Suitable Companions: The Making of Brave

Trevor Hogg chats with producer Katherine Sarafian, co-director and co-screenwriter Steve Purcell and music composer Patrick Doyle about their work on Brave…

“There’s something inherently lucky about diving into an original story again,” states Katherine Sarafian who was the producer responsible for the 13th feature made by Pixar Animated Studios. The way we develop films here is that directors and storytellers get to pitch their ideas to John Lasseter and our creative Brain Trust. If the idea gels then they’re told, ‘Go develop that.’ Brenda Chapman’s idea about her relationship with her six year old daughter and setting the story in a rugged Scottish Highlands was pitched way back in 2004. In 2006, I was helping several directors to get their projects off the ground and Brenda was given the green light to go do a research trip in Scotland; I was selected to go with them to facilitate the trip and to make sure that all the artists got on and off the bus and showed up at the right places. We built a good itinerary. By the end of the trip, it was clear that we were going to be a good match for each other and off we went into production.”

Katherine Sarafian and Mark Andrews

“I would say that probably the most formative experience for me was The Incredibles [2004],” reveals Katherine Sarafian. “Not just because of Brad Bird but having to work with so many human characters and the technology of hair and cloth, things we would end up using on Brave [2012]; that’s a tricky business and it was new to the company at the time.” The dysfunctional superhero family tale had fateful consequences. “Mark [Andrews] was the head of story on The Incredibles and I was the production manager; that was where we first connected.” Questioned about the contributions made by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews who helmed the project along with co-director Steve Purcell, Sarafian responds, “Brenda is so principled and passionate about making sure that the right thing shows up on the screen; she was driven towards an exceptional taste, in particularly with the visuals. If you look at our production design and the look of these characters and sets, everything was carefully thought out by Brenda and her team. Steve Purcell, I call him my barometer of what is creatively right in the world; he has such a great knack for timing, dialogue, and comedy. Storytelling is ‘listen to your gut type of work’ and he knows how to listen to his gut and his gut seems like it’s always right. Mark Andrews, a force of nature as we call him; he’s such a bundle of energy and entertainment, from his sword fighting and archery prowess to his love for the Middle Ages, Scotland and medieval cultures. Mark infused that entertainment into everything that he did, even the way he ran his reviews and meetings which are boisterous, vagarious and loving; that binds a crew together to see them through all this tough work.”

Steve Purcell

“I was invited to come aboard as Story Supervisor early on,” explains Steve Purcell. “I helped develop the story with Brenda and did a bit of visual development before we had a real art team. I worked with the story crew and along the way I was able to contribute to the script and was asked to be co-director.” Purcell is a video game industry veteran. “A feature film is more the intuitive way to write since it’s linear. It’s definitely a clearer way to tell a story. Since a game is interactive the writing needs to inform the player, help them know what to do next and never bog them down from the gameplay.” The excursion to Scotland supervised by Sarafian left a lasting impression. “Story research is fun because the goal is to soak up the character and atmosphere of the place. We dined with locals at every stop and learned about the folklore in each village we visited. We drank and danced and swam in icy lochs. The trip informed the film in a big way.”

Brenda Chapman

“A little know fact is that our original title was Brave,” reveals Katherine Sarafian. “When we went to Scotland on the research trip we were the Brave Scotland Trip. We detoured to The Bear and the Bow when it was time to announce the film publicly. We come up with a title and a logo, and at that point we didn’t think Brave was a serious title because it was our working title. We came up with The Bear and the Bow and got approved by Disney marketing. Then after some time we were like, ‘This doesn’t feel like its right for us.’ These layers of bravery were working on a lot of levels. The inner courage of facing up to whom you are, reconciling that with how the world sees you and there’s the outward bravery – all of these different things. That was always a cool theme in the story.” The fairy tales of old helped to shape the story. “We wanted to go back to a darker time like with the Brothers Grimm where these cautionary tales for kids were intense, scary and sometimes bad things happen. These are tales where if you go out into the woods you could get eaten.” The emotional core of Brave revolved around the contentious relationship between Brenda Chapman and her daughter. “Brenda’s imagination was reading it like, ‘If we can’t get along over simple things now what will our teenage mother daughter dynamic look like?’ And that combined with her love for Scotland and dark old fairy tales is what came together in her initial pitch and that’s exactly what hooked Pixar and John Lasseter to say, ‘Yes. That’s a beautiful story. It’s a family story.’”

