Back to the Future
Issue: Volume 41 Issue 3: (Edition 3 2018)

Back to the Future

Incredibles 2

In real time, Disney•Pixar's Incredibles 2 takes place 14 years after the first film, but in "Incredible" time, it's only a few months later.

Superhero stunts are illegal in Municiberg, the Parr family's hometown, so Mr. Incredible/Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter) have been lying low, raising their kids Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack, and hiding their superpowers. Violet seems almost like a normal high school kid. Dash plays video games. Jack-Jack has a few teeth now.

"I thought about aging [the Parr family], and then I thought, 'That sucks,' " says Brad Bird, who wrote and directed both films. "That's about as deep as it went."

Instead, he switched up the family dynamic.

The film opens with a wild action scene as Mr. Incredible (primarily) tries to stop the villain Underminer, who is attacking the city. But havoc ensues, and the government decides to completely shut down the program that protected "supers." The Parrs have two weeks left in a subsidized motel room and no way to pay the bills. Fortunately, the Deavors, a rich brother and sister team whose father loved superheroes, want to bring back the supers. Rather than promoting Mr. Incredible, though, they choose Elastigirl - Helen - as their super star. Bob must stay home and take care of the kids.

And, what a home. The Deavor siblings have given the Parrs a futuristic home with sliding floors above a swimming pool, a rain curtain, and other inventions. There, Bob does his best to be a doting father, even though Violet suffers teenage angst, Dash is determined to be a superhero, and Jack-Jack . . . well, Jack-Jack has more superpowers than any of them, powers unleashed by the toddler's random whims. A hilarious fight with a raccoon demonstrates Jack-Jack's ability to replicate himself, shoot laser beams from his eyes, become invisible, walk through walls, set himself on fire, and, later, become a demon baby. Bob tries to control him with cookie bribes.

"He's still a baby," Bird says. "He has only limited control over his powers. What interests him is what interests a baby."

Meanwhile, Helen has her first superhero assignment - to save a runaway train - a train running away in reverse.

And with that, back to real time. Fourteen years after the first film, technology has advanced, artists have become more proficient, and the result - complex visuals, spectacular effects, and amazing animation - is on screen.

"We'd been gone a few years," says producer John Walker, who had worked with Bird on The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and the live-action film Tomorrowland. "I was surprised by the level of competency and artistry that the crew exhibited. Pixar has always been a great place, but it is stunning how great the people have become. And they're so young. They're embarrassingly good."

"Humiliatingly good," Bird says.

Take that runaway train sequence, for example.

Riding that Train

Evelyn Deavor has invented an elastic motorcycle for Helen that she uses to fly, flip, and race through the city to catch the runaway train.

"Ryan Heuett [layout artist] designed the city according to Helen's ability to move through traffic," says Mahyar Abouosaeedi, camera and staging supervisor. "Brad kept saying, 'Faster, faster.' Once she's on the rooftops, she has to hop from building to building, and things felt haphazard. So, we spread out the buildings to give her longer jumps less often."

The bike stretches apart and comes back together magnetically. She sends it ahead and uses her elasticity to parkour through the buildings to catch up. Sometimes, literally through.

Six effects artists created the tire smoke, glass destruction, sparks, and explosions for the sequence.

Effects technical director Michael Catalano was responsible for the tire smoke, effects TD Ferdi Scheepers shattered the glass in a building, effects TD Amit Baadkar was the artist on sparks, and Michael Hall handled elasticycle explosions as it crashed into the tunnel wall, creating a volume effect with sparks added on top.

For the tire smoke, the team used a divide-and-conquer technique similar to that used for previous films - for example, the river in The Good Dinosaur. To achieve the look of a continuous smoke cloud as the train moved, they used a clustered simulation, for which they ran independent simulations on different computers.

To add sparks, Baadkar started with a static train, simulated sparks moving in the opposite direction, and then put the moving train back into the shot.

For the glass breaking, Scheepers realized that it was hard to see the effect because the scene moved quickly, so he broke the physics; he added larger shards and reduced the motion blur.

As Elastigirl races after the train, we see a big city in the background.


"From a sets perspective, the city is terrifying," says sets supervisor Nathan Fariss. "We have to build, arrange, age, weather, and treat the buildings in a way that makes them feel normal. You know inherently when it's wrong. But, we decided to not be afraid. We decided to build a real 3D city with suburbs, manufacturing districts, an old town."

One goal was to give the director flexibility.

