Interview: Pixar’s Mark Andrews & Katherine Sarafian

As the new Pixar animation Brave shoots into cinemas this week, Fohnhouse got to sit down with its director and producer, Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian respectively, to talk about the fairy tale, setting high standards, industry advice, and the late, great Steve Jobs.

How do you manage to keep raising the bar visually and reinventing yourselves?

MA: I don’t know if we know how we do it. When we approach the next film we really don’t think about what has come before and go, ‘we’ve got to top that’, or look at what’s being done after because several films are in production at any one time at Pixar. We just put our heads down and want to tell the best story we possibly can. A lot of the look of this one, the design of this film in particular, came out of the requirements of the story. We’re setting it in an actual place, and although we didn’t want to use actual environments or places like Loch Ness or Glen Affric, we wanted to have the feel and authenticity of the place, not the accuracy of it actually being shot in The Caledonian Forest or something like that. The backdrop is a character in and of itself for these people. The land is part of what makes you, you, and to have the story take place in that land that evokes mystery and enchantment was just a natural choice, so the look came out of that. There’s so much texture and variation and we needed to get that. Then, all of a sudden, visually, that raises the bar.

KS: We also build our knowledge on every film before: we learned something on Monsters, Inc. about fur; we learned something on The Incredibles about human animation or about hair, with violet, and we build on that and learn technologically how to approach something and how to approach a different technology problem. But, like Mark is saying, in terms of the look and topping ourselves visually, that has more to do with how each story is so different and has different requirements, so the next film out of Pixar, or the film after that, may look nothing like Brave and may actually go back to a more graphic or simplistic look because that story is not set in a tactile, luscious, Scottish landscape. We may have the ability to do more technically than we could do before, but the looks will continue to be all over the map based on what the stories are and who’s telling them.

This is your first fairy tale, did Disney influence that decision?

MA: No, Disney’s not looking over our shoulder or dictating what we need to do and not do. The appealing thing about the story to Pixar is that there are a lot of elements in it that we hadn’t done before, like the parent-child bond. The story of that dynamic, especially when that child is a teenager and growing up and becoming mature. That has a lot of heart and as a storyteller that’s just fertile ground for exploring that journey. We’ve also never set a story in Scotland, so there are a lot of new things that are appealing. And at the end of the day, every Pixar film is a new thing that we haven’t done before. Nobody can pin us down and go, ‘They’ll never do fairy tales. They’ll never do a story about an old man whose house flies with balloons to Tepuis. They’re never going to do a rat that learns how to cook, or a superhero movie’. We just want to make the films we want to make, and if we’re covering ground that’s traditionally been Disney’s ground, fine. But we’re going to do it a totally different way.

It’s a lot darker anyway.

KS: Yeah, I think we wanted to go to that darker place. We were very influenced by stories we grew up with – the dark tales of The Brothers Grimm – and we wanted to show real consequences to this young lady’s actions. She really makes some mistakes and messes up and creates a real rift with her family. If I make a mistake and tear a tapestry in my mum’s house maybe I get sent to my room or grounded, but I’m not a princess, and Merida’s actions have huge repercussions that will impact the entire kingdom. She puts the peace of the kingdom on the line and jeopardises her mother’s life, and we needed to show real stakes and real intensity so, yes, we go to some scarier moments and that bear is a real threat. The kingdom truly could be at war, so we wanted to go to that dark place so that it would resonate with people. We wanted to do it as a cautionary tale just like the old, dark tales we grew up with.

Could you give one fundamental tip as an illustrator or producer for people trying to make it in the industry?

MA: Draw, draw, draw and then draw some more. You learn more by doing it, so if you’re a writer, write. If you want to direct you’ve got to start directing. If you want to be an illustrator you’ve got to start drawing.

KS: Yeah, it sounds obvious what he’s saying but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who come to us and say, ‘I really want to write. I really want to animate. I really want to blah, blah’, and they talk about it but the truth is you’ve got to do it. The people who are driven to direct films don’t wait for Pixar to call them and say, ‘come and be a director.’ They start directing films. Even if they have no money and they’re doing it in their garage with stick figures, they do it. If you really want to do it you have to do it yourself. And that’s how you create a reel and a resume based on experience. Even producers… I remember people will say, ‘I can’t get a job in the industry.’ Well, go and work for free. I had to volunteer at a zillion places and get no money in order to learn the things that I know now in order to do my job, so you have to just do it. Don’t wait for anybody’s permission.

MA: Yeah, people are at the bottom of the ladder and they’re looking for the magic bullet to get them to the top of the ladder where they’re done, but it’s climbing the ladder that gets you there. It’s that simple. You’ve just got to do it.

Finally, there’s a dedication to Steve Jobs at the end of the film. Were you guys able to meet him and, if so, what impression has he left you with?

KS: We both worked with him. He’s one of the founders of Pixar so we worked with him for many years. We miss him a lot and his influence is felt in this movie very much (his desire to make everything beautiful and of the highest quality and heartfelt). He spoke of Brave because he saw it. Unfortunately he never saw it finished but in the early stages he was delighted that it was a family story – as a family man that was meaningful to him – and we hope he would’ve loved the final version of it.

MA: Yeah, his philosophy of ‘don’t just make it great, make it insanely great’. Constantly push yourself, challenge yourself and be your own harshest critic. That really resonates with the people at Pixar.

KS: He changed our fate. Knowing him, working with him and having Pixar built up by him… He changed our lives.