‘Incredibles 2’: Inside the super team that created the new superhero adventure
“The Incredibles” and its upcoming sequel, “Incredibles 2,” may be the brainchild of writer-director Brad Bird, but it takes a group effort — and a big group at that — to bring his vision to life. Thirty-one-year Pixar veteran Ralph Eggleston and his fellow members of the Production Design Team — including Sets Supervisor Nathan Fariss, Animator Michael Bidinger and Visual Designer Philip Metschan — worked hand in hand with Bird to create a sequel that not only reflected the ideas conceived for the first film but developed and expanded them further as the storytelling and mythology of the Incredibles grows more complex. Moviebill sat down with the team at Pixar in Emeryville, California, last month for a quick but intimate chat about the collaborative process with Bird, and the foundations and influences that carried over from 2004 to inspire them when returning to the world of The Incredibles.
You guys were very emphatic that nothing comes for free. What sort of creative foundation did you start with, and what things did you have to manufacture?
Ralph Eggleston: We had the original film and the idea of mid-century architecture and landscape, architecture and design, textiles and clothing. So, it was a pretty good foundation. There’s a lot of great reference with that.
Nathan Fariss: With that kind of landscape of stuff to choose from I felt like a lot of the challenge was curatorial — what parts of that are the good ones, where is this set, and what parts of these giant bodies of work would be appropriate for that point? From a technical standpoint, there is very little we can reuse from the first film, for example, but it becomes very good reference. We can find out the [spatial] relationships between Dash’s track meet and the parking lot, to where the Underminer comes up and stuff like that, but I don’t know that much of anything from the first “Incredibles” was used past “Toy Story 3,” because technology changes.
Philip Metschan: I had a lot of the original artwork up in my office, like [“The Incredibles” environment designer] Scott Caple’s stuff, so that every day I came into it I would just be exposed to it and just the proportions of his drawings and a lot of the design decisions that were initially made. I think you kind of intuitively start to absorb them.
In spite of “Incredibles 2” being a superhero movie, Brad says he was more inspired by 1960s spy movies. Given the visual language of superhero movies that has evolved over the past 15 years, was there anything in that you took inspiration from, or did you still focus on that anachronistic ’60s style that dominated the first film?
Eggleston: Yeah, spy stuff, “Johnny Quest,” that whole era. Less so superhero movies, across the board.
Metschan: We almost moved away from it in some sense.
Fariss: There were different aspects of it that Brad caught that he really didn’t like — no three-point landings!
Eggleston: It’s a double whammy against us. We’re doing an animated film about superheroes, so you automatically, innately, go into an animated film thinking, oh they can do anything, but you can’t. You have to work doubly hard to make it that much more believable. Most of that in this case in particular is the writing, then it’s the acting, the animation, and the physics. When Bob gets hit it hurts, and we need it to go that far to make it that much more believable. I’ve seen superhero movies, even ones that I enjoy tremendously, where the first five minutes are characters flying left and right, there’s no weight to it and nobody’s really dying. And I’m like, yeah, I guess this is fun, but I don’t really believe it, and there’s no sense of anticipation. That’s what I personally think Brad does brilliantly — it’s like hold back and then make the audience start leaning forward a bit and then, surprise! That’s the trick with this thing.
What part of the story were you guys most excited to explore, and what did that demand from each of you in terms of your respective areas of responsibility.
Michael Bidinger: I always enjoy the more quiet parts of the film because I think he writes for the family so brilliantly. Those are always my favorite parts, the nonaction parts with the family dealing with typical issues and the way their powers are extensions of who they are in their family is genius.
Metschan: I feel like when [Brad] set Helen as the one who was going out and Bob as the figure that was staying back, knowing how egoistic Bob is, when I saw that I knew this is going to be great.
Fariss: For me, being the sets supervisor, my interest is in the environments, and the fact that we were able to explore a couple of completely fleshed-out cities like that was very exciting. Actually, there were even more in the story at some point really early on so there was the possibility of doing a lot of really complex, very big, challenging world building. That for me was like, “oh this is going to be fun, really cool,” and presented a really interesting challenge for us at Pixar.
