Making Brave: Pixar’s Katherine Sarafian


Merida steps between her father and the other Lords.

As part of my visit to Pixar in April, I got to sit down in a roundtable discussion with Brave Producer Katherine Sarafian to talk about the film, a project she had worked on for several years. The production of the film lasted long enough for her to meet her husband, get married, and give birth to two children between the first research trip to Scotland and the final edit.

Parenting issues were a primary topic of conversation in our group, since all of the participants were writers for parenting blogs. For instance, one mother was concerned about letting her own strong-willed daughter see Merida, Brave’s protagonist, acting in such a rebellious manner; she hoped that there would be consequences to her disrespectful and defiant behavior, to serve as an object lesson. Sarafian put her at ease, saying, “I’m trying not to laugh at your question. It’s absolutely, you know, you sort of nailed it. It’s like we wanted to make sure that we are not putting out the message, ‘be like her,’ you know? There are tremendous consequences and I think we’ve offered up a character who is willful and strong and very sure of herself but also a member of a family, a royal family with huge ripple effects of any decision she makes and any reckless choice she makes, but still a member of a family. When you see the full movie I think you’ll know what I mean when you see that there are serious consequences for her behavior. But without that rift in the beginning you cannot have healing. And so we really have tried to create something that’s about the relationship of a family and how it grows and develops during a teenager’s coming-of-age. So I think you’ll be able to have hopefully, good, fruitful conversations with your daughter.”

Brave production crew on a research trip to ScotlandBrave production crew on a research trip to Scotland

Brave staff sinks into the moss on a trip to Scotland.

Katherine Sarafian joined Pixar in 1994 as an entry-level production assistant, working her way up to a management position on A Bug’s Life, followed by a period in the marketing department before returning to production with Monsters, Inc. Joining Brave as Producer was something of a surprise; as she explains it, “it was a bit confusing because I came off of — I was in development and I was working as an associate producer, sort of help out in any way I could on a few projects in development. We had several directors at any given point in development, working on different projects. And I was helping out and they said, ‘so you go on this Scotland research trip,’ and [writer and original director] Brenda [Chapman] was there, [director] Mark [Andrews] was there, and the story team. It’s like we’re all going to Scotland and, I thought they just kind of wanted me to help out and get everybody on and off the bus and everything, and I was gonna go and help out any way I could. Over the course of the trip it became clear that this was a matchmaking trip to see if the director and I were right for each other. And, we came back… my boss took me to lunch and said, you want to produce Brave? It felt initially scary, like ‘oh dear, what did I just agree to?’ because these things are a marathon, not a sprint.”

Brave has been described as “Pixar’s first fairy tale,” but that’s not entirely accurate; unlike Disney’s many fairy tale films, Brave is not based on any existing story like Snow White or Cinderella. Sarafian clarifies, telling us, “it is not based on an existing fairytale. It’s an original story, conceived by Brenda Chapman and based on the relationship of butting heads with her own daughter, actually. We’re all big fans of traditional and classic and dark old fairy tales, but there’s not one that it’s based on at all.”

Katherine SarafianKatherine SarafianSarafian went on to explain that Brave has a lot of different moods and elements, covering a range from light and funny to dark and frightening, saying, “this is a Pixar movie, so you’re gonna get a little of everything.” She reminds us of the footage we had seen the day before: “there was a bit of a moment at the beginning there with the bear coming into the happy family picnic. You get that, and then you get a dose of humor and you get a heart and a relationship. I think you’ll be in good hands because it’s a Pixar movie ; you’ll experience a lot of different things. In terms of the intensity, we think, as parents, those of us who are parents, we know our kids and what they can handle and, and, should be able to evaluate based on how sensitive our kids are, what they can do.”

One topic of coverage of the film is that fact that Brave is the first Pixar film to have a girl in the lead role. Sarafian explains that this was not a conscious decision, saying, “it wasn’t a complete coincidence so much as a great convergence of the timing and the story and the talent. I mean, as a filmmaker-driven studio, our directors and our filmmakers are pitching the ideas from the beginning and, and when it’s their turn to pitch an idea, they write what they know. At this particular time, when Brenda Chapman pitched this idea, it was very dear to her heart; she had a six-year-old daughter at the time and they were really, really butting heads and she said, what will this kid be like as a teenager?” John Lasseter and the other management at Pixar were hooked and wanted to develop that story, and Brave went into development. “So it wasn’t so much about it being like ‘okay, it’s time for the girl movie.’ It was Brenda’s pitch in that moment.”

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