After tackling the sheer scale and intricacy of production design for "The Incredibles," the filmmakers took on their most difficult task: animating the characters so that they appeared alive throughout the broadest possible gamut of human-like movements and expressions.
This would take the film's crew into a "forbidden zone": It was widely believed that computer animation wasn't equipped to generate subtle human qualities. For instance, it was considered impossible to animate muscles that would flex and ripple, hair that would flip and bounce, skin that would pucker and stretch, and clothing that would move independently of the body. Because of this, computer animators had long avoided human-like characters. Director Brad Bird, however, was convinced the technology could be invented to allow his characters far more "life."
"Everyone at Pixar knows that the closer to reality you try to make something, the easier it is to fail -- but the secret Brad used with 'The Incredibles' was to produce something that the audience knows doesn't exist, something so stylized that they are ready to believe in it if it all works seamlessly," executive producer John Lasseter explains. "With the technology that we've been pioneering at Pixar, 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."
Faced with the challenge of moving the characters in a realistic fashion, the technical team decided to literally get physical. Copies of the classic medical school book "Gray's Anatomy" were given to all the digital sculptors and the rigging team to help them understand how the body moves during specific actions. Live-action footage of people flexing, walking, and moving also helped the team animate muscles, skin, hair, and clothes.
Skeletons and Muscles
The skeleton and its surrounding musculature is where all human motion begins, so this, obviously, was where the Pixar team started. It began with the body of Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible, and literally created him from the inside out.
"Bob was definitely the toughest character for us to model and rig because he is such a muscular guy," says Rick Sayre, the film's supervising technical director. "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 who creatively choreograph the characters' movements and expressions through specially programmed computer controls. Now the animators had more control of the characters than ever before.
"You may have noticed that it is very hard to get a convincing shoulder motion in CG animation," Sayre says. "This is why you often see animated characters that have shoulders that are too broad. We wanted to make a shoulder breakthrough on this film, so to speak."
Once Bob was completely modeled, he served as a template for the skeletons of the other characters. "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 even the finest Yogi. Elastigirl pushed the animators one step further, and so they wrote a program called a "deformer" that would allow her to twist and turn as needed. It was the most complex rig they had ever made. The animators could actually pull her body into a parachute shape or stretch her arm out into a long ribbon of flesh and bone.
Skin and Hair
The qualities that truly create realism in a character are the appearance of skin and hair. This is where Pixar made its most important breakthroughs, with new approaches to lighting and shading the skin and sculpting hairstyles. Pixar came up with a new technology called "subsurface scattering," which gave more translucency to the skin and made the characters seem alive. With hairstyles ranging from Helen's short, well-manicured coif to Violet's long, free-flowing locks, new programs and approaches were also required to sculpt the tops of the characters' heads.
"The characters came into our department bald and naked, and they left with wardrobes and hair that would move in a realistic way," says Mark Henne, the film's hair and cloth simulation supervisor. "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."
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 hair -- the 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 these 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.
Even in regard to wardrobe, "The Incredibles" was more complicated than any animated film in history, and more akin to an epic costume drama. More than 150 garments had to be specially designed and tailored to fit the lead and background characters.
The director didn't simply want great-looking clothes for his characters -- he wanted clothes that would move like actual fabric. Pixar was already famous for its pioneering work in cloth motion, thanks to advances made with Boo's T-shirt in "Monsters, Inc." For "The Incredibles," the team found an inventive 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 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.
The special effects included every possible natural element -- from water to fire to ice (for Frozone's super-cool antics) -- and needed to be created for more than one-third of the final 2,200-plus shots in the film.
"The effects seen in 'The Incredibles' are completely fresh and spectacular," says Sandra Karpman, effects supervisor. "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 3-D, and you see the clouds moving against each other. They're transparent, and if you stack them, they become opaque."
As great as the special effects are, the personalities of the characters are what really give "The Incredibles" its human feel. In the next section, we'll take a closer look at each character.