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The making of The Incredibles

The Incredibles is getting the full Disney/Pixar marketing treatments, which means saturation on billboards, television, toy stores and fast food chains. For director Brad Bird, it's a hell of a change of pace. His last film, The Iron Giant, was released to theaters in 1999 with little notice, though it earned a long life on video and DVD. Still, the theatrical awareness is a mixed blessing.

"It's very intimidating to follow five smash successes though," Bird said of the Pixar legacy. "My producer, John Walker, says it's like five previous players have hit grand slam home runs and you're the next guy at bat and you only get one pitch. It feels like that, and if you think about it that way you'll just curl up into a fetal ball and never come out of the closet."

Of course, the wake of success is a much better place to be than the frustration of disregard. "It absolutely is because I feel like the way is prepared and people are going to know about this film. The most important thing though for me is that twice now I've gotten to make the movie that I set out to make. With Iron Giant more people are discovering it all the time. We've had really good luck with [the phenomenon that] somebody sees it, they recommend it. And we couldn't figure out a way to make people like it without seeing it. So the good news is that more and more people are seeing it all the time and they are recommending it, and for me as a filmmaker, again, twice I've gotten to make the movie I've wanted to make and that doesn't happen that often, so I've got no complaints."

From a commercial standpoint, Bird's producer is also happy. "That's a very good position to be in," Walker said. "We're happy that the film is being promoted and being advertised and it seems like people are getting the message that it's out there and that's great."

The Incredibles is the adventure of a family of superheroes 15 years after society forces them to retire. With each family member dealing with their powers in a different way, they're all able to learn from each other. Dad learns to appreciate the little things while mom learns not to stifle the special qualities of her children. Son learns to reign it in while daughter learns to come out of her shell. Bird felt these ideas were gestating unconsciously as he labored to launch a film career.

"I was going through a period where I was working on The Simpsons and I was very happy working on The Simpsons," he recalled. "But my first love is movies, and I was trying to get movies off the ground and having trouble. I was having trouble with the same kind of bureaucracy, [though] it's definitely stylized, that you see in the movie, where wonderful things weren't happening because of some middle-manager. I was frustrated with that, and at the same time I was starting a new family and I think I had some anxiety about where to put my time, because I felt like if I put enough time necessary to make it in the movie business I would be slighting my family, and I didn't want to do that, and if I was a great dad then I would never make it in the movie business. None of this was conscious by the way, I just kept returning to this idea in my mind because it engaged me, and I think that's why it engaged me is because I related to it in some weird, abstract way."

As a superhero story, The Incredibles is as much slam bang action as it is heart. With five films' worth of technology behind them, Pixar was able to handle the demands, though there were always compromises.

"For everything that's easier one place, it's harder some other place," said supervising technical director Rick Sayre. "Fast action scenes we have way more effects. So [in a scene ] of sitting around having dinner, the effects guys are like, ‘Whew, we can mark those ones off on the board. Done!' But that's a case where effects is like ‘Yay' and animation really had to nail these subtle performances because you're looking at nothing but the characters. In the action scenes, it's sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other. From the other side of it, one thing that was a big savings in the final battle is that it's an exterior. So from the perspective of where the sun is and where the lighting is, it's one location, or there are fewer lighting setups. So that's a tradeoff but then you've got plenty of effects. Always moving from one place to the other."

Son Dash's super power is hyper fast running, which means he covers a lot of ground in a short time. All of that ground had to be built in order for Dash to run through it. "We built sets like a runway," Sayre said. "When we had a straight shot of Dash just running, we sort of built a runway and we could run him down it and then for the next shot, put him back at the start, change it a little bit, redress it, put a palm tree there, then he runs some more. When he goes down a hill, okay, we build a little bit of a hill. Move the trees around, then he runs down that again. And it's all based on staging and we're tracking with him and we're moving for a long time. In some cases, that's better because when we're tracking with him, now it becomes about we're looking at Dash, there's stuff whizzing by in the foreground and you can kind of build a little bunch of stuff that just sticks up in the camera. There's stuff in the background, some of that's a painting. Just kind of like he's running in front of a painting that's on a conveyor belt. And then there's a couple of trees and stuff that are whipping by."

