Scouting Scotland: Filmmakers for Disney/Pixar “Brave” Create Setting, Tree by Tree

Scotland: trees of all shapes and sizes punctuate a lush blanket of foliage—untamed grasses, moss and lichen mingle with earthy brush—all of it blurred by a silvery layer of mist that weaves its way through the forest and over an expansive loch.  Rocks of peculiar shapes interrupt the rich backdrop, and cliffs give way to pristine, but daunting seascapes below.  The view—enjoyed by generations from the windows of castles—has inspired the imaginations of many storytellers throughout the ages, including those at Pixar Animation Studios.  Continue reading for more behind-the-scenes details on how the filmmakers for Disney/Pixar’s “Brave” recreated this rich setting for the film.  And for all the latest “Brave” news, images, clips and trailers prior to the film coming to theaters on June 22, click here.

"BRAVE" Forest - Research Photo © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Provided by Walt Disney Studios

I’m of Scottish descent. My wife and I went there on our honeymoon and spent a month exploring the Highlands.  Scotland is just filled with myths and legends. It’s a magical place—rugged and majestic.  The colors there are dark and moody and, at the same time, bright and cheery—all thanks to the crazy weather.

~ Mark Andrews, Director

“It could be raining and you don’t care because it’s so beautiful,” adds producer Katherine Sarafian.  “Then, all of a sudden, it’s sunny—and there’s this mist.  It’s one of those places that hooks you—the people are warm and generous, and the landscape—it’s ridiculously dramatic.  It just draws you in.  It’s almost mystical. You want to be part of this environment.”

"BRAVE" Forest - Concept Art by Sets Art Director Noah Klocek. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Director Brenda Chapman, who also has familial links to the area, agrees.

Scotland is wild and rugged with its rocks and mountains, trees and valleys—but there’s something growing on everything—there’s a softness to it.  The environment actually reminds me of Merida—this perfect but complicated blend of hard and soft.

~ Brenda Chapman, Director

The filmmakers’ collective love of the land and their personal connections to Scotland made it an easy choice for the setting of “Brave.”  But that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done.  “Research is really an important part of the Pixar creative process,” says Sarafian.

"BRAVE" Standing Stones - Research Photo. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.



The team behind “Brave” traveled across the pond to scout the best locales where their epic action-adventure would unfold.  Their initial research trip occurred during the late summer of 2006; they returned to Scotland in October of 2007.  “We dove really deeply into the culture and the storytelling,” says Sarafian.  “We met people and talked to them. We ate like locals and immersed ourselves in the landscape and experienced the weather and how it was constantly changing and moving.”

“The people are hospitable, warm and friendly, and they take you in right away.  They’re all fabulous storytellers.  I’ve never been so enraptured and terrified by heroic tales and ghost stories.  One of the things we really wanted to emphasize with ‘Brave’ was that every character is a storyteller in his own right and every location has a story.”

~ Mark Andrews, Director

"BRAVE" Standing Stones - Concept Art by Shading Art Director Tia Kratter. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


They visited landmark locations in Edinburgh, walking the Royal Mile and feasting on homemade haggis—a pudding made with sheep’s heart, liver and lungs.  The filmmakers attended the Lonarch Highland Gathering and Games as well as the Braemar Gathering to inform the Highland Games and archery contest they wanted to create for “Brave.”  They also visited the National Museum of Scotland where they studied assorted weapons, fabrics and other adornments to ensure a measure of authenticity in the film.

“We spent a lot of time at the Standing Stones of Callanish [on the Isle of Lewis],” says producer Sarafian.  “It felt like the perfect setting for something important to happen in the story.  The stones are in a circle on a big exposed cliff with the sky as their backdrop—it’s very striking.  You can’t tear yourself away from them.  On both trips it was really hard for me to get any of the artists back on the bus.”

Several castles served as reference for the DunBroch family castle, most notably Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands and Dunnottar Castle, located just south of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. Dunnottar, a ruined medieval fortress believed to be from the 15th or 16th centuries, sparked a pivotal change of plans for the filmmakers.  They intended to set the film’s family castle on a loch up in the Highlands, but inspired by Donnottar’s dramatic location, decided to move it to an outpost of the sea.

