"We had a really unusual reaction," Bird said. "When you get into making movies, you get hit with these pie charts, and everybody sends out tests. Animation typically scores very low with adult men. But for some reason, ["The Iron Giant"] scored high with adults … I don't think adults nowadays have the prejudice against animation that a lot of people used to. I think less and less people see it as a children's medium. They see it more as just another way to make a film. And that's the way I look at it."
In several ways, this man who was so fascinated by the history of animation is making a bit of history on his own.
With "The Incredibles," he is the first outsider to direct a film at Pixar. Moreover, the film stars an all-human cast.
Pixar -- which pioneered the art of computer graphics animation -- has stuck to nonhuman lead characters in its previous five releases, including "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." Animators traditionally have encountered trouble making humans look realistic, from the mechanics involved in physical movements to the skin tones, which often appear cold and plastic.
Pixar's computer animators worked to create not only more realistic, nuanced skin tones for their human characters, but also more luminous eyes, and clothing that responded naturally to the characters' musculature and movements.
"We had to design costume changes and practically tailor them, just like a real tailor does … make the fabric respond, as real fabric would," Bird said. "If you were to list the top 10 things that are the hardest things to do in computer animation, we were doing all 10."
Bird said he is frequently asked why he doesn't use real actors. "Why?" he asks in reply. "Animation's much more fun. If the only reason to make animation is to have fairies and talking animals, then pretty soon, animation would be extinct. To me that was never the reason to do animation to begin with. It was all about caricature and distilling down the essence of something."
For example, in "The Incredibles," Bob Parr is the father in a family of superheroes. His wife, once known as Elastigirl, retired for the same reasons he did. Two of their children also have superpowers. Those were the caricatures Bird used to distill an unusual take on family relations, using real-life dynamics.
"Anyone who's a mother knows that you're pulled 10 different ways at once, and so it seemed only natural that her power would be elasticity," he said. "The 10-year-old boy is hyperactive, so he's 10 places at once -- he has super-speed power."
Teenagers, Bird says, often feel awkward and want to hide. So he gave the teenage daughter the powers of invisibility, along with the ability to throw up a defensive shield.
How the family eventually unites to use its powers is the core of the story.
As a storyteller, Bird is critical of writers who try to be too hip and cynical. "I think that there's sort of a safety in detachment. If you can show that you're above the material, and keep an emotional distance from it, then you never risk looking foolish. But … you never get great moments that way, either, by pulling every punch. And I think that if you're willing to look foolish, if you're willing to be emotional, there's a tremendous payoff, if it works," said Bird.