In BRAVE, the latest 3D animated offering from Disney/Pixar, we’re in the Scottish Highlands of the distant past, where clan loyalty is precarious and magic still affects mortal lives. Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, starts out rebelling against the future laid out by her strict but loving mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), but winds up fighting for her family’s survival and peace in the kingdom when a spell goes awry and turns Elinor into a bear.
BRAVE doesn’t look quite like any film that’s come before, which is intentional. Director/writer Mark Andrews (who shares directing credit with original director/writer Brenda Chapman and screenplay credit with co-director Steve Purcell, Chapman & Irene Mecchi) is a Pixar veteran. He joined the company in 2000 and served as head of story on THE INCREDIBLES, where he first worked with his future BRAVE producer Katherine Sarafian, and RATATOUILLE.
Very much in the spirit of BRAVE, Andrews shows up to a press conference wearing a kilt. He’s enthusiastic in discussing all aspects of his new movie, from technical aspects to research to themes.
For starters, Andrews explains the links between BRAVE’s Scottish setting and its premise.
“There are all these things in Celtic mythology about transformations into animals, so that was something that we pulled from to put it into the film,” says Andrews. “We knew that we wanted this relationship between this parent and child, this mother and daughter, and by making them a queen and a princess, royalty, we had this very traditional society that [Merida] wants to break with for her own sense of person. So by having her mother, kind of i.e. society, be in her way of what she’s not ready to accept yet, she gets a little selfish and she gets desperate. The magic in the story was there so that we can illustrate visually the consequences of a mistake. [Merida] just wanted her mother to change her mind, but the spell goes totally bad and she gets more than she bargained for. But also, in the great traditions of folktales, it’s breaking that dynamic that puts us in a situation when people can actually see their true selves.”
What sets BRAVE apart from many other coming-of-age films are the stakes according to Andrews.
“I mean, every story’s been done before,” he says. “There is no new thing out there, really. But there’s such a comment in today’s society about the individual following their bliss; every character in almost every film has that [feeling that they are] not understood. I think the departure that we’ve done is, there are consequences. We can’t be selfish that way, because we also live within a world with other people. So we have to be able to find that compromise between following our bliss and not being told what to do, but [to still co-exist] in a world where things are asked of us, and that is what maturity is. I haven’t seen any other film that tackles maturity [in this way]. The thing that I went through a lot with making this film is comparing it to PETER PAN. Wendy is sitting there going, ‘I’m getting kicked out of the nursery!’ Big deal. She realizes that’s okay, because she’s pretty much grown up and she sees everything as childish now, so she’s made that turn.Merida is that classic character where she’s stuck between adolescence and adulthood. When you transfer into adulthood, when you transform, which is another theme of the movie, into adulthood, there are real harsh consequences for our actions and our decisions. We have to keep in mind that they’re going to affect us and others. So Merida goes on this big journey to become mature, to realize, ‘Not only do I have to be myself, but I’ve got to be myself in such a way that isn’t just blind to everybody else. I need to incorporate my loved ones and others.”
For those who think the notion of an action heroine is modern, Andrews begs to differ. In Scotland in days of yore, “If you got trained in the martial arts, you got trained by a woman,” he adds. “The girls fought alongside the men naked, covered in blue paint.”
Although BRAVE seems to be filled with bears, Andrews says there’s only one that truly counts as a bear. “That’s when [Elinor] turns into the bear.” When Elinor behaves like her human self in bear form, Andrews says, “You have the ‘human in the bear suit.’” For this aspect of the character, Andrews says he told the animators, “’Forget the bear. She’s in a bear suit, and let’s work with the limitations of the bear – she doesn’t have hands, she has to use the fingernails,” and all of those things. It’s great, rich source material, because you have the mom in the bear.”
Then there is the terrifying beast Mor’du, who trades lasting injuries with Merida’s father King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) at the beginning of the film. “I didn’t want him to be a bear at all,” Andrews relates, “I wanted him to be a monster. But it was [important] to get the biggest contrast we could between all three of them, so that the audience could kind of tell the difference.”
While some reference footage was shot of actors giving their voice performances in the recording booth, Andrews says no motion capture of any kind was done for BRAVE. The artists had various sources of inspiration, the director adds. “For the actual bear, we have lots of footage of bears out in the wild.”
As to BRAVE’s overall feel, Andrews says, “We also didn’t want to design it so that it was super-graphic and slick, because then you wouldn’t get a sense of Scotland at all.”
