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Brad Bird & Pixar Tackle CG Humans Like True Superheroes

Bill Desowitz interviews Incredibles director Brad Bird, supervising technical director Rick Sayre and effects supervisor Sandra Karpman about bringing human CG superheroes to the big screen.

Watch how the Incredibles transformed from pencils to pixels. All images © 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

At the VES Festival more than a year ago, I cornered art director Ralph Eggleston and asked him how the 3D transition was going on The Incredibles. He said he had been brought in to help Brad and his team and described how frustrating it was for the writer-director. “It takes forever to see results!” But Eggleston said he reassured Bird by telling him: “Be patient… just show us the look you want and whatever it is we can reproduce it in 3D.”

Well, judging from the finished film, Bird got exactly what he wanted… a wildly entertaining and artistically triumphant combination of old and new school animation. The Incredibles is also a compendium of everything the trailblazing Pixar is capable of and more, thanks to Bird’s passion and prodding.

Now, with the latest Disney/Pixar animated feature opening in theaters today [Nov. 5, 2004], Bird and two of his colleagues, supervising technical director Rick Sayre, and effects supervisor Sandra Karpman, an 18-year ILM veteran, describe in separate conversations how and why The Incredibles is such a milestone for Pixar and the animation industry.

Director Brad Bird, supervising technical director Rick Sayre and effects supervisor Sandra Karpman.

Bill Desowitz: How difficult was the transition to 3D for you?

Brad Bird: It wasn’t that difficult. There are so many elements that go into a given shot. You sit in a review session and go, `What do you think? What’s this giant blue ball?’ `Don’t pay any attention to the giant blue ball — it won’t be there.’ ` What about the guy that’s impaled on himself and naked?’ `Don’t pay attention to that. But what do you think of the shoes? Are they the right kind of shoes?’ So, I’d say, `Well, they’re pink.’ `Don’t worry: they won’t be like that.’ Pretty soon I was asking, `What am I looking at again because nothing on the screen is what it’s supposed to be?’ And they would assure me that eventually it would. So I got to the point where I was seeing through The Matrix and I didn’t even mention what was screwed up because I assumed they would fix it.

BD: What was the learning curve like?

BB: The learning curve was understanding the Alice in Wonderland quality of the world. I don’t think 3D films are any easier. In fact, in some ways I think they’re a little harder. But in a strange way, they are just as hand made. The computer doesn’t do anything you don’t tell it to. And often times it does exactly the opposite of what you intended it to do. So you have to pull every trick in the book to bend it around, to present what you want it to present. It’s just a really elaborate tool. I think that what you learn is what is harder and what is easier than 2D. Getting something into animation is infinitely easier in 2D. If you create a new character for only one scene as a solution to a problem, you can do a couple of drawings and say, `Go!’ if you have people that you can trust to run with it. You see animation start to come in within a week.

In 3D, from go, there is a year-long period of building this thing from the inside out, modeling the exterior and figuring out all the controls that work the face and the body — the articulation of the character — and it takes forever before you can start animating. Once you have it built, animation is very iterative. You can have a scene and change a few aspects and do it again. And it’s wonderfully malleable in a way that 2D is not quite. A lot of that depends on how good the animator is and how good the character is articulated. Is it capable of doing the things that the animator wants to do with it? If you decide you want to change the angle, you can do that without having to reanimate too much. You have to change some things so that they read to camera. But it’s marvelously adaptable to reworking, and that part is nicer about CG. But the two mediums are difficult in different ways.

It’s the human qualities that created by joys… and pains of the production.

BD: How is animating in 3D difficult?

BB: It’s a very sophisticated tool, but it’s also not particularly friendly. Once in the computer, I wanted the film to be a certain way, and if we disagreed, I wanted to fight it. It wants things to be small and wants things to be weightless and it wants them to be plastic and hard to the touch. We had a movie where we wanted things to be soft and of varying textures — dirty and heavy and we were fighting it every step of the way.

A number of people didn’t think that the studio was up to it and they were smart people. It certainly was a gulp. But there were other people who were looking for just this kind of challenge. I had the knees of that place trembling under the weight of this thing. But, you know, if they weren’t up to it, I don’t know who would be. I think the film is a testament to what kind of talent is under that roof.

BD: We’ve all been focusing on the challenge of pulling off a movie comprised totally of CG humans — a first for Pixar — but the whole approach was a departure, wasn’t it?

BB: Not only is it doing hard things but also voluminous amounts of those hard things. We had a story that was bigger and more complicated than anything. It was longer [121 minutes], it had four times the number of locations and all of the characters were humans, and that’s considered the hardest thing to do. And they change their costumes and they age and their bodies change. And they have hair and hair under water and hair blowing through the wind… It’s just insanity.

