For the creative minds at Pixar, designing and animating the playthings of "Toy Story" and the cute beasties of "Monsters Inc." was child's play compared to what they faced in bringing "The Incredibles" to the screen. This latest effort, an action comedy about a family of superheroes exiled to suburbia, proved almost impossible.
"The biggest challenge is that we were dealing with human characters," says supervising technical director Rick Sayre. "Hair simulation, hair sculpting, clothing simulation and clothing patterning-there's so many components that go into pulling that off. We had the human Al in "Toy Story 2" and little Boo in "Monsters Inc." had hair and clothing, but she wasn't in every shot and she was just one character. Here, we had to essentially invent from the ground up the way we animate characters and rig them."
Rigging, explains 17-year Pixar veteran Sayre, "is how you set the character up, kind of like a puppet or a performance, so the animators can manipulate it and yet it will move in a convincing way. Humans are really complicated. You have bones that float and the shoulder is not even a single joint. To do humans convincingly, you need to essentially simulate the way skin moves over fat and muscle and is driven by bones and slides against bones. That verisimilitude is what tells you it's human and not a puppet or a toy. You also want to be able to caricature. So on top of that we added squash and stretch for each bone--bends and bows where you can change what the flesh is doing."
The ability to squash and stretch characters was particularly necessary for the mom character, Helen/Elastigirl, who literally stretches in all directions. Apart from a sequence in which her head was affixed to a boat, "everything she does her character is really capable of doing," says Sayre. "It starts with physically motivated behavior-- you break every bone, give her some more bones, stretch the thing out. But it was hair-raising."
Speaking of which, the characters' hair was another challenge entirely, particularly the jet-black mane of teenager Violet. It was simulation department's job to get it right, "Not to confuse simulation and animation, the hair was simulated, which means the computer is figuring out where the hair goes. An animator is not actually doing that," explains Sayre. "Every hair on your head influences every other hair. This hair is rubbing against that hair which is rubbing against that hair. It was a tough nut to crack."
Violet, an insecure teen who hides behind her hair, "was impossible until stomach-turningly, terrifyingly late in production," recalls Sayre, who began working on the problem before "Monsters Inc." was even in production. "Violet wasn't working until the end of last year, but I never suggested we cut it. It wasn't like we said, 'Let's raise the bar and make a character with long hair.' Everything we did came from the story." However, some cheating was sometimes necessary, Sayre admits. "Violet's part moves from side to side depending where the camera is. Sometimes you do have to read the eyes."
The characters' faces posed another problem: How do you make them seem alive but not literally realistic? "These are superheroes," reminds Sayre. "They don't have pores and blotches." And since they're not based on real people, "We didn't have a photograph of a face to fall back on." It was important to simulate light properly and get the eyes right, he adds.
For Sayre's creative teams, one of the toughest challenges was a scene at the family dinner table. "That scene brought us to our knees," he shudders. "You've got every character on screen, they all have simulated hair, they have simulated clothing, they're sitting on chairs so they're sitting on their clothing but all that stuff has to recede into the background because you have to believe that they're just sitting around having dinner," he explains.
On top of that, "The food has to look appetizing. It can't look like plastic. But you don't want to blow the budget on a piece of broccoli. You want to put it where the audience goes, 'That building blew up, cool!' Nobody's going to say, "The macaroni looked awesome.' What looked like a completely innocent scene to begin with ended up being so challenging."
Outdoor sequences posed other challenges. "We had every element--air, water, fire, we had them all," says Sayre. "Lots of stuff blows up. We had fluid dynamics, volumetric renderings, compositing tricks. It's a whole mix of skills that the visual effects artists will apply. Powers like Violet's force field, Dash's super speed -- we had to figure out how to render that, and things like the clouds out the window when they're in the airplane."
For animation supervisors Alan Barillaro and Steve Hunter, it was easier to blow up that plane than have characters touch, "like when Helen puts Violet's hair behind her ear and touches her face," notes Hunter, reiterating the simulation problem. Using high-capacity IBM systems, the animators worked with a virtual puppet of each character. "It's as if you built a stop motion set in the computer," Barillaro compares. They got inspiration by watching videotapes of the voice talent as they recorded their dialogue.
Story and Casting
Most moviegoers will be able to identify Craig T. Nelson as the voice of Bob/Mr. Incredible, Samuel L. Jackson as his buddy Frozone, and Holly Hunter as Helen/Elastigirl, while fans of NPR radio will recognize Violet's voice as that of commentator Sarah Vowell.
Writer-director Brad Bird got his first choices for these roles, but was unable to cast Edna Mode, the German-Japanese superhero costume designer, "a tiny character that dominates the room." Bird ended up doing the voice himself, and the result is hilarious.
Bird, best known for the critically-acclaimed "The Iron Giant," got the idea for "The Incredbles" a dozen years ago, at a time when he struggled with the conflict between the demands of career and family. "The goal was to make the family based on archetypes. I made the dad really strong. Moms are always pulled in different directions so I had her stretch. Teenage girls in particular are self-conscious, so Violet's invisible and has force fields. Ten-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls that ricochet off the walls, so I had Dash have super speed," he explains. He named the baby Jack-Jack after his own middle son, then a toddler, who's 12 now.
While there were some slight changes in the film's opening, as well as its villain, "otherwise it's it's pretty much the same story arc that I came to Pixar with," observes Bird, who brought it to the CG studio in 2000. "The rest was the usual process of making a movie where you're trying to strengthen some things, make something clearer, work with it."
Sayre looks forward to the time when achieving computer graphic goals becomes more effortless and simulation will be more directable. "The computer is like an idiot savant. It's completely happy to show you something that no artist in their right mind would ever do -- it just doesn't know any better. Getting to the point where the computer knows better, that may be the next thing," he believes.
An "Incredibles" sequel may be another possibility, but for Bird, it comes with conditions. "There's a tendency that any movie that's a hit is suddenly considered a franchise, which I think is ridiculous. Some movies lend themselves to continuing, and others don't. If you do a film with the original filmmakers, and those original filmmakers believe that they can equal or better the one that everyone likes, then let's go. But it would have to be that."