By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
When Brad Bird and Pixar began tackling the director’s 2004 computer-generated animation superhero film, The Incredibles, their biggest hurdle at the time was CG human characters. Up until then, the studio had mainly been crafting either toys, animals or other-worldly creatures in CG.
Of course, it was a mountain Pixar was eventually able to climb, along with the necessary hair, cloth and skin simulations that came with generating a stylized yet believable superhero family for the film. Human characters have subsequently appeared in several Pixar outings, and this meant going into the sequel, Incredibles 2, that many of the previously difficult technical challenges were not so elusive.
However, as with any of its animated features, Incredibles 2 still posed numerous challenges for Pixar’s crew, including the film’s producers, John Walker and Nicole Paradis Grindle. They explain to VFX Voice just what it took to get this new Brad Bird film made, from time pressures to technological obstacles, to keeping an army of animation professionals on track.
The animation side of Pixar is perhaps one that most people are familiar with, but none of that would be possible without producers shepherding a project to conclusion. “We work with the director to make sure that the film gets made on budget and on time,” outlines Incredibles 2 producer John Walker, who also produced The Incredibles, and has worked with Bird since The Iron Giant, which was released in 1999.
“I always joke that the director makes notes, and we make decisions, but it’s kind of the same,” says Walker. “We’re creative partners with the director, but he is the primary creative force in the film, certainly. Especially a guy like Brad, who’s a writer and director. But he uses us as a sounding board, and we’ll get into discussions with him about things about the movie that impact the budget or impact the schedule.”
Fellow producer Nicole Paradis Grindle notes that one of the challenges of getting things done on budget and schedule on Incredibles 2 was the fact that the story continued to evolve during the three years it was in production. This happens on most Pixar films, but it does impact decisions about when to take parts of the story development into full-scale animation. “You don’t want to make a lot of things that you then throw away. That’s very expensive,” says Grindle. “So as producers we’re making a lot of calls about readiness and the order of things, and then we have to be really strategic about when we’re bringing people on board, and then how we want them to work together.”
Coming into this new film, Pixar had made many recent major inroads on technologies that have greatly expanded the worlds and characters it creates – technologies such as the implementation of a physically-based path tracing architecture in RenderMan (called RIS), Universal Scene Description (USD) technology designed to help orchestrate the interchange of 3D graphics data, and developments in its proprietary animation software, Presto, including real-time feedback and preview renders.
The result was that the filmmakers who had struggled to make the 2004 film with the technology back then now had so many new tools in their arsenal and a wealth of experience behind them. “In fact,” says Walker, “I think that one of the things that excited Brad and Ralph Eggleston, the Production Designer, was the fact that the technology existed now to finally realize the designs in the way that they had hoped to realize them in 2004. There were no notions of, ‘Well, we don’t know how to do long hair, we don’t know how to do humans, we don’t know how to do muscles.’ Everybody knows how to do it. It’s just now about doing it quickly.”
“You don’t want to make a lot of things that you then throw away. That’s very expensive. So, as producers we’re making a lot of calls about readiness and the order of things, and then we have to be really strategic about when we’re bringing people on board, and then how we want them to work together.”
—Nicole Paradis Grindle, Producer
“The technology existed now to finally realize the designs in the way that they had hoped to realize them in 2002. There were no notions of, ‘Well, we don’t know how to do long hair… we don’t know how to do humans, we don’t know how to do muscles.’ Everybody knows how to do it. It’s just now about doing it quickly.”
—John Walker, Producer
“These films do not spring fully-formed, and they’re pretty messy, and they don’t look all that great at the beginning.”
—John Walker, Producer
However, the continued ‘plus-ing’ of animation tech can lead to its own issues. “Once we figure out how to do something around here, we make our lives miserable by just doing a lot more of it,” admits Grindle, only perhaps half-jokingly. “For example, we now have these enormous crowds. That was one of the complaints Brad actually had from the first film, was that the streets sometimes seemed really empty in the background when big things were happening, because we could only afford so many characters! So, now we’ve made up for that, but it’s created other problems. Because you create a lot of characters, you have to build them and simulate them, and animate them, and then you have to render them all, too.”
Such is the Pixar way, of course. The advancement of the art of animation and its role in improving the storytelling is what makes the studio such a powerhouse. And while the animation technology has certainly changed since 2004 in terms of producing the final image, so too has the way Pixar’s films are produced.
“We get to see what the film is going to eventually look like much sooner than before,” says Grindle. “For instance on this film, our lighting team did some lighting blocking really early, concurrent with when we started animation blocking, and that allowed us to see, even with the most rudimentary animation blocking or some proxy effects and a spattering of crowds in the background, but you got a real sense of it. Back in the day, it really was very much about each person and their smaller parts of the work – you didn’t really get to see what it looked like until you got to almost the very end. This change is what has allowed us to move so quickly on Incredibles 2, and allowed us to do things like optimize for faster renders much earlier so that people can iterate more, and letting us look at shots in continuity much earlier.”
