Five Storytelling Rules of Brad Bird

I loved Brad Bird’s work before I knew who Brad Bird was. Back in the 80s, Steven Spielberg put on a TV show called ‘Amazing Stories.’ One animated episode featured the strange, stressful life of a family dog. I remember laughing at that episode, and later noticing Bird’s name on a number of other animated projects I liked: The Simpsons, the Iron Giant, and the Incredibles. Over the past forty years, Brad Bird has proven himself to be a master at the business of storytelling, and with that in mind I wanted to jot down some notes on five rules his projects seem to follow.

To be fair, there are other blog posts like this that talk about Bird’s storytelling and they have value, too. However I want to dig deeper into what the rules are, what they mean, and how they apply to people like me who want to tell stories for a living. Let’s start the discussion with the most important rule:

Catch the Feels

One cool think about a Brad Bird project is, it’s never boring. Laugh, cry, or explode, Bird is going to make you feel something deep, and you can’t say that about every movie. Think about the emotional gut-punches you got in ‘The Iron Giant,’ or even the boiling frustration of Mr. Incredible as he grinds away in that office job.  Brad Bird knows how to tell a story that will catch you in the feels, and that’s why we love him. We want to feel something, we want to believe something. If you want to be a good storyteller, and lord knows I do, then you have to make your reader / audience feel something.

Build Your Craft First

What you notice when you consider Bird’s body of work is how prolific he was from the very beginning. Most of his early work is very simple, and modest – he worked as an animator on The Fox and the Hound back in the 80s, and he wrote the screenplay for Batteries Not Included. What he demonstrated with those early projects is the willingness to build his storytelling craft, first. They weren’t the sexiest gigs out there, but that didn’t matter. He was using that work to work on how he worked. We’re reaping the benefits now, thirty years later.

Lesson for us? We want every project to be a blockbuster, naturally. However Bird seems to be content with putting in a solid day’s work on a solid project. I admire that work ethic, and it’s something I try to emulate by writing as much as I do.

Don’t Be Afraid to Go Crude

By ‘crude,’ I don’t mean vulgar. I mean ‘start small.’ Low tech before high tech. Think about the low-budget animation on the ‘Family Dog’ episode of ‘Amazing Stories.‘ No one cared because the story was heartfelt and the character, authentic. As I said in another post, your audience will forgive almost anything if you engage with their emotions. Bird does this with talent, class, and style. If you can do this, too, then by all means: go crude. Use the time to build your craft.

Find Your Mentors

Bird started early on his path, according to Wikipedia. At 11, he toured Walt Disney Studios and announced his intention to become a Disney animator. He chased that dream, being mentored by Milt Kahl, one of the most influential animation supervisors at the Mouse. What’s the lesson for us? As Malcolm Gladwell highlights in Outliers, “No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.” Rather, the most successful people are helped by mentors. I’ve got a few of those people in my camp already, and I can’t overstate how pivotal their support has been as I chase after Mesh. Mentors work for Bird, and they can work for you, too.

Let Your Work Do the Talking

Bird departs from the standard narcissism of famous people who think fame means everyone needs to know what they think (Looking at you, Victoria Jackson) and to that I say ‘Bravo.’ Where articles try to paint him into an ideological corner, he goes out of his way to avoid handing people a paintbrush.

All too often, we see talented people become caricatures when asked to define their professional work through a political lens. I know we have to make a living, and it’s tempting when you get a softball question about current events, but that ultimately is not the purpose of our work. Creative people often conflate the value of their work and the value of their opinions; rarely does this end well. Bird seems to understand this, and I plan to do the same. Let your work do the talking, and make your work a statement that will last long after the echo of a news cycle.

Moral of the Story

Wrapping up, this blog post was more than an excuse to re-watch ‘The Iron Giant’ and ‘Family Dog.’ I want to build my craft by studying other successful storytellers, and Brad Bird is one of them. I hope this has been helpful to you and invite you to add any more ‘Birdisms’ you think I should include.

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