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  • Writer's pictureJacob Boelman

Brad Bird - The Rats Nest

Updated: Mar 6

In the early 1980s, Brad Bird moved into the office one of his mentors, Ollie Johnston, had occupied. The upper management nicknamed that section "the rat's nest" because he and the other young artists thought they "had all the answers." "Which we kinda did," Bird added when speaking about it 30 years later during an interview in an informative short, Strong Coffee: A Lesson in Animation with Brad Bird. Bird spoke about his mentorship with the Nine Old Men, specifically Milt Kahl's rambling lessons on what makes excellent animation. He then transitioned to a more melancholy memory; all his idols started to retire, and "the hacks," as he called them, took over. Shortly after, Bird was fired from his role at Disney. He was considered a hothead who thought he knew better than the authorities.

One must understand that The Nine Old Men reigned over Disney for a ridiculous length of time. Named "The Nine Old Men" as a joke, referencing Franklin Roosevelt's aging Supreme Court at the time, Walt's "Nine Old Men" were nine young men during the early forties and fifties. They were ambitious artists who were revolutionizing character animation. They are responsible for many iconic moments in Disney Animation's history: Thumper teaching Bambi to skate, a brilliant sequence Frank Thomas put together and convinced Walt to keep in the movie, and the feisty personality of the black cat Figaro was animation spearheaded by Eric Larson, modeled on his young nephew. The classical designs of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, and practically every other finished character design from 1940 to 1976 are the brilliant work of Milt Kahl. The intense sequence of Monstro chasing Pinocchio through the ocean (Wolfgang Reitherman), the delightfully Sinister introduction of Cruella De Vil (Marc Davis), and the unhinged looniness of Lucifer as he tries to catch Gus Gus in Cinderella (Ward Kimball), are all brilliant pieces of animation by The Nine Old Men. These artists were superb craftsmen in animation, and several remained at the Disney studios into the 1980s.

However, after The Nine Old Men left, there was a sense of entitlement from those who came after. Most of these animators were old, needing to wait ages to be in the spotlight. Newcomers like Brad Bird and John Lasseter (who would become one of the founders of Pixar Studios) were now expected to wait their turn. The most ambitious artists at Disney left due to the lack of creative output from the studio that initially inspired them to get into animation in the first place.

This story is especially relevant today. Once again, Disney is headed into a creative slumber. Creative juggernauts such as Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Teddy Newton, Brenda Chapman, and Doug Sweetland have either taken a back seat or left the studio. And those in the driver's seat struggle to keep the creative spark alive. Artists like Domee Shi and Peter Sohn, the directors of Pixar's last two original films, Turning Red and Elemental, are exciting new voices. But, out of the next 12 new releases slated for Disney, only 1 is an original story. Bob Iger, the man who controls the Mouse House, doesn't seem to have the artist's best interest in mind. He is far too busy trying to keep the shareholders, most of whom fit the "hacks" description (Bird referenced in the 1980s) happy.

Those who are in charge now don't come from creative backgrounds. They are not interested in the reinvention or development of the art form Walt Disney helped revolutionize a hundred years ago. Bob Iger has experienced some of the most disappointing returns on investment in the company's history, with Disney's latest debuts, Wish, the live-action sequel Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and The Marvels disappointing critically and at the box office. The issue, Iger says, is not enough executive oversight. Iger just bought the rights to Epic Games, the owners of Fortnite, and seems determined to force his most recognized assets into slots they were never intended for. The creative thread that initially ignited the studio appears missing from Iger's business plan.

Towards the end of Strong Coffee, Brad Bird finds himself reflecting on the circumstances that led to him leaving Disney in 1982. When he realized all the filmmakers he idolized were leaving and the studio was no longer making the type of films he was interested in, he knew his time was up. He went into the backlot and wept. A few days later, he was fired. In no way did any of this limit Bird's creativity. He went on to make some iconic films like The Iron Giant, Incredibles, and Ratatouille. He is one of the most celebrated animation directors alive. What was tragic was the very studio responsible for igniting his passion in the first place was unwilling to utilize him or recognize his talent. He was a hot head, a "rat" pestering the executives in control.

We need more rats, People. Innovation has gone by the wayside. As Disney produces the millionth "live-action remake" or Marvel extension, original films, such as Bird's Ray Gun and 1906 - projects Bird has been developing for decades now - are left in pre-production hell. We live in a sad world where the industry of dreams is controlled by businessmen whose primary interest is recognition and profit. One is allowed to go into the backlot and weep for what has transpired. But I have no doubt Bird will get back up and find a way to bring his dreams to life.

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