We got it done within the same kinds of parameters of all the other Pixar films, with 10 times the resources. We kept it within the ballpark budget of the others by building stuff specifically to camera. You adhere to a plan so you can stretch every little cent to its furthest. Now, I’m not saying that this is how every film should be made. I think there is a tradeoff to that, which is spontaneity and discovery and that’s what [John] Lasseter thrives on. He loves building sets and finding all these great camera angles and finding ways to do things. With me, maybe it’s not as much fun — I have to give up some of that flexibility to achieve all of the things that I want to do, with a self-imposed restriction.

BD: Rick, what was the hardest thing from a technical standpoint?

Rick Sayre: The hardest thing about The Incredibles was there was no hardest thing. Brad ordered a heaping helping of every expensive item on the menu. We’ve got it all: fire, water, air, smoke, steam, explosions… and, by the way, humans. In terms of humans, the biggest challenge was how do you model them in a way that maintains the corporal reality of skin moving over muscle, moving over bone without having to figure out what Bob’s bones look like. Getting hair to work at all and to move and clothing and then doing it with a big ensemble cast. It’s a Pixar compendium — and then some.

And the expanded number of locations represented a departure for us. On shows with a smaller number of locations, we could simulate the universe. The mantra for this film was do it like live action. So we built the island to stand up from any angle without knowing where the camera was going to go. Some primary locations like the dining room were built as is. The whole house didn’t fit inside itself and the exterior was a different set. Overall, there were more than 200 locations. We had it all mapped out on Monsters, Inc. On The Incredibles, we couldn’t do that. The organizational structure kept changing; in fact, it became a running joke.

BD: What was the ultimate organizational structure?

RS: We had so many locations that there was no way to have a team per location, so we started with the idea that we’d sequence it out. But what happened was the sequence team did most of the work. We were still building sets while still animating so, as in a visual effects live-action film, we would do layout in rough form, animators would go in and start animating it, layout would get props from modeling and lay out what they needed. They would see the dimensions and outline of a set. This would leave it open for the animator to find bits of business to do.

So what we adopted was “Alpha Omega:” where one team was concerned with building everything that would go to animation (modeling, shading and layout) and another that dealt with it after animation (final camera, lighting and effects). Then there was also the character team that digitally sculpted, rigged and shaded the characters. And there was a simulation team that was responsible for developing simulation technology for hair and clothing.

Like the Incredibles, Pixar formed teams to carry out specific tasks on the production of the film.

BD: But most of the R&D pertained to the characters?

RS: Yes, we had to completely revamp our entire character pipeline: how the models are rigged, what animation controls are provided and even how the animators interact with the models. The basic idea was to go more physical and for the first time at Pixar to build significant underpinnings for the human characters. Bob [Mr. Incredible] has skeleton, bones, muscles have attachment points on those bones, they move over those bones, they bulge, there’s a layer of fat, there’s skin over that and there’s super supra on top of that. This was all very new for us: If the goal is to perfectly match the live-action actor, there is a right answer. And that right answer is: When the skeleton is posed this way, the actor will look like this. That means that you can have a process for the animator who animates the skeletons and hands it off to the computer or the technical directors, but for us, who cares what’s right?

We’re into believability. What we came up with allowed animators to pose the characters in a way in which all that [physical stuff] was happening and in realtime. The physical was the thing you couldn’t run away from. But once you got there, you had the will and the means and the desire to caricature. On top of that, we had squash-and-stretch for the bones to give the characters more flexibility. And we had some fix up sculpt tools that would let the animators very specifically control what the physics should do. We learned with faces that in some cases reality can be a crutch. It’s the scary zombie thing you want to stay away from.

We don’t want all of the texture detail because we’re caricaturing. But if you take it all out, it looks like plastic or foam, so we had to make it more complex to make the simplicity work. We had to come up with a subsurface scattering technique where light goes in, bounces around, goes in here and comes out there. It’s an illusion that we’re holding together with forces of will at every moment.

BD: Sandra, what was it like setting up visual effects at Pixar?

Visual effects were another new challenge that Pixar had to tackle in The Incredibles.

Sandra Karpman: Pixar is not set up like an effects house, even though it has the talent and the tools. Pixar’s main pipeline is like a live-action set. When you do effects you bring in a second unit, you shoot it when the actors aren’t there, you shoot the actors against a bluescreen so you don’t blow them up and kill them. Our effects are still like a different beast. How are we going to shoehorn this fluid simulation into our factory pipeline that is so awesome at making sets and characters? We have the same problems as live action, but we just solve them slightly differently. The biggest challenge was the sheer volume of the effects shots. Pixar has done them before, and the effects in Finding Nemo were phenomenal and under appreciated by the effects community.

