Brad Bird finally got his wish:The Iron Giantreturns to the big screen Wednesday and Sunday in a remastered “Signature Edition” featuring more footage that he wanted to include in the 1999 original release. The result is that it looks better than ever and further proof that it’s the last great hand-drawn American feature. Kudos to Warner Bros. for making this happen and to Duncan Studio for doing such outstanding work (maybe now Duncan can get a hand-drawn feature made, but that’s another hurdle). Visit Fathom Events for theater locations and ticket information.
“What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?” That was Bird’s inspiration for adapting the beloved Ted Hughes English novel The Iron Man and re-imagining it as an American boy and his robot adventure instead of a Pete Townshend musical.
“Rather than setting the film in a timeless England, I wanted to set the film in America in 1957– at the height of the Cold War,” Bird told me six years ago in honor of the 10th anniversary. “I added the beatnik character Dean and the government character Kent Mansley and the army and such — none of which are in the book.
“The Maine setting looks Norman Rockwell idyllic on the outside, but inside everything is just about to boil over; everyone was scared of the bomb, the Russians, Sputnick — even rock and roll. This clenched Ward Cleaver smile masking fear (which is really what the Kent character was all about). It was the perfect environment to drop a 50-foot-tall robot into.
“The crew ran the gamut from animation veterans like Tony Fucile and Steve Markowski, to wet-behind-the-ears Cal Arts students getting their first chance to work on production, and every level in between. Jeff Lynch did a fantastic job leading the story team, the effects team, the clean-up crew, every single department brought their best game and our learning curve was stratospheric.”
Meanwhile, Duncan was a great fit for the remastering given its expertise and the fact that several key staffers worked on Bird’s debut. Among the veterans from the original film, animation supervisors Chris Sauve and Wendy Perdue reprised their roles and animated their characters Dean and Annie, along with the help of animator Sandro Cleuzo; original background department head, Dennis Venizelos, oversaw backgrounds for the new sequences; and effects animation was again supplied by Michel Gagné. Additionally, a crew of approximately 20 artists at the studio animated the CG Giant, created layouts, painted the backgrounds, cleaned up the hand-drawn animation, inked and painted the characters, and composited all elements digitally over the course of four months.
Two key sequences added are the Giant’s dream in which he grapples with his aggression and further character development between Jennifer Aniston’s Annie and Harry Connick Jr.’s Dean in the diner. Plus there’s a fitting reference to Tomorrowland.
“Any of these sequences were tough because with modern technology we could’ve done the marching army of robots with ground plane true perspective and added lighting but it would’ve been a different look,” explained Ken Duncan, head of Duncan Studio. “So we had to be disciplined with keeping it to the original concept. And then it had to be rendered out with a line that sort of broke up in different places so it didn’t look like the complete CG line work for the robot.”
In compositing they also cleaned up a few moments. When Hogarth shows Iron Giant his collection of comic books in the garage, there were no tones on the back of Hogarth or shadows, so Bird took the opportunity to improve that. There were times when some of the Iron Giant’s character action in CG was too smooth so Bird wanted Duncan to animate on 2s and 1s.
“Warner Bros. didn’t have any assets such as model sheets so Chris Sauve brought in his model sheets,” Duncan continued. “We hired Wendy Perdue and she came in with her model sheets. Venizelos, who originally worked on paper, now worked in Photoshop in case they had to change color values. We approached it like the original film: we roughed it out on paper, we broke down the story reel that they gave us, animated it roughly on paper. We would shoot it digitally, obviously, and showed things to Brad remotely, who was in the San Francisco area, wrapping up Tomorrowland.
“Having Chris here at our studio was very valuable and so I passed things through him and we showed stuff to Tony Fucile about once a week. Brad wanted him to have the final say on the animation. He’s at Pixar and would look at our animation and give us some draw-overs occasionally of Annie in the diner. Brad and Tony’s emphasis is always on the performance.”
And what was Bird’s most enjoyable takeaway from making The Iron Giant?
“If you were to ask me which part of the film I enjoyed directing the most, it would be the last 20 minutes, because the mood swings wildly between sad and happy, explosively exhilarating and quietly moving, and seems to do so very efficiently. A lot of films have good set ups, but many fail to close the deal at their conclusion. I’m very proud of the fact that we closed the deal.”
Apparently a digital download will come next from Warner Bros., followed by the highly-anticipated Blu-ray.