“It used to be,” adds Walker, “that each little piece of the film was reviewed all by itself. The director had to look at things chair by chair, table by table, wall by wall. They’d have to say, ‘Yes, I like that wall.’ Or, ‘Yes, I like that pencil.’ It was really an inefficient way of making the films because you spend time looking at a pencil that’s buried in the back of a set some place; you never saw it in context. And now that’s completely disappeared. That’s been the biggest change from a production standpoint that we’ve seen, that you just get to look at things as they are in life and make decisions about them.”
Another large part of the producers’ roles in helping to make a major animated feature – this time away from the technical side of filmmaking – was keeping up artist motivation and morale over a three-year period.
“This is a big challenge in animation,” suggests Walker, “because everybody sees the same thing over and over and over again in various stages, and jokes stop being funny. So part of our job is to keep reminding people that they’re working on a good film even when there’s lots of evidence to the contrary. These films do not spring fully-formed and they’re pretty messy, and they don’t look all that great at the beginning.”
“We get to see what the film is going to eventually look like much sooner than before. … This change is what has allowed us to move so quickly on Incredibles 2, and allowed us to do things like optimize for faster renders much earlier so that people can iterate more, and letting us look at shots in continuity much earlier.”
—Nicole Paradis Grindle, Producer
Grindle says that they have talked regularly about these aspects with the crew during the making of Incredibles 2. “They believe very much in Brad Bird. He’s got a great track record, he’s a wonderful and inspiring leader, and even when, because we were moving so quickly, the reels weren’t looking as good as maybe the first movie’s reels have looked, they had to believe in him. These are a group of incredibly talented, experienced artists, so they certainly know what they’re getting into, and they throw themselves completely into the work of their own departments and make sure that’s excellent. As you start to see the results coming through, I think everybody starts to say, ‘Oh, right. We know how to do this. Brad knows what he’s doing, we all know what we’re doing.’”
“The thing that motivates people the most in making films is making a good film,” concludes Walker. “We try to be kind to people and not work them too hard, and we give them snacks and have masseuses around. We try to do all that kind of stuff, but what really motivates people is working on a good film. And there is a time on all these movies when the film is not good. So a big part of our job is trying to assure people that we’re working hard, and we’re going to make it a great film, and hang in there with us.”
Incredibles 2 producers Nicole Paradis Grindle and John Walker reveal their strategies for getting the film made on time and on budget.
Finding scenes to go into production first: “We’ll often make considerations about the sets that are available to us,” says Grindle. “In looking at the movie, we thought, ‘Well, we know we’re going to have scenes with the family, and we know we’re going to have scenes of the family in their house, so let’s build that house first. Because whatever they do in there we’re going to need them in there, and then we could look at the scenes that happened in the house and see which of those were starting to gel.”
Bringing people together: “For reviews, we try to bring lots of people into the room rather than filing them off, like, ‘Well, here’s the effects review, and here’s the layout review, and here’s the story review,’” states Walker. “We try to open those things up. And something that Nicole and I do that’s maybe a little different than some of the producers at Pixar and in animation in general is to have those big rooms of people with large reviews across multiple departments. We’re trying to reproduce an artificial set where everybody’s on the set together, and I think that that’s helpful. I think that the solo-ing that happens in animation is something that producers have to actively work against.”
Streaming reviews: “Another thing we did on Incredibles 2,” says Grindle, “which I think was started on a movie before ours, was that we streamed our reviews. Folks who are working at their desks can actually look at the work that’s being shown in the review, and listen to what Brad and others are saying about it in the room. So, even when you are in a relatively small room and not everyone can be there, you can still listen in. We have to remember that everyone who’s working on the film is a filmmaker, and they want to feel like a filmmaker, and if you’re working isolated in a room on this one little piece of the movie, you don’t feel like a filmmaker. It’s hard to stay motivated. So, being in on the ground floor of everything that’s going into the storytelling is very motivating.”
Dealing with film length: “Nicole and I look through the film and we pick sequences that we feel could be cut if we had to, and we lift them out of the film and we refuse to put them into production. We tell Brad he’s got to get the rest of the movie done first before we’re going to make these ‘hostage’ scenes. That makes him angry, but it motivates him to fix the film in time for us, and then we release the scenes at the end of process, and then we make the whole film. It’s an insurance policy – these are complicated films and sometimes it’s not clear at the beginning of the process that we can actually make a film as long and as complex in the time that we have allotted.”