Movie Production Information p. 5
INCREDIBLE BELIEVABILITY: BREAKTHROUGH ANIMATION & TECHNOLOGY GIVE “THE INCREDIBLES” LIFELIKE QUALITIES
After tackling the sheer scale and intricacy of production design for THE INCREDIBLES, the filmmakers at last turned to their most difficult and essential task: animating the characters so that they would be far more than “cartoon cutouts” but people you actually care about. The bottom line was finding the soul in the characters through the broadest possible gamut of human-like movements and expressions. This would take the film’s crew into an infamous forbidden zone. After all, it is widely believed that computer animation and such human qualities as hair and skin aren’t quite ready for one another.
Brad Bird, however, was convinced the technology existedor could be inventedto allow his characters far more “life” (that intangible essence of energy, verve and humanity) than previously thought possible. Using the rich shadings of the cast’s performances as a guide, the technical wizards at Pixar were inspired to rethink their limitationsand attempt some of the most advanced computer modeling work ever used in a motion picture.
Although computer animation has progressed by leaps and bounds over the last decade, it has still lagged behind in achieving many key human characteristics. It was previously considered downright impossible to ask an animator to create muscles that would flex and ripple like true muscles, hair that could flip and bounce like authentic hair, skin that might pucker and stretch like actual skin and clothing that could move independently of a body just like the real thing. Indeed, computer animators have long avoided human-like characters because of previous results that fell far short. Computer animators have long avoided human-like characters because of previous results that fell far short.
“There’s something about human beings, even stylized human beings that really raises the bar for animators.” Bill Wise
As Tony Fucile, one of the supervising animators for THE INCREDIBLES, notes: “Human characters are fairly impossible to animate because we spend our whole lives watching other humans and we know right away when something, even the smallest little thing, isn’t quite right.”
Adds character supervisor Bill Wise: “There’s something about human beings, even stylized human beings, that really raises the bar for animators. We’re so keyed into subtleties of emotion and expression in human faces and bodies that they have to be pretty close to perfector our brains simply quit believing in what we’re seeing.”
From the beginning, Bird’s aim was to forge characters who aren’t quite humanafter all, The Incredibles exist in a unique hybrid universe in which superheroes can live in the suburbs! Instead, Bird aimed for characters who were clearly born in a comic strip world yet who can smile, grimace, worry, leap, run, have family arguments and save the world with complete physical believability.
For John Lasseter, this was the key to his faith that Bird’s vision could be achieved.
“Everyone at Pixar knows that the closer to reality you try to make something, the easier it is to fail but the secret Brad uses with THE INCREDIBLES is to produce something that the audience knows does not exist, something so stylized that they are ready to believe in it if it all works seamlessly,” he explains. “With the technology that we’ve been pioneering at Pixar, I felt we were ready to achieve that. Our goal on THE INCREDIBLES was to create very stylized human beings who could never pass as real humans but have hair, skin and clothing so true-to-life that their reactions have a stronger, more dramatic impact.”
Pixar has been building up to this breakthrough for the last decade. Indeed since the debut of “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar has consistently set the standard and pushed the envelope of computer animation with each of their subsequent films. “A Bug’s Life” introduced organic environments and characters that squashed and stretched; “Monsters, Inc.” ventured further into the world of round organic shapes and successfully tackled the previously unthinkable realm of photo-realistic hair and fur; and “Finding Nemo” convincingly portrayed a wide variety of aquatic life and settings on a fantastic journey under the sea.
But THE INCREDIBLES would require everything Pixar had learned from these films and much, much more to tell its wide-ranging story of a family facing its greatest adventure.
Rick Sayre, who served as the film’s supervising technical director explains, “This film had every conceivable technical challenge you can imagine. It could have been completely daunting for us technically, but our attitude was always, ‘It’s impossibleso it just has to happen.’ We took our cues as to what we had to invent directly from the story. This is how it has always been done in animation. The way we approached it is that you can’t go back and say, ‘What if Violet doesn’t have long hair?’ or ‘What if Bob isn’t a muscular guy?’ We loved the story and we weren’t going to let any perceived limitations of the medium stop us from telling it.”
“This film had every conceivable technical challenge you can imagine. It could have been completely daunting for us technically, but our attitude was always, ‘It’s impossibleso it just has to happen.’” Rick Sayre
“Our goal on THE INCREDIBLES was to create very stylized human beings who could never pass as real humans but have hair, skin and clothing so true-to-life that their reactions have a stronger, more dramatic impact.” John Lasseter
Copies of the classic medical school book, Gray’s Anatomy, were handed out to all the digital sculptors (modelers who design and build the characters in the computer) and the rigging team to help them better understand how the body moves during specific actions.
Faced with the challenge of moving the characters in a realistic fashion, Sayre and the technical team decided to literally get physical. Copies of the classic medical school book, Gray’s Anatomy, were handed out to all the digital sculptors (modelers who design and build the characters in the computer) and the rigging team to help them better understand how the body moves during specific actions. Live-action footage of people flexing, walking and moving also came in handy as the team began to tackle the animation taboos of muscles, skin, hair and clothes.
