Disney Pixar's 'Brave': An interview with producer Katherine Sarafian

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Brave Disney Pixar 2011 Poster
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Disney/Pixar's Brave - 2011

The path and timeline from conception to reel can be an arduous and full-of-life journey for an animated film. A prime example is the journey of "Brave," Pixar's latest animated movie. Behind the scenes you will discover players whose lives were transformed during the making of the movie.

One of those integral players is Katherine Sarafian, the producer of "Brave." Not only did Sarafian (a protégé of Steve Jobs) add "producer" to her impressive resume, but she also closed a chapter on her life as a single-female executive at Pixar and added the roles of wife and mother during the six years that it took to get this movie from conception to birth.

When "Brave" first went into production, Sarafian was sent on the inaugural trip to Scotland to do an exploratory journey with the storytellers, creators, and animators to capture the full sense of the location and imbibe the culture, scents, and sights so central to this movie.

"Brave" not only tells a new sort of fairy tale under the Pixar-Disney umbrella but is also an original idea by director Brenda Chapman. As is sometimes the case, though, Chapman was replaced by director Mark Andrews due to creative differences.

This turmoil not only underscores Sarafian's central role as producer of this movie but also as gatekeeper for retaining the heart and soul of the story and managing every detail of this film from start to finish.

What elements are involved with your job as producer for this film?

My responsibility is to bring the best story to the screen possible. My job is to advocate the director's vision every step of the way. The hard part about it is getting the right story together and managing it over the course of many years. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We work the story for a long, long time. We hone it even before we animate it. The story continually evolves. Our standing joke around here is, "Pixar films are never finished, they're just released [because we could just keep working on it]."

One of the things I do includes managing the voice talent, plus ensuring we have everything necessary to make a successful film. When the voice talent brings something unique and fresh, it can impact the story and can affect the direction. [For example], I'll check in with the story in the morning, then I'll sit down with the editorial team in the afternoon, then I'll check in with animation and lighting in the evening. I go where the need arises.

What's next for you now that the movie has been released?

First I'm going to take a belated maternity leave. I had my second baby about three and a half months ago but did not get the chance to take much time off. I'll take off in late summer and get to know my baby!

Then we're going to come back and start developing. Mark [Andrews] already has a few ideas, and a few other directors have ideas. I'll go in and start working with a few directors and start working a few projects.

Basically we'll start all over again. And in between projects we all do other things around the studio. We do things that the studio needs between projects. We might do a 3D version of something, a TV spot, whatever the studio needs. Then, when you are on a movie project, they consume you for years. It can be nice to do something shorter when you're between major projects. I would like to do another feature film.

What is your take on the technique director Gore Verbinski used to film "Rango" where he used live action with the characters? Could Pixar ever do it that way?

Anything is possible, but you have to have the time and the talent to make that happen. I love what Verbinski did; it was cool.

Every filmmaker wants to take a different approach. There are many, many ways of doing this. The improvised quality really worked well for ["Rango"]. But we had an international cast where it was difficult to schedule sessions all together. We adapt our process where the actors can work together and get great energy out of that. But when that's not possible, we work in the more traditional way.

Did you have any tough choices when it came to selecting the voice talent?

We will listen to a few different actors we have in mind for a role. For example, for the role of King Fergus, we knew we wanted to have someone with the stature of a king, someone big. We knew we wanted Billy Connolly. If Billy had said no, we would have gone back to our list and looked at more names. We were fortunate and got all our top picks.

In Pixar history, we have been torn where we had a few actors we were interested in. We have a little trick we do here in those cases. Instead of auditioning, we'll take a snippet of dialogue from one of the actor's films and animate their voice with the character we are thinking of and look at it onscreen. If this voice coming out of this character feels like our characterization, then we know we want to talk to this actor and have them come in. We've used that trick over the years.

I understand that you worked directly with Steve Jobs at Pixar. What was that experience like, and what was the situation that brought the two of you together?

