Brad Bird is a legend in animation, his impact stretching back decades. Not only did he work as an animator on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron for Disney in the '80s, he was also a creative consultant on the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, helping define the long-running series' animation style from the beginning. His first feature animated film as a director, The Iron Giant, was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Soon, Bird would step into the world of 3D animation at Pixar with the first installment of The Incredibles (2004) — and the world would never be the same.
The highly anticipated sequel, Incredibles 2, premiered earlier this year, 14 years after its beloved predecessor first hit theaters. The sequel minted $1.2 billion worldwide and broke box office records as the first animated film to break the $600 million domestic mark.
In addition to the film's blowout reception at the box office, Incredibles 2 was lauded as a worthy successor to the wildly popular original film. Sporting a stay-at-home dad, a working (superhero) mom, and a family momentarily torn apart by change, Incredibles 2 is as relevant as — if not more so than — any live-action superhero fare available today.
Bird and his longtime producer John Walker sat down with SYFY WIRE ahead of the film's home video release to talk Incredibles 2, the jumps in technology that helped in making the superpowered sequel, and the retro-futuristic vibes that inspired the Incredibles world from day one.
As you worked on the first Incredibles, your personal experiences with family must have been much different after 14 years.
Bird: My only family experience wasn't being a father and a husband, it was also being a kid brother and a son. All of those experiences sort of formed what this film is in that aspect.
What did you learn over those 14 years of being in a family that helped you approach Incredibles 2 in a way that doesn't seem to break the fact that they're right next to each other, chronologically?
Bird: I think it's just logging more days in the world, it's not only about family, it's also about your experiences with work and trying to juggle work and family in a way that doesn't short-change either. So it's really just more of that. I don't know that I had specific stuff. I just know that parenting is really hard to do well. Nothing anybody tells you really prepares you for it if you wanna be a good parent. If you wanna be a crappy parent, I mean that's easy.
Walker: And I think we got 14 years better [at] making movies.
Bird: Yeah, and I think that's just the real difference. The equipment is very intuitive and the crew is really honed and [Pixar] is much larger than it was when we made the first film. We were at the edge of technical explosions and failure on the first film almost the whole time we were doing it because everything we were trying to do, CG was bad at.
It's bad at humans, it's bad at hair, it's bad at water, it's bad at fire, we had three times the number of sets of any Pixar film, but we had to do it with the same amount of resources, same budget, and time and so we were on the edge of collapse the whole time we were making it, because no one knew how to do the stuff we were trying to do.
On this one, the studio had not only technically advanced, but everyone that had been here had gotten better and a lot of new people came in who were great and some of them were kids when the first movie came out and they're in their early 20s now and they're brilliant. So it's a much bigger studio with better technology, but most importantly more experienced and more diverse artists.
Did you try to push the envelope more on this one in ways that caused problems?
Bird: Sure, but the difference, as you advance and the medium gets more advanced, the improvements get harder to notice. They're subtler.
We have a much more intuitive lighting program now. We had to put a bunch of — the best way to describe it is as invisible lights — but they were complicated rigs. You could press a button and see them and they're like branches that come out with a forest of lights to try to look natural. Now we can actually introduce one light and it bounces off things naturally and it seems simpler from a creative standpoint, but it's also, much more intuitive, you're getting in that more natural look easily. And so I think the lighting in this film is really terrific.
Walker: On the first film our reach always exceeded our grasp. And now it was like, "Sure, we can do that.”
Bird: You just have to plan to do it and go.
Walker: It's really how much money and how much time have you got? We can do anything, and that's different.
How do you as filmmakers feel about both films as you look at them next to each other after that gap?
Bird: I think they fit well. I'm amazed at how consistent the look is for how much better the technology is, and I think it's because the designs that you see of the characters, they look like the same characters, but the characters in this film look like what we wanted them to look like in the first film.
So we actually went back to the original sculpts in the first film, that were hand sculpts — they're not computer things. And we were able to capture those sculpts better in this film. We got about 80 percent of the way on the first film. And then the controls of the characters, what animators use essentially to make all the expressions are much more advanced, better, subtler controls. It's a better machine for the animators to drive.
Walker: The big difference between the two films is we were able to do the secondary characters — the background characters — much better and really populate in the world. If you look at the first one, there's not a lot of people living in that city.
Bird: Like the track meet at the end, we could not have had one more person. It's like the edge of the frame is here, and that's the crowd. If we moved the camera a tiny bit to the right, you see there's no crowd there. So we were trying to trick you into thinking there's a crowd there, but what you see on the screen was the limit of what we could do. And so the scale of this movie is much larger in a sense than the first film.
Walker: That's the big difference.
Bird: But you shouldn't, as a viewer, know it. The viewer should feel it but they shouldn't know.
Can you tell me about the design? It feels like in the first film, the aesthetic was very '50s , North by Northwest. This film felt a little bit like it jumped a little bit further deeper into the '60s?
Bird: I wouldn't necessarily agree with that, I would say that the sequel is more urban, and the first movie is more... A lot of it takes place in suburbia, some of it takes place on the island, so maybe it feels more contemporary because it's more urban.
Approaching retro-futurism, in that way on the film, what does that add as a story element?
Bird: It's not a huge part of the story element, it's more I'm going from a feeling I had when I was 10. You know it's sort of a 10-year-old me.
I responded to things like spy movies and Johnny Quest and spy TV shows like Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond movies, and I like that style and I liked the brassy music and it seemed to me a good fit for superheroes, even though it had never really been done for superheroes. It's a spy vibe we used for superheroes.
Incredibles 2 comes out digitally today and on physical media on November 6.