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5 Things You Might Not Know About Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
August 6, 2012 1:19 PM
14 Comments
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3. "The Iron Giant" rose out of the ashes of an unmade Bird project called "Ray Gunn."
Having started out as an animator on films like "The Fox & The Hound" and "The Plague Dogs," Brad Bird really came to attention by directing "Family Dog," an animated episode of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" anthology show, which was later developed into a short-lived CBS spin-off series (without Bird's involvement). Its success led to Bird starting to work on "The Simpsons," and later other animated series like "The Critic" and "King Of The Hill," until Turner Feature Animation, who at the time were hoping to rival Disney in the cartoon movie world, poached him away, with the promise that they could get him his feature directorial debut made. Entitled "Ray Gunn," it was, in Bird's words, "an action movie film noir with a sci-fi edge, but it was the future as imagined in the 1930s," and was intended to be a PG-13 movie, somewhat darker than the usual fare, aimed at an older audience. But the director couldn't convince the studio that an audience existed for the film, and when the flops of "The Pagemaster" and "Cats Don't Dance" saw TFA merged with Warner Bros Animation, the film was shelved, and Bird was given his choice of projects at Warners instead, picking out "The Iron Giant." Warners animation had their own problems, with the expensive "Quest For Camelot" flopping hugely, and as a result, there was a good deal of turnaround at the company, something that Bird says enabled him to make the film without much interference. Tim McCanlies said in a later interview: " 'Quest for Camelot' did so badly that everybody backed away from animation and fired people. Suddenly we had no executive anymore on 'Iron Giant,' which was great because Brad got to make his movie. Because nobody was watching." Of course, it also meant that "The Iron Giant" wasn't given much of a push by the studio, leaving it to underperform at the box office. There's been talk in the 13 years since of a possible revival of "Ray Gunn," and Bird still hasn't ruled it out, telling us later last year that "It's not like I can do it without Warner Bros.' cooperation, but I would say that regimes change and one of the nicest things about making movies is that hopefully you un-scare people. There's a lot of fear in the movie industry because of the amount of money and resources that are involved and your goals are as elusive as what's going to entertain people of all different shapes and sizes. If you think about it in a logical way, it's an impossible job. You just kind of go forward and say, 'I'm going to make a movie that I want to see, and I hope people will join in.' "

4. "The Rocketeer" and "Captain America" director Joe Johnston designed the titular Iron Giant.
Bird wasn't the only filmmaker to have a serious influence on the way his film turned out, as the look of the Iron Giant itself was in part created by Joe Johnston, a friend of the filmmaker, and the director of "Honey I Shrunk The Kids," "The Rocketeer," "Jumanji," "Jurassic Park III," "The Wolfman" and "Captain America: The First Avenger." Johnston had started out his career as a concept designer on the original "Star Wars" movies, later moving into visual effects, winning an Oscar for his work on "Raiders Of The Lost Ark." Bird relates how Johnston became involved in "The Iron Giant": "Joe's a friend of mine and my wife. We've known him for years and I was able to lure him to do a little bit of moonlighting. He did the very first designs of the Giant, and Mark Whiting, our production designer, and Steve Markowski, our head Giant animator, added several things to it and refined it. Joe did a great job." Inspired by Art Deco trains like The Silver Streak, Johnston's design (refined by Mark Whiting) was instantly iconic, and a great reason for the film's success, even if his commitment to "October Road" meant his role on the production was brief. As for the Giant itself, the decision was made to create the character through CGI, rather than 2D animation. As Bird says, "It is difficult for a human to draw a big, solid metallic object. Animators excel at drawing movement and living, fluid objects. The giant originates from a different world, so we chose to create the giant using computer animation, CGI, which would give him the mass and solidity and also give the impression that it’s from a different place. The separation between the 2D-animation and the CGI is something that helped establish the fish-out-of-water facet of the story." Johnston wasn't the only interesting hire on the project: Mark Andrews, who recently directed Pixar's "Brave," was a storyboard artist on the movie, while Bird was able to hire students from his alma mater CalArts to assist on the film's animation.