Skeletons and Muscles
Rick Sayre knew that the first key to realistic articulation was to be found deep inside the body, at the level of the skeleton and its surrounding musculature. This is where all human motion begins and so it was with the characters of THE INCREDIBLES. It all started with the body of Bob ParrAKA “Mr. Incredible”who was literally created from the inside out.
“Bob was definitely the toughest character for us to model and rig because he is such a muscular guy,” says Sayre.
“As we began to create him, we developed a completely new and different approach for his skeleton and the way muscle, skin, bones, and fat would attach to it. We used a fantastic new technology called ‘goo,’ which allows the skin to react to the muscles sliding and sticking underneath in a very true fashion.”
This changed the entire animating process. Animators are not so much technicians as they are artists actors or puppeteers of a sort who creatively choreograph the characters’ movements and expressions through specially programmed computer controls. Now, the animators had greater, and deeper, control of the characters than ever before.
Explains Sayre: “It’s very typical in visual effects for an animator to animate a rigid skeleton, and that’s all they see. But with the complex characters in this film, that wasn’t going to be acceptable. What I think is groundbreaking is that we ended up building a system where the animators are essentially moving the underlying skeleton, and the muscles are being activated, and the fat layer is causing the skin to slide over the muscles, and then the skin is rendered. The animators can see all that happening while they’re working. When they move Bob, they’re posing his full muscle-skin-skeleton rig, and it’s happening essentially in real-time, giving them far more information and flexibility.”
Dissecting the weaknesses in computer-generated human characters further, the team turned to some of the body’s most traditionally “tricky” jointsespecially the shoulder. “You may have noticed that it is very hard to get a convincing shoulder motion in CG animation. This is why you often see animated characters that have shoulders that are too broad!” notes Sayre. “We wanted to make a shoulder breakthrough on this film, so to speak.”
Once Bob was completely modeled, he served as a template to create the skeletons of the other charactersbecoming the film’s Adam, in a sense. “With Bob, we really concentrated on achieving a high level of complexity in body motion,” says character supervisor Bill Wise.
“Once we were able to rig his movements, we were able to use that same articulating skeleton for the other characters, with some changes, of course. A female character, for example, isn’t going to have as defined a musculature, but she’s still got a deltoid that pulls down over the top of the humerus. There’s still a collarbone there. And so you could reshape that same rig to fit any character.”
One character in particular proved to be especially challenging in her muscular movements: Helen Parr, alias Elastigirl, who had to be able to stretch, bend and fold into a vast array of pretzel shapes that would flummox the finest Yogi. Elastigirl pushed the animators one step further.
“Helen had probably the most complex articulation rig we’ve ever made,” comments Wise. “The animators could actually pull her body around into a parachute shape or stretch her arm out into a long ribbon of flesh and bone with control points. Christian Hoffman wrote a program called a ‘deformer’ to allow her to twist and turn as needed. She’s really unlike anything anyone’s ever created before.”
Skin and Hair
The Pixar animators also knew that the qualities that really create realism in a character are the appearance of skin and hairrevealing how the grandness of life is ironically best created through minor subtleties. In further important breakthroughs for the production, new approaches to lighting and shading the skin, as well as sculpting hairstyles, added yet another level of credibility to the characters.
The skin created for THE INCREDIBLES is purposely one step removed from the full imperfections of human flesh. Explains Sayre: “Brad was adamant from the beginning that he didn’t want the characters to have pores and hair follicles and freckleshe didn’t want them to look entirely human but rather a bit more abstract. So their skin texture is very, very simple as a conscious choice. But, as it turns out, creating simple skin that didn’t look fake was really hard. It’s one of those cases where simplicity was...complex!”
The skin, too, required coming up with pioneering technology. “We came up with a new technology called ‘subsurface scattering’ which let us give more translucency to the skin,” says Bill Wise.
“A lot of what your eye picks up as realism in people is the light transmitting through their skin. For example, you see light behind their ears when the sun is behind them. Another good illustration is the difference between white paint and milk; light just bounces off white paint, but it goes through and scatters around in milk, which is more like skin. This approach to lighting the skin was very effective and really kicks things up a notch. The characters start to feel alive.”
Meanwhile, with hairstyles ranging from Helen’s short, well-manicured coif to Violet’s long, freeflowing locks, new programs and approaches were also required to give the filmmakers what they wanted on top of the character’s heads. Mark Henne, the film’s hair and cloth simulation supervisor, guided the effort.
“The characters came into our department bald and nakedand they left with wardrobes and hair that would move in a realistic way,” Henne explains. “Hair in a CG film has always been tough because it’s so multi-layered and made up of millions of strands that have friction against each other and a sense of cohesion. It breaks apart and re-forms in response to how the head is moving and how the wind is blowing. The trouble comes from all the layers wanting to pass through each other and how you keep that from happening as it interacts with arms, shoulders and other solid objects.”
