Coolsville, population: all of us.

Stephan Franck reflects on his experience as a supervising animator on the animation classic THE IRON GIANT

One day in 1997, I was part of a group of tired and weary animators on their lunchbreak, who sat in a small screening room to see what “some guy from The Simpsons” had been up to. This group had been clawing its way through a grueling end-of-production crunch-time on another animated movie, and everyone was running on fumes. Of course, the “guy from The Simpsons” was Brad Bird, and what he was about to show was the first 20 minutes of a first pass of The Iron Giant story-reels. By the time the reels ended and lights came back, we all intuitively knew that, should we be lucky enough to work on it, that movie would shape our careers and artistic lives.

Much has been said about the greatness of the Iron Giant, about the peculiar production context that allowed Brad to be left alone by the studio to make the movie he wanted, about the utter lack of promotion that doomed the initial release, about whether the retro 2D-look and Cold WAR-era “scarcity of information” themes were out of step with the 1999 zeitgeist, and about its ultimate triumph in home video. So there is no need for me to expand on any of that. My goal here, 18 years later, is to share my personal experience on the movie, and to reflect on how some of the lessons learned informed the rest of my career.

The first thing I ever told Brad was that I had cursed his name as a kid. At the age of 13, I had  seen HEAVY METAL, and decided that I would be doing animation and comics for the rest of my life. I immediately started on a 5 minute animated adaptation of Will Eisner’s SPIRIT--my favorite comic at the time. And then, six months into it, I learned to my great horror that some guy named Brad Bird was going to make an animated movie of the SPIRIT--The nerve!

Seeing those first story reels of The Iron Giant, I immediately recognized that convergence of inspiration again, and the promise of what I had always hoped animation could be. You see, the prevalent thinking at the time (and somewhat still today), was that animation is a whimsical thing, and best used to tell whimsical stories. To me, that made no sense. I saw animation at its most exciting when commenting on something we can recognize and reference from real life. A different point-of-view is only interesting if it is given on something familiar.

In movies in general, I have always been a fan of the 90/10% rule: 90% of well-understood and relatable context, with 10% of weirdness thrown in there. From that standpoint, the Iron Giant was exactly what I was looking for.

It takes place in Cold War America, not an abstract location. That meant something. The characters were socially specific -- a beatnik, a 1950’s working class single mom, a government agent, a 9 year old kid who actually acted like a kid… Although classics, they went beyond the abstract archetypes. They were people.

That sense of groundedness and relatability infused the movie at every step. Not only was that the case with literal concepts like costume designs (unlike most animated characters, ours would actually be wearing different outfits from day to day), but also in the animation itself.

There has always been a certain pageantry to animation, from the amazing ballet-like quality of the Nine Old Man, to the Bluth Style figure-8 motions, or to the abstractness of Tex Avery. Here, Brad didn’t want any of that. He wanted the animation to be believable in its physics, and fluid enough to be convincing and carry the stakes, but without any of the esthetic affections of traditional styles.  

That approach would carry over into the acting choices. Not a single head-roll or floppy hand gesture would be put in there unless it evoked a recognizable movement from actual life experience. That, however, was not to be confused with under-animation, AKA having your animated characters standing overly still in an attempt to come across as “subtle”. That would be just another affectation. Just like you only control your car when the wheels are turning, animation only comes alive when something is moving. So things had to move. They just had to move right. We were never fighting the medium, but intention was almost more important than execution.

Every night at 5, animation review time would be the highlight of the day. We would all gather in the all-purpose room, and watch Brad critique the scenes. The animation would be projected onto a white dry-erase board, and Brad would draw corrections on the board over freeze-frames. You had to be there. No--literally, you had to be there, because once he was satisfied that you had gotten the point, and the board was erased, the note was gone for good. Eventually, they started taking pictures of the board, and print them on thermal papers so you’d have a trace, but that turned out to be so cumbersome that we gave up and went back to “be there and pay attention.” But 17 years later, when I give corrections to CG animators, drawing over their freeze-frames on cineSynch, part of me is still in that room.

Beyond the specifics of animation, the most interesting aspect of those daily meetings regarded a sense of artistic leadership. Early on, I remember Brad coaching me in his uniquely Brad way: “People always come to you with their dukes up. You gotta get them to lower those dukes first so you can talk to them and they can hear you.” I didn’t fully understand it then, but I think I do now. My take on it is this: All of us artists (of any kind), only have one fear, which is to be lead into a bad performance (and then often to be blamed for it). The role of the artistic supervisor is to create a safe zone, in which the artists can feel safe to take chances and shoot for the moon, knowing that you have their back. It is sad how rarely you hear words like  “you know, I asked you to do the scene this way, and you did it very well, thank you for trying, you gave me a great version of that. But now that I see it, I feel that we need to try it a different way. Would you mind?”  Instead, what people too often get is “What did you do?! I never told you to do that!”

Brad’s key to team success, as he often said, was based on ownership. We all owned the success, challenges, mistakes, whatever. And the driving force was a sense of artistic relevance. We felt that we were doing something important. For ourselves and for the artform.

We all lived in Coolsville. Population, us!

Or did we?

Don’t get me wrong, Iron Giant was not an easy film to make. The schedule was very short (the whole thing was done in about a year), and the pressure intense. I remember looking at 3-foot tall piles of scenes stacking up in my room, feeling I’d never get out from under them. But I did. And we did. People gave it their all.

And then it came out, and we all know what happened. The Warner Brothers Feature Animation team of animators--which, by this point, had developed a bit of a house style--managed to survive one more movie (Osmosis Jones--an inventive and beautifully animated film by Piet Kroon and Tom Sito that WB, in their great wisdom, turned over to the Farelli Brothers to deface entirely) until they shut the place down. The team, then migrated en masse to Sony where I was the animation supervisor on Adam Sandler’s 8 Crazy Nights. Another fluke of a movie if there ever was one. And then we all moved on.

Over the years, we all knew that the movie had found its audience on home video, but I have to admit I hadn’t quite grasped the scope of it until I started doing comics and appearing at conventions. There, out of the studio’s isolation, and actually meeting thousands and thousands of people, I was able to appreciate how much The Iron Giant had meant to them, and the depth of their involvement with the characters and story.

At the risk of sounding overly naive, I will also say that this sentiment is very much in step with the rest of the con experience. Listening to the media, it would be easy to picture an America full of angry, hateful, bitterly divided people. But traveling from city to city all across the country (and outside), that is not what I found.

What I found is an endless reserve of wonderful people filled we empathy, a love for story and artistic curiosity. They found the Iron Giant--a profoundly honest and human movie--and over the last 17 years, they’re the ones who put it back together piece by piece, one VHS tape or DVD at a time..

After all, we do live in Coolsville. Population: ALL OF US.


Stephan Franck is currently running a Kickstarter campaign in support of his new graphic novel SILVER Volume 2. Clic here or on the image below to check it out!

Other Iron Giant peeps, please comment with your own recollections of our IG days. Only rules: Only first-hand accounts (no hear-say), and no bashing any one.

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