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Brad Bird on ‘Incredibles 2’ and His Return to Animation

It’s hard to believe 14 years have passed since Brad Bird wrote and directed “The Incredibles” for Pixar. If this were the real world, Dash would be done with college, and Jack-Jack would be almost old enough to drive. If he waited any longer to make a sequel, Bird, who is receiving Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation honor on May 8, feared audiences would start to forget the computer-animated superhero family — although “The Iron Giant” (Bird’s 1999 directorial debut) is more popular now than ever, earning an extended cameo in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” this year.

Incredibles 2” picks up shortly after the previous film. Technically, “supers” are still outlawed in America, but society is starting to reconsider, and super-parents Bob and Helen Parr are approached with a chance to win over the public. Whereas Bob wrestled with the thought of hanging up his cape and tights, Helen had no problem making the family her priority before. So, for the sequel, Bird asked the question, “What if they switched roles? What if the first mission went to Helen instead of Bob?” Meanwhile, when it came to the three kids, Bird says, “I knew I had the unwrapped present of the family discovering Jack-Jack’s powers. The audience knew it from the first movie, but his parents haven’t seen what he can do.”

For Bird, who was among the earliest graduates of CalArts’ Character Animation program, “Incredibles 2” was as good an excuse as any to return to the realm of animation. Immediately after the 2004 original, he started developing “1906,” an ambitious live-action project set against a massive San Francisco earthquake of that year, before the powers-that-be at Pixar persuaded him to take the reins of “Ratatouille,” overhauling the anyone-can-cook rodent-chef cartoon in time for a 2007 release. But after that film wrapped, he shifted his attention to live-action for nearly a decade.

Bird never intended to turn his back on animation. Rather, he recognized an opportunity to embrace a fresh challenge and took it. “Tom Cruise saw ‘The Incredibles’ and said, ‘If you ever want to make a ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie, let me know,’” he says. Sure enough, after further efforts to revive “1906” stalled, Bird agreed to direct Cruise in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” bringing a fresh energy to the franchise.

Even though that meant leaving his job at Pixar, Bird stayed in contact with the studio, offering his feedback and advice on projects along the way. “When I was in town, if they had Brain Trust meetings, I would show up and throw my hat in,” he says.

After completing the live-action “Tomorrowland” for Disney, Bird says he had no trouble slipping back into the culture of Pixar, even though the company had evolved significantly since he was last there.

“Not only has the technology improved, but the studio is about three times larger than when we made the first film. The quality and experience level of the animators is just staggering.”

Good thing, too, since the path to “Incredibles 2” was strewn with unpredictable challenges. For example, who could have predicted that Pixar boss John Lasseter would take a six-month leave amid accusations of sexual misconduct? According to Bird: “John had a lot of very important input when we were wrestling with story problems early on. He is a very fast and good story mind and encourages going in lots of different directions.” But in the period since November, it’s been all about execution, he says.

Plus, the “Incredibles 2” team has been operating on an unusually tight schedule: “‘Toy Story 4’ was a little slow in coming together, so they asked us if we would agree to take a year off our schedule, so our heads have been focused on just trying to pull off this very elaborate and complicated movie with no concessions to the quality, in a hyper-sped-up schedule,” Bird says.

Fortunately, he’s been in that position before, having worked on “The Simpsons” for eight years earlier in his career. “It’s a very intense pressure cooker. You couldn’t linger on an idea, because there’s always the next thing coming on the conveyor belt,” he says of the TV series.

That discipline served him well in the transition to live-action, in which an “appreciation of the clock” is essential, he says. “Animation was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema,” adds the director, who studied the work of such masters as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean when learning how to tell stories visually. As a result, the way he stages sequences and the rhythm of the cutting in “The Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles” owe more to classic films than traditional animation.

“In my mind, I’m just a filmmaker, and I work in a few different mediums of film,” he says. “One involves catching lightning in a bottle instantly in a live and somewhat unpredictable situation, and the other amounts to collecting lightning in a bottle one volt at a time. It’s the same thing: You’re trying to get magic and create characters that people can believe in and connect with. Whether those characters are made of flesh and blood or pixels, it’s all part of the same thing.”

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