Brad Bird and Allison Abbate, respective director and producer of The Iron Giant, the Warner Bros. feature animation film being released in August, both think that not so much separates the design of their project from a live-action movie. "Shading may sound like a minor credit," says Bird, former executive consultant to the animated TV series The Simpsons, The Critic, and King of the Hill, "but it's actually the equivalent of cinematography in a live-action movie. And in our film, unlike most animated films, the characters change costumes."
"We definitely did location scouting," adds Abbate, whose credits include Space Jam and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. "We even have makeup, because the characters have rosy cheeks, and it was really hard to make those rosy cheeks."
The Iron Giant, loosely based on Ted Hughes' children's book The Iron Man, tells the 1950s-set story of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes and the mysterious 50'-tall robot he finds in the Maine woods. It's an Atomic Age ET, complete with single mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston), goateed beatnik hero (Harry Connick, Jr.), nefarious government agent (Christopher McDonald), and duck-and-cover exercises in Hogarth's school. The visual style of the Panavision feature is closer to the jazzy stylization of Disney's 1961 101 Dalmatians than to more recent photorealistic forays from the animation leader.
"I love that film [101 Dalmations], but there was no conscious reference," says Bird, an animation prodigy who was awarded a Disney post at age 14. "Our budget was lower than the average Disney production, and it was done much faster than most animated films." Bird pitched the idea to Warner Bros. in late 1996, started work with a team of up to 500 animators, CGI artists, and other craftsmen in early 1997, and completed the bulk of the work by November 1998. "But we were given tremendous freedom by Warner Bros. to move quickly and act on our gut. It was guerrilla filmmaking."
Since the title character was always intended to be a three-dimensional CG creation, a major concern was blending him into the film's largely traditional 2D environment. "Our whole movie hinges on the relationship between Hogarth and the giant [right], so we were afraid that they would seem like they were in different worlds," says Bird. "We worked for about six months to create a program that wobbles the giant's line just a little bit, so it seems hand-drawn. It wobbles about as much as a really good draftsman's lines wobble, so you don't notice it. But it's just enough to affect you subconsciously."
Elsewhere, the computer allowed the production to include a number of multiplane shots, with more complicated movement. Early storyboarding, using a Macromedia motion program, previewed what was possible. "At Disney, they wait until later to get to the filmmaking, whereas we tried to give the cutting and camera angles a trial run very early in the process," says the director. "That was an innovation that allowed us to get the film pulled together in a short amount of time."
In terms of the design process, Bird says it's very much like a live-action film. "You say, 'Who is this person, what is their function in the film, where do they live?,'" he explains. "And that goes for the giant, too." One of the big issues with the initially threatening but eventually lovable creature, who takes up residence in a junkyard, was his voice, developed by sound designer Randy Thom. Bird says, "At first, we want the audience to feel slightly unsettled by this thing," but Abbate adds, "The giant's sound becomes more human as the film goes on."
Overall, the film's palette reflects its emotional tone. The director says, "The most complex color change we have is in the last reel, when we go from the junkyard to the giant wandering in the snow, to a deep red for the climactic confrontation. It has to be very carefully designed, because each scene is being done by different people."
Though chief drawing duties are taken over by lead animators and artists Greg Checketts, Glenn Storm, Adam Dotson, and Piet Kroon, Bird says, "I think in order to successfully direct an animated film, you have to be able to draw, because that is your means of communicating. My experience allows me to talk to the animators as an animator--this needs to be slowed down here, I need a little more stretch here--and I can draw over their drawings on a separate sheet, and say 'More like this.'
"Animation is nerve-racking because you have absolute control," he says. "You can either see 24 mistakes a second, or 24 great decisions a second."