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AnimatorsFeature FilmPixar

Life After Pixar: An Interview with Brenda Chapman

Many readers will know that before Pixar’s Brave was complete, its original director Brenda Chapman was removed from the project. However, Chapman and new director Mark Andrews would go on to win an Oscar for the film. What has Chapman, who was also once the head of Disney’s story department and the first female director of a big-budget studio feature (DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt) been up to since Pixar?

We caught up with Chapman at Trojan Horse was a Unicorn in Portugal, an art/animation/visual effects event where the director and her husband, Kevin Lima (Tarzan, Enchanted), were both key presenters. Although getting projects off the ground remains a tough task, Chapman has relished the chance to try new things. And her and Lima even have plans to start a development/production company for animation, live action, and hybrids focusing on quality family films.

Cartoon Brew: Can you describe what it was like for you after Brave came out in 2012, and then winning an Oscar in 2013?

Brenda Chapman: After the film was released, that was the first opportunity I was able to work. I couldn’t work for another studio until the film was released. I’d been biding my time, writing my own stuff, taking some classes. Just waiting. And suffering!

After that it seemed like the doors really opened up. Before the Oscars, Kathleen Kennedy called me and I did some consulting on the Lucasfilm Strange Magic film which, well, it was what it was. I know George Lucas was very happy with it. It was an incredible crew. Gary Rydstrom did an incredible job writing that thing. Everybody just worked so hard on it. It was a wonderful time for me working on that out of Lucasfilm out at Skywalker Ranch and then at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Pixar's "Brave," conceived and co-directed by Chapman, won the Oscar for best animated feature.
Pixar’s “Brave,” conceived and co-directed by Chapman, won the Oscar for best animated feature.

What happened after that?

Brenda Chapman: While I was working on Strange Magic, the Oscars took place. Everything seemed to start happening again. Jeffrey Katzenberg had called me the day he found out I was let go from Brave. He said, ‘Come back to DreamWorks,’ but I told him I had to wait. So he was always there, but DreamWorks went through a lot of changes until I got back there about two years later.

Obviously you’d been at DreamWorks before. What did you do there this time around?

Brenda Chapman: Well, I had learned on Brave never to give any of my ideas to a studio again. That was a lesson very much learned. I tried to make a deal with DreamWorks where I would have some ownership for a film or some connection to it, at least to the point where they couldn’t take me off my own movie. But film studios are just too greedy in that way so I didn’t give them any of my ideas. However, I said, ‘If you have anything in your coffers, I’d be happy to work with you.’

Which is what I did – I helped develop a project called Rumblewick which was based on a children’s book. It was so much fun and it was hard to leave it behind when I did, but it wasn’t as heartbreaking as Brave. I don’t think anything will be, because I don’t think I’ll ever let anything I’m so attached to have that vulnerability again.

What has been your approach since DreamWorks?

Brenda Chapman: Being at DreamWorks was fun because I got reconnected with some story artists I’d worked with way back in the Disney days like Ed Gombert and Irene Mecchi. She came on Strange Magic, too, and Irene and I have been developing a couple of ideas and pitching them around as a writing team. Then my husband Kevin [Lima] and I have been writing together and we’re considering starting our own production company. We’re not going to be a big studio, but we’re looking to have our own IP and get films made.

So much is open to me. I’m writing. I’m considering live action, which I never did before. I love animation, so live action was never an ambition of mine. But then neither was directing, and I found I love directing.

A project came along which doesn’t have a greenlight or anything but they have attached me to the script. It’s called Come Away and the concept is really fun – it’s the idea that Peter Pan and Alice from Alice in Wonderland were brother and sister. It’s dark and has some themes that I haven’t got to explore in animation before. It explores the darker side of life and it’s not going to just be for children.

It sounds like many new things have become possible…

Brenda Chapman: Yes, when a door slams shut and the wall falls down, screw the window and look at the view. There’s so much out there – too much to get caught up in the past and all the things that made you sad. OK, you went through your grieving period. That’s over, behind you. What’s out there now?

Some of the speakers, including Chapman (center), at the Trojan Horse event. Photo courtesy of John Crowcroft.
Some of the speakers, including Chapman (center), at the Trojan Horse event. Photo courtesy of John Crowcroft.

When you had to leave Brave, it felt like there was so much immediate support out there for you. And when you won the Oscar with Mark Andrews there felt like even more support. What was that like for you at the time?

Brenda Chapman: That held me up. I wasn’t expecting it. I thought I was going to go the way of all the other directors that get pushed aside on any film. But to have that support from my peers in the industry as well as broader in live action and the animation community. And my crew, too. I got hundreds of emails from my crew on Brave that told me, ‘OK, I’m not what they’re trying to make believe what I am. I’m not crazy. I know I had a good movie. And it’s still there in the film.’ Without that kind of support, I don’t know if I would have been able to say, ‘OK, well what’s next?’ I think I would have been much more wounded and taken longer to heal. So I’ll forever feel grateful for that.

Is there anything else you can say about your planned project with Kevin?

Brenda Chapman: Well, it is a live action/animation hybrid. We are getting ready to start pitching it around, so I’d like to keep it mostly under wraps right now. But if we can start getting it made, there’s going to be a lot of 2D animation but also CG and stop motion—it’s a big concept and we’re hoping we can pull some of the 2D animators out of the woodwork and get them back at the drawing board, as well as using all the new computer techniques.

  • Louis

    Sounds like an exciting concept, and I am all for getting 2D animators “out of the woodwork.” I wish her and her husband all the best of luck in pitching it.

  • “I don’t think I’ll ever let anything I’m so attached to have that vulnerability again.”
    Being vulnerable is what good art is all about. Don’t let other people stop you from being the artist you want to be.

    • AmidAmidi

      You’re taking what she’s saying out of context to make your own unrelated point. Brenda didn’t say all vulnerability; she said “that vulnerability,” which was a specific reference to corporate ownership of her ideas.

      • I get your point, but I don’t think my point is unrelated at all. It does seem that Brenda will absolutely be protecting her ideas a lot more. Which is fine, but may also be limiting for a film maker who wants to get stuff made. She mentions later on how hard it is to find finance. It’s more than likely related.

  • Tom Hignite

    Hello Brenda. I respect you (and your work) very much. Best wishes and many blessings to you.

  • Laurie Ashbourne

    Can’t wait to see what Brenda and Kevin come up with, both are so deserving of success and steering their own ship.

  • Quiubo

    Wasn’t Disney going to do an animation “tour -de-force” movie combining many techiniques when they bought the rights to David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs many moons ago?

  • Wishing her all the best. I hope we see some of her personal stories again someday soon, in the way she intends them to be.