On top of doing the effects and making them fit in with what Brad wanted art direction-wise, it was very important to me that we put the effects into the complex Pixar pipeline so the lighters could light them in the same scene that they lit with the characters. We still had to layer our effects and composite them in as if they were a live-action plate. The only difference is that we didn’t have to do camera match move and full-body roto. The interesting thing is our effects were often actually the gag, such as when Bob slams the car door and the window shatters. Or when the little boy’s bubblegum pops.

BD: How many visual effects shots were there?

SK: There were 781. Explosions, water, debris, dust, clouds, fire, lava, lava bubbles. But what was different here was we got the effects approved while they were still animating. A good example was when the mother and kids are splashing around in the water. We made the water surface first, then got it approved by Brad so the animators knew where the waves were, so characters could interact with the ebb and flow of the waves. Then they animated to the main wave; we then brought it back and did the specific water surface to character interaction in effects.

So there were some pipelines that tied little bowties, which was unusual for Pixar. It was hard scheduling while waiting for animation… Brad really wanted the animators to sequence a shot so they were really connected, so that would be a drag waiting for all five shots in a sequence to be done. But we would find what we could do.

Seems like a simple enough scene, but you can catch in the background the hint of the advancements of rending clouds.

BD: Any interesting technical breakthroughs?

SK: The effects team brought in Erdem Taylan, who took the standard generic Maya fluid sims and improved upon it by writing his own atmospheric shader. Gary Bruins added to this. When we made those clouds, it wasn’t just with Maya and Maya’s fluid boxes, but we were able to model and render the clouds with volumetric rendering and it was gorgeous, such as the airplane flight through the clouds. The clouds were the set, so we had to work very close with animation on that. If Brad wanted us to do something with physics pretty easily, we could use Maya, but if it was very specific, like an explosion that goes really fast the first two frames and then slows down, we’d force the animated explosion to be what he wanted.

We weren’t just making dynamics. The cartoon world meant that we had to modify all of our real world simulations in the cartoon world physics. Brad was animation directing the simulations, which brings shivers to the spines of guys that do simulations.

BD: Brad, what did you impart to Pixar during all of this?

BB: When I first talking to animation supervisor Tony Fucile about coming up with me to Pixar — he supervised Iron Giant and worked on Family Dog and is someone I really admire and trust — he said, `I don’t know anything about CG… what am I going to show these guys?’ I told him to forget all that and we spent the next 15 minutes talking about everything we admire about Pixar films — the design, the original stories and so on. After that, I asked him what he would change about the way Pixar makes movies. And we talked about what we wanted to see in 3D animation but had only seen in 2D. There’s a graphic quality to it, there’s a stretchy, squashy feel to good 2D animation. It’s in CG, but doesn’t feel as pushable as it is in hand-drawn animation.

We broke down all of the things we wanted to see, controls we wanted to have. And when we came up there, we built the characters from the inside out to do all of these things. I think that some people up there had only worked on CG films, and I tried to incorporate some of the things I was taught from the old Disney guys that none of the crew at Pixar had ever emphasized. It’s tough to pull off humans, and it’s not about making stuff move realistically; it’s about making it move convincingly. People love to do zipmation… it’s like little hummingbirds… if you’re goal is to only be funny, it’s a very useful tool. But if you’re doing a feature and you require the audience to feel something more, then you have to acknowledge the way weight moves through space.

For instance, when you floor a Chevy Suburban, you can feel the engine working to take this huge amount of bulk and weight. At the same time, if you try hitting the brakes, you feel all the momentum of this huge hunk of metal moving through the air and it wants to continue to move. And the brakes are really being taxed. OK, if you have a really big character, he cannot make fast movements without there being some residual movement when he changes direction. So what you’re trying to do, especially in a superhero movie, is have them do things that are patently unrealistic but believable to the eye. Whether it’s 2D or 3D, you’re stylizing the world in order to catch a distillation of a feeling or a moment or a character.

BD: Do you think The Incredibles would’ve made a good 2D film too?

BB: Definitely. We wouldn’t be able to do some things as good as a CG film, but others things would’ve been a little more graphic and more pleasing to look at. I’m not one of those people that think 2D is becoming outmoded or is too old-fashioned. I think it’s as modern as you make it. If you did a really great, stylized, adventurous hand-drawn film, it could be as good as anything done. And when you push the stylized aspect just a little bit like 101 Dalmatians did, it looks as fresh today as it every did. And graphically it looks like it was made yesterday. That’s me. I don’t think 2D is dead and I don’t think anybody at Pixar does.

BD: Rick, do you think Pixar would’ve tackled CG humans on its own without the outside influence of Brad?

RS: No, it would’ve been several projects out. He gave us an awesome kick in the ass that we sorely deserved, so I’m very grateful.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.