Art department leads discuss the tools and techniques used to bring director Brad Bird’s sequel to the screen.
Directed by Brad Bird, Disney-Pixar’s CG-animated superhero film Incredibles 2 is slated for release June 15. The original film earned Bird an Oscar for best animated film in 2005 and grossed $633 million at the box office. He also won an Oscar in 2008 for directing Ratatouille, along with numerous other accolades, including seven Annie awards, plus ASIFA-Hollywood’s 2011 Winsor McCay Award, which is given in recognition of lifetime contributions to animation.
The film picks up with the Parr family -- superheroes who struggle to maintain normal lives -- facing a new challenge as Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl, (voiced by Holly Hunter) is called on to lead a campaign to bring Supers back, while Bob, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, (Craig T. Nelson) stays at home to take care of their three children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack -- whose superpowers are about to be discovered. When a new villain emerges with dangerous plot, the Parrs enlist the aid of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to save the day.
The film was originally slated for release in June of 2019, but Pixar decided to move it up a year and postpone Toy Story 4, shaving precious time off the schedule.
AWN recently had the chance to talk to some of the behind-the-scenes talent from Pixar about the tools and techniques that helped bring Bird’s vision to life.
Production designer Ralph Eggleston, who won an Oscar in 2002 for best animated short for For the Birds as well as three Annie Awards for Inside Out (2015), Finding Nemo (2003) and Toy Story (1995), explained that Bird put a lot of trust in his department heads and leads.
“The first time I met with him at Thanksgiving break three-and-a-half years ago, I said to him, ‘I just want you to tell us what you want. Don’t tell us how to do it,” he says. “‘I know you want to help us and we love that, but there’s actually a whole lot of people here who know how to do this. Tell us what you want. Tell us why it’s in the movie. Tell us about the design, the lighting, the mood, the idea behind the scene, and everyone here will get it.’”
“One clear example was the background humans for the film,” he adds. “Miscellaneous humans are always hard to do. There are just so many and we only have so much time and resources to do it. So, I asked some of our artists to do as many drawings as they could -- just fill a room from floor to ceiling with drawings of miscellaneous humans that would fit into the world of The Incredibles. We brought Brad in and instead of saying ‘Brad, which ones do you like?’ I said, ‘Brad, which ones do you not like?’”
General technology & shot production manager Michael Warch explained that “One thing we did really unique on this film was that art and story and camera and layout all worked together and gave us information on what was going on with the previous assets… the way we used to do things was kind of a support tool for downstream departments.”
Warch explained that his biggest challenge as production manager was negotiating with the creatives and the supervisors about when is the right time to present elements to the director. “We couldn’t always take the luxury of finishing it to perfection and there was always a negotiation of, ‘is it good enough?’” he explained. “I had to leave enough time to get his notes and incorporate them because of the truncated schedule. So there was a lot of that push and pull for me and I wasn’t quite used to that level of negotiation in films.”
He added that, while the studio has long been using previs, it became much more of an integral part of the process on Incredibles 2.
Eggleston added that previs helped resolve a lot questions early on, which was crucial given the shortened production schedule. “Coming out of story with their boards, we could actually see what they were thinking as far as the space went.”
Philip Metschan served as previs lead on the film, taking the designs from the art department and putting them together in a 3D mock-up. “We had Rick Sayre help set up a system in the story room where he actually took an iPad… and the director was able to walk through the set with that,” said Metschan. “He could use a sort of game controller and fly around the set and start to figure out where to stage things.”
“[Previs] got us all on the same rail faster,” says set supervisor Nathan Farris. He explained that his group was responsible for taking the concept art, the models and shading, and turning that in to the storyboards. “And when we have all the pre-production stuff, and we turn those into the production models and production sets, with all the shading… All the environments, basically.”
Farris explained that as a sequel, they had a great starting point, with Scott Caple, who helped guide the aesthetic of the original film, once again designing environments. “Scott’s just an amazing artist and his visual thumbprint is on the film probably more than any person other than the director’s,” he says. “Starting with that ‘50s clean-line aesthetic, it was a matter of updating it and bringing all the new technology to it. I think the most fun we had, in a lot of ways, was trying to make sure that whatever Brad wanted to do in the story, we could do in the third dimension.”
Farris said that designing cities is probably the biggest challenge for the set department, and they had not one, but two cities to create. Of course, in the interests of efficiency and meeting the tight deadlines, they were able to re-use some elements, but only in subtle, unnoticeable ways.
“There were literally hundreds of buildings and thousands of small props,” he says. “There were countless weeks of work between a couple dozen individuals to put all that stuff into place and getting all that coordinated with all the gears of the production machine turning was a pretty big challenge for us.”
Eggleston revealed that in the process, Bird would occasionally push work back in to storyboards.
“Brad likes to work that way when he writes,” he says. “The boards were really great, but they were cheating a lot of stuff and when you get into layout, now you have to deal with the cheats. But to get that shot that he wanted that was so easy to do in 2D, meant something different in 3D, and that was what we had to contend with. So, that was one of my big things early on with Brad was no cheating. I kept saying that to him and it didn’t mean we couldn’t cheat, but let’s cheat consistently.”
Overall, Eggleston reported that Bird treated everyone at Pixar like fellow filmmakers, which made the whole process run smoothly. “A lot of us got to go to some of the story meetings, which is uncommon here,” says Eggleston.
“Everyone was able to sit in those story meetings and pick out what they needed, get to know their director, and I just it made us all more aware and able to work closer together,” Farris concluded. “It was a collective consciousness.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.