As he embarked on the intense journey of making "The Incredibles," writer/director Brad Bird knew that he would need to surround himself with devoted talent to bring his vision to life -- not just on the technical side, but also through gifted actors who could give his characters depth and dimension. He began the process by making sure the storyboards would communicate enough to the actors to elicit multi-tonal performances. Bird worked with story supervisor Mark Andrews, artist Teddy Newton, and supervising animator Tony Fucile, who each played a major role in designing the characters and bringing them fully to life.
"Brad would simply describe the characters to me -- he wouldn't use too many adjectives, but he would often do an impression or a voice for them," says Newton, who was the first to draw many of the film's characters. "Sometimes the voice alone would put enough pictures and ideas in my head. It's like when you listen to the radio and you start to imagine what the person would look like. You get inspired and everything starts to take shape."
With the characters well established, casting for "The Incredibles" could begin. The filmmakers began looking for actors capable of bringing out the ordinary, everyday feelings that reside inside these superhero characters. Here's a look at each character:
The Good Guys
Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible
At the center of the film is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible himself, the family's muscular powerhouse of a patriarch who is trying to come to terms with the changes in his life that have taken him from superhero to suburban dad. For Bob, the director was drawn to the combination of down-to-earth humor and tough-guy charisma represented by Craig T. Nelson ("Coach," "The District").
"Craig has an authoritative voice but also a wonderful, easygoing kind of humor that really lends itself to who Mr. Incredible is," says Bird. "You can definitely see his voice fitting into this big, strong, hulking body, yet there is also a real vulnerability in him -- enough so that you really relate to him simply as a man looking for something he has temporarily lost -- and when the scene needed to be intense, he was right there."
For Nelson, the character -- animated or not -- proved irresistible. "I really empathized with him," he says. "Here's a guy who is literally able to leap tall buildings and do all kinds of super-heroic things, but that isn't what makes him special. It's his value structure and his moral strength, not his mighty feats that I really responded to. He is one of those people I'd really like to meet and get a chance to shake his hand, because he knows what counts and he has a good sense of himself and his family."
Nelson faced an unexpectedly daunting task in voicing Bob.
"The role of Bob was probably one of the more difficult things I've ever done," he says. "I quickly discovered that Brad and his team had an extremely specific idea of what they wanted because they'd lived with this story so closely for such a long time. They perfected the script and knew this family inside and out, and every other which way. So it was up to the actors to bring to life exactly what they had in their mind's eye.
"This isn't as easy as it might seem. The delivery has to be correct tonally and the energy has to be at precisely the right place at the right time. You end up doing a lot of experimenting and concentrating on your vocal energy, but at the same time you're also trying to imagine the situation as if you were involved in it. It was a real challenge as an actor, but it was definitely a fascinating ride."
Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr
Coming to her husband's rescue when the chips are down is the family's petite matriarch, Helen, formerly known as the ultra-flexible superhero Elastigirl. This character was created in part as a celebration of the typical modern-day mom who, says Bird, "has to stretch in hundreds of different ways each day."
To get to the core of Helen's mix of maternal and stoic strength, Bird trusted the finely honed instincts of Academy Award winner Holly Hunter. "Holly struck me as a consummate actress who could portray someone sensitive, yet with a very sturdy center," says Bird. "You feel like there's a part of Holly that would never crack. She has such great resiliency in her, and that was something that I needed for Helen because she's such a very strong woman."
Hunter was intrigued by the film because it was an unconventional story about human dynamics. "What I really liked is that beneath all the superhero adventures, 'The Incredibles' is basically a story celebrating family -- real families with all their differences and quirks -- and what a family's individuals can do when they come together," she says.
For Hunter, who had not done any animated voice work previously, it was also an exciting way to step out of her usual terrain. "It was a really different and exciting experience for me, learning to be expressive through your voice alone," she says. "From the start, I was pulled into it by Brad, because his imagination is so alive and he really knows this character. Brad thinks musically. For him, it's about finding a rhythm and an intonation that can be really more related to music more than anything else. The back-and-forth exchange is very staccato and very dynamic, which was very interesting to me as an actress and a lot of fun."
Rounding out the family of Bob and Helen Parr are their three children: the reclusive teenage Violet; the speedy 10-year-old Dash; and baby Jack-Jack. In developing their individual superpowers, personalities and human foibles, Bird looked at typical American families all around him for inspiration. "Violet is a typical teenager, someone who's not comfortable in her own skin, and is in that rocky place between being a kid and an adult," he says. "So invisibility seemed like the right superpower for her."
For the voice of Violet, the director had an epiphany that resulted in an unusual choice. "I'm a big fan of the National Public Radio show 'This American Life,'" he says. "And there's this wonderful author of books and essays who appears regularly on that show: Sarah Vowell. One day I was driving in the car listening to Sarah's voice, and I immediately thought, 'That's Violet.' When I called Sarah to ask her if she'd play the part of a teenage girl who just wants to be invisible, she was kind of scratching her head and telling me that she had never done voices before. She turned out to be perfect."
