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Brenda Chapman Interview Part I: Career

Brenda ChapmanBrenda Chapman has led a distinguished career, working for the big three animation studios in the industry: Disney, DreamWorks and now Pixar. She has played a part in many of the most iconic animated films of our time including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Shrek, Cars, UP and most recently Brave, Pixar's next film.

This segment focuses primarily on Brenda's coveted career, her motivations and the roles she played in the aforementioned films. Follow this link for part two which focuses on the struggles and victories she and the crew faced during the development of Brave.

Were you always interested in animation from the beginning, or were you weighing other career options along the way?

I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil, and I always knew that I wanted to do something where I could draw. I laugh as I'm sitting here now. You know, I rarely draw anymore. But I wanted to do something in the arts. I thought about fashion design, commercial art in general, but then I realized that animation didn't just happen on its own and people were actually out there drawing it. I love to tell stories, I love making stuff up like that in my head and I love to draw so I didn't really give anything else much thought.

How did you first break into the industry?

Getting accepted to Cal Arts is a big foot in the door for most people. But my connection to that was one of those "a cousin of a friend of my sister" things. So I got his number, called him up and he got me the number of Disney Animation Studios, and they sent me fliers for Cal Arts. When I actually got into Disney, it was because of the student film I did at Cal Arts.

So a little bit of networking, and a little bit of excellence then?

Oh, just hard work I think!

You've had the privilege of working at the three biggest studios in the industry, Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar. What are the biggest differences between the three?

It's hard to say. First, I need to qualify my statements because I was at each one at different periods of the industry. I started at Disney when the big reemergence of animation was happening, so I was very fortunate to catch that wave and work on Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and be Head of Story on The Lion King. That was a really amazing journey. I grew up in the industry at Disney. DreamWorks was trying to do something different than Disney, and I think that they've succeeded in that. They're more edgy, they have a little more irreverent approach, and have been successful at that. Pixar has a similarity to the old Disney days in that it's about making films that you yourself want to see and that you have fun with. They each have their own character, but it's hard to put my finger on.

Is there anything in particular that persuaded you to make the move to Pixar?

Joe Ranft. The late, great, wonderful man, Joe Ranft was a dear friend of mine. I worked with him when I started at Disney years ago and I knew him through other friends when I went to Cal Arts. He enticed me to come up. I trusted him completely, and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to work with him before the accident happened and to be able to have spent time with him. Joe is the reason I came to Pixar.

From all that I've heard and read, Joe seemed to be a pretty crucial part of Pixar. Have you noticed a difference at Pixar since he passed away?

I think there was a lot of change that happened right around his death. We were all terribly saddened by Joe's death and right after that is when Disney bought Pixar, so of course there are changes that are going to happen. Some you like some you don't. He is sorely missed. He was the great story go-to guy at Pixar. Everybody counted on Joe and everybody respected Joe and his opinions, so it was a great loss to the company as well as to a lot of people who felt like he was a dear, dear friend. The loss went very deep.

Of all of the iconic films you've been a part of, is there any that stands out in your mind as a particularly special experience?

I'd have to say Beauty and the Beast because I was a trainee on The Little Mermaid, a cleanup artist on Roger Rabbit, and I cut my teeth on Rescuers Down Under a bit, but it was after that that I really got to show my chops on Beauty and the Beast. People started to listen to what I had to offer. I so enjoyed working on that film; the crew, the people, the directors, it was just a great experience for me and I learned so much. I shared an office with Roger Allers, who was the Head of Story, another incredible mentor of mine. I think Beauty and the Beast the one that landed me the Head of Story job on The Lion King. That was pretty spectacular too.

Do you have any favorite characters from the films you've worked on?

That's a tough one. I loved working on Belle. I know she's gotten a lot of flak over the years. People can skew what she went through from a negative point of view, but I saw her as someone strong who wasn't waiting around for things to happen to her. I really enjoyed working with her and trying to portray a different kind of female heroine from other Disney movies. She's not waiting around for her prince; she's not even actively trying to find a man. Her father's in danger, she goes to look for him. She makes an incredible sacrifice to save her father and then ends up trapped in this place and incredibly unhappy, yet she's able to pull the good out of this beastly character. That was the intent that she was designed for, not the negative, "Oh she's an abused woman hanging out with her abusive captor." That wasn't remotely where we were going with that. She's one of my favorites. I also loved Rafiki from The Lion King. I still want to kick myself for not making him a woman like they did in the stage version. I saw that and thought, Oh, I feel so stupid! She's perfect as a woman!