5. The film's cult success is in part thanks to its regular presence on the Cartoon Network at Thanksgiving.
When first test-screened, the film reportedly received the highest scores that Warner Bros had gotten in 15 years. But by then, it was a little too late; the film's tight production and relatively low budget meant it was something of an afterthought for the studio, and merchandising tie-ins and similar opportunities like had passed by. As Tim McCanlies says: "We had toy people and all of that kind of material ready to go, but all of that takes a year! Burger King and the like wanted to be involved. In April we showed [Warner Bros] the movie, and we were on time. They said, 'You'll never be ready on time.' No, we were ready on time. We showed it to them in April and they said, 'We'll put it out in a couple of months.' That's a major studio, they have 30 movies a year, and they just throw them off the dock and see if they either sink or swim, because they've got the next one in right behind it. After they saw the reviews they [Warner Bros.] were a little shamefaced." Indeed, the reviews were exceptional, but the box office wasn't -- the film made only $5.7 million in its opening weekend, and $23 million in total, a significant flop. By the time the home video release came, Warners were better prepared, with a number of merchandising tie-ins, and the film did well. But part of the reason for its enduring cult success (other than the global hits that Bird went on to direct) is thanks to another Time Warner subsidiary, Cartoon Network. The movie received its basic cable premiere on the July 4th weekend, 2002, airing continuously on repeat for 24 hours between July 2nd and July 3rd, and the channel repeated the marathon on the day after Thanksgiving for several years after that. Like "The Wizard Of Oz" and "It's A Wonderful Life" before it, it's a film that had its reputation restored, in part, by television.

Final Scene: Spoiler Warning

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14 Comments

  • Derrick Jean | March 16, 2014 11:41 PMReply

    God knows how many times I saw this as a kid

  • John | February 13, 2014 2:16 AMReply

    Great article....I remember when this came out, I was 32.... I persuaded my buddy to go see it with me at the theaters. Thought it was awesome. As a collector of Star Wars action figures and Hot Wheels cars, a comic book reader and the sort, I bought several of the action figures with extras for a rainy day. Years later, those figures sold at a pretty good price. I wish I still had a few of them. They will well made but most of all, I still adore this film and am happy for Brad and his success.

  • watson | October 27, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    I find this film very scary

  • Addie | February 14, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Great article. I read this after watching it on DVD, the first time I've seen it since I was in high school. I didn't get to see it in theatres when it was released as my family couldn't afford it but I saw it on HBO and fell in love with it. It's a movie that will always hold a special place in my heart and I hope my kid will enjoy it in future as much as I do.

  • Alex k | October 12, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    This was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, I couldn't have been older than 5, my dad took my sister and I and I still remember vividly how I covered my ears whenever the giant talked because it was too loud and scary at the time. This movie will always hold a special place for me.

  • Christian T | August 19, 2012 12:42 AMReply

    Add me to the saw it in theaters group. My dad bought me and my brother to it after hearing the great reviews. Now its my favorite movie

  • Singer | August 7, 2012 8:45 PMReply

    I didn't know

  • Dave Carter | August 7, 2012 12:46 AMReply

    Can I brag that I saw this 3 times in theaters? I bought a lightbox from an animator who went off to LA to work on the Iron Giant. A year later I visited the WB studio in production, seeing the layouts and animatics I knew it'd be one of the best animated features ever made. Great piece Oliver.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | August 6, 2012 11:31 PMReply

    It's a sad and damning indictment of modern audiences that unless a film is advertised up the wazoo with merchandising tie-ins, the people won't go see it. I DID see 'The Iron Giant' on it's theatrical release in 1999, absolutely loved it, and raved about it to just about everyone... and 'The Iron Giant' still has the best and most moving climax in cinematic history, if you don't tear up big-time each and every time you watch it, you ain't human, both 'The Avengers' and 'The Dark Knight Rises' endings were clearly, uh, 'influenced' by it...

  • Gregg | March 28, 2014 7:26 PM

    This is my 4 year olds favorite movie. It stands the test of time.

  • Tom | August 6, 2012 6:01 PMReply

    I LOVE this movie. I hope we see Ray Gunn one day.

  • sean hackett | August 6, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    Can I brag and mention that I saw this film in theaters?

  • sp | August 6, 2012 2:36 PM

    Sean, I wish I had seen this movie in the theatre. After seeing this movie on DVD ( or VHS) , this flick became an instant classic in my book. My most favorite animated feature films are : Iron Giant, The Incredibles, & Lady & The Tramp.

  • abel ferrara | August 6, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    October Road? I think you mean October Sky

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