Dash is the diminutive and mischievous son of Bob and Helen Parr, gifted with super-speed and endlessly frustrated by the fact that he is forbidden to show it off. "Dash moves at lightning speed because the average 10-year-old boy can move twice as fast as anybody else, and something always has to be happening or they just crash and fall asleep," says Bird. "So he goes so fast you can barely see him."
To play Dash, the boy whose parents have to cheer "slow down" when he enters a school race, the filmmakers cast then-11-year-old Spencer Fox. Fox made his feature-film debut in "The Incredibles," but began his professional acting career at age eight with community theatre credits, commercials for Domino's Pizza, Staples and Tide, and voice roles in ads for Hershey's, Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup. Fox's big break in "The Incredibles" led to roles in "Kim Possible" and several films, including Disney's upcoming animation film "Meet The Robinsons."
With the family cast, the filmmakers set out to find an actor cool enough to portray Frozone, a superhero who can always put his enemies on ice. Bird was thrilled to be able to cast Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson. "Nobody sounds cooler than Sam Jackson," says Bird. "And he makes it seem so effortless, too. He can be funny, soft, or tough as nails. I think he's one of the most versatile actors around today. We were blessed to get him for the part of Frozone, and he just nailed it right away. The animators had a blast working with his voice because there's so much happening inside his performance."
The Bad Guys
For the voice of Syndrome, the film's villain, the filmmakers turned to Jason Lee ("Almost Famous," "My Name Is Earl"). Says Bird, "I've enjoyed Jason's work in some great independent films, and he has a very quirky sensibility. He put his all into creating this unique voice for a villain. You can hear the kid in it, but he's definitely not a kid."
Lee empathized with the character, despite his dastardly ways. "It was fun to play a really mean guy who wanted to be something more," says Lee. "This was an amazing experience for an actor, especially to be a part of Pixar, which is one of the most unique and creative studios I've ever seen. It's full of youthfulness and spontaneity and imagination. They're interested in creating true classics and going way beyond the expected. I look forward to the day when my kid is old enough, and I can say, 'Let's watch 'The Incredibles.' I was in that movie.'"
Syndrome's attractive henchwoman, Mirage, lures Mr. Incredible out of his domestic duties and delivers him into the villain's evil clutches. There's more to Mirage than meets the eye, and she proves she's a classic combination of beauty and brains. In her first role for an animated film, prolific film, TV, and stage actress Elizabeth Pena gave Mirage her seductive voice.
This newly emerging supervillain is determined to declare war on peace and happiness. He is performed vocally by accomplished screenwriter, director, producer, and Emmy-nominated actor John Ratzeberger, who is best known as know-it-all postman Cliff Claven on "Cheers."
But around the Pixar production offices, he's known as part of the studio's Oscar-winning animation team, since he is the only actor to participate in every single Pixar film. He began as the charming and witty Hamm the piggy bank in "Toy Story" (reprised in "Toy Story 2"), then became P.T. Flea in "A Bug's Life," Yeti the snow monster in "Monsters, Inc.," and a school of Moonfish in "Finding Nemo" before voicing The Underminer in "The Incredibles." He also voiced Mack in Pixar's subsequent film, "Cars."
Bob's boss at the insurance company, Gilbert Huph is the personification of everything petty and bureaucratic that's ruining Bob Parr's life. Huph tyrannizes Bob in his dogged pursuit of the bottom line and squelches Bob's every attempt to help the public.
Huph is played by Wallace Shawn, one of the film industry's most recognizable character actors and a highly respected playwright. The proud bearer of a long and distinguished list of movie and television credits, Shawn is a three-time Pixar feature voiceover actor -- "Toy Story" and "Toy Story II" in addition to "The Incredibles" -- and has the honor of adding the cry "Inconceivable!" to the popular lexicon. He has also lent his voice to the animated features "The Goofy Movie" and "Teacher's Pet."
The Scene Stealer
One of the great scene-stealing characters in "The Incredibles" is the deliciously deadpan and truly tiny fashion diva Edna Mode, or "E" for short, who specializes in designing costumes for an elite superhero clientele. After several attempts to cast the voice, Bird gave in to popular demand from his colleagues at Pixar and agreed to take on the role himself.
"I wasn't intending to play Edna, but we had trouble finding any other voice and it just seemed easiest for me to do it," Bird says. "I really like this character because I've always been fascinated by the question: Who designs superhero costumes? Costumes are such a big deal in the superhero world because it gives them their identity and sets them apart from everyone else, yet nobody ever explained where the costumes came from and who was behind them. The way I saw it, the costumes had to be created by somebody with a scientific and engineering background. So I started thinking of German engineering. And then I got to thinking that the Japanese make all those unbelievable cars and cameras. So I thought about a half-German, half-Japanese, tiny powerhouse of a character, and Edna just emerged.
"I really like E. She's not remotely intimidated by superheroes or anyone at all for that matter. She's incredibly insistent on her own way of seeing things. The word 'no' just doesn't exist in her vocabulary, especially if it's in opposition to her. She is incredibly confident and sure of herself. Doubt is not in her -- and I suppose you could say I have a side to me like that."
In the next section, we'll talk about the different scenes in "The Incredibles" so that you can remember your favorite moments.