Super-Family: Brad Bird pilots the long-awaited return of Disney and Pixar’s Incredibles
Transitioning from animation to live-action was not a big leap for filmmaker Brad Bird, whose credits include The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. “The most helpful thing was going from CG animation to live-action instead of from hand-drawn, because you are moving the camera in virtual space and can choose lenses. You can say that I want this to be a 24mm.”
Four years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the native of Kalispell, Montana partnered with Pixar Animation Studios to produce The Incredibles, which revolved around the Parrs, a family of superheroes. “I based the family’s powers on where they are in their life. Men are expected to be strong, so Bob was strong. Mothers are pulled in 12 different directions at once, so I had Helen be elastic. Teenagers are defensive and shy, so I made Violet invisible and have force fields. Ten-year-olds are energy balls, so I gave Dash super-speed. The baby aspect is about potential. Jack-Jack could have no powers or he could have all of the powers. Once I had that notion, it became fun for me.”
The concept was lauded with an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, grossed $633 million worldwide, and gets a sequel 14 years later titled Incredibles 2 that reunites Bird with the voice cast of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson and Sarah Vowell.
“Everybody who had worked on the first film knew what we were doing now, so they were excited to return. They were a little bit in the dark before because I only showed them their parts of the script. Then we went out and got some great new voices as well with Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk.”
The sequel begins immediately after the conclusion of the original. “I considered other things for a while, but I thought it was more unusual, especially given that we were not putting the film into production right on the heels of the first one. Animation allows us to pick up where the other one left off.”
Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Hunter) gets recruited by a telecommunications company run by siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Odenkirk and Keener) to change the public perception of superheroes while Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Nelson) stays at home to look after their children Violet (Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack.
“Every movie has its own way of growing,” observes Bird. “Sometimes you start with the ending. Other times you have the opening. Often a great place to start is the end of act one and the beginning of act two, because that’s where things shift and the story kicks into high gear.” The antagonist this time around is a mind-controlling villain called Screenslaver. “The landscape has changed to the point where you start to go, ‘Oh, man, has every single thing that can possibly be done already been done?’ You can get distracted by that. I’ve always felt that the Parr family was the point of the movie more than the superhero stuff.”
Bird continues, “The biggest challenge always is trying to get the story to work as good as you can before the clock runs out. On this film, a year was taken off our schedule. Toy Story 4 wasn’t quite ready to go, so we got moved up. If something didn’t immediately pay off in regards to the core of the story which is the role switch [between Helen and Bob] and the fact that they’re discovering Jack-Jack’s powers, then I had to be brutal and cut it. I ended up writing a lot of stuff that I thought was good but didn’t fit. You’re always wrestling between clarity and pace. It’s like Jenga [the block-stacking and crashing game] with story points. You have to pull pieces away to keep the pace going, but if you pull the wrong ones away, then it starts to fall apart.”
It is important to recognize that the world can be a threatening place when telling stories to children. “A lot of people don’t remember that about fairy tales,” Bird observes. “The original Brothers Grimm stuff is dark. Part of the point of stories is to have you explore things that life holds for you in one way or another. Maybe they’re not as dramatic as a witch trying to eat you, but there are villains and temptations in the world. There are things that look scary that you find out are actually okay and things that look okay that you should be scared of or at least wary of. Stories are ways of testing the water for all the things that life can potentially bring to you.”
Since the first film, technology has significantly evolved and improved. “With the original we were doing everything that computers were bad at, such as fire, water, fabric and humans,” Bird recalls. “There were only a couple of humans that looked decent—in particular, Geri in Geri’s Game, who ended showing up in Toy Story 2 as the guy who sewed up Woody, and Boo, the little girl in Monsters, Inc. We were constantly on the brink of failure through the whole making of the film. There’s stuff that is still hard, but you’re not always courting failure. We could also do this on a larger scale. We were able to do crowds. In the first film we were struggling to fill the stands at the track meet. Our lighting tools are more sophisticated. People keep on thinking that it’s going to be cheaper and faster on the next film because you’ve put all of this money into R&D, but the thing is, every time there’s an improvement, artists want to use it to do something new.”
Aiding the production was the ability to render lighting much earlier in the animation process. “You used to have to light and then wait for renders,” Bird explains. “Sometimes they would take a while. You would make your best guesses. Pixar now has a way to render lighting at low resolution. It looks like grainy film but has all of the properties of light. You can judge a shot quickly, which is great. Also, everybody on the team got to show their work whether or not it was finished at the same time, which enabled us to spend our effort on where it was going to matter.”
The designs of the characters were updated. “We did sculptures of what we wanted them to be like and got them right on. As good as our computer rigs were [for the original], they weren’t good enough to capture all of the nuances. On this film we had much better tools and that enabled us to go back and get how we wanted the characters to look the first time.”
The setting of the story has not been altered. “We’re still in that late-1950s, early-1960s groove,” Bird notes. “Incredibles 2 is more urban than the last film.” Despite the shortened production schedule, time was still made for incorporating little character moments like Dash straightening an elderly lady’s glasses after he rescues her. “If somebody likes the film enough to see it more than once, they will be rewarded because there’s stuff happening all over the place. Hopefully, it’s done in a way that is not competing with other things that we want you to look at.”
Another treat is the music composed by Michael Giacchino, as well as the sound design by Ren Klyce. “Seeing it in Dolby Atmos is going to be a trip because we’re playing a lot with sound spatially in the theatre. We’re being crazy with it in a good way. It’s going to be immersive. I would encourage anybody who is interested in the film to see it in the various high-end formats such as IMAX and Dolby Vision, because we take advantage of them.”
“I’m proud of the team and the work that everyone did,” Bird says. “There are probably five or six particular things that I can’t wait for people to see. We have some killer action sequences but also some good animation acting. There are a lot of talented animators at Pixar.”
Asked about the return of the egocentric, pint-sized fashion designer he voices, Bird laughs. “Edna is still short and bossy!”
A nice surprise for Bird was the appearance of the Iron Giant in Ready Player One. “Steven Spielberg gave me my first start in the business as a writer and director,” he notes.
A passion project remains 1906, which deals with the massive turn-of-the-century earthquake that devastated San Francisco. “The way that I want to do it is unusual. At this point, people are interested in part of it and not interested or frightened by other parts. Hope springs eternal. It may happen.”