The ingredients for Pixar Animation's "Ratatouille" were first assembled about six years ago, but it's unlikely that the movie, which opens Friday, would have turned out to be the fine delicacy that it is without the superheroic efforts of Brad Bird.
Bird was coming off of the Oscar-wining Pixar movie "The Incredibles" when he was asked by Pixar heads John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs to take a look at the troubled project.
"Ratatouille" had originated with animator Jan Pinkava, a 13-year Pixar vet who made the Oscar-winning short "Geri's Game." He conceived the idea -- a rat, Remy, who wants to become a chef -- and designed the characters and sets for the film's Parisian locale.
"We got into a place where the story wasn't good enough to make the deadline," says Brad Lewis, the film's producer. "The story was boiling over with themes dealing with prejudice, family, following your passion, art and criticism. All of these things were pulling it in many different directions, but a story has to have conviction and be one thing."
Enter Bird, who had spent years working exclusively on projects that were his creations, resulting in critically acclaimed films "The Iron Giant" and "Incredibles." He set aside the project he had begun working on and, about 18-20 months ago, jumped into rewriting "Ratatouille" and stepped into the director's chair.
"(He) gave all these thematic elements a stronger spine," Lewis says. "Remy really became the center of the story, and all other elements could support it." The transition wasn't all rosy, however, and Pinkava, though earning a "story by" credit, left the project and Pixar.
With a deadline looming, Bird relied on his many years as a consultant on "The Simpsons" to handle the stress of a tight schedule. "I am not uncomfortable with a lot of pressure," he says. "TV has to be produced quickly, and you have to solve problems quickly because the next episode is coming. This was the shortest schedule I've ever had on a feature film."
Bird brought in his flair, including his love of set pieces. The movie has several, including one in which hundreds of rats flee for their lives out of a farmhouse, resulting in Remy separating from his family; Remy's first time in the kitchen, where he turns a foul-tasting soup into a culinary masterpiece; and Remy being chased down the streets of Paris by the evil cook.
For Bird, the secret to successful set pieces is not eye-popping special effects but having the audience care about the characters.
"I think all movies are an illusion, whether they are live action or animation," he says. "And I think the best special effect that people don't pay enough attention to is caring about the characters who are going through the set pieces. If you can be invested in the characters that you're putting in danger, then you can amp up the pressure, and it really means something because people are rooting for them to survive. Characters are the special effect."
Going from a 2-D robot movie to an animated superhero film to one about a gourmet rat, Bird is like an artistic twister, tackling ever-changing styles and stories. He is now working on his first-live action movie, a secret project for Pixar called "1906," rumored to be about the San Francisco earthquake.
"My favorite filmmakers are versatile guys like Howard Hawks, who could do screwball comedy one second and a Western the next and then a hard-edged Bogart movie after," Bird says. "They just liked film, and they liked storytelling. I want to be able to do a lot of different kinds of things, too."