"BRAVE" (Pictured) Castle DunBroch. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Glen Affric, located southwest of the village of Cannich in the Highland region of Scotland, contains one of the largest ancient Caledonian pinewoods in Scotland, as well as lochs, moorland and mountains.  For the filmmakers eager to soak up its charms and mysticism, it was pure magic.  “It’s really great to be there and breathe the cold fresh air and feel the wind in your face,” says production designer Steve Pilcher.  “The moss in Scotland was spectacular.  If you push your hand into the moss, it would literally sink down about a foot and then it would come back like a sponge.  The heather on the hills is wild, yet it has a lush kind of rolling femininity to it. In contrast, we found a ruggedness to all of the rock, particularly in the forest.”

“It felt as if there was a filter of green over us,” adds Tia Kratter, shading art director.  “The sun would go through this filter and everything was just bathed in a green light.  So if I had to describe Scotland with just one word, it might be green.”

"€œBRAVE" (L-R) ANGUS and MERIDA. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


But Kratter, whose job entails determining colors and textures, did notice a broader palette within her surroundings as well.  “The heather was this lavender, purple, soft magenta color.  It was everywhere—though we found out that it’s only in bloom one month out of the year so we just happened to get lucky.”

Pilcher, like everyone at Pixar, is all about the story.  “The tone and the emotion drive the look of the film.  And the tone and emotion is driven by story.  It’s so important to remember those details from our trips to Scotland and find ways to get them on film to make the story feel richer and more authentic.”

“We took photographs and video, sketched, wrote stories and kept journals,” says Sarafian.  “We brought everything back and spread it all out, loaded it into our computers and started asking ourselves, ‘What is this land?,’ ‘Who are these people?’ and ‘How does it mesh with the story we’re trying to tell?’  We worked really hard to bring the magic, beauty and ruggedness of Scotland to life in the film through our production design, sets and environments.”

"BRAVE" Forest - Final Frame. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.



Unlike live action filmmakers, the “Brave” team didn’t return to Scotland later to capture those details on film, or search for similar areas to double as the Scottish setting they coveted—instead, artisans, technicians and visionaries came together and went about designing and building tree by tree what would become an elaborate and unprecedented setting.

“‘Brave’ has a visual complexity that’s at a new level—even for Pixar,” says Sarafian.  “There’s absolutely nothing easy in the film. We’ve pushed the look, pushed our technology and pushed our artists to new heights.”

Pilcher was up for the challenge.  “I love nature and fantasy and I love those two elements together,” he says.  “I particularly like nature when it’s allowed to be free—when it’s really wild—and the mystery, history and the mysticism that goes with that.  I really wanted to capture the color palette and the tactile quality of what we saw in Scotland.

“What I love about animation—all art—is that you can amplify reality,” he continues.  “We want the audience to feel it more than they would in real life.  We can take liberties with form, color and texture and make it bigger.  The fantasy allows us to do that.”

"BRAVE" concept art by Production Designer Steve Pilcher. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


For Kratter, the look of “Brave”—its sophisticated color palette and focus on nature—showcases just how unique the story is.  “The last film I worked on as shading art director was ‘Cars,’” she says.  “Everything was slick with bright, shiny colors and enameled surfaces.  The environments of ‘Brave’ are rich, dark, subtle colors—predominantly green with these secondary undertones of violets and lavenders.  Nothing is shiny, everything is aged with lots of texture.”

Creating that texture is Kratter’s specialty, whether she’s working on costumes, cakes or castle floors.  “It might start with a painting, a sculpture, a piece of silk, an order from the bakery or a big piece of flagstone,” she says.  “My office ends up looking like that of a prop person in a live action film—research books and a lot of junk piled up.”

Kratter experiments with real life materials—from painting fabric to putting frosting on Styrofoam shapes—to research and explore just the right look for the film.  But it’s not always easy.  “One of the things we found while in Scotland was that it was really richly layered,” continues Kratter.  “There are layers of vegetation on rocks, trees, castles.”