Pixar Animation Studios Screening Room

John Lasseter

Obtaining the green light to proceed from the Pixar Brain Trust was only the first step in a long creative journey. “We put the whole movie together even if it’s just the storyboards every three to four months,” says Katherine Sarafian. “We pull together an audience of either crew members or other people from the company, and then we invite our creative Brain Trust anywhere from six to ten of them to view it. We sit in a room afterwards for a couple of hours and we all tear the movie apart. We also talk about what is working and feeling stable, whether it’s structure or character arcs. They influence it by being our partners through years of production. We’re checking in with this story every few months and there’s always something deeply broken and something working. The dance that we do over all this time and all of these screenings is to get all of the ingredients into the right measures so everything is working or at least most of it. None of our filmmakers can do that alone. If you ask any of our directors they say, ‘Oh, those Brain Trust screenings are torture because they’re so hard.’ You’re getting so many notes. All of your hard work is torn down and then you have to go do it again. But as much as they would all say it’s super hard, they would also say that they’re stories are better for it. Some of our biggest creative changes on Brave, WALL-E [2008], Up [2009], and Nemo [2003] have come out of those Brain Trust sessions where all of the directors are collaborating with each other.”

“Here is one example of something that happens over the course of all these screenings,” remarks Sarafian. “The nugget or the seed of the idea begins way back at the pitch and that is maintained throughout. There’s a mother, a daughter, somebody turns into something, and there’s a spell. As it was fleshed out we were expanding the kingdom. At one point we had four clans: Macintosh, MacGuffin, Dingwall, and MacGregor rather than three different clans. Instead of the three Lords and their sons for a total of six we had four lords. That was a big change. We got rid of the MacGregor clan and we introduced the lords’ sons and made them the suitors for Marida’s betrothal. For a long time we thought that the lords were the suitors. We finally looked at it and said, ‘What are we thinking? They’re too old. It’s not going to work. It’s creepy.’ You have to work the stuff over and over. We get so close to it and when we’re looking at it we can’t always see that. Sometimes in Brain Trust meetings we’ll zoom out and we’ll all look at it like, ‘Wait a minute you don’t need four clans because King Fergus has a clan himself. That’s the fourth clan. Get rid of a clan, bring in the sons, and they have the other benefit of representing a new generation.’ These are the kinds of solutions we come up with. There used to be that each clan had relics, such as swords, and instead of carry these things around with them we ended up representing them on flag banners later. Those are things we do throughout, simplifying and clarifying. We do that for years for all of our films.”

“A screenplay at Pixar is a living document,” observes Steve Purcell. “We start with written pages but then we explore and discover a lot in storyboards and brainstorming sessions. The screenplay is continuously being revised based on the storyboarded sequences. When the time comes to record the actors we go through and pin down the dialogue. But even then we are open to revisions based on the surprises that can emerge during the performance.” The heart of the story was maintained. “The emotional connection between a parent and child and the struggle to gain maturity was a theme that was always there. If you decide what that foundation is you can build onto it, tear it down and build it again over and over again.” Purcell notes, “Writers are always observing and drawing from life. As a parent I’ve lived the kinds of interactions that are common between a parent and a young teenager. I’ve also been the kid in that equation. If we can recognize the characters, if they behave truthfully, we can invest in them emotionally. The surroundings can be as fantastical as you like as long as you buy into the characters.”

“In animation, you do look for every opportunity to let your characters be physical,” states Steve Purcell. “And in any form of screen writing whatever you can show without dialogue is a shortcut for the audience. If we see Merida’s hair blowing in the wind when she is enjoying her passion of riding and archery, and then we see her completely contained as her mother cinches her into a restrictive dress, we’ve given the audience volumes of information not dependent on dialogue.” Conflict needs to be used in an organic rather than a forced manner. “Though our main characters are royals we wanted the audience to recognize them as a believable family. Merida and Elinor are arguing about an archery competition where the peace of the kingdom is at play, but the broader argument is relatable if it’s based on simple emotions that we all share.” It was important for the characters to be likeable. “For a long time we had a great amount of drama,” remarks Katherine Sarafian. But we didn’t want audiences to get tired of seeing an argument go on. We had to keep working it and making sure that the characters were appealing and audiences could be sympathetic to Merida even though she’s a teenager who does reckless things and is a pain; her mother is also a bit rigid in her thinking.” A harder path was taken when portraying the mother-daughter relationship. “We wanted to show a conflict between two strong characters without taking sides,” remarks Purcell. “It’s easier to tip the scales one way or another but I think it’s less common to be able to see both points of view.”

