Katherine Sarafian has been with Pixar since 1994 when she served as a production coordinator on the studio’s first full-length feature film, Toy Story. She has since worked on such hits as A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles. She produced the studio’s highly anticipated, upcoming release, Brave.
Mike Parker – Pixar had been around for a while before it really exploded with its first full-length animated feature, Toy Story in 1995. You joined the studio in 1994, when the future of the company was by no means secure. What attracted you to Pixar?
Katherine Sarafian – When I came out of film school and wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I thought some of the best, most creative people in the industry actually got their training in the real world. Some people from Pixar had done a presentation that I was at, and I thought it looked like an interesting place to get my feet wet, so I sent in a resume. Disney had just greenlit Toy Story, so I got hired to work with the project for one year. That was the deal. One year, and my contract would be over. I thought, ‘Great! I’ll get a year of practical experience under my belt, then go back to school, get my Ph.D and become a professor.’ Toy Story was a huge hit, Pixar got a five-film deal and I was fortunate enough that they asked me to stay on. Who knew?
Parker – You’ve worked as a production coordinator, production supervisor and production manager for a variety of Pixar projects, and most recently you served as producer for Brave. Your professional journey seems to be one of paying your dues and learning your craft. What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers who might yearn for more a little more instant gratification?
Katherine – I would say it is harder than it looks; any creative process is. It is extremely hard to make a good film. There is a lot that goes into making something that appears seamless and effortless. You’ve got technical peopleand ceative people trying to speak each other’s language. Even with all the training in the world it is still easy to make a mistake, and I’ve made plenty of them. This is not a business where you can take shortcuts. Start at the bottom and work your way up. I appreciate Pixar for grooming me, for grooming us. There are a lot of us who have been around Pixar for 20 years or more. It takes that much time to build community and relationships. I would urge aspiring filmmakers to dig in and take the time required to learn your craft. If you are not willing to do that, you are probably in the wrong profession.
Parker – As a producer, what was your day to day involvement with Brave? Were you more involved in the creative decision-making process or in counting beans?
Katherine – I was both. There was time I had to give up counting beans and dig into the story. Of course from first to last the story dominates the process. All through the process the story is the key. There was plenty of conversations about even how Mom should say a particular line. And there were plenty of times when I needed to step out of the creative room and just let the creatives do their thing. My job was to best serve the story while bringing the film in on time and on budget.
Parker – I had the chance to screen Brave last night. As a film reviewer and a movie lover, I’ve got my own opinions about the themes and targeted audience for the film, but I’d love to hear your thoughts to see if I’m on target.
Katherine – I think people will take different things away, but one important theme is the various types of bravery that we explore. There is a lot of shooting arrows, and riding horses and fighting wild animals – and that’s one kind of bravery, but that’s an outside kind of bravery. There is another, very real kind of bravery in your heart that is required to accept people as they are; for children to accept and understand their parents and for parents to accept and understand their children.
Parker – There is a conspiracy theory among some people that Hollywood has an agenda to convert America to a particular way of thinking. As a filmmaker, do you have an agenda beyond simply creating great entertainment?
Katherine – I think there is a great difference between ‘great entertanment’ and ‘great story telling.’ At Pixar, we are not located in Hollywood, and I think that helps to keep us outside of the Hollywood mindset and Hollywood politics. When we make a film, I think it is really more about trying to put our heads down and avoiding any agenda other than telling the best story we can. We want to make something that our families can see, that our parents can see, and that we can be proud of. Our agenda is simply to tell the best story we can. We can’t be beholden to any other agenda. It just makes telling the story so much harder. We almost have to put blinders on and not even consider what people expect from us. If someone says, ‘Oh, they’re making a princess movie,’ we might be tempted to figure out what kind twists to put into it just for the sake of breaking the mold. But that wouldn’t serve the story. And at Pixar, it is all about best serving the story.
Parker – Last words?
Katherine – I hope all kinds of people see this movie. It’s set in Scotland, but it has a universal appeal. It’s not a Disney princess movie in the sense that there is no Prince Charming; not that there is anything wrong with that, I think that was a wonderful genre, but that’s not really the world we live in today. Brave is about a family – a royal family – but I think any family can relate to it. It’s about relationships and communication and love and forgiveness and acceptance, and I think it is very relevant to the world we live in.