Pixar may be rightfully known for its heartfelt storytelling, but the studio also happens to be a master of stupefying action set pieces. The centerpiece action sequence is a staple of Pixar pictures, from the "claw" scene in the first Toy Story to the brilliantly conceived chase through the maze of doors in the factory of Monsters Inc.
In fact, just about every Pixar film has included one standout chase that puts most live-action blockbusters to shame. Don't believe us? Go rewatch Ratatouille, Wall-E, or The Incredibles for proof and marvel at the wildly inventive chases in each of those films.
So why break with tradition now? Incredibles 2 arrives in theaters on June 15, a mere 14 years after the beloved 2004 original charmed audiences and won an Oscar. If you count as one of the nearly 27 million views of the official trailer on YouTube, then you've caught glimpses of what may turn out to be the sequel's signature moment: the high-speed rescue sequence featuring Elastigirl and her new accessory, the Elasticycle.
**Spoiler Warning: There are mild spoilers for Incredibles 2 below**
Elastigirl has just received her sweet new bike when she's called upon to try and save the passengers on a runaway elevated train that runs through Municiberg. It's a truly, ahem, incredible combination of kinetic CG animation and camera movement that was eye-popping even before final touches on the sequence were complete. SYFY WIRE recently had the chance to view the entire sequence during a visit to Pixar's campus in Emeryville, California. We also had a chance to get a detailed breakdown of the Pixar Process and how the studio's famously collaborative style helps its onscreen work keep pushing new boundaries.
THE STORY REEL:
Story supervisor Ted Mathot described the assembly of a Pixar action moment as a synthesis of four key elements: story, layout camera, animation, and effects. "All our movies begin in story, with what we call a story reel," he explained. "A story reel is basically a drawn version of the film cut together with temp music, effects, and voices."
The story reel is a blueprint for the director as the film moves through production. It helps communicate via sketchwork and crude visual elements what will make it to the final version of the film in terms of story beats and camera angle. Mahot, a Pixar vet of 17 years who worked as a storyboard artist and did minor voice work on the first Incredibles film, showed the journalists gathered at the Pixar studio an early story reel for the train scene. Mathot noted that when they first received the script pages about this section of the film, it was lacking any real specifics.
"It was a very innocuous script that basically said 'amazing action scene here,'" Mathot said. Aside from mentioning Elastigirl, a new bike for her to ride, and a speeding train, the team had little else to go on but their imaginations.
Part of the reason for that is the film's unusually accelerated production timetable. The release date for Incredibles 2 was moved up a year because Toy Story 4 was not ready to make the summer 2018 release window. Because of the condensed production time, director Brad Bird was not able to be quite as detailed in staging the film's big set pieces as he usually prefers to be.
Bird is known for being perhaps the most action-savvy director on Pixar's very deep bench of filmmakers. Aside from the first Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird also directed the live-action Tom Cruise spectacle Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. The guy knows his action, and he likes having his fingerprints over intricate parts of the movie like this.
"I like to heavily choreograph action scenes," Bird said. "That said, I try to create an atmosphere where I get the shot that I want, but if somebody comes up with an alternate shot that they think will be cool, they can persuade me. But I'm not one of those guys who goes, 'You're good at figuring out action sequences. Go figure it out.' I'm elbows in. I have very strong opinions on how I like things to be staged. Just ask people."
Bird liked what he saw with the initial story reel but felt the stakes weren't high enough. Police officers were then added to emphasize the direness of the situation. New moments were inserted that helped justify Elastigirl's powers and presence in the world. That plays well with a key plot point in Incredibles 2, in which Supers have fallen out of favor with the public. Helen's been tasked with improving the image of the Supers community, and the runaway train sequence helps her make the case that the heroes deserve another chance.
Another change that was made had to do with family. In the sequence, Helen receives a call while in pursuit of the train, from her speedster son Dash. This serves to tether this big moment in the movie to its core theme: the family. "Brad always wants the super and the mundane to butt up against each other. We don't want to be super for too long, we don't want to be mundane for too long," Mathot explained. One final change that came after reviewing the story reel involved the ending. They created a much more dramatic climax that involved Helen using her elastic powers and, more important, her brains to save the day.
