The year is 2004. Pixar has been churning out hit after hit: Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo… They are on top of the world. You make your way to a movie theater for the studio’s latest, expecting to sit down for more greatness — the next big thing in animation. And you’re not disappointed.
Pixar’s The Incredibles is a home run. It’s a great story, it’s got great animation, it’s a crowd-pleaser for kids and adults alike, and, depending on whom you ask, it might even be the studio’s best film — ask me, and I’ll say it is. But at no point before 2004 was it a sure thing by any stretch.
I know what you’re thinking: The Incredibles isn’t special in this regard. Almost no film is a sure thing. I grant you that. The success of a film, for the most part, can’t be calculated before the film exists and the public reacts. But The Incredibles was a particularly huge gamble, almost unbelievably so.
Brad Bird, currently the only person who has been the sole writer/director on a Pixar project, is a household name now. But when he pitched the studio in March of 2000, the only things to his name were a handful of TV credits and the financial failure yet critically acclaimed film The Iron Giant. He had this idea for a superhero movie that Pixar ate right up. Well, until they understood what this particular superhero movie entailed.
“The creative heads were excited about the idea of the film, but once I showed story reels of exactly what I wanted, the technical teams turned white,” Bird revealed in a McKinsey Quarterly interview in 2008. “They took one look and thought, ‘This will take 10 years and cost $500 million. How are we possibly going to do this?’”
In terms of animation, the list of things done in the film for the first time is staggering. “The Incredibles was everything that computer-generated animation had trouble doing. It had human characters, it had hair, it had water, it had fire, it had a massive number of sets,” Bird explained of the seemingly insurmountable tasks his team overcame.
Let’s start with the biggie on the laundry list of difficult things The Incredibles had to animate: people. At that point, no other Pixar film had human protagonists. Animating people is exceptionally difficult to pull off. One thing left unconsidered can lead to the “uncanny valley” issue that audiences see right through. Previously, Pixar avoided this by making films that focus on non-human characters: toys, bugs, fish, monsters. Just look at the original Toy Story. For Andy’s friends, they essentially made one human — Andy — and put him in different clothes. A smart shortcut for the quick scene, but mildly horrifying.
“Even in hand-drawn animation, humans are widely considered to be the most difficult to execute, because everybody has a feeling for how they move,” Bird told IGN in 2005. “The thing is, our goal wasn’t to reproduce reality. We didn’t want it to look real, we wanted it to feel real.”
While Mr. Incredible hardly looks like any typical person you’d see, you can believe the physics of him because he appears to have heft when he moves. No one can stretch like Elastigirl, but it looks like real movement when she stretches her arms to impossible lengths. Making the audience feel a person move in space is a difficult notion to even conceptualize, but miraculously, the animators of The Incredibles made it happen.
Other big challenges involving animating humans included rendering Violet’s hair. It’s long, it gets in her face, blows in the wind, and is weighed down by water, but at the end of the day, her hair is important to her character’s development. In the past, Pixar had worthy shortcuts to avoid the challenge of hair — for example: putting Boo’s hair in pigtails in Monster’s Inc. to allow more time to animate Sully’s fur. Bird refused to compromise. Violet’s hair had to be long, in her face, blown through the wind, and weighed down by water.
And in the final film, it is. And it’s great. Although Violet’s character arc is certainly told through her actions, visually, her hair is important to our understanding of where she is as a character. It acts as a shroud around her when she is trying to be invisible and becomes a symbol of her growth when she pulls it back with a headband to embrace her powers of invisibility. In each step of this journey, from high school to falling from a plane, Violet’s hair reacts as any person’s would. It’s a feat of animation.
But as much of a challenge as it was, animating hair convincingly wasn’t even the most difficult part of bringing The Incredibles to life. “The hardest thing about The Incredibles was there was no hardest thing. Brad ordered a heaping helping of every expensive item on the menu,” supervising technical director Rick Sayre told Animation World Network. Bird’s requests are evident in the staggering number of special effects shots in the film: 781, ranging from clouds to explosions to dust to lava.