“Working with strong women is very helpful,” replies Steven Purcell when asked what it was like to write from the female’s perspective. “But with any character you try to put yourself in their skin. When I would write for Merida I didn’t want her just to behave like a boy but to reveal vulnerability in the face of her looming dilemma. It felt like Merida’s reactions to the challenges in her life should be complicated, not just black and white. She’s tough but it’s hard to be tough.” A particular cinematic moment stands out. “The crosstalk scene early in the film where Elinor and Merida seem to be talking to each other from different locations was a solution to a couple of story issues. We had a traffic jam of information in that part of the film and were looking for trims. At the same time we wanted to reveal what is in each of the character’s hearts. Originally we had two totally separate streams of thought. I pitched Mark the idea of feathering their dialogue together. We wanted the audience to feel, ‘If only they could talk to each other like this.’”

“We thought we’re going to see Merida as a skilled archer when she’s shooting in the games standing still,” recalls Katherine Sarafian. “But in order to show her free spirit and how good she really is let’s have her on a horse moving and shooting which is nearly impossible to do. The goal with that scene is to express her joy and freedom of what it means for her to be out and about doing what she loves to do rather in the confines of the castle and the princess duty type of stuff. A lot went into creating that because we wanted to create this rich lush Scottish forest like the ones we saw in Caledonian or Glen Affric areas where the vegetation is dense. We wanted to make Merida’s playground this lush, rich, complex and chaotic landscape.” As much as the setting was a wonderful playground it could also be “a dangerous, menacing, and mysterious place. We created ‘wonder moss’ which was a technology to populate the forest with so much vegetation and richness.” A tremendous amount of R&D was required to produce such things as Merida’s long red curly hair. “We had a simulation team that handled hair, cloth and grooming. Not just modeling hair and cloth and fur but then making it move, look good and giving it a look for when it’s wet, dry, and windblown; leaves are going through it and hands are being moved through hair.” A new computer software program was created. “It took about two years to develop the technology for Merida’s hair to work. Then you have to think about all the other hair, all the background characters hair and we did more layers of garments than we’d ever done historically here at Pixar. King Fergus, for example, had seven layers if you include his swords scabbard, kilt, bear cloak, tunic and so on. That’s extremely difficult to do.”

“In live-action obviously you get the actors’ performance for free. Here we have to think about when they blink. We have to remember to make them breathe; animated characters don’t do that on their own so we have to build that in. We concentrate so much on doing that that in the end you get a result where you do feel like that the subtleties are there; we build them in frame by frame, pixel by pixel.” The mannerisms of the voice cast influenced the portrayal of their animated personas. “By the time we pitched Emma Thompson [Sense and Sensibility] on this movie we had already designed her character,” states Katherine Sarafian. “The difference though is once we start recording we do get a whole new level of inspiration from the way the actors move their faces. One thing we noticed with Emma Thompson is how much acting she does in the upper part of her face from the top of her nose up to her hairline; her forehead is extremely expressive. We looked at the way Emma was saying things and emoting; we used that as animation reference.” The script was also impacted by the actors. “Once we got to know each of the actors and become familiar with their performing style,” explains Steve Purcell, “we would find ourselves writing more toward each of their interpretations of the characters.”

A famous mysterious Scottish landmark served as a major visual influence. “There are stone circles all over Scotland,” states Katherine Sarafian. “Sometimes you’ll happen upon a field in a farm and there’s a stone that’s standing up and you don’t know where it came from and then there’s these circle of stones. Callanish had a particular impact. I’ve been there about three or four times to Callanish; from my perspective, the setting of it was important not just because of the stones and the way they’re laid out in this perfect circle but their size. They’re huge. In our movie we made them even bigger. They’re not exactly as Callanish is; they were inspired by them. They’re huge but also on this exposed hillside out on the Isle of Lewis. In Brave we put them out in the woods but on Callanish, the stones are on an exposed hillside. I was inspired by the idea of this big, vulnerable and exposed environment where these huge monolithic structures are standing strong for generations.”

