Brenda Chapman

What is your name and your current occupation?
Brenda Chapman – Director/writer Pixar Animation Studios, co-owner, director, writer, illustrator at Chapman Lima Productions.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Walking beans (walking through soy bean fields and cutting the weeds out), working in the kitchen of a retirement home (it’s horrifying what you find in coffee cups after breakfast!), stuffing envelopes for an insurance company (paper cuts!), working the service desk at Kmart (Blue Light Specials!) – ALL were crazy for OH so many different reasons.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
THE LITTLE MERMAID – my first job as a story artist, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – trying to make Belle a stronger Disney heroine than the ones of the past, THE LION KING – taking the ‘B’ movie and working hard to make it an ‘A+’, all at Disney… PRINCE OF EGYPT – trying to create the first animated movie at DreamWorks – but then ANTZ jumped in before us – it was great putting together all the right people and creating a new studio… and BRAVE at Pixar – creating the first female main character heroines at that studio, completely inspired by my relationship with my daughter, my love of adventure, faerie tales and Scotland! – a true labor of love.

How did you become interested in animation?
I loved to draw all the time when I was a little girl. I watched Bugs Bunny and other Warner Bros. cartoons everyday after school, loved the old Disney films… When I realized they weren’t real and someone actually made the films… oh… that dawned on me in high school (I was soooo naïve)… I knew it was what I had to do.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from a tiny farming community in Central Illinois called Beason – population 250. A lot of time on my hands to invoke my imagination. When I realized that animation was what I really wanted to do, I told my sister, who told a friend, who said she had a cousin who worked for Disney. I got his number, called him and he gave me the number for Ed Hansen’s office at Disney Feature Animation. It was 1982. Ed’s assistant sent me brochures for California Institute of the Arts – CalArts. I applied and was denied the first time. I drew like crazy for another year and applied, again, and was accepted. I spent 3 years at CalArts and graduated with my BofA… but more importantly had done a film called A BIRTHDAY, which caught the attention of Disney’s review board. I was hired as a trainee in story in 1987.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Inside the studio:  Meetings meetings meetings. Story story story working and reworking. Editorial… working and reworking the story. Meetings in all other departments stop and start depending on the state of the story.  Working at home:  A couple hours writing… go to lunch… play with the dog… check email… write some more… maybe draw something… have a snack… take a walk… shower… do some laundry… write some more… hang out with the family… go to a movie… etc.,… Not necessarily in that order everyday, but something like that.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Puzzling out the story and discovering who the characters are. I don’t know why, other than I simply love that process. The mystery of how it’s all going to work as a whole, and trying to tie all the loose pieces together to make something that people will want to see. It’s fun, intriguing, incredibly hard, challenging and very satisfying.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The tedium of details. I prefer looking at things as a whole… it’s why I didn’t become an animator or a background painter. I like looking at the details someone else has done, but I’ve always preferred to work on the bigger picture.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Dealing with the business/executive point of view. It inevitably interferes with the quality of the creative. The business end is always based on the fear of losing money. The creative end is about exploring, taking chances and trying new things. That terrifies the executives. Coming into direct conflict with that when trying to create the best story/movie one can, is incredibly frustrating, difficult and exasperating.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Being a director, I mainly talk through the direction and vision of the film with the people who use the heavy duty technology at Pixar. I basically email and use Word and Final Draft. When I want to illustrate a point, I draw with pencil and paper the old fashioned way. I will get there with my own use of technology eventually, but I am mostly writing at the moment. I am in awe of those who use it all so skillfully.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Where to start? Joe Grant, Joe Ranft, Vance Gerry, Hal Ambro, Chuck Jones, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas… to name a few that are no longer with us. I was incredibly fortunate in my timing into the industry. I was taught by Hal at CalArts, saw lectures by and met Chuck Jones, Frank & Ollie, both at CalArts and at Disney. I worked with both of the amazing Joes and Vance. I especially miss Joe Ranft – he was a dear dear friend and mentor.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Getting the news that Joe Ranft was killed in a car accident, then having to carry on without him.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I am currently developing some projects that I can’t really talk about right now – one of which is a book. I do have a children’s book that I am trying to finish – it’s been around for a couple of decades hanging over my head. It’s based on my student film, A  BIRTHDAY.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can hum and whistle at the same time.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Never give up. Draw people and animals a lot – even if you are a computer animator. It teaches you SO much! Don’t be lazy – work hard for what you want… and if you love it, it won’t feel hard at all… until you’re done. Then you’ll feel exhausted!

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  1. Great interview…..thanks

  2. Though I don’t believe I’ve ever met you Ms. Chapman, I applaud your contributions to our industry and wish you great success on BRAVE. Keep up the great work!

  3. Thanks for sharing this Brenda – it’s good to know there are people who think like working in story. Your path reflects that of many who work in the animation industry, it’s encouraging 🙂

  4. it is fantastic interview!!!!! i am exited see brenda chapman words.. thanks a lot for the interview.

  5. Thanks for sharing your path to success. It is very inspiring.

  6. Wow. Beason, Illinois is even smaller than my hometown of Herrin! (189 vs. 12,501 in 2010) Animation is like Devil’s Tower, Wyoming in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in that it draws people from every corner of the country (and earth) to the geographic areas where animation production is an every day reality. It’s a veritable unending stream of raw talent that would rather make animation than eat. In the current economy, the studios can only gain, unless of course they have no clue how to best use this bountiful gift pouring in to them. I never met Ms. Chapman but applaud her ability to stick to her guns in this racket.

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