"Brad had been away for a while, so at the beginning of the show we had a long breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner," says production designer Ralph Eggleston. "I told him what's going on at Pixar now, the new technology we have, and how we wanted to work. It boiled down to a simple idea: 'Brad, tell your story. We'll make it happen. Let's not waste time figuring out whether we can or can't. Let's just say we can.' "

To link this film with the previous one, they worked backward from the original.

"We can cheat, but we have to account for it," says Eggleston. "We intentionally withheld what we can do technically now until the moment where the Underminer goes underground. Then we show what we can do now."

Action scenes start with layout artists and set dressers working together to determine how long a street should be and what it should contain.

"Because we're using ray casting [RenderMan RIS], we want to be sure that if we take something out, it isn't contributing," Fariss says. "That things outside a square contribute to rendering what's in a square. We have to look at the whole."

Jack-Jack Attack

Although Jack-Jack appeared in The Incredibles, director Brad Bird wanted a softer, fleshier baby for Incredibles 2.

"All the Parrs have basic geometric shapes," says supervising animator Tony Fucile. "Bob is an upside-down U. Helen is a heart. Dash is a square. Violet is a circle. Jack-Jack is a circle with a hair horn. That's easy to draw but hard to do in CG."

For reference, the team looked at babies, including Fucile's son Eli, who voices Jack-Jack. They looked for ways they could use new technology to change the original sculpt and create a softer character. For example, "We rounded and thickened Jack-Jack's gums, made his eye-nose-mouth area tighter and sweeter," Fucile says. "And he's three months older, so we added a couple teeth."

Audiences might not notice the difference, but they will notice Jack-Jack's new superpowers: pyrokinesis, invisibility, laser vision, levitation, the ability to hang out on ceilings and walls, multiplication, phasing that gives him the ability to move through closed doors, projecting bolts of electricity, telekinesis, teleportation, transforming into heavy metal or goo, and turning into a demon baby.

"We used the opportunity to keep everything rooted in the original look, but bring it into modern technology," says effects supervisor Bill Watral. "We can have so many more details. One of our biggest challenges with Jack-Jack was maintaining the look of the baby, whether he's turning to goo or on fire. Nobody wants to see a burning baby."

Effects technical artist Jason Johnston had the task of creating the fire effect.

"We went back to look at what was done in 2004, when Violet drops the baby into the bathtub, and we decided to redesign the look," Johnston says. "Jack-Jack's role would be bigger. He'd have more screen time. We'd need to read his animation. And, the technology can do more."

The artists decided that Jack-Jack needed to be the source of the fire, not be on fire. There would be no smoke or embers because that conveys the idea that something is on fire, although anything he lights on fire could have them.

Then, they looked for sources of fire that burn but don't look like they're on fire, and vice versa. For the first test, they created fire with a transparent center, which looked interesting but didn't feel right. They made the fire more orange and gave Jack-Jack glowing eyes. They tried changing the color of Jack-Jack's skin, but he looked like a red devil baby. They allowed the flames to be more apparent. Then, they placed moving flames over Jack-Jack's skin and gave him glowing eyes, which they liked. But, they continued experimenting.

"We added a new fire simulation over his body that we could affect without affecting the underlying simulation," Johnston says.

Creating a final frame often involved 12 steps, starting with a base fire simulation, Jack-Jack renders, body-only fire simulations, Jack-Jack masks made with blurred renders, and various combinations and blends with glows and orange eyes.

"By having fire in different layers, we could control the effects per shot," Johnston says.

To first put Jack-Jack on fire in front of Bird took the artists nearly a month. After that, Bird could have Jack-Jack on fire whenever he wanted.

Incredibles 2

Once editorial provided the shots that would be in a cut, the artists did final camera dressing and fine-tuned the CG world for each shot by using elements from a library to draw the eye to a particular area. For instance, bushes might be added to a shot to frame a shape, dead leaves placed in a swimming pool, and so forth.

"We model all the props, the architecture, vegetation, vehicles, and skies," Fariss says. "We build everything. Every chair, lamp, toaster, tree, pots and pans, bikes, radio towers. We had a team of about 10 people creating a warehouse full of random things. The mid-century design of the film is about straight lines and broad shapes, so we have to be very careful about that as we go."

Shading artists added color and texture, and determined how the objects would react to light.

"Burlap, velvet, marble - it's all an aspect of shading," Fariss says. "On the elasticycle, we had a variety of materials in one prop. Rubber, specks of stuff stuck in the tire, leather, metal. We had highlights on the fenders."

