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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

October 17, 2004

In the Disney/Pixar animated feature The Incredibles, a family of superheroes shelves their powers in the wake of a public backlash and assumes the identity of normal, everyday people. Father Bob, mother Helen, daughter Violet, and son Dash all manage to slip into the mediocrity of suburban life, but when a new, villainous threat emerges, they are eventually forced out of hiding and back into action.

In this interview, supervising technical director Rick Sayre talks about the challenges of bringing the film's characters to life using computer generated animation. A Pixar veteran, Rick has also worked on Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life.

The Interview

MEDIA: How long have you been working at Pixar?

RICK: I've been at Pixar 17 years.

And you obviously enjoy your job?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that's so amazing about this place is that we're not afraid to learn, and we never think we've got it all figured out. It's very easy to get victimized by your own success. In a sense, one of the things that we had to tackle is that it's almost harder to first blow up and deconstruct the process of animation you had before so that you could then build it up again. We had to handle an animation team trained with the way we used to do it.

What was the biggest challenge of working on The Incredibles?

Well, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the single biggest challenge of The Incredibles was there wasn't a single biggest challenge. It was a heaping helping of pretty much everything that was impossible or difficult in computer graphics. Having said that, I think it's clear that the biggest challenge was that we were dealing with human characters. That's a single thing, but there's so many components that go into pulling that off successfully: hair simulation and hair sculpting, clothing simulation and clothing patterning. And given our history of successfully animating other films that didn't involve humans, we had to essentially invent from the ground up--totally gut the way that we animate characters and rig them.

What do you mean by "rig"?

Rigging is how you set the character up, kind of like a puppet, so that the animators can manipulate it, and yet it'll move in a convincing way.

What is it about human characters that makes them difficult to animate with a computer?

Humans are really complicated. We had the characters sculpted in the computer, but we couldn't animate them for a long time. That was scary and that was a huge challenge. A lot of effects studios had figured out that to do humans convincingly, you need to essentially simulate the way skin moves over fat over muscles, driven by bones and applied against bones. And yet some of the animators who were familiar with that process knew it wasn't going to work for us. In our world, it's right when it looks right. And because it's also an animated picture, you need to bear a similitude of the muscle, bone, skin, because that's what tells you this is a human and not a puppet or a toy. You also want to be able to caricature. So it wasn't enough that you're doing all this crazy stuff with the skeleton, the muscles, the skin. It has to look right. So we were able to come up with a system that let them essentially see all the craziness in real time so that they could control the character as they were.

Is animating hair still a complicated task?

Well, first I'll say to not confuse animation and simulation. The hair was simulated, which means essentially the computer is figuring out where the hair goes. An animator is not actually doing that. Violet was the hardest there for sure. And this is one of those cases where she was impossible when we started the film. I mean, actually impossible until stomach-churningly, terrifyingly late in production.

Why did Violet present so many technical difficulties?

She's a woman of no fixed hair style. As she moves her head, her hair is in a different shape practically all the time. And because it's so long, it's interacting with body, her shoulder. That was really hard. Essentially every hair on your head influences every other hair: this hair's rubbing against that hair which is collectively rubbing against that hair. That was a tough nut to crack.

How long did it take before you were finally able to get her to work?

I started on the project before Monsters, Inc. was even done in production. Violet wasn't entirely working until near the end of last year. It's an interesting thing because it wasn't like we said, "Let's raise the bar and make a character with long hair!" Everything that we did came from the story. I didn't even ever entertain the notion of saying, "How about if we get Sinead O'Connor to do Violet?" That was just so not going to happen because her long hair is not just a prop, it's part of her character. She hides behind that hair.

Did any other characters pose similar challenges?

Mirage originally had a different hair style than she ended up with it. It was long everywhere. And that was one case where I did plead for mercy. It's like, "Look, doing Violet, we're pretty busy with that. Give us some mercy on Mirage." And so one of the art directors came up with, I think, a great hairstyle that's cooler than what we would have had before.

Fire is another thing that is supposed to be difficult to render in computer animation. How did you guys tackle that one?

Fire was a challenge. Lots of stuff blows up in this film, and we did figure out how to do it. It was a combination--we had computational fluid dynamics, we had volumetric rendering, compositing tricks. It's a whole mix of skills that a visual effects artist will apply. And the thing that was particularly a challenge is, like everything else, it has to fit in the film. It's not a picture of fire, it's fire that feels like it inhabits that same reality. So in some sense, the biggest challenge was finding that look. And then, of course, being able to deploy it in the whole film.

Why was the scene of the Incredibles having dinner another technical challenge?

You've got every character onscreen, they've all got simulated hair, they're all wearing fully simulated clothing, they're sitting on chairs so that means they're sitting on their clothing. All that stuff has to totally recede into the background because you have to believe that they're just sitting there having dinner. The food needs to look appetizing, it can't look like plastic. But you don't want to blow the budget on a piece of broccoli, you want to put it where you know the audience is like, "That building blew up! Cool!" Nobody's going to say, "The macaroni and cheese looked awesome!" So it was this huge challenge to try and not break the bank on what looked like a completely innocent scene, but was just so challenging.

Speaking of the budget, what did you guys spend?

Oh, no comment!

With all of the advances in computer animation, why didn't we see more realistic skin in this movie?

Ah, well, you see, we didn't do that on purpose. You want to stylize their texture. They're superheroes, they're perfect. They don't have pores and blotches. In fact, we had to pull back because you get to this state where if Bob looked even more realistic, he would creep you out. He'd look like he had some horrible congenital deformity.

Did you guys use architecture from the '60s as an inspiration for the movie's retro look?

That was definitely a big focus in the production design, all of these different kinds of looks from the "world fair of the optimistic future." But, you know, it wasn't so much the '60s as it was the future that you imagined in the '60s. And in the sense, the thing that turned out to be the disappointingly surprising future. Where's my ray gun? Where's my jet pack? Where's my helicopter in every garage? It never happened, we got the internet instead.

Having accomplished so many things that were previously impossible in computer animation, what would you say is the next big challenge in the field?

The thing that's really next is making all of this less hard--making this more effortless, making this easier, and making simulation more directable. Like, for instance, an explosion. It's like herding armies of gnats, it's very unclear how to make these things do what you want. To control the way the hair would blow in the wind, we had little virtual fans right on the set, with an invisible simulation guy holding a fan and moving it around to kind of get the look that we wanted. I look forward to that being more effortless, and somehow teaching the computer. Because the computer is totally like an idiot savant. It's completely happy to show you something that no artist in their right mind would ever bring to a review. "Oh, your clothing just turned inside out and the head came off. How's that? Looked okay to me, what do you think?" It just doesn't know any better. And getting to the point where the computer knows better, I think that's maybe the next thing.

Thank you for your time.


Related Material

Interview with The Incredibles writer/dirctor Brad Bird
Interview with The Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino
Movie Coverage: The Incredibles


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