Filmmakers for Disney/Pixar’s “Brave” Drew Inspiration for Story from Reality

Disney/Pixar provided us with a glimpse at the inspiration for their upcoming film Brave.  The story of Brave was very personal for the film’s directors, Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.  They drew from the experiences of their own families, combining that with their Scottish heritage and love of the country.  With their strong backgrounds in storytelling and filmmaking, they were able to weave a tale that was original, emotionally stirring and full of thrilling adventure.  Continue reading for more behind-the-scenes details on the creation of Disney/Pixar’s Brave, and click here for all the news, images, and clips prior to the film coming to theaters on June 22.

Brave concept art by Shading Art Director Tia Kratter and Character Art Director Matt Nolte. ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Provided by Walt Disney Studios

“It’s all about changing your fate. And Merida—feeling the constraints of castle life tightening around her—desperately wants to change hers.”

~ Mark Andrews, Director

Spirited and more than a little headstrong, the red-haired renegade in Brave is determined to carve her own path in life.  But that’s part of growing up, says Andrews.

Teenagers are burgeoning, becoming the adults they’re going to be and that’s the really chaotic transition that’s all through this movie.  The most important thing to Merida is her bow and her horse and the free time that comes with them.  So she’s a phenomenal archer.  She loves to be outside racing around the Scottish countryside on her horse Angus.

Merida is the product of her father, King Fergus, who has handed down his love of the outdoors.  “Fergus is this immense Highland warrior—the kind of guy who wears a bear cloak,” says Andrews.  “He’s loud and boisterous, kind of like me, and full of guts and wisdom.  He lost his leg to the demon bear Mor’du and will tell the tale to anyone whether they’ve heard it or not.”

Fergus delights in endlessly regaling his daughter and her triplet brothers with stories of his adventures.  So by the time Merida reaches her teenage years, she’s a chip off the old block—scaling cliffs, sword fighting, shooting arrows and giving Angus a hearty workout every chance she gets.

But galloping through the rugged Highlands with her bow in tow isn’t Merida’s destiny.  At least, not according to her mother Queen Elinor, who has her own plan in mind for Merida—a plan that’s been predestined since long before either of them was born.  It’s time to grow up, whether Merida likes it or not.  “Queen Elinor is a working mother,” says producer Katherine Sarafian.  “She’s raising the family. She’s keeping the peace. She’s handling the royal duties with elegance and dignity.  And she has goals for her daughter.”

Unfortunately for Merida, those goals include royal responsibility and a marriage designed to uphold the tenuous truce among the kingdom’s unruly clans.  Elinor has spent years preparing Merida for this moment and she doesn’t understand her daughter’s resistance.  Meanwhile, Merida can’t bear to be controlled by anyone, least of all her mother.  “They’re at an impasse,” says Sarafian.


“Merida’s story is universal. I think a lot of people—adults, teenagers and kids—are going to relate to the idea that you want to choose your own path, and at the same time, you have an allegiance to your family, so you’re always walking that line. What’s overstepping and what’s not?”

~ Katherine Sarafian, Producer

There’s a reason why the story of Brave is so relevant, says director Brenda Chapman: it’s inspired by a real relationship.  “I was dealing with a very headstrong daughter,” says Chapman.  “She was so passionate and so strong—and she was four at the time.  I thought, ‘What’s she going to be like as a teenager?’

“I started to imagine what a fairy tale would be like,” continues Chapman, “with a working mom and a really willful daughter whose strength you don’t want to squash—but sometimes you do want to squash it a little.  But in the end, it wasn’t a fairy tale at all.  Brave turned out to be more of an epic action-adventure.”

Chapman knew instantly where she’d set this new action-adventure fantasy tale.  “I have a love of Scotland,” she says.  “It’s my ancestry, though I’m one of the great American mutts and my family has been around since before the Revolution, so I can’t find that old country family connection.  Scotland’s just such an amazing place.  It’s beautiful.  The people are really hearty and they have an incredible spirit.”

Andrews shares Chapman’s passion for Scotland.  The director and self-proclaimed amateur historian of all things Scottish spent his honeymoon there.  He returned to Scotland in 2006 with Chapman, then as her unofficial Scottish consultant, to help research “Brave,” taking an instant liking to their guides.  “They were filled with local lore,” says Andrews.  “They could name every tree, rock and hill—each had a story.  They have an incredible storytelling tradition in their heritage.”

