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Austin Chronicle Brad Bird

AUGUST 9, 1999:  Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant is one of the most original animated tales to come along in quite some time -- an accomplishment due in no small measure to the skill of director Brad Bird, who cut his teeth working for Disney at the tender age of 14. Impressed by a short animated film the young Bird completed after his parents wisely invested in a camera that could shoot single-frame animation, legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl brought Bird on board as an apprentice.

"I didn't work on actual production right away," says Bird. "It was more like a mentoring program, but they opened their doors to me and told me whenever I was in L.A. I could come in here and work with the old masters. When I graduated from high school, Disney gave me a scholarship to California Institute of the Arts, and it went from there."

After graduating from CIA, Bird went full time with Disney during the studio's troubled The Fox and the Hound period, which was before the Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner shake-ups.

"It was a good time to be there," adds Bird, "in the sense that it was very much kind of the old studio, but by the same token they had no faith in the young people and the old guys had already left, so it was kind of this awful interim period where the work wasn't really very good. But still, they had amazingly talented young people there. Glen Kean, Henry Selick, Tim Burton, and a lot of people who would later go on to great things. It was just that they had not yet turned over the reins yet."

After stints with Fox's King of the Hill, The Simpsons, and the short-lived The Critic (plus writing and directing the much-loved "Family Dog" episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories), Bird was contacted by Warner Bros. regarding The Iron Giant. After meeting with Tim McCanlies, and later The Who's Pete Townshend (who had produced his own musical version of Ted Hughes' original children's book called The Iron Man in 1993), the project was green-lighted, and work began.

Certainly one of the most intriguing things about the finished film is its retro 1950s appeal, which references everything from classic sci-fi movies of the day (It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars) to Mad magazine, and from soul-patch-sporting beatniks to the Iron Giant's Weird Tales design.

"I think anybody who was a boy in the United States has a lot of the same things to cull upon," says Bird. "Certainly a lot of them I wanted to get in the film and then we had a lot of artists who had the same influences.

"The thing that was interesting to me was that America in the Fifties had a very sort of well-manicured surface. The image that we connect with the Fifties is sort of this Norman Rockwell image where dad is carving the turkey and little Skippy is sitting there kind of all bright and shiny at the table. But really, underneath all that I think America was coming to terms with living with the bomb and the Cold War and all of these sorts of things that we found quite scary. The only films from that period that were dealing with that directly or indirectly were the B sci-fi and horror movies. It seemed to me to be a wonderful subtext to put in The Iron Giant.

That aside, I asked Bird if the film's nostalgic look might not put off the current crop of Japanese anime-fueled teens, more used to Gaijin and Pokémon than Fifties sci-fi relics.

"The bottom line is making involving films and creating characters," says Bird. "I certainly tried to sell Warner Bros. on the idea that the Fifties had just as much cool stuff as the Nineties do. Rather than trying to hide the time period or trying to force this story into another day and age that may not fit it as well, I hoped that they would take a look at all the neat things the Fifties had to offer and run with them. And of course, I would hope that cool is cool." -- Marc Savlov

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