In his decade-plus at Pixar, Ted Mathot has ascended the creative ladder at the animation studio. He started as a story artist on The Incredibles, then spent years creating storyboards for films such as Cars and Brave, and came full circle with his promotion to story supervisor on Incredibles 2. In that role, he supervised a team of board artists who worked out sequences in the film and served as the conduit for director Brad Bird's vision.
Mathot is also the director of Auntie Edna, a short film featured as an Incredibles 2 digital and Blu-ray exclusive.
After wrapping Incredibles 2 as well as the short and taking a much-needed break, Mathot returned to the fray. He spoke with SYFY WIRE about his proudest moments landing both projects, what scene in the sequel was drafted a decade ago, and just what the heck a "Yeti's Cave" means to Pixar animators.
The Incredibles was a film everyone expected to have an immediate sequel, but it took over a decade. Did you ever think "It's just not going to happen"?
I had a feeling we were going to make it. When we finished Ratatouille (2007), [Brad and] I actually dabbled in the early scenes of [Incredibles 2] with The Underminer. I did about six versions of that opening. And what's great is that when he left to do live action and came back, we were getting into the movie, and I said, "Hey Brad, remember almost 10 years ago, I boarded a bunch of versions of The Underminer fight?" "He's like, "Oh yeah. Do you still have that stuff?"
We brought it up, and I pitched it to him, and some of it ended up in the movie.
Did you immediately recognize how your tastes had evolved when you came back together for the sequel?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
I love this new Brad. He's still the same intense and passionate director that he's always been. But on this film, one of the things that he was more open to was ideas that are a little weirder and more out of the box than we normally had.
On the first film, you'd have a weird idea, and he'd go, "That's too weird." Whereas on this one he would say, "Wow, that's really weird. Let's lean into it. Let's push it and see how far we can take it."
What's the best example of that?
When Bob's on the phone with Helen, and she's at the hotel, and she's asking him how's it going. Violet comes down [the stairs in their house] and gets ice cream. There was a glitch in the render where only Violet's clothes were coming down. The animator then thought it would be a brilliant idea if she was invisible when she came down because she was crying and didn't want Dad to see her, or even worse, Dash.
They showed it [to us], and there was just a glorious laughter. It stayed in the film. So, that was kind of a happy accident. But there were other times when me, or somebody on the story team, would pitch a really bizarre idea and Brad would move towards it.
What was your weirdest pitch?
Probably having a guy that barfs lava [Reflux]. That's just like, what?
But Brad's like, "Let's make him an old man." And it just went from there because when have you ever seen that?
Superhero films have become ubiquitous since The Incredibles. Because of that, were there tropes of the genre that you and Brad said, "Story-wise, we're not doing this because we've seen it."
Yeah, three-point landings. Banned, banned from day one. We had to remember that whenever we're drawing scenes of characters landing on things because it's been done to death.
It's almost a gut instinct to not do those cliches that you see so often. But I think more often than not, it's doing the things that are right for our characters, more so than not doing what someone else is doing.
Why do you think Brad Bird's action films stand out in the cinematic crowd?
Certain superhero movies have been trending into really dark territory. What I love about working with Brad is that I think his film are so successful because there is comedy and there is drama and peril in equal measure.
He always says that people see animation as the "safe place," where characters aren't going to get hurt. Everything is going to turn out fine. And he doesn't want audiences to feel that way when they go into one of his movies. He wants there to be true danger.
From a story perspective, was there a sequence in Incredibles 2 where you leaned into the fact you are an animated film and took advantage of that while creating action scenes?
Yeah. I mean that's always on the forefront of your mind. If we're doing animation, let's take advantage of the medium. But we never used that as a reason to do whatever we want just because we can.
Brad very much likes to keep things grounded and realistic, even though we're in a hyper-realist world and environment. Obviously, the bike chase where Elastigirl is chasing down the train, that's built for animation. Some of the things she does, you could only do it in animation. But at the same time, it's keeping it grounded and still feeling real and physical and dangerous.
Was there one sequence that was your proverbial Moby Dick for this film?
It's funny that you call it the Moby Dick. We have another term. We call it the "Yeti's Cave."
OK, explain that.
In Monsters, Inc., there was a scene where Mike and Sulley are hanging upside down like [Luke] Skywalker in [The Empire Strikes Back. This was a scene that got written and boarded... 26 times because it's a pivotal moment in the movie where the friendship gets broken. They have this very, very tense moment in the cave before they escape and go down to the Alpine town. Because it had been boarded so many times, for every film after that we had a sequence that we called the "Yeti's Cave."
So now, whenever I start a movie, we always go, "What's going to be the Yeti's Cave?" And in this one, it was not predictable. It was not one of the action scenes, which usually go through more quickly. On this movie, it was probably the scene where they meet Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk). It's a heavy, heavy expositional scene. There's a ton of information you've got to get across, but it also has to be entertaining, and it has to move quickly. So, we wrote, and Brad wrote, and we boarded it countless numbers of times. Brad just kept cutting information out until the scene couldn't stand on its own rights anymore, then slowly put the information back in until it was just enough.
Let's talk about the Auntie Edna short available on the home video release. You had four months to complete it, which is nuts. How did you do it?
Yeah, it was pretty challenging on every level because of the time and the budget.
Then, after that came the limitations of only using a set that already existed and characters that already existed, and not being able to do any simulation other than hair and clothing. It's a short about a fashion designer! I had all of these things with fabric, and we can't do any fabric! We can't have Jack-Jack running around with a cape on, which would have been perfect, but you couldn't do any fabric.
And then you get into character stuff because we didn't want to remake Jack-Jack Attack because we've done that already. So, it's like, "All right, what's next?" Then you start to get into the bonding aspect between Edna and the baby. Initially, it was said, "No new powers." But we pushed back on that one, and we got a bunch of new powers. So ultimately, where we settled is the new powers be the focal point, as well as satisfying all the story things that Edna brings up in the movie.
She said, "I worked in a creative fever all night while the baby slept," so we got to put that in. Then we had to put in the Mozart piece. We had to have the dueling baby and the flaming baby. When we add all those things in together, it's the pieces of the puzzle. Now, we have to fit them together in a way that's entertaining.
How big was your team?
We inherited a crew that was very tired from working on the movie because it was the most difficult push we had ever done. A lot of them were hurting. So, we were very, very lucky to get the people that we did who said, "Yeah, I'll come on for an extra 12 weeks to see this short through."
I'm eternally grateful to the people who did that for us. And the work that they produced is terrific. It looks a lot like the movie, I think.
What did Brad Bird have to say about it?
Brad was very, very happy with it. We stayed true to his characters, which was challenging because Edna does things you've never seen her do before. Brad was initially very nervous about that, seeing her running and yelling and jumping. But we found a way for her to do them that looks believable for her.
What's more satisfying for you, the final short or Bird's approval?
It's a little bit of both. Getting acceptance from Brad is like one of the greatest things, for me, creatively because it's tough to get that.
Working on the movie, if we can pitch scenes that he hops out of his chair, or he laughs, or he gets excited, then it's like we did a really good job on that. For the short, he called and left me a really nice voicemail about how pleased he was with how it turned out. So, that's huge for me. And I'm happy with it how it turned out as well. And probably more importantly than that is people had a good time working on it
What's next for you?
I'm doing some boarding for one of the shows that's in development right now and just having a lot of fun doing it. I'm repaying some debts to people who really went out of their way to help me on the movie. I love it.
With an eye on, hopefully, getting a chance to make something again in the future.
Incredibles 2, including the Auntie Edna short, is available now on digital and hits Blu-ray/DVD on November 6.