this excellent blog post, animator Stefan Franck reflects on what it was like to work on The Iron Giant under the leadership of the supremely talented Brad Bird.
Iron Giant has just been re-released in theatres in the USA, a fitting tribute to a film which under-performed at the box office when it was first released in 1999. For those of use who worked on the film, this was a huge shock. How could such a great film perform so poorly? Why did no-one want to see it?
Conspiracy theories grew. The studio wanted to kill it (because giant corporations love losing money!). The marketing department screwed up. "They" wanted to close down Warner Bros Feature Animation. "They" wanted to teach Brad Bird a lesson.
Whatever the reason, the film flopped. And Warner Bros did not close their feature animation division, at least - not yet. They made one more film - Osmosis Jones, which also flopped, at which point the division was finally shut down.
For everyone who worked on Iron Giant, it was a wonderful experience because we had the chance to work with a director who not only knew what he wanted (which is rarer than you might think), but he knew how to express it.
At Brad's animation dailies, each animator's shot was broadcast on a giant white board, on which Brad would draw over your animation poses in a dry-erase marker and correct your work in real time. This could be terrifying, but it was highly effective. No animator left that room without a clear vision of where to go next.
I recall one dailies session where Brad said to me "you've done the exact opposite of what I wanted". I cringed, wanting the ground to swallow me up. But he showed me what he wanted instead, I made the changes, and the shot got approved. It's still on my demo reel.
Brad taught me a lot. One of the tricks he regularly focused on was the importance of what he called "The Magic Circle". You can see what he was talking about in the video below.
He also said this about film-making:
"In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale."
So three cheers for Warner Bros for chancing a re-release of a movie that has already failed once - undeservedly - at the box office.
Let's hope it does better this time around.