Although they had animated visual effects shots before (see: Finding Nemo), the sheer volume of those in The Incredibles posed a new challenge to the Pixar team. In order to get them all in, the effects had to be approved while they were still being animated. “A good example was when the mother and kids are splashing around in the water. We made the water surface first, then got it approved by Brad so the animators knew where the waves were, so characters could interact with the ebb and flow of the waves,” special effects supervisor Sandra Karpman told AWN. “They animated to the main wave; we then brought it back and did the specific water surface to character interaction in effects.”
Along with visual effects, the film called for a number of locations that Pixar had not dealt with before, which, in turn, called for a different organizational structure to get it all animated. “Overall, there were more than 200 locations. We had it all mapped out on Monsters, Inc. On The Incredibles, we couldn’t do that,” Sayre explained. “We had so many locations that there was no way to have a team per location… So what we adopted was ‘Alpha Omega:’ where one team was concerned with building everything that would go to animation (modeling, shading, and layout) and another that dealt with it after animation (final camera, lighting, and effects).”
All the innovations that Pixar had to implement to animate The Incredibles certainly paid off. The final product is gorgeous, with physically believable characters, flowing hair, explosions, and locations ranging from an island to a city. Of course, technological improvements allowed things like Violet’s hair and the special effects in action sequences to be amped up for the 2018 sequel. But watching the original still highlights all that it brought to the animation scene; it more than holds up today.
Even with all this extraordinary animation, however, the film’s success still wasn’t a certainty. Executives at Pixar were sold on the story before beginning the animation process, but it’s a crazy story to sell to audiences, even by Pixar standards. The Incredibles is a superhero story — and in 2004, the genre wasn’t as sure of a money-maker as it is now — that’s really not focused on super-heroics. It’s instead focused on marriage, high school, mid-life crises, fashion, and mediocrity, to name a few of its themes.
The movie comes together because the story remains centrally concentrated on the Parrs. Bird approached the film this way, albeit indirectly. “I had a new family that was demanding more of my attention. I was conflicted, afraid that if I did what was necessary to get a chance to make a movie I’d be a lousy husband and father, and if I really focused on the needs of my family, I would never get a chance to make a movie,” Bird says in the book To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios. “Consciously, this was just a funny movie about superheroes. But I think that what was going on in my life definitely filtered into the movie.”
Through everything that happens in the film, from Edna’s anti-cape lesson to the film’s amazing island sequence, the story is always propelled by the dynamics of the family. Edna’s scene-stealing sequence doesn’t just crop up out of nowhere. We get there by following Helen on her journey to uncover Bob’s secret. Violet and Dash don’t just arrive on the island. They’re there because they are a couple of kids curious about what their parents are doing without them.
The final fight sequence against the Omnidroid has every opportunity to feel like a confusing mess of powers. But it works because we follow family dynamics: a father plays a high-stakes game of catch with his son; a mother worries about her daughter’s strength after a setback; a wife negotiates the timing of a button press with her husband. The fact that we’ve been following their story as a family for the whole film makes the emotional payoff of these little moments feel that much more earned. The hard work the animators put into bringing these characters to life feels worth it thanks to the strength of the story behind them.
The best part of the story about this film is its ending: The Incredibles was released to critical acclaim and gave Pixar its highest opening weekend gross at the time (it was later passed by Toy Story 3; now its own sequel holds the record). The movie was nominated for four Oscars and took home two, for Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing. Fourteen years later, it finally spawned a highly anticipated and ultimately very popular follow-up that received another Oscar nomination for the studio.
That’s all thanks to the risk Pixar took on this crazy original story and the tireless work put into bringing it to life. Bird said it best in the McKinsey Quarterly interview: “The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved.” Before it was achieved, The Incredibles was absolutely impossible. But working through the ridiculously complex animation of this film about family (among a million other things), the team at Pixar somehow managed to get the film out. The Incredibles, despite all the factors that could have brought it down, is the story of a smashing success.