By far, the most difficult character to animate from a hair standpoint was Violet. She remained an “unsolved research project” well into the production of the film, due to her long, flowing hairthe bane of an animator’s existence. In fact, no one had ever animated this kind of hair before for a CG film. Henne and his team came up with five different sculpted hairstyles for Violet for the different phases of the film. Each of those styles could then be modified to reflect the various environmental conditions she encounters, including rain, wind and the zero gravity of her own force field.
Eventually, Violet’s hair became one of the film’s triumphs. “Violet’s character is all about the fact that she hides behind her long hair,” observes Sayre. “It’s such a crucial part of the character that we had to get it right. There may have been times when we wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to give her short hair but she just had to have long hair and the result was wonderfula significant advance in showing hair move in a believable manner while retaining its stylistic look.” In fact, no one had ever animated this kind of hair before for a CG film.
“One of the things I learned on THE INCREDIBLES is that it is far easier to blow up a planet in CG animation than it is to have a character simply grab another person’s shirt! I saw that there was a lot of room for exciting new developments in these areas.” Brad Bird
With their bodies honed nearer to animated perfection, it still remained for the characters of THE INCREDIBLES to “get dressed.”
Even in regards to wardrobe, THE INCREDIBLES was infinitely more complicated than any animated film in history and more akin to an epic costume drama. More than 150 distinct garments had to be specially designed and tailored to fit the lead and background characters. But Bird didn’t just want great looking clothes for his charactershe wanted clothes that would move like actual fabric. Pixar is already renowned for its pioneering work in cloth motion. The advances made with Boo’s Tshirt in “Monsters, Inc.” and the clothing in the Oscar® winning Pixar short, “Geri’s Game,” served as research and development for THE INCREDIBLESwhich took these advances even further.
Notes Brad Bird: “One of the things I learned on THE INCREDIBLES is that it is far easier to blow up a planet in CG animation than it is to have a character simply grab another person’s shirt! I saw that there was a lot of room for exciting new developments in these areas.”
Mark Henne and his team found an inventive new way to “bake” garments onto the characters, especially in the case of tight-fitting supersuits. Instead of simulating the clothing for each individual frame, this process analyzes the different poses and motion patterns for a character (including walking, spinning and elbow bending) and automatically creates the appropriate movement for the clothing. For example, when Bob sits in a chair, wearing his supersuit, the suit knows what to do and where to crease because it has already been through a comprehensive training set.
Due to the wide range of retro, futuristic and avant garde styles presented in THE INCREDIBLES, the film also relied more on traditional high fashion design than a conventional animated film.
“This film required an incredible range of very stylized garments, from gowns and business coats to capes and supersuits,” says Henne. “So we asked Christine Waggoner, one of our character technical artists, to serve as our costume designer. She built almost all of the outfits from scratch. Bryn Imagire, the film’s shading designer, would bring her sketches, photo reference and fabric samples, and Christine and Maria Cervantes (a tailor) would take those designs and implement a computer-generated garment. We take a lot of pride in the fact that our clothing was actually built from flat patterns just like fashions that are created in the real world.”
Now, with the universe and characters of THE INCREDIBLES fully animated, the effects team went to work adding the final, dazzling touches. The film’s effects supervisor (and an 18-year veteran of ILM), Sandra Karpman says this was by far the most ambitious effects effort she’s ever witnessed on any film of any genre. Karpman oversaw the creation of effects that delved into every possible natural elementfrom water to fire to ice (for Frozone’s super-cool antics). Indeed, more than one third of the final 2200-plus shots in the film include special effects.
“The effects seen in THE INCREDIBLES are completely fresh and very spectacular,” says Karpman.
“The biggest leap from an effects standpoint is the fact that we have beautiful, amazing, 3-D volumetric clouds that you can actually fly through. Most clouds in other effects movies or even previous CG films are matte paintings or stock photography. In our film, when Helen is in the airplane flying through the clouds, it’s very 3D and you see the clouds moving against each other. They’re transparent and if you stack them they become opaque. It’s very beautiful. This same proprietary shader program (Atmos) that allowed us to do clouds also gave us the ability to do great explosions. We ended up doing a lot of things we’ve never imagined doing before.”
Perhaps this last phrase best sums up how nearly everyone involved in THE INCREDIBLES felt: that they were heading into realms of the imagination never before visited in a motion picture.
Sums up Brad Bird: “I think the main concern of everyone who worked on THE INCREDIBLES in every capacityfrom the actors to the artists to the technical geniuseswas making the characters and the story really feel alive. That’s different than reproducing straight reality, of course. But More than one third of the final 2200-plus shots in the film include special effects.
“Believability is what was so important on this film. For me that’s where it all starts: creating characters and a world that feels real because it means something to you.” Brad Bird
Return to The Incredibles Movie Home Page