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The Mouse and The Rat
The Mouse and The Rat

If you asked me what my favorite film of the year is to date, I would announce it as Ratatouille without hesitation. Brilliantly written and beautifully executed, Brad Bird's culinary tale had a perfect mix of humor, humanity, and...rodentity? Anyway, I love the film and am very excited for its November 6th release on DVD and Blu-ray. And as luck would have it, Disney is also pretty psyched for it. Thus they held a press junket for the home video release at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, with a Q&A with writer/director Brad Bird. Our moderator was Pete Hammond, who began the ceremonies with a little history of Bird's career, and then asked how it felt that Ratatouille was doing so well.

"Pixar always knew that Cars was a more domestic film and that Ratatouille was more of an international film. So they always expected it to take off a little more overseas than here. But it's just the nature of the beast. I think the fact that it's kept going has been a really happy surprise for everybody." Hammond mentioned that the film doesn't at first glance seem to be the most accessible, seeing as how it's about rats in a kitchen. "People are more cynical these days about which ideas are allowed to go forward...but Pixar is just not a cynical place. If you want an example, we don't focus group any decisions. Look at this movie. Can you imagine anybody sitting down and going," and here he launches into a funny tough guy accent, "'You know what's gonna be big this year? Rats! What are the three biggest things, Charlie? We did market research and determined it's rats, it's cooking, and it's France! Slam dunk idea! And then try to make it a title nobody can pronounce.' Yeah, that'll go over big."

Hammond quickly opened the floor for questions, and we used every minute available to us. "I entered the movie a little bit late. Everyone recognized people are a little squeamish about rats. And so they had de-ratified them. They had made their tails shorter and have them all walk on two legs. And I thought that was a mistake. I thought it would be better to have them look like rats and then show one rat choosing to walk on two legs. We could use it as an emotional barometer of how ratty or human he feels at a given moment. And so once that decision was made we really studied how rats move. We actually had two rats in a cage in Pixar and we would let them out and they'd crawl around and they weren't creepy at all. They were actually kind of sweet and kind of smart. I mean, these aren't sewer rats or anything."

Since we were at a Blu-ray event, Bird was asked how involved he was in the creation of the Blu-ray disc. "I wasn't as involved as I was with The Incredibles, but the guy who did The Incredibles DVD, I think he pushed the technology to the wall on the DVD. He's totally against edge enhancement and all those little cheap tricks you guys know about. So I asked him to come in and do the Rat Blu-ray. And he pushed the Blu-ray to the wall and I was flabbergasted at how good the picture looked on the Blu-ray. I had a tough time telling it from our 2K $100,00 projector [image]. It is really amazing. If your film is going to reside out there after its theatrical run, I can't think of a better way for it to reside. You will have an amazing experience on this disc." Of course, the next inevitable question was when we would see The Incredibles on Blu-ray. "I don't know. I don't know that information. This is all top secret stuff. And I was told they could tell me, but they'd have to kill me. I said I'd prefer not to, I'll wait. I'm sure it's coming. They plan this stuff carefully. They have people that are smarter than I am about this aspect and they have all these things in mind."

I asked about Patton Oswald, and how he came to join the cast, given how raunchy his humor is. "We don't think of how appropriate someone's work on their own is for what we want. We just hear the voice and go, that would be perfect for this! For those of you who don't know Patton, he does some pretty adult material in his comedy. Very funny, but definitely adult. But for me it was all about the feeling of the character. We don't cast voices for how famous or not famous someone is, like other studios. There is a belief that people go to see animated films to hear celebrities, which I think is really crazy, but we won't go into that. With Patton, for me, it was the fact that he has a passion about what he likes and what he doesn't like. And you can hear it in his comedy. If you hear him go off about what's wrong with the world and why it's wrong, he goes fully into it. And when he thinks things are great, he goes fully into it. He also has a voice that sounds small. It sounds like it's coming from a smaller person, physically. But it's a big personality, so that seemed really perfect for Remy. So all I had to do was hear him do this comedy routine where he's taking about a steak house. And it's all about food and it's so right on and funny that I brought him in and John loved him and we went with him. And he did a beautiful job."