How much does the story automatically narrow each of your focuses, and how much is the story sometimes an intrusion to the designs you’re able to come up with?
Fariss: I don’t know if I’d use the word intrusion, but there’s definitely a lot of back and forth. Obviously, the story, the story boarding process and the development process all starts before the technical departments come on and start building — “cutting wood and starting to nail things together,” as they say. But the fact of the matter is, the people that we have working here do it because they love it. They don’t look at the challenge as, “aww, we have to build a lot of stuff”; they look at it as, “oh hey, we get to build a lot of stuff!” I can’t wait to see this movie! I had so many people come to my office and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’m really interested in working on ‘Incredibles’.” One of the reasons I came here 10 years ago was I was hoping to work on a Brad Bird film at some point, and this is the case for a lot of folks that worked on the film. Whether there were big story challenges or big technical challenges — all of those things people met with aplomb because people were excited about the film.
Metschan: The story creates the necessity for these big worlds, but then it feeds back that these big worlds then inspire these great things to happen in the story.
Eggleston: It’s true. There is a phrase people have used around here that ‘story is king,’ and I just completely disagree with that. Story is not king, it never has been. Storytelling is king. Stories are dime a dozen. Telling a story, well that’s the hard part, and that’s what everybody on the film brings from all of their different perspectives.
Bidinger: [Eggleston’s] department, more than any other, has to really work from rough to fine because the story is evolving. When making films he has to be really clever about not plussing it out too extensively.
Fariss: If you rolled up a piece of paper and looked through it and that’s the lens you’re seeing the world through and you have two hours, or however long the actual run time is, to look through that piece of paper, you can only see so much stuff. A big part of my job is to make sure that we only build what you see through that tube. And if at some point you turn the tube, there’s probably going to be a wall and maybe a chair, but there’s not going to be a lot of details there. We keep all the details in just what’s on screen.
Nathan, you said that one of your dreams was to work for Brad. For all of you, what does he bring as a director and storyteller that differentiates him from the other folks that have worked here at Pixar as directors?
Fariss: I’d have a hard time comparing, but for me personally I really loved “The Iron Giant.” I was working at a movie theater when “The Iron Giant” came out and it was running in one of our smaller theaters. I was living in Kansas City, Missouri, and it was kind of like, “Well, I’ll go watch this,” and I was like, “this is amazing!” I really enjoyed the animation, but it was also funny, and it had so much heart to it, and it didn’t come across as something for kids. It was animation, but it was mature, and I feel like the first “Incredibles” was the same way. I felt like “Ratatouille” was like that, like a lot of his animated features. Honestly though, when I think about it, so many of Pixar’s films have such a broad appeal and I think that he does that very well. That’s not to say any of the other directors here do not. I really like the mid-century designs, so I was drawn both aesthetically and story-wise to the worlds of “The Incredibles.”
Bidinger: For me, I’ve never seen a director who’s able to direct animation like Brad. It’s just a unique skill he has. And he’s also willing to let go of some of the other things, like the lighting or the effects, to people he trusts like Ralph [Eggleston] and let them bring it to that 90 percent and then show it to him. So he is not controlling the whole film. He knows where he wants to devote his time and where he needs to pull back and let go.
Fariss: He does have an eye for animation.
Eggleston: It really is the most fun watching him when he’s directing the animators. I mean, our animators are not moving [things] around, they’re acting. The voices are great too, don’t get me wrong, but the acting is done by the animators, and the acting in this film is superb. It’s all because the talent and of course our animators, but it’s really Brad. It’s not about just moving stuff around all the time. We got countless lectures, especially early on, about how every animator wants to prove themselves with every scene and show what they can do — and he says, I don’t want you to do that. I want you to pull back and I will tell you if I need you to go further. He really is a big believer in modulation with animation, and I love that. It literally is probably the most fun, sitting there watching him do that.
Bidinger: For someone who’s so passionate and high standards, he is remarkably pragmatic in that way.
Check back at Moviebill.com later this week for more exclusive “Incredibles 2”-related content, including a chat with the filmmakers of the short film “Bao,” and an interview with writer-director Brad Bird.