When Andrews later stepped in as director of Brave to build on Chapman’s vision, he also found an instant connection to the film’s family.  “I have a daughter and three sons,” he says, “just like Fergus and Elinor.”  The seasoned dad sees Merida’s rebellion as a part of growing up.  “There’s a chemical thing in teenagers to fight back—they want to figure out the world for themselves.”

Like Chapman, Andrews drew on his own family dynamic, seeing the contentious relationship between Merida and Elinor as universal.  “It’s a parent-child relationship that’s core to this film—mothers and daughters or dads and sons, it doesn’t matter.”

Producer Sarafian says Brave really benefited from the contributions of two directors.  “Mark and Brenda have so much in common, and they also complement each other as storytellers and filmmakers.  They’re both family focused and esteemed story artists with years of training and impressive credits.  They each bring something unique to the process.  Mark has a much more rambunctious approach and loves action.  Brenda loves the quieter moments.  Brave is this incredible blending of those skills—it reflects Brenda’s inspired concept and the adventurous excitement that Mark brings.”

Producer Katherine Sarafian receives archery instruction from San Francisco Archery store owner Edward Rosario in Golden Gate Park on November 11, 2006 in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)


Co-director and screenwriter Steve Purcell and story supervisor Brian Larsen also played a large role in helping to shape the plot and personalities.  “We feel that the heart of the film is very important,” says Purcell.  “When you have the spine and emotional heart of the film, then you can hang the other elements on it.  If the spine is strong enough, it will support all the changes you make over the years as it morphs from one thing to another.

“We also believe that it’s important to have humor to balance the emotion,” continues Purcell.  “The humor should come from the characters and radiate from their personalities, rather than having it feel like the gags are just placed on top of what you have.  For example, the lords and their sons are very broad—their distinct personalities prove to be a great source of comedy.”

For Larsen, “Merida’s journey is a coming-of-age story.  I love the fact that she likes her life just like it is—she doesn’t really want to grow up.  That’s so different from the typical story where a woman is waiting for a man to change her life. As the story progresses, her mom experiences emotions Merida’s never seen her go through before, which ultimately inspires Merida’s own change.  Mark and the story team were very interested in the idea of the child recognizing the adult in herself by watching her parent go through some tough stuff.  Through Merida’s rites of passage, mother and daughter develop a new appreciation for each other.”

In creating the story for Brave, the filmmakers took elements of Scottish history and lore to construct their own legends.  A demon bear named Mor’du, the gathering and unity of the clans, the role of the mystical will o’ the wisps and a mysterious witch with the power to create change are all rooted in reality and mythology.

“When we visited Scotland on our research trip, we met amazing storytellers and historians who had a big influence on us,” says Larsen.  “Scotland is a storytelling culture—wherever we went, the locals erupted into stories of their everyday lives and the people they knew.  The story of Mor’du was inspired by the stories we heard while we were there.”

Filmmakers infused the folklore and magic they soaked up in Scotland throughout the story.  According to production designer Steve Pilcher, even a hint of magic enhanced the mystical tone of the film.  “We evoke the feeling of magic without using magic,” he says.  “Adding lichen to the standing stones or dew drops on the grass—it catches the light and emits a little sparkle.  We created the fantasy with a natural element, which is great for this story in this place.”

Adds Andrews, “The will o’ the wisps are in a lot of Scottish folklore.  They were said to lead you to treasure or doom—to change your fate—but they’re an actual phenomenon of swamp and bog gas seeping up through the earth and interacting with the natural resources to create the blue flames.  People would follow these lights thinking they were little fairies, and basically drown or get sucked down into the bogs.  [So] we made the wisps like actual little spirits.”

Once Pilcher had that directive, the design of the wisps came together.  “We liked sapphire blue against the natural environment because there’s nothing like it in the rest of the film.  That shade of blue is the hottest part of a flame, yet it feels cold.  That contradiction is intriguing and that’s what magic is about.  There is a desire to touch it, to follow it, but also a little fear.”

“They’re almost like Marley’s ghost in a way,” says Andrews, “because Marley’s ghost isn’t an evil spirit—even though he’s frightening, he’s trying to warn Ebenezer to change his ways.  That’s what the wisps are doing.  There’s a duality to them, because they’re either good or evil—they lead Merida into more and more trouble, but in the end, they’ve led her exactly where she needs to go.”

For more adventure movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.