Patrick Doyle

Adding to the authenticity was the music composed by Patrick Doyle (Hamlet). “I treat both live action and animation with the same great respect and they both make exactly the same demands in terms of the drama, the narrative and the characterizations. The only difference in Brave is it contained many types of dramatic musical styles – comedy, action, thriller, pathos and familial love.” The native of Uddingston, Scotland notes, “A great musical score should enhance the already beautiful work by every department on the film. There was no particularly score which influenced me on Brave but my musical heritage played a huge part in influencing the score.” Doyle believes, “There are many elements essential in the craft of musical composition. The composer requires an innate sense of drama, and a deep understanding and study of the narrative and the characters as well as the visuals, and finally the physical movement of the picture. These were critical in building the score for Brave.” The two-time Academy Award nominee remarks, “One of the biggest challenges was writing the main themes and the song Noble Maiden Fair and although I was brought up in the world of Gaelic singing, I once more immersed myself in the study of my culture in order to succeed.”

“With regards to creating the various tones,” states Patrick Doyle, “I employed contemporary electronic sounds alongside native Scottish Celtic instruments, for example, the whistle, the bagpipes, the Celtic harp and the bodhrán, as well as European instruments such as the dulcimer and the cimbalom. This helped to keep the score contemporary as well as ancient.” He adds, “I felt the uniqueness that my Celtic music brought to movies was in my melodic writing, which was influenced by being a Scot who was brought up listening to wonderful Celtic melodies.” Assembling the soundtrack was like producing symphonic programme music as it tells a story. “I always choose a score title which conjures up that particular moment in the film and the title normally survives right through to the album stage.” The ideas for the musical themes come from the characters themselves as “their personalities, their voices and physical movements are always an inspiration for me.” The story beats have an impact on the musical ones. “The rhythm of the story is crucial to the rhythm of the music. One cannot live without the other.” The first assignment was to score the teaser trailer. “It is not usual for the composer to compose the music for the trailer these days, but Mark and Katherine were very keen that I should do this. The main theme for this very first trailer is featured in the body of the score. One of the earliest sequences that I worked on within the body of the movie was the opening of the film where Merida was describing the ancient land of Scotland. This stayed as it was as the project progressed.” Doyle is particularly fond of the track called We’ve Both Changed which plays during the Sun Rise Sequence near the end of Brave. “The film and the drama itself were magical, and my job was to capture the magic on screen using the magic of Celtic music.”

“We’ve got a good process here at Pixar,” states Katherine Sarafian when addressing the issue of stereoscopic conversion. “We compose the movie for regular theatrical 2D release and we have a stereo team that works here with us; they work about a week behind us so as we finish shots they then do the 3D. They call us in and we look at it. We maybe make some notes and recompose a few things for storytelling and we move on. It doesn’t impose on us and what we like is that it enhances the storytelling in the moments we wanted so Mark will say, ‘I want to dial up the 3D here when the camera is spinning around the ring of stones and Merida is disoriented. I wanted more depth. When we’re in the castle and she is in the confines of that life she doesn’t like lets go flat almost 2D in fact so we really feel that jump when she gets outside and she’s free in doing what she wants to do.’ Those were the kinds of visuals choices we get to make in 3D and there’s a team working with us that will do it so we don’t have to.”

“My belief is we shouldn’t make a film in animation unless it really needs to be done in animation,” says Katherine Sarafian. “If you could tell a story just as well in live-action you should. With ours we wanted to create a believable looking Scottish environment with characters juxtaposed against it that have this stylization to them so you have these looks that you would think that they would compete with each other but the idea is for them to work seamlessly together so it is believable. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Scotland but it’s not like any Scotland I’ve ever seen.’ The goal was take make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen and yet familiar enough that you feel the sense of place.”

The animation is complimented by a well-known theme. “Coming of age is a timeless idea since we’ve all been there,” states Steve Purcell. “Brave is unique in that it tells a dramatic, fantastical story against a family drama. Most of the time a folk tale or princess-centered story is about a missing or evil parent. In our film there is magic and broad adventure but with a real family at the center of it.” For Sarafian, humour was an indispensable storytelling tool in producing the $185 million project which has earned $376 million worldwide. “We wanted to make sure you’re never scared for too long something because something light will happen to balance it out.” Purcell concludes, “In a Pixar film the audience expects laughs, gorgeous visuals and characters that they’ll love. All we need to do on these films is everything!”

Production stills and concept art © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

World Premiere photographs © 2012 Lester Cohen. All rights reserved.

Pixar screening room photograph by Sharon Risedorph.

Bagpipe Musicians photograph by Jonathan Prime © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Katherine Sarafian, Steve Purcell and Patrick Doyle for taking the time to be interviewed.

Make sure to visit the official websites for Brave and Pixar.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • stewart gemmill

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