Warner Bros. released director Brad Bird’s’ animated adaptation of “The Iron Giant” in 1999 to critical acclaim, but the tale of a boy who befriends an enormous robot that a paranoid government agent wants to destroy failed to find an audience in its theatrical release. However, since then the film has developed a growing and dedicated cult following.
Some of those devotees were treated to the world premiere of “The Giant’s Dream,” a documentary about the making of the film, at WonderCon in Los Angeles. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with the documentary’s director Anthony Giacchino and the creative team behind “The Iron Giant”: Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”), character designer and visual development artist Teddy Newton, supervising animator Dean Wellins, storyboard artist Jeff Lynch and animator Scott Johnston.
The documentary is a brutally honest look at Bird’s career, beginning with his childhood internship at Walt Disney Studios, earned after he submitted a short film he made (he was the first child ever to earn that honor). While there, Bird learned the art of animation and storytelling from the Disney masters. By the time the adult Bird was hired by the studio as an animator, the legends who had taught him had retired, and the new regime that followed had a different mindset -- one that Bird fought with constantly. That conflict eventually led to Bird’s firing.
He later gained acclaim for his “Family Dog” episode of Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” television series and for his work on “The Simpsons.” When Warner Bros. decided to start a feature film animation department, Bird was hired to direct “The Iron Giant.”
The animation team he assembled was made up of misfits -- artists who, for one reason or another, were rejected by Disney. Recognized that each had certain strengths to bring to the project, Bird led the team by using an “us-versus-them” mentality. He also ruffled feathers by openly criticizing the sometimes-sloppy work of his team in front of other animators, which led to some resentment by the staff.
The documentary also details the problems he had once the film was completed. Warner Brs. didn’t feel comfortable releasing “The Iron Giant” after its first animated feature, “The Quest For Camelot,” flopped. However, when “The Iron Giant” was screened for a test audience, it scored higher than any film in the studio’s history. Despite that, the studio didn’t know how to market it, and when the film was finally released in August 1999, it tanked.
Newton apologized to Bird during the WonderCon panel, saying, “Watching this documentary put it more in context. I was an extra hurdle for him [Bird] most of the time. Now I understand.”
“Teddy tried to get himself fired from the film several times,” Bird recalled. “I wouldn’t do it. I said, ‘I’m not gonna fire you.’ He seemed disappointed. Teddy was used to provoking people into firing him. I just said, ‘Look, you’re great, I’m not going to do it. He would come up with completely inappropriate ideas for the film, like Dean taking Hogarth to a nightclub, and then they hit a deer and they bring home a dead deer for Annie to eat. He’d go completely off the rails, but I’d say, ‘I’m not going to fire you.’”
“I appreciated that,” responded Newton, who later worked with Bird on “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” “I always felt that you allowed me to be myself.”
An audience member asked what the panelists look for when hiring storyboard artists. “You need to be able to express ideas in a clean way, keep the characters and the story points very clear,” Bird replied. “You should be able to read those things easily in a frame.”
Lynch added, “When you see a storyboard, you’re seeking an emotional response.”
“When I look at a storyboard, I ask who is that character -- trying to put my head in that character so much that it even surprises me,” said Wellins, whose credits include “Big Hero 6” and “Bolt.” “When someone is looking at a storyboard, you want that surprise -- I didn’t see that coming. I’m so surprised by that choice they made, but it’s the right choice. There’s a million choices that are made, and there are the right choices. When somebody makes that choice that you didn’t see coming, that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
An audience member recalled that when he saw the movie he found Hogarth’s name to be odd. “That’s the name of the character from the Ted Hughes book “The Iron Giant” on which the film is based,” Bird said. “He didn’t have a last name in the book. I gave him Ted Hughes’ last name in the film as a tribute to Ted, who died early on in the film’s production. He got to read our earliest story treatments but never saw the film. He really liked the direction we took the film, which is different from the book.”
Bird was asked whether he would ever revisit the Iron Giant universe, in a prequel, sequel, or spinoff. “We live in a very strange time where if people like what you did, they want you to do it again,” he said. “I understand it. Sometimes it’s really great, but sometimes I feel the story is told. I don’t have a problem doing it with other things. I did a ‘Mission: Impossible’ and I’m doing another ‘Incredibles.’ We’ve told the story of ‘The Iron Giant.’ We had an ending, and that’s the way it should be.”
He noted, however, that for the “Ultimate Collectors Edition” being released in September, they were able to add about a minute of animated scenes that they couldn’t do in 1999.
The panelists were asked when, after the box-office failure of “The Iron Giant,” did they realize the film had legs. “We were devastated for about two months, and then we swept the Annies [the annual animation awards],” Bird remembered. “We won over films from Pixar and DreamWorks and Disney. It was a sense of validation.”
Asked whether the film would be any different if it were made today, Bird replied, “I would have liked three more months and a couple of million dollars more. We held the movie together with scotch tape and chewing gum.” Recalling one scene in which the character Kent walks in but didn’t look quite right, Bird said, “We had to put some bushes over the spot where he walked funny. A little more money and a little more time and it would be great, but otherwise I’m very happy with it.”
“The Giant’s Dream: The Making of The Iron Giant” will be released later this year.