Who are your biggest role models?

I'm the youngest of five, and my older siblings have all inspired me in many ways, but I think my oldest brother, Don, was the one who really inspired me to get out in the world and do something with my life instead of staying home, getting married and having kids at too young of an age and not doing anything with the talents that I have. He's 21 years older than me, so he'd been out in the world by the time I came along. I have a lot of admiration for him. Joe Ranft, of course was a huge role model to me, but Roger Allers has been an incredible influence on my career and outlook on the type of person, director and story teller I want to be. He's a wonderful human being, I loved working with him, and I hope we can work together again because I'm so inspired by him.

Do you have a favorite director?

Well of course, Kevin Lima! He directed Enchanted and there's no director I love more! The fact that I'm married to him helps a little bit too. But there's really no one director I can point out. I have a lot of favorite films, I don't have just one. I can name a couple that I really admire. One is John Sayles. He has this honesty with his characters. He goes out and gets non-actors sometimes to play parts in his films. He's an independent film director, one of the very first. He directed the Secret of Roan Inish, Limbo, Lonestar, Passion Fish. Everybody loves Frank Capra. There's that idealism he has in his films that warms you up and makes you feel like you can be a better human being. You get fired up by the messages he puts into his films, It's a Wonderful Life, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. How much better can you get? There are so many reasons to like so many directors.

Where do you go when you're looking for inspiration?

I look around in my life. I like to pull from a truth. You can talk about Brave, and how that came out of my life. I have creative friends who inspire me with their work. Art, movies and books. There might be something in a story that pops out and inspires me go forward with something totally different. I love good music. A good concert can really get me going. I saw Elvis Costello once in The Juliet Letters. We went to see a live performance of that with a string quartet and it was the most inspiring performance I'd seen to date.

What is the biggest difference between directing a cell animated film and a computer animated film?

The biggest difference that I struggled with was the layout and cinematography of the films. In CG, the camera doesn't necessarily stop moving in a scene. The sets can change camera angles which is harder to do and rarely done in hand-drawn animation. You can pan across the scene, but the angles stay the same. And if it doesn't, it's a huge deal. That was the hardest part for me.

This question is more for the gee-whiz file because I'm just curious. You're credited for some voice work in UP. Can you be more specific about what you did there?

Bark! Bark! Bark! Yeah, I was one of the dog voices. There were probably five or six of us in a room talking like dogs.

When you're working out the plot points of a story, do you give serious thought to the story arcs and character development, or is it a more natural process?

It's really both because stories come to you in different forms. Sometimes characters will come to you first, and sometimes you get a plot idea. I give a lot of thought to characters and their story arcs. But I also rely very much on my intuition. I try to avoid a formulaic process of thinking. I ask, Where do I want the character to start? and Where do I want them to end up? Then I try to fill in between.

You've been a part of many different parts of the process as a cleanup artist, animator, production artist, writer, and even the director's chair. What are the pros and cons of those various tasks, and what do you prefer?

As a cleanup artist, I loved to just turn off and be able to listen to books on tape and just draw. But I did feel limited because I like to tell stories. As a story artist, it was better for me to know what was going on in the whole story when I was thinking about my sequence, and I loved that. But I think the job that fit me the best was Head of Story where I could oversee the whole story and help piece together the puzzle. My favorite thing is trying to make things work and click, and then getting those sudden epiphanies. I just ate those up! Then I started wanting to figure out what the characters would look like, what the film would look like. That's how I got into directing. I was very content being Head of Story, but Jeffrey Katzenberg really pushed me into directing. He had to shove me, actually, because I was like, "No, I'm good here! This is what I know. I don't know the rest of that stuff as well." But I did enjoy it a lot. I hope to continue to do that in the future. I sometimes wistfully think, Oh, if I just didn't have to worry about all of that other stuff, and could just focus on the story and the puzzle pieces. I think that would be my happy place.

Continue reading: "Brenda Chapman Interview Part II: Brave"