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Pixar filmmaking a process of alchemy, says 'Brave' director Mark Andrews

Director Mark Andrews poses for a portrait during the "Brave" press day in Los Angeles.
Director Mark Andrews poses for a portrait during the "Brave" press day in Los Angeles.
Todd Williamson, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s almost hard to believe that director Mark Andrews wasn’t always attached to Pixar’s latest film “Brave” in an official capacity.

A self-described “nerd” for everything Pict or Celt, the CalArts-trained animator is known as Pixar’s resident Scottish expert. He’s also a skilled archer and swordfighter (like Merida) who (like King Fergus) has one daughter and three sons.

To top it all off, long before “Brave” was even “a twinkle in anybody’s eye,” as he put it during an interview last week, Andrews has been wearing kilts to all of Pixar’s big events.

But in reality, the first-time feature filmmaker only came on board in the last 18 months of production after the original writer and director, Brenda Chapman (“The Prince of Egypt”), was asked to step down.

During the interview, Andrews was kind enough to shed some light on what it’s like to be a director at Pixar and the demanding process that makes its films so consistently great.

Although this was his first time in the director’s chair for a feature-length film, Andrews is no stranger to the responsibilities of the job, having worked on a number of Pixar classics like “The Incredibles” (2004) and “Ratatouille” (2007), as well as writing and directing a 2005 short titled “One Man Band.”

More recently, he co-wrote and directed the second unit on Disney’s “John Carter” alongside fellow Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”).

A huge part of the success of Pixar’s animated films has to do with its intensely collaborative approach. As Andrews described, before actually animating the movie — an extremely labor-intensive and costly process — the filmmakers first assemble what is known as a story reel, which is basically the entire film done using storyboards that can be screened like a normal movie for peer evaluation. The kicker, though, is that at Pixar, your peers are guys like John Lasseter (“Toy Story”), Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), Pete Docter (“Up”) and Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”).

“If I just had to get it done,” Andrews said, “big deal, but Pixar sets the bar so high.”

In the 18 months Andrews worked on “Brave,” he created the movie in story reel form four times, tore it down and started over whenever something wasn’t coming together.

“We can talk about things we think are wrong with the story, but that’s only intellectual. We have to see it and feel what’s going on to know what’s not working, but also to know what is working.”

An example he gave of this process in action involved two scenes at the beginning where Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, lay out their differing points of view for the audience — without ever speaking to each other. In the original storyboards, the scenes were separate and each had a distinct beginning, middle and end, but every time Andrews and his team watched them in the context of the story reel, they couldn’t help feeling that they dragged down the narrative’s overall pace.

“The information was right,” Andrews said, “but how we were delivering it to the audience wasn’t working.”

Joking, one of his storyboard artists asked, “Why wouldn't they just talk to each other? Then the whole movie would be over in 10 minutes.” This comment gave Andrews the idea for the final version of the scene, which intercuts the two conversations to make it sound like Merida and Elinor actually are talking to each other. This scene, in particular, stands out as an example of the kind of economic and entertaining storytelling Pixar is renowned for.

“Those are the kinds of discoveries you have to find,” Andrews said, “where you know the information is right, but it’s just not working.”

At Pixar, this process is repeated for every movie, every scene and every moment until each film works together as a cohesive narrative unit.

Until that point, though, nothing is safe.

This applies to characters as well. “There were a lot of these loose ends where we had characters,” Andrews said, “but they weren’t integral to the story, and if they’re not integral, why are we wasting time with them?” The bear Mordu and even Merida’s three mischievous brothers — Hamish, Harris and Hubert, who are responsible for some of the film’s funniest moments — had to be justified in terms of story before they were safe from the chopping block. This meant a lot of head scratching and rewriting as they tried to figure out ways to build every single character into the narrative structure but in non-superfluous roles.

This kind of rigorous peer evaluation is the key to Pixar’s filmmaking approach, but there is no formula for success, Andrews said. “Story is alchemy. We’re changing lead into gold, and once we find gold, we have no idea exactly how we got there, so we have to start from scratch all over again.”

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.