In some form or other — toys, monsters, cars, rats and even little boys — male characters have been at the centre of Pixar Animation Studio’s feature films. But now for the first time in its 17-year history, Pixar has a female lead. The studio spent more than five years bringing Merida, the empowered girl at the centre of Brave (opening Friday), to life. It took a number of designs and two directors to do it.
Brave, set in medieval Scotland, is also the closest that Pixar has come to making a fairy tale. This one involves the headstrong princess Merida, who is more interested in archery and independence than in marrying and fulfilling royal traditions as dictated by her mother, Queen Elinor.
The character and story were first developed by Brenda Chapman, the film’s initial director. She spoke about what interested her in having Pixar’s first female-driven narrative be about a princess.
“Fairy tales have gotten kind of a bad reputation, especially among women,” she said. “So what I was trying to do was just turn everything on its head. Merida is not upset about being a princess or being a girl. She knows what her role is. She just wants to do it her way, and not her mother’s way.”
A real girl
Chapman had ideas about how the character should look. “I wanted a real girl,” she said, “not one that very few could live up to with tiny, skinny arms, waist and legs. I wanted an athletic girl. I wanted a wildness about her, so that’s where the hair came in, to underscore that free spirit. But mainly I wanted to give girls something to look at and not feel inadequate.”
When production designer Steve Pilcher began having his artists make sketches, he asked them to work in their own style and offer their own take. “I told them, ‘When you draw her, don’t worry about matching somebody else’s work,’” he said. “I wanted them to just draw how it feels and what she’s going through. That gives you an objectivity on the design, and you can use it to inform other ideas.”
This more cartoonlike sketch was generated to tap into aspects of Merida’s personality: her stubbornness; her petulance with her mother and the tensions that arise from it; her sense of adventure that she feels her mother is trying to tame. Later the artists would begin to refine the proportions and physical features as the story became more set.
“I got more from the tone of the film that it would be taking a fantasy story seriously,” Pilcher said. So Merida’s design “had to be caricatured but still have a certain amount of gravity and anatomy to it.”
He wanted to make sure that her features weren’t too exaggerated, just as he didn’t want her to appear toylike. “There had to be a sweet spot in between,” he said.
The animators gave her strong, athletic legs, but in the final film they are rarely seen, as Merida usually wears a long dress. Over the course of the design process the character was drawn many ways, sometimes taller, sometimes older looking.
“But the thing that would always underline everything,” Pilcher said, “was she always had to be appealing. We needed to always keep the essence of her personality intact.”
Aspects of the hair stayed consistent throughout the design process: it was always red and always a little on the wild side. “When I came on, they had already done the research and testing of her hair to arrive at the style,” he said. “So I asked if I could see the genesis of her hair, because I thought it needed a little more finessing to get the quality of the curly hair.”
The team showed Mark Andrews, who took over directing on the film in its last 18 months of production, a “wedge” of Merida’s hair. The individual hairs were laser-straight. Lined up in a row, they would go in a curl, but Andrews said he thought they were too lined up and uniform. There was a parameter in the computer settings called “scraggle.” “It takes the straight lines of these curl points and jumbles them up and crisscrosses them, like real hair does.” Andrews was taken by this look and requested that the animators “turn up the scraggle,” and that solidified the final style.
Chapman, who worked with Pilcher on design ideas, spoke about her general goals for Merida’s look. “I wanted wider-set eyes,” she said. “Not the gigantic big round ones that are closer together. I wanted a more round face. I wanted to give her a design where you could look at her and say, ‘girl,’ but there was an appeal to it, which is what I’ve always liked about the Pixar characters.”