April 21, 2014

Exclusive: ‘Brave’ Production Designer Steve Pilcher Talks Change In Directors, Mythical Side of Scotland, And Setting A Mysterious Tone

Back in April, I was invited to Pixar to preview the first half-hour of Brave, and speak in-depth with several of the filmmakers. I had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s production designer, Steve Pilcher, who worked on the film for almost seven years. That may sound like a frustrating amount of time on one film, but Pilcher loves what he does. After the jump, read my exclusive interview with him, where he talks about the job of a production designer, the change in directors that Brave went through, the mythical aspects of Scotland, the importance of mystery to the film’s look, and more!


Steve Pilcher working in his office (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

Can you describe the job of a production designer in animation?

So I work with the director at the beginning of the film and I visually start to do drawings and paintings, and set up the tone of the film through a variety of things like landscape drawings or whatever the theme might be – in this case, castles, Scottish landscapes, the forest. I do that at the beginning of the film and then I start to adopt a small group [of people] for an art department, which helps expedite and grow that artwork that we generate and then eventually that artwork starts to become materialized into the actual sets, in terms of how they’re going to be built. And we distribute that artwork as guides to all the other departments – in sets, in character, in shading. Then we meet and review everything with the director for the rest of eternity (until the film is done – almost seven years).

It’s one of the longest for a Pixar movie. Can you talk about the length of the production cycle for Brave?

One thing – I never got bored of this film. I love the subject matter – l love nature, love fantasy, and I love the two combined, so I must say that I never got bored of that. Yes, I did want to have it finished. There were times when the dates get pushed back for all kinds of reasons and sometimes – it’s like running a marathon when you do these things. So, it was long but it’s worth it in the end. I think a big part of it is that you wonder how you do it. You gotta love doing it.

Art by Steve Pilcher

You mentioned the tone and feel of the movie. Can you talk about the genesis of those and where your thinking was in terms of creating that atmosphere of the movie?

[Brave] has a huge variety of emotional arcs in the film. It goes into a more tense area, it goes into a really comedic area, there’s a lot of love and emotion in it too – it’s like a full meal, emotionally. So, it was very important that we create environments that have that kind of gravity, areas that can generate a foreboding feeling if we needed it, or a beautiful feeling, or an entrancing feeling, a comedic feel, a light and happy feel. We sort of have it all. All that comes into play when you’re designing and creating these environments, these locations through color and light. A lot of it is just narrative, in terms of, “it’s a castle” – “what kind of castle? – is it spired? – great big white towers, stained glass windows? – no, this is an old, ruined, beautiful stone castle that’s decorated by nature (moss) in a natural way so that it’s got that rustic feel.

The beauty of nature is far more compelling than almost anything that man can contrive. That’s a huge inspiration – that infuses everything. When anything is created, that feeling always comes into play. Emotionally, it always starts from there, when we’re designing something or creating something, all the time – very elusive thing to talk about but it’s there. It’s like, “How do we want it to feel?”. I remember at one point I asked Brenda [Chapman], “How do you want this castle to feel?,” and she made it sound like a forceful kind of thing and I said, “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.” From there, it just became this powerful thing. Same with the horse, as a character. It wasn’t like a talking horse that had all this comedic activity going on, acting wise – it was a very powerful horse. It’s a horse in all its beauty and magnificence and strength, and that’s what we try to get across. We caricature the character or the environment to get that across.

Steve Pilcher Talking To The Press (Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland/Pixar)

There was the transition [of directors] from Brenda to Mark [Andrews]. How did that affect the production design aspect?

It’s like any aspect. When the story shifts or changes or evolves a bit, we’re always changing. There were a couple things that were done, where the snow was no longer necessary in the story, so we lost a lot of color script paintings (like 350 or so). It’s just part of it, so I said, “Fine. We’re just going to do new ones now, and they’ll be even better.” It’s just part of the process, this constant changing thing. To me, it was a somewhat larger thing because it had more happening at the same time, but nothing that impacted the development. It actually evolved to a better place in many ways. So, it was great.

At any time, when we get a chance to do something again, we want to plus and best the last thing that was done. I always look at it like that. We’re throwing all that out, from one standpoint, but what are we doing now? It’s just kind of fun. It’s not what people think it is. They think it’s devastating, and it’s not. There is a loss of things, you feel the sense of, but like any creative endeavor it doesn’t last. You gotta keep going, and we do, and we did, and it’s cool.

Art by Steve Pilcher

Looking at the artwork and seeing the research trips that Pixar employees took to Scotland, can you talk about integrating the real-life Scotland with the mythical aspects of the story?

The mythical side – what do you think of when you think of mythical things? You think of mystery, you think of fog, you think of mist. That’s all there in Scotland, anyway. We went to this place called The Dark Mile, which had thick moss, like foot-thick moss. You could walk in the forest and you look into the trees and you couldn’t see through. It would be pitch black, but as trees come forward out of that blackness, they would gain that light, and I loved the mystery of that. The mythical side, the fantasy side, you’ve got mystery inherently in the landscape if you know how you want to use it. So that’s one part, but it’s just such an inspirational place. The hanging moss makes you feel like you’re in this wispy fantasy environment, but it’s still very natural looking.

The trees that are crooked make you think of the witch’s area, so we used rowan trees to set-dress her area of the forest. It has great power, mythical power. Look at the standing stones. They look like entities – 3,000 year old things that have been put up by someone, and they’ve been around for eons of time. There’s something mythical about them right away. It feels like they’re looking at you when you stand in the middle. There’s a presence. You go to Scotland and stand in the middle, you will feel that. To me, that was already there in the landscape. It’s so natural – it hasn’t been manicured by man. It’s still the same as it was thousands of years ago. To me, that’s so inspirational. That inspiration carries right into [the movie] right away. As time goes by, it turns into pining – you wish you could go back there and see it again.

Art by Steve Pilcher

From what we’ve seen, the artwork and the footage, it feels like Brave is more ominous, a little more dark than say Toy Story or even Up. Can you talk about walking the line between the darker and lighter aspects?

If you look at “The Prize” sequence, which is all in daylight – don’t forget you’re dealing with an environment that has all these mysterious areas of fog, forest, and you’ve got clouds that change at the whim, leading to blasts of sunlight on the ground. The darkness is something that you – it’s like the bass in an orchestra – it’s like a full orchestrated soundtrack. You’ve got to have that bass in there, which I call the “dark” (the deeper hues, and the darker values) and you carry that through the film. If you want a full orchestrated effect, you’ve got to have the darks in there. Great bass in songs sound awesome, as you know. That’s the same thing, visually. I love that in my own personal work and I love to bring that into a film. The directors love that. I think it gives you that balance – you could lighten it at any time.

If you go light in places that aren’t meant to be light, you lose the feeling of mystery. Let’s face it. What’s more mysterious? A room that’s full of light or a room that’s pitch black, and with a little fog in it? You’re going to be a little more hesitant but you’re compelled to go in, because you know there’s something awesome waiting for you on the other side. That’s why you use that palette. That’s why you use those darks. What we do sometimes, in those darks, is we put raindrops, the effect of raindrops on grass so it sparkles. So you feel it’s dark, but it’s not horror. It’s dark like a black curtain that will unveil something magnificent or unexpected – like sequins on a black curtain if you put them on stone, or raindrops. We do that in the film intentionally, to give you a different feel.

Many thanks to Steve Pilcher for the interview!

Brave hits theaters this Friday.

All photos and images above are ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

About Samad Rizvi

Samad is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Pixar Times. His favorite films include The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Vertigo, Back to the Future, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and of course, Pixar's Monsters, Inc., WALL-E and Up.