Each tree had to be created from scratch—multiple versions of Rowan trees, birches, Scots pines—and included in a catalog of assets along with rocks, logs and everything one might find in a forest setting before the composition could be created—which involved more layering.

"BRAVE" (L-R) MERIDA and ANGUS. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Kratter says the rules of nature were also applied to the characters in the film—implementing a variety of textures, patterns and layers to illustrate the connection between the characters and nature.

According to Pilcher, that connection is no accident.  “I’ve always said the sets, the background, the environment of the film is your best supporting actor,” he says.  “It is so powerful if you do it right.  And Walt Disney showed us that.  The background in films like ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Bambi’—the way the characters connect to the sets—quietly works to support the mood, support the characters, complement them.  When something dramatic happens with a character, the light might change in a way that completely affects the audience’s interpretation of that shot.  It’s all cohesive.  The great thing about this art form is that it has motion and all those elements work together to create more emotional impact.

“What we have at the end of the day are just memories when we walk away from a film,” continues Pilcher.  “We don’t take away a book or a painting or a picture.  We take away a collection of images in our mind.  The more powerful those are, the better job we’ve done.  If you walk away and say, ‘Wow, that was Scotland.  There’s no film like that,’ then we got our message across.”

"€œBRAVE"€ (L-R) KING FERGUS, QUEEN ELINOR and MERIDA. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


A Scottish native and the voice of King Fergus, Billy Connolly tips his hat to the production team.  “The filmmakers have really captured the spirit of Scotland.  The glory of the settings makes it instantly recognizable, beautiful and very dramatic,” says Connolly.  “There’s a lovely light in Scotland that you don’t get anywhere else apart from perhaps Ireland.  It’s a sort of liquid light that happens in the evening.  It’s a magical country.”

Gordon Cameron, one of a few actual Scottish natives working at Pixar and the global technology supervisor on “Brave,” gave his fellow filmmakers high marks for their work in capturing the flavor of his country.

If we had made the film in Scotland, it wouldn’t have been any more authentic.  People here really care about the detail, the vegetation, the weather, the way the characters’ mouths move when they’re speaking a Scottish dialect.  It’s been pretty amazing.  I feel almost less Scottish than a lot of the people on the crew.

The way Brenda and Mark have written the characters really rings true.  It’s not just that they ring true as Scottish people; they ring true as characters, and the peculiarities of being Scottish are reflected in character traits and quirks, and the way they talk.

"BRAVE" Standing Stones - Final Frame © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Kevin McKidd, who hails from Scotland and lends his voice to Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin, says the film really reflects his homeland—and then some.  “What’s amazing about watching ‘Brave’ is that it conjures up the feel of Scotland.  When you go to Scotland, the wind is blowing, the sea is flowing, and everything is covered in ferns or moss and always in motion.  It’s a very textured landscape—you see this in the movie.  Everything looks so real and vibrant.  They’ve really captured the lush texture and the rough, primal nature of the Scottish landscapes in a beautiful way.  They’ve done Scotland better than Scotland.”

If, you wish to visit Scotland after seeing “Brave,” in 2013, Adventures by Disney will offer its first-ever Pixar-inspired itinerary, Scotland: A Brave Adventure.  This 9-day, 8-night quest through Edinburgh, the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Lewis and Inverness will take families through the rugged Highlands, allowing them to experience first-hand the history, culture, nature, legends and lore of Scotland that inspired Merida’s story of bravery.  The culture of the Scottish Highlands will come to life through authentic, hands-on activities including traditional highland games, lessons in Celtic music and dance, horseback riding through the Caledonian Forest, archery at Glamis Castle and more.

Photo by Diana Zalucky © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


“‘Scotland: A Brave Adventure’ combines the creative genius of Pixar Animation Studios with Disney’s ability to bring iconic stories to life in a whole new way,” said Josh D’Amaro, Vice President, Adventures by Disney.  “For the first time ever, our guests will be fully immersed in the legends and locations that inspired the film. “Brave” is the perfect tale for Adventures by Disney to share; Merida’s experience speaks to the importance of the family bond – a cornerstone of any Disney vacation.”

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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.