One of the most complex materials the artists needed to shade was terrazzo used in the floor of the Parrs' 1960s futuristic house.

The House

"We had to figure out the iconic textures for mid-century architecture," says Bryn Imagire, shading art director. "Grass cloth. Nubby fabric. Etched glass. Sleek, simple shapes. Terrazzo was expensive then, so we put terrazzo everywhere."

Bob and Helen

At the beginning of this film, Bob and Helen have lost their jobs as superheroes. But, two rescuers in the form of a high-tech businessman and his inventor sister appear with a plan to make the "supers" heroes again. Only one problem: They want to work with Helen, not Bob. Elastigirl would be the hero, and Mr. Incredible would become the househusband.

Bird thinks of this film as a family film - a film about a family that happens to be superheroes, not a superhero film. The scene with Helen talking to Bob about taking the job he wanted is a perfect example.

"The scene with Bob agreeing with Helen was my personal hell," Bird says. "Directing is physically hard, but mentally, writing is the hardest. It's the most elaborate puzzle. You try to hit the right tone and be efficient, but you also want to explore a little bit; explore, but keep things moving. Clarity and pace are always at war with each other. That scene of Bob and Helen talking in bed seems simple, but I rewrote it more than any other. To keep it rooted in something real, but keep it entertaining."

Although an early version received a thumbs-up, Bird wasn't satisfied, and early test audiences wrote that Bob seemed like a jerk. To have Bob unhappy and not a jerk was the challenge.

"I could make him not a jerk," Bird says. "I could do, 'Whatever you say hon, let's have a frosty drink.' But, that wouldn't be Bob. I'd lose an interesting element, the childish clinging, Bob thinking, 'I should have been the superhero.' He had never existed in a moment where he was not the best man for a job. It's hard for him. I wanted to see that. I wanted to see his face seizing up. So, I was, 'Aaargh.' When I finally cracked it, I was the only one partying in my mind. Everyone else was like, 'If it makes you happy.' "

But, making this film wasn't always hard.

"It's hard until it's really fun," Bird says. "When you see everything together, with all the bells and whistles, it's fun. You open the action scene and it's fun to get it right. When Sam Jackson does his thing, it's a delight. When Dash is as good as in the first film, it's perfect. I can't talk about only one thing being fun - I'd leave too much out. It's like Christmas and I got all the presents I had wanted."

Adds Eggleston: "Terrazzo is even expensive in the computer."

Terrazzo is an aggregate material made from marble, quartz, granite, glass, and other materials poured together with a filler and then ground down smooth. It meant the shading artists had to create a variety of textures and reflective surfaces within one element.

"We started with a base filler, layered in other textures, and added reflections," Fariss says. "Then, we used colors for displacement texture, different manner of light reflections, dirt, and little metal bits here and there. Every square was different."

Incredibles 2

Because the film was moved up in the release schedule, the architects had less time than usual to design the Parr's house.

"We had eight months to do the house," Eggleston says. "And then, when we had just finished it, Brad [Bird] needed to consolidate a number of sequences into one. So, I pitched the idea of a larger house. We had two to two-and-a-half weeks to redesign it. The first week, everyone did everything. The next week, we broke it into parts - the swimming pool, the secret room, the patio lounge, and so forth. Palm Springs was a big inspiration for the 'wow' room the family first sees.

"The original film embraced the mid-'50s," he adds. "But, we wanted to incorporate elements of the late-'50s, early-'60s. It's not specific, but it feels right. We have water running through every room, which the Parr family thought was cool at first, and then it was an annoyance."

Dash uses the remote control to slide around the room elements - sections of the floor, the couch, chairs, and so forth. When the floor panels slide apart, they reveal a swimming pool beneath. Dash accidentally slides the couch into the pool.

"We had a blast doing this film," Eggleston says.

Because the changes in the new house occurred after sequences were already finished for the old house, the designers tried to re-use as many elements as possible.

"We had a finished sequence of the characters having dinner together, and we were able to lift the camera, layout, and composition work from the old house and arrange the space so all that work wouldn't have to be redone," says Philip Metschan, visual designer. "Also, the bed in the new house, the old house, and the motel are all the same size, so we could lift the camera work from one to the other."

Wardrobe and Costumes

In addition to the Parr family and the Deavor siblings, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and Winston (Bob Odenkirk), the film also features Bob's best friend Frozone aka Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), five second-rate supers, Edna "E" Mode (voiced by Brad Bird), the government man Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks), Underminer (John Ratzenberger), an ambassador (Isabella Rossellini), Violet's classmate Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird), and a variety of background characters. They all needed costumes.