And then, some things just happen on the fly. "That action scene with Helen sneaking in the base when she got stuck between the doors was an adlib of sorts," said story supervisor Marc Andrews. "We didn't know how to do it so we tried a bunch of ideas. It's part of the story process. I do something then poke Brad and show him and he reacts. He likes it or he doesn't. And we go back and forth until something clicks and we see what the sequence needs to be."

The Helen scene in question has Elastagirl (a.k.a. Helen, a.k.a. Mom), sneaking through the hideout, stretching her limbs as they get stuck in a combination of doors. At one point, she looks in a mirror, decades after her last superhero adventure, and frowns at her own thighs. "That's Brad," Andrews insisted. "That's all Brad. He was the youngest and he had all sisters so he understands women. He had a front row seat for all their angst and all their whole thing. He has a good voice."

Through the course of developing the story, some scenes change and evolve over time. "There's that scene where Bob and Frozone are talking in the car," Andrews continued. "Well, that had originally been a scene where they were working out and what they're doing is they're on an old construction site and they're taking down buildings and throwing girders and playing darts with big girders and they're trying to play kick the can with a gigantic water tower and stuff like that. They're talking about the old days and what happened and that there's nothing going on now and one of the things that we came up with was that all the super villains were gone now. There was nothing for them to do any more. So that's where all that litigation happened because it was Bob rescuing a cat out of a tree or kids stuck up on the roof because when a superhero comes in there's all this extra collateral damage because they are so powerful and they're not used to this. They've got to tone it down. We put it in there, but it didn't drive the story. Did we need it? No. So we took it out."

That scene has been reduced to a conversation in a car where Bob and Frozone are trying to prevent a bank robbery in secret. If they get caught using their super powers, they have to be relocated again a la witness protection. "It kept changing. We needed them to get together. We needed them to talk about the old days and it just kept developing. What does that mean? What does that mean? What is it going to say? What are we going to do? I boarded it out nine or 10 times, trying it different ways with different messages, with different parts of the script. We'd edit things out or move things around and do it again. Until finally we needed to break it into two parts. We needed that intimate scene with them talking, and it used to be Bob saying all that Dr. Ruthless stuff, telling the story to Frozone. But it wasn't as interesting so we had Frozone tell it. And it worked because it makes you more endeared to him. We get to see their relationship. And then we needed this action but afterwards to see them doing some actual good instead of just throwing girders into buildings."

The biggest difference between The Incredibles and other Pixar films is that the main characters are all humans. Super powered humans, but humans nonetheless that had to look like some version of people, even if it is a cartoon.

"I think the biggest ground that we broke was in being able to combine caricature and intentional direction, very specific things, with a base of correctness, of a physical correctness of bones, muscle, skin, all these things working on a character like Bob, so that you believe he's alive," Sayre said. "Getting to the point where we could have these sort of believable physics as a base level, what we could then stylize on top of. That was certainly a hard problem to tackle just in terms of things that were technically difficult."

The biggest challenge was daughter Violet because of her hair. "You know, back on Monsters, we encountered some similar problems with Boo," Sayre said. "She had shorter hair. Characters who have hairstyles [are easier]. Helen has a lot of product in her hair and she has a certain hairstyle, except when she's under water. The simulation, the motion of the hair, the computer, in this case, everything's driven by the animators except the hair. That motion is done with reference to the style. The long haired character, she's got a different hairstyle. She's a woman of no fixed hairstyle. It's different. Just as she moves her head, the hair shifts around. And that's just a huge, huge challenge. We had meetings with the software guys where they were explaining how this was an unsolved problem and we shouldn't really expect it to work. But it did eventually make it work."

See the family come together when The Incredibles hits theaters November 5.

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