Pixar has been making feature-length computer-animated films since Toy Story in 1995, and all of them have been artistic and popular successes; the latest is Brave, which is notable for being both Pixar’s first “fairy tale” (in other words, a magic-based story set in a mythic “once upon a time” past) and first female lead role. Like its predecessors, Brave is notable for the filmmakers’ dedication to detail and quality; every element is carefully researched and designed, and the crew-members took multiple trips to Scotland to study the environment and history. In early April, I spent three days in San Francisco as Disney/Pixar’s guest, where I saw several demonstrations of various aspects of this process. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be sharing these stories with you.
We met with story artist Louis Gonzales for a presentation called “From Page to Screen,” in which he explained the process by which a movie is developed. The process does not begin with a written script. “Everything is a work in progress,” Gonzales explains. “Everything is always moving forward, and we’re trying to build this thing. We explore ideas that never make it into the film, because it seemed like it was something that had potential, whether it was really funny, and we decided that we don’t need funny at that moment. We might feel like we need a heartfelt moment, so we cut that funny scene in order to get something that makes the story work as a whole.” The story is developed visually by a team of artists drawing a series of sketches showing the “beats” of the story as they might appear in the finished film. Brave had over 110,000 such drawings created, illustrating about 100 possible scenes; only about 35 of them made it into the final film. Most scenes require between 200 and 500 drawings, though some short segments may only need 15 or 20. The story artists each produce about 100 drawings a day.
Once the basic story is worked out, attention turns to research, which sometimes adds new elements or changes existing ones. Research can take many forms, from bringing in books, movies, or experts to teach the staff about particular skills or traditions. Gonzales says, “we try and gather as much information as we can. You know, we’re good students around here.” Sometimes the research includes visiting the locations where the story takes place; for Up, the crew visited the jungles of Venezuela, while for Toy Story 3 they went to the local dump. For Brave, they went to Scotland. “What we’re looking for is to soak up as much of Scotland as we can, everything, from the smallest detail to the biggest castle.” The crew studies “architecture, things of that nature, old castles, new castles, vast landscapes, very particular landscapes.”
The research trips provide more than just landscape; the real benefit of visiting these locations is the intangible qualities, the culture and people. Gonzales told of one incident that occurred, and then showed the scene that resulted. “One of the most special things happened on my birthday. I know everyone says that; ‘my birthday is special,’ but for real, a night happened that actually even found its way into our film. I mean it’s something that affected all of us, really, not just me. We were having my birthday dinner, and we come to find out one of the waitresses that was helping us was this award-winning Gaelic singer, lullaby singer, more specifically. You know, I didn’t know that existed. It’s not in my culture. And we begged her and begged her, please, would you sing to us? And she was very humble, and she was like okay. So she finally broke down and sang us a Gaelic lullaby. And it was the most amazing thing ’cause, you know, it’s kind of the thing that makes these trips really important; it’s the unexpected stuff sometimes that is more hard-hitting than the expected stuff. Castles, we know we’re gonna see. We could see that in a book, but it’s good to walk around, get an idea how they work. Landscapes we can see pictures of, but it’s this kind of cultural stuff that we saw that affects the film – the kind of the honesty of what we’re trying to bring to the film.”
There is a scene in the film in which Queen Elinor comforts a young and frightened Merida during a thunderstorm by singing a Gaelic lullaby. It’s a very sweet little scene that helps to define the relationship between mother and daughter, which is the core of the story.