as much as we had done with the snow. So, we had to do a lot more in terms of just taking these models and throwing them all over the place, with a nice sense of design.

There’s a model of Merida here on the table, and they’ve been showing us some of the toys and costumes based on the film, and I wanted to ask how it feels to see those, based on your work?

Oh, I haven’t seen the toys! 

Oh, really? They gave us a catalogue here… [hands it over]

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[While reading] Well, we kind of feel like Merida. Even though this is beautifully done – this dress that her mom puts her in – we first looked for the most tasteless fabrics, and all this embellishment, and then we said “Now we need to back off a bit, make it slightly tasteful.” And Disney merchandising has done a really good job in doing that.

I would never wear a dress like this – I’m much more like her. You know, bold stuff that’s much more like her personality. It’s good to see this – oh, the horse!

You also talked earlier about the tartan in the film, and how to replicate the texture of the material as it would have been in that historical period, you had to take the reference out into the car park at Pixar and beat it. It sounds like a very energetic job! 

It is! I think that’s why I like it. I actually don’t sit at my desk for very long periods of time. I’m never sitting for more than half an hour, or 45 minutes, which I love, because I’m either out gathering reference, when I can find it, or I’m out with the technical team, looking at their work and how they’ve taken my cues and made it into something beautiful. 

Most of the time, it’s just beautiful, and it is energetic. And then I have my scooter, which gets me across the building fast. You know, my little – I forgot what they’re called, I forget.


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Not that cool! I wish! It’s not motorised, I just get my exercise on it.

You must really love the working environment at Pixar, because I hear you’ve quit once a year, every year, since 1998!

[Laughs] You’ve done your homework…

Every April Fool’s Day, you send out an email with an over-the-top reason for quitting, and your colleagues tend to fall for it. What did you say this year, and did anyone fall for it?

This year, I had a baby with an editor on another film – he’s my age, we’re both a little too old to have kids – but we had a little baby girl, and I named her after my favourite cocktail, so it was Manhattan Gin Something Something.

I had about eight or nine people believe it. In fact, one person sent me a baby gift, it was in my mail slot at work. You know, every year, I think this is the one – the stupidest, most outlandish thing that I can think of, and I still get people who believe it! I highly recommend doing it…

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It’s a good plan.

It’s fun – people say “Boy, you sure have a lot of guts, cos what if you get fired?” And I say, “Well, at least if I get fired, it will probably be on April Fool’s Day, and maybe I won’t believe them.”

Not till April 2nd.

Yeah, then the harsh reality drops.

I also hear that Steve Jobs fell for it on three separate occasions. 

That is correct.

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And of course, he receives a dedication at the end of Brave. Was he very hands-on at Pixar?

Not very much. He was when I was first at Pixar, from Toy Story through Monsters Inc. Not super hands-on, because he was also running Apple, but he’d give many more reviews or comments. For Brave, I don’t know how often he would see it – at least once a year, and it’s been six or seven years.

He’d give really super insightful comments, and was never afraid to give us comments, but because of his illness, the last few years, we saw less and less of him. I think whatever time and energy he had, he was spending at Apple.

I think the last time I saw him was probably six or eight months ago, and it was just in passing, but he didn’t appreciate that I quit every year, so I’ve gone up to him and said “I’m Tia” just to remind him, and he’d go, “Oh, I know exactly who you are.” 

Getting back to the film, I wanted to ask you what you think of 3D. We saw it in 2D, and I’m actually interested to see it again in 3D once it’s released over here to see if it improves or enhances all that remarkable texture. Did 3D ever come up as part of the design process?

No, not at all, and have you asked Mark and Katherine about that part? 

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Yes, they said that as long as it was an audience choice…

Yes, we have the two choices. I bet that he said, I don’t think we made any decisions based on knowing it was gonna be 3D. We make our film, and we make it to be a great film, as best as we can, and then we let it go. I still haven’t seen the whole film, all put together, so you’re ahead of me. 

I thought it was terrific, and that it looked very textured and wonderful, in 2D.

I want to see it in both, but my first choice will be to see it in 2D, because that’s how we do our reviews. They do occasional reviews in 3D, but I see it in 2D, always. I hear Nemo is beautiful in 3D.

You worked on The Little Mermaid – that’s another one that’s being re-released in 3D.

Is it? Oh, that’ll be neat to see too.

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You have quite a history in animation, and looking back through your filmography, the credits there are all films I particularly liked when I was young: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Rover Dangerfield, even – all films that I watched when I was a kid.

Aside from Brave, is there anything in the films that you’ve worked on that you can point out and say “Yep, that bit’s all mine”?

No, absolutely not – once you get into this business, it is so collaborative and so non-personal. If you wanna go in and say, “I wanna make my film”, Pixar’s not the right place for that. What I used to do, on those older films you mentioned, is I would paint the backgrounds, so I could point out my backgrounds in the theatre. 

When we went to see Mermaid or Fox And The Hound or something, my husband would sit next to me and he’d go, “Just put your finger on my elbow if it’s your background.” And so I would do that, and just be tap, tap, tapping. And naively, we go to see Toy Story, and I’d never seen a CG film – it was the first CG animated film – and we got to the first four shots in the film and I’m going, [Tia taps the table] “Oh no, er…” [tap] and then not, and going, “You know what, forget it, can’t do it.” 

So, I did have that clear realisation from the get-go. It’s totally collaborative, and you have to give up that individual contribution. 

One last question. Pixar seems to be all about big leaps forward in animation. Finding Nemo showed off advances in animating water, WALL-E showed off dust and sand, and Brave, as we’ve said, has lots of new things. Where do you think Pixar will go next?

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I don’t know, I don’t have that kind of vision. If John [Lasseter] were here, he could tell you. I think that quite simply, it’s all gonna be driven by good story. Once I know the good story, I know where it’s going to be driven, and so I have no idea. It’s not a very good answer, but it’s true. 

And exciting!

Exactly! We’ll both find out!

Tia Kratter, thank you very much.

You can read our interview with director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian here. Brave is out on Monday the 13th August in the UK.

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