“Because it is such a place of texture and variation, that became part of the look,” he adds. “So just achieving that, and doing that kind of hyper-realistic [version of the landscape] – the trees twist in Scotland, we twisted them even more, the standing stones are big, we made them gigantic, there’s mist around everywhere, I smoked the set – we put atmosphere in every aspect of BRAVE to get that look, because here we have an opportunity to not just [depict] some fantasy place. It’s Scotland and it’s an ancient Scotland and we want to transport the audience there, so if you’ve ever been to Scotland, you go, “Yup, that’s right.” If you’ve never been to Scotland, now when you go, you can go, “Wow, just like in BRAVE!”
Having BRAVE take place in a fantasy version of a real-world locale adds a great deal to the film, Andrews relates.
“We knew there was a great potential in the movie just in the setting,” he says. “We had all these aspects of it, this great parent/child relationship and the world. I’m a history buff and a Middle Ages buff and a myths and legends buff, in the buff, so there’s lots to pull from, but until we got [to Scotland on a research visit] and were actually talking to our guides and people who lived there – one thing that I really brought back is that there’s a story in Scotland about everything. We’d just be driving along the road. I’m all, “Hey, Bob, what about that tree?” He’s all [does enthusiastic Scottish accent], “That tree’s where they tied up Cuchulaiinn, the warrior!” “Well, what about that mountain?” “That’s where the giants fell! They were beaten to death!” “What about that lake?” “I kissed my first girlfriend in that lake! She was a selkie [a seal who shapeshifts into a human] and she ran away with the fairies!” Everything had a story that you just wanted [to use]. When you’re working on an original film, you’re going, “Where the hell do I start? Which one do you pick?” Because you’re inspired by everything. So we just had everything and took a ton of license with it. I mean, the Fire Falls – there are no Fire Falls in Scotland, but there are Fire Falls in Yosemite’s National Park, so I put those two things together because it’s a story. There’s a story behind everything that happens in BRAVE.”
The trip to Scotland provided what Andrews says was the most indelible production experience for him and much of the BRAVE team: “Skinny-dipping in the loch was pretty memorable,” he laughs.
“We didn’t all do that,” producer Sarafian interjects quickly.
The challenges of making BRAVE were both different and similar to those of making past films, Andrews believes.
“I don’t think it was different per se,” says Andrews. “I mean, each film has its own challenges and story problems. THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE were very different in aspects of their story. I think that’s one thing for me as a storyteller that gets me out of bed every morning, is that I’m going to have a challenge with something I haven’t encountered before with whatever story I’m going to be working on. BRAVE was chock-full of story challenges. Just to get the balances right, just to make this mother and daughter feeling, so that you didn’t hate the mother because she was too Mommy Dearest, and you didn’t hate the daughter [joking] because she was just a stinkin’ teenager and we all hate teenagers – I was a teenager, I hated being a teenager – [serious again] no. So to get things right, so that we understood where [the characters] were coming from, the positions that they were coming from, and we cared about what happened to them. That’s a challenge in of itself.”
As with most technology, there are advances in animation on a fairly regular basis, so that the BRAVE team could do things that had been impossible only a few years earlier. “[INCREDIBLES filmmaker] Brad Bird was very jealous,” Andrews says with a laugh, then adds that one technological breakthrough leads to the next. “You do something once and we learned the next time, and the animators just going into the rigging of the characters on BRAVE – it’s so much more advanced with the controls that they didn’t have on RATATOUILLE, which were better than THE INCREDIBLES, which was better than any [animation] they had done before. So with every film, we break new ground and we come up with new ideas, and it’s another chance to improve on what we’ve done before, and that’s just [true] across all the technology for us.”
Unlike a lot of other 3D animated films, BRAVE doesn’t use the stereoscopic process to try to poke viewers in the eye. “If everything’s coming at you and it’s dimensional,” Andrews observes, “then there’s no visual storytelling and 3D just becomes a gimmick. Like all our tools, even how to focus, how I move the camera, editing, colors, lighting – everything is done to help support the story visually with the emotion, the mood of the scene. When I apply 3D onto that, I want to make those same decisions. It was really impressive to me when I saw AVATAR for the first time. What Cameron did with 3D and using it as a storytelling [technique], because that movie is not all 3D. There are 2D elements a lot in that movie, and I said, ‘He’s using [3D] to help tell the story.’ So I did the same thing when we were working on the 3D aspects of [BRAVE]. When we go deep and dynamic and there’s lots of depth and dimension, I’m cranking up the 3D, and when there is not, and it’s just talking scenes between the mother and daughter or whatnot, I’m pulling it way back, so you have an ebb and flow.”
As to what Andrews hopes audiences will take away from BRAVE is the message of “fate.”
“One of the themes of BRAVE is following our fate,” adds Andrews. “Is fate decided to us, is it set out before us, is it things that we have to follow, or do we have control of our own destiny? I think that’s one thing is, we can have control over our own destinies if we’re brave enough to look inside ourselves.”
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Article: Interview with BRAVE co-director and writer Mark Andrews