LAYOUT OF THE SCENE:
The director of photography for the camera and staging department and layout supervisor, Mahyar Abousaeedi, then joined the conversation. "Our goal is to cinematically translate the storyboards into a 3D space," said Abousaeedi. "These were awesome boards, and we were really excited about them."
One thing he pointed out right away was that pulling off a complex action set piece is as tricky in animation as it is when you're doing a live-action setup with real actors.
"We still have to go through some of the same discussions you would have in live action, in our world," Abousaeedi said. "We actually worked with one of Brad's stunt coordinators on this. He helped us through a couple of story points in terms of logistics." They actually brought physics into play to determine how, or whether, Helen could make some of the turns and moves on the bike that the scene calls for. Trying to provide plausible structure for the scene took days of valuable production time, but again, the devil is in the details.
Figuring out the speed of the Elasticycle, which is a battery-powered hybrid bike, was a priority. Bird wanted to supercharge the pace of the sequence. For Abousaeedi and his team, it meant working closely with the art, sets, and pre-viz departments to map out a 3D grid of Municiberg to accommodate the train going up to 150 mph, balanced with the speed of the cycle.
Once they nailed down the speed and the path of the train, they then went back and dropped in specific parts of the city, like the warehouse and rooftops, to provide the proper timing for the scene. Because there had to be enough time not just for the rescue, but the phone call with Dash we mentioned earlier.
Animator Kureha Yokoo was essential to this sequence not just for her animation skills, but because she's an avid biker herself, with lots of experience riding motorcycles. Yokoo explained that they went through hundreds of concept drawings before finding the final design for the Elasticyle. For this, Bird had essentially given them a wide berth to create Helen's ride. His primary mandate? "Just make it look cool," Yokoo said.
The animator felt the bike should be an extension of Helen and showcase her powers. She used many references from off-road biking and motocross to craft the movements of the cycle and to create the "visual language" of the bike. "Because it's such a unique vehicle we had to come up with a unique language for it. Meaning, how's it going to move, and what can it do?" Yokoo said. Even waterskiing and skateboarding provided helpful reference points for the animators.
ADDING THE EFFECTS:
Amit Baadkar, part of the film's six-person Effects Animation team, provided insight into the final part of the puzzle: adding the special effects. Baadkar's team uses simulations to add motion to scenes that enhance realism.
They are incredibly important to a scene like this, because they create specific visual elements such as fire, smoke, explosions, even splashing water. When you watch a Pixar movie and are floored by how believable the animation is, it's because the effects animators obsess over every flourish, big or small, right down to the glass shards. They constantly refine the simulations to complement the artistry with believability. The runaway train scene gave them plenty to obsess over. "The high-speed nature of the sequence and the quick editing cuts provided many challenges for us," Baadkar admitted.
One specific moment that gave them fits is when Elastigirl hurtles through the windows of the warehouse. "It was important for the audience to feel the impact of her crashing through the windows," he said. "The animation of the glass breaking was done by Ferdi Scheepers. What he did to compensate for the quick editing of the scene was to ignore the laws of physics and add more and bigger glass shards for greater effect. He also worked with the lighting department so the shards would be easier to see."
The tire smoke from the cycle was also cited as another supporting effect that, if not managed carefully, could become distracting and a huge drain on resources. Because the film had a much smaller production window, it led to overlap between certain departments. Effects simulations can take anywhere from hours to days to run. Because of the complexity of the runaway train scene, the animation and effects groups overlapped more on this movie than on a typical Pixar production. There simply wasn't enough time.
One workaround they used was what Baadkar called "clustered simulations" to do the tire smoke effect in chunks, thereby reducing rendering time without sacrificing quality. "At every step in the process, we add more detail and keep making adjustments as we get closer to the final version. It is an incredibly collaborative effort," Baadkar said. "And we had an absolute blast working on this sequence."
Speaking of blast, there's also this big moment in the train sequence when … well, you know what? We'll keep that little bit to ourselves so you can discover it for yourself on June 15.