Before Disney owned Pixar, we had an agreement where Disney would distribute and market the films. Several years back I was working on "A Bug's Life" in the art department. Steve decided to make a change in the marketing process and take people from production who knew how to make the movie and put them into marketing so there would be that mindset, that same sort of quality. I was invited to come over. At the time I did not think I had a marketing bone in my body, but that skill set was required. I interviewed with him and made it.

It was quite a time of great growth and learning. I found I had a little more marketing in me than I thought I did, and I got to learn from the master. It was a direct report relationship, and Steve was a wonderful mentor. It was a time of great change and excitement at Pixar and with the Disney relationship. [Steve] taught me to never take the easy way, to push for the best quality possible because audiences are smart and they're going to know.

Later, when people [saw the potential] to put me in a producer role, I actually drew more from that experience with Steve than almost any of my other training. It was learning from Steve who, number one, was a fantastic mentor, and, number two, it was this idea of all the moving parts of the organization and all of the things that you have to consider with that. The audience is intelligent; they deserve the best. Would we give this to our family? We need to treat the audience as our family.

We miss him so much, it's really staggering. He's such [a] presence here. We had a very unique relationship with him at Pixar. He's our founder, he made our company, and he took such good care of us. We were really blessed to have Steve.

In staying with the theme of "Brave," what were you like when you were Merida's age. Were you as brave as she was?

I was a different kind of brave at her age. What I have in common with Merida is I did not quite fit in my time period. I was a bit of a whole other nut.

Obviously high school is hard enough. There are the cherished safe havens for folks like us, whether it is the band or geek thing or student council thing. I do have to say there were places where it was OK to be me. And for me it was the miracle of finding Pixar after college.

This was an entire studio, an entire company of people who may have been viewed as misfits in their day basically -- artsy, creative people coming together creating a profession and making great art out of their oddities and unique ideas and unique perspectives that didn't quite fit in the mainstream. That's one of the things I've loved and cherished about working here. I think there's the bravery of that time period where you don't fit. But I'm glad I kept asserting who I was.

It wasn't necessarily easy and it didn't necessarily get me any dates or the most popular kid in school, but if you can pound your way though those times you'll find your way. And I appreciated that.

In the movie, Merida doesn't even have a best friend. She has her family and she's at odds with them. She wears her heart on her sleeve. But she never stops being who she is. She's still very much her, for better or worse. It's where the coming of age comes in. You're going to screw some stuff up but you'll learn from it. I appreciate the truth she has in herself.

"Brave" is a fairy tale. Is it also a love story?

The movie is a love story, but it is a story about family love. There's no Prince Charming in this movie, Princess Merida doesn't go riding off into the sunset with a prince. It's a love story about family. Who among us can be ready for our whole life and marriage if we don't know ourselves and where we stand in our family unit?

What has been the bravest thing you've done in your career?

This. This is it. Releasing this movie, going on all these press junkets while raising a young family. You can't be in two places at one time; you're spread too thin. But this is definitely the bravest thing I've done in my career. This movie [and] raising a family, all at the same time.

I read that during the span of making the movie, you got married and had two kids. How did you manage that with a consuming job as producer of "Brave"?

This movie started with a trip to Scotland in 2006 and I was a single gal. Since that time I've gotten married and had two children [sons], and I lost my father unexpectedly. This movie is like another baby [six years in the making].

The central figure in the movie is Merida, but I look at this movie and think of my mom's and grandmother's relationship. I think of my sister's and my relationship with my mom. So much of the movie is about relationships and tradition and history. You do think of that when you see this movie.

What is your favorite scene in the movie?

Without giving too much away, especially for those who have not seen the movie, there is a sort of epilogue and you will see a contrast. In the movie, look for the woven tapestry, a family portrait. At the end you see a new tapestry and I love that moment when you see that. When you watch the movie you will notice everything about that tapestry. I always feel something there when I see that.

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