Character artist Deanna Marsigliese started with classic mid-century designs, using Simplicity printed sewing patterns for inspiration.

"Because it isn't a specific time period, Brad was OK with us referencing current fashion even if it wasn't right for a character in the '50s," Imagire says. "It was OK to have Bob in a T-shirt. And because a 1950s shape wasn't Violet's style, we went more toward cuffed jeans, sneakers, and sweaters. Since no time has passed between the two films, we made Dash's T-shirts in the same red, orange, yellow color scheme as the last film. But we saved money by making one T-shirt model in different colors and patterns."

Tailoring lead Fran Kalal then made those designs possible in the 3D computer graphics world.

"Costumes in the digital world have challenges," she says. "They have to change shape in seconds. And, they have to be fabulous."

The costumes for the superheroes in the first film were shaded as fabric on their bodies. In this film, new technology allowed the artists to stitch together new costumes that fit over the bodies.

"The original suits from 14 years ago stretched a lot," says Imagire. "So Fran [Kalal] made new suits from patterns. The fabric and the textures don't stretch as much."

To create a kimono-like costume for the fabulous Edna, who, in the film, designs the superhero costumes, the tailors started with a 3D sculpture that they cut into flat pieces. They laid the flat pieces down, noting that the simulator observes grain direction. Then they tessellated the pieces and connected the points of each triangle with springs. Using more than 120 controls in a control panel, they could give instructions to the triangles that changed the behavior of the springs. The result was fabric that could be light, stretchy, bendy, and so forth.

Incredibles 2

"On the first pass of the simulator, the garment moves, but there's no color," Kalal says. "It's just functional. "We use color maps to define the shininess and so forth."

For Helen's new supersuit, the designers referenced vintage wetsuits.

Shades and Sims

"I noticed that on this show, everything gets very shiny very quickly," Imagire says. "We can get a realistic look quickly, but we have to put a lot of effort into variation in specularity when light grazes across surfaces, whether skin, wallpaper, or a dress."

For texture mapping, the artists use Pixar's proprietary shading and look development application called Flow, to paint and shade individual 3D objects.

"It's kind of funny," Imagire says. "That's what I did when I started on Bug's Life. We had a model of a tissue box in a circus. I painted each side by hand so we could move the camera around, put that pattern on the box, and do displacement in alpha channel maps to get the folds. Flow is the same idea. We've gone back and forth on painting props, and we're coming back to doing that. But, it's much better now."

Now, the artists can see a rendered image as they work, with the image becoming more refined as it computes. They don't have to paint and wait.

"If we want something more bumpy, we can change it on the fly and see the results fast," Imagire says. "We haven't done this for sets yet, but we did use Flow for props. It's nice to make changes and be done with it."

Pixar's tailors and cloth-simulation artists have also gone back and forth between using 2D patterns and 3D patterns for the costumes.

"We used 2D patterns on the first Incredibles and for Up, 3D patterning for Toy Story 3, and then after Brave and all the way to now, we're navigating a space in between," Kalal says. "We're building the costumes with flat pieces, but Evelyn's coat has a cool collar modeled as a ring in 3D space. The collar is a flat plane stitched in place. The simulator says that's super stretched out, so make the triangle relaxed, and the collar lays on top of the coat."

For simulation, Pixar artists use FizT, an evolution of the system written originally by Andy Witkin and David Baraff for Monsters, Inc., and modified by David Eberle for Coco and this film.

"David made huge improvements," Kalal says. "We have better collision detection, so we can have more layers. He developed a new spring called 'slide on surface.' We can stick a logo on something and it will keep the same size and aspect ratio as it slides around.

"Another thing David Eberle wrote in our simulator for this show is a new way to do dynamic shrinking," Kalal continues. "He calls it '3D alterations.' It works just like you'd alter a shirt."

Audiences might not notice the change in the characters, which is, of course, the intention, but 14 years has made a difference.

"We used the technology available to us now to create the looks that were always intended back then," says character art director Matt Nolte.

In doing so, the crew was able to help Brad Bird tell another blockbuster story.

"The methodology is different, but the goal is the same," Bird says. "We still have to worry about the audience understanding the characters; creating the mood; using color, music, and sound; making it clear on the page to the actors so they know when they're going from A to B; communicating with collaborators. That's all the same, and hopefully each movie makes you less stupid. But, I always feel mystified by the process. The more I understand, the more magical and impossible it seems."

Barbara Robertson ( is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.