Going on with that subject, my esteemed colleague Christopher Monfette mentioned that Oswald was a "foodie," that is, someone obsessed with food. At this, Brad lit up. "I didn't know that, either! I hired him, he was working on the film, and then I found out he was a foodie. And I thought, BANG! Dead on! He's a total foodie! He comes in to a town, it's like he's got some kind of SWAT surveillance thing, and he will find the greatest restaurants. The up and coming ones, the ones that are off to the wayside, the best ribs, and he knows it going in. And he got to the point where he was emailing me menus and circling items. So I didn't know that about him. He was working on the film before we found that out and it was just perfect for the character. He has really strong opinions on what's good and what's not good." Unfortunately, there wasn't much room for improv. "It was pretty strict. These films are kind of precision tooled because animation is an expensive process. You have to know where you're going. You can't do what certain live action directors do where you shoot with a thousand cameras and all the footage gets sent off to a team of editors. Animation has to be very carefully planned. There were opportunities though where I encouraged him to improvise, and his improvisations are hilarious. The problem is, you can only pick one. So you will pick one, and there will be three others that are really funny that we can't use."

Hammond asked Bird his thoughts on films like Beowulf, which uses motion capture and CGI to create images that are almost photo-realistic. "I think mo-cap is a wonderful tool. And just look how Peter Jackson has used it. You can see how effective it can be. I think the dirty little secret of mo-cap is that the really really good stuff that you like has been massaged a lot by animators. For Gollum, Andy Serkis did a magnificent job physicalizing that character, and I think that's brilliant. But I also know that those scenes were massaged a lot to look the way they do by animators after the raw mo-cap. And the most emotional scenes of Gollum were actually all keyframed. The animators looked at Andy Serkis' performance, but they didn't use the mo-cap. And that's what nobody talks about. And I think that does a tremendous disservice to animators. They're not technicians, they're artists. We use different techniques but we are as much about how does somebody stand, are they hesitant, what are they thinking, are they hiding their thoughts? How is that depicted in the eyes? I feel like if you don't muck with mo-cap, you don't get the nuance of real actors. You don't get the selective caricature of animators. So the best mo-cap I've seen has been modified."

Finally, Bird was asked what he liked best about the Blu-ray format. "I would love to say all the incredibly complex features that are possible on the disc, but actually it's just plain old seeing things in incredible quality. I want movie theaters to step it up, because I love the theatrical experience of sitting there in the dark and watching movies on a giant screen. But screens have gotten smaller and releases have gotten so low on quality control. One of the things I love most is a very simple, very basic thing about Blu-ray. When you see it, when you shut off the lights you will see the movie that we made. Which is not the case with a lot of theaters that are not careful about their presentation...and one of the things I like most about things like Blu-ray is that you can see it pristine and perfect, and it's never going to fade. You can play it a hundred times and it will never fade. So I'd like to give you some exotic answer, but that's what I look forward to the most: seeing all the movies I've yet to see in that clean of a format."

That's certainly a valuable thought to take away from all this. At a time when the format wars seem to be heating up more than ever, a lot of people could learn from Brad Bird's example. He's not excited about Blu-ray because it's being pushed by Sony or opposed by Microsoft, he's thankful for it because it allows his creative vision to be seen undiluted. Hopefully we can all follow in his footsteps and enjoy both formats for the superior audio and visual presentation they offer, and not for studio politics that mean nothing by the time they trickle down to us.

-Daniel Hirshleifer

Also Check out Our Other Coverage:
Adam Tyner Reports on Ratatouille from Pixar
a DVD Talk Radio Interview with Brad Bird

For those who are interested, and I highly recommend it, you can download the full Q&A session. I would like to thank Michael Stailey of DVD Verdict for providing us with a clean audio copy that we could use.

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