A Deeper Look into The Iron Giant

by Joe Tracy

The year is 1957, during the Cold War era, and a meteor has fallen from the sky or so it seems. Suddenly, from out of the ocean emerges a large metallic figure headed for land and thus a new adventure begins…

On August 6, 1999, The Iron Giant opened throughout the U.S. with rave reviews from critics everywhere. The film was hailed as a "solid and ironclad winner," "intelligent," "well-crafted," and "visually appealing."

Every film starts with a visionary and for The Iron Giant, that visionary was director Brad Bird. His work with the film only came about after some unique circumstances. 

In 1996, Bird was working on a feature project for Turner Feature Animation. However, Turner Feature Animation was acquired by Warner Bros. that year, killing his Turner project. Warner Bros. invited Bird to discuss working for them. While at Warner Bros. Bird saw a picture of a boy and a robot for a new feature Warner Bros. was working on.

"It stuck with me [the picture]," says Bird. "…I read the Ted Hughes book [The Iron Man] and I really liked the basic mythology of the story, but I had something pretty different in mind. So I pitched my version of The Iron Giant."

Warner Bros. like Bird's version of The Iron Giant and he was brought on to direct the project.

"Hughes book is a great story that tries to show kids about the cycle of life-even though there is death, life has a continuity. My version is based around a question I asked the execs at Warner Bros. – what if a gun had a soul and chose not to be a gun? Basically I wanted to honor the book, but also take it in a new direction."

Screenwriter Tim McCanlies was brought on to help fulfill Bird's vision of the story. Bird says that he fell in love with McCanlies work after reading his screenplay, Second Hand Lions. "I knew then that he was the perfect writer to help bring The Iron Giant to the screen," says Bird. "Tim's writing has a sweetness and an innocence to it which speak to the very core of our film."

With the story going in a new direction, it was anyone's guess how the author of The Iron Man, Ted Hughes, would react to reading the script… that is until they received a letter from him stating, "I want to tell you how much I like what Brad Bird has done. He's made something all of a piece, with terrific sinister gathering momentum and the ending came to me as a glorious piece of amazement. He's made a terrific dramatic situation out of the way he's developed The Iron Giant . I can't stop thinking about it…"

Unfortunately, Hughes never got to see the final version of the film. He passed away in 1998 while the film was still in production.

Bird continued to develop the story to meet his vision. He wanted the story to be based in America, in the time era of the 50's (during the Cold War paranoia), and set in Maine.

"Maine is primarily a rural setting," says Bird. "There's something about juxtaposing a large technological creation with farmland and trees – a big, shiny metal thing looks completely out of place. There's also an innocence and a Norman Rockwell-type of feeling to that place, and I liked the idea of innocence being visited by paranoia."

The central core to the movie, as Bird had told Warner Bros. when explaining the idea, was that the giant was a gun with a soul.

In the film, a unique role-reversal comes into play when the boy in the film, Hogarth, essentially becomes the "parent" while the giant becomes the "child."

"I think that each one of us has both the potential for great good and for horrible destruction," says Bird. "Every day, in big and small ways, we are choosing which side of us we are going to act on. Hogarth helps this machine – that is built for another purpose – to find a different side of itself, and it becomes somewhat human in the process."

The Iron Giant wasn't developed like most animated features. This film had half the budget and was required to be completed in half the time as most features. So from the beginning, things were different on the "set" of The Iron Giant.

Most animated features assign a particular person to become the head of a particular character. In the case of The Iron Giant, Bird chose to assign artists "chunks" of the film – like an assembly line. But this also created new challenges.

"Everyone is trying, especially at the beginning, to figure out 'how do I draw these characters?' says Tony Fucile, Head of Animation for The Iron Giant. "We have about 50 animators and 75 or so clean up artists, so we'll have about 125 people working on the same character. We didn't want Hogarth to suddenly turn into somebody else."

This is where the model sheets, which are essentially the blue prints for each character, came in handy. The detailed model sheets show the character from every conceivable angle and with various emotions, facial expressions, and body positions. It was the job of Fucile and Bird to make sure that all the artists were drawing Hogarth exactly the same and not adding any personalized styles not approved on the model sheets.

But what about drawing the giant? It's not an easy task to draw a big metallic object.

"Animators excel at drawing movement and living, fluid objects," says Bird. "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."

But Bird didn't want the giant to look so perfect that it lost the "hand-drawn" look. The solution was rather ingenious. Months were spent creating a program that actually wobbled the lines of the giant in order to make it "feel hand-drawn."

The look of the giant was no easy task. It needed to look big and powerful, but it also needed other traits.

"There is an innocence to the giant," says Allison Abbate, the producer of The Iron Giant. "His design is very simple and clean. We wanted him to appear almost like a baby at the beginning of the film. He's a little bit like all of us – we all start out not knowing who we are, where we come from or why we're here and we all have to choose our life path."

Scott Johnston, the artistic coordinator for The Iron Giant adds, "We wanted the giant to be an alien presence. We also wanted to keep the rigidity of his form, yet allow him to be able to express a wide range of emotions. He has a simple jaw shape that can't really bend into a smile or a frown, but he has other ways of expressing thoughts and ideas through physical movements."

To give the film its unique style and color, the work of period artists like Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper were examined.

The style, story, music, originality, and direction of The Iron Giant story made it a hit with critics and the majority of those who saw the film in the theater. Unfortunately The Iron Giant didn't make massive strides at the Box Office, bringing in only $23.16 million in the U.S. Some blame this on poor marketing, while others blame it on the film's PG rating. But no one is faulting the movie's strong story and style as The Iron Giant swept up the majority of ANNIE animation awards, taking its place as an "animated classic."  

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The Iron Giant images are ©Copyright 1999-2000 by Warner Bros.

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