The Incredibles was released in 2004 by the computer-animation powerhouse, Pixar. It was Pixar’s sixth CGI-animated movie, following the massive hits Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. The movie follows a family of superheroes that has been forced to give up their secret identities and live ordinary lives in suburbia. The family patriarch, Bob Parr, longs to return to his days as the superhero Mr. Incredible. Soon, however, he falls into the trap of Syndrome, a begrudged former fan turned evil villain. It’s up to the rest of the Parr family to finally unleash their powers to help save Mr. Incredible and the entire city from destruction. The film was written and directed by Brad Bird. A quick fun fact that not everyone may know is that Bird actually also was the voice the character Edna Mode. The Incredibles was an instant success and went on to win the 2004 academy award for Best Animated Feature.
The Incredibles was Pixar’s most challenging and groundbreaking film to date, but it’s accomplishments in the field of computer animation cannot be fully understood without first appreciating just how far the art of animation had come since its earliest days. The first ever animated film, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces came out in 1906. The film was created with stop-motion photography of faces drawn on blackboard. The next major advancement in the field came in 1928 when Walt Disney studios created Steamboat Willie, the first ever animated film to be produced with an added soundtrack. The short film also introduced arguably the most famous cartoon character ever, Mickey Mouse. Over the next few decades, this style of drawn animation continued to develop and evolve. During this period, hundreds of animated movies and TV shows emerged, from Snow White to Popeye to The Looney Toons.
Starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s, moviemakers began to experiment with how to take classic 2D animation and bring it into 3D space. Films like Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit combined animation with live action shots. Stop-motion animation and claymation was seen in movies like Jason and the Argonauts and the popular Gumby shorts. The 1980’s saw the birth of computer-generated imaging in movies. One of the first examples of this was the 1982 film Tron, which used inventive techniques to create a movie that looked as if it actually took place inside a digital world.
In 1984, Lucasfilm created the first fully computer-animated short film, entitled The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. Then in 1988, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple of course, acquired the Computer Graphics Division of Lucasfilm and renamed it Pixar. After creating a number of popular short films and teaming up with Walt Disney Studios, Pixar released the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, in 1995.
By 2000, only 15 years since the first CG-animated film, Pixar began production on The Incredibles, its most difficult project yet. The animation team was faced with the challenge of creating Pixar’s first ever cast of entirely human characters. In order to achieve this, animators combined elements developed in their earlier films, like the photo-realistic fur from Monsters Inc., with cutting-edge advancements in character animation. Animators took a very biological approach to modeling the cast of characters. They first created a skeleton and then attached muscles, fat and skin to it. Then they used a new modeling technique they named ‘goo,’ which allowed the skin to react accordingly to the muscles moving underneath. The Incredibles was also Pixar’s most extensive virtual world, with over a hundred fully designed and incredibly detailed sets. This was nearly three times the number of locations in the previous films.
The first step is to create a storyboard of rough sketches, which is then compiled into a video with the dialogue layered on top. This is used to both get a general sense of the film as well as start to plan the blocking and camera moves for each scene. Next, animators begin to work out the scenes with basic character models. After that, the virtual sets are added and any tweaks are made. The next step is to add in the characters movements, clothing and hair and make sure that it all works in the scene. Finally, the scene is properly textured and lit.
The Incredibles is set in Metroville, which is a prototypical American city. The start of the movie appears to be set in the 1950’s based on the style of vehicles, clothing and the architecture itself. Scenes of the city feature beautiful Art Deco buildings and colorful townhouses. This entire portion of the movie is bathed in a golden light and filled saturated colors. These pleasant tones are gone once the movie jumps 15 years. The interesting and unique architecture of the past is replaced by blocks of lackluster and unoriginal commercial buildings.The cityscape is now filled with tall glass and steel structures, which are reminiscent of the miesian style of modern architecture. However, this architectural shift also causes the general feeling of the city to change. The once colorful city of vibrant oranges, greens and purples, is now forever cast in an unpleasant hue of greys, beiges and dull greens and yellows. Everywhere, from homes to schools to entire buildings, shares this same muted color palette. The art director for this film was able to make an effective critique of this period of architecture with just the color story. This change in coloration also illustrates the sadness that the Parr’s experienced after being forced to hide their powers and lead normal lives.
The design for Bob’s office reflects the workplace setup that became popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The office is filled to the brim with a grid system of cubicles that were used to promote efficiency and reduce individualism. Bob’s frustration with his work situation is further emphasized by the tight, cramped quarters of his cubicle.
The Parr’s family home in the film is one of the few sets in the “normal” world that actually features interesting design elements, though it is situated in a seemingly endless suburbia. The Parrs live in a fairly classic mid-century modern ranch home, but with a Pixar twist. The exterior features an angular roof that was inspired by architect Joseph Eichler’s work. Strong lines, a la Charles and Ray Eames, and different textures are used to break up the otherwise one-dimensional façade. The interior is a large open-plan space made great by the delightful collection of extremely detailed mid-century modern furniture and décor. In this case, the dull color palette of the home is used less as a critique of the domestic architecture of the time and more to emphasize how stifled the Parrs feel because they can’t use their powers.
In contrast to the monochrome and uninspiring world of the Parr’s daily life, the realm of the movie’s superheroes and villains is vibrant, futuristic and filled with striking architecture. Edna mode’s dramatic and luxurious hilltop home is at the same time ultra-modern and influenced by older styles. All the spaces in her home feature the highlights of modern design, from glass walls, to sleek stone floors, to a distinct lack of ornament. One of the biggest inspirations for the design was the 1920’s De Stijl style and, in particular, the Rietveld Schröder House. The style is known for strong horizontal and vertical lines. The mostly black and white geometric designs are then punctuated with pops of colors. Some of the rooms are clearly influenced by the clean lines and simplicity of Japanese architecture and one room even includes a colossal Greco-Roman bas relief sculpture.
The most distinctive and over dramatic designs of course belong to the movie’s villain, Syndrome. Syndrome not only has an evil lair, but he also has an entire island called Nomansian Island. While most of the island is covered in a jungle, Syndrome has built an extensive, futuristic complex. The main facility is a large, circular concrete building with prominent arched openings that sits on the edge of a cliff. This design was influenced by the flying-saucer design of Oscar Niemeyer’s Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. The modern, curvilinear hallways reflect those from the TWA Flight Center at New York’s JFK Airport.
Syndrome’s lair also includes many designs that are too outlandish to have real life inspiration to draw from. From a soaring metal building that is hidden under a waterfall to a ridiculously long dining table situated in front of a lava wall, the productions designers came up with Pixar’s most creative designs yet. The uniqueness and individuality of the architecture of Syndrome’s lair and Edna’s house create a strong sense of place. This further emphasizes the conformity and routineness of the architecture in Metroville. The buildings there evoke no sense of location and could be in any generic city or suburb.
Most of the movies we’ve watched so far this term have focused on the depiction of cities, both real and fictional and how those environments affect their characters. Despite it being an animated children’s movie, The Incredibles actually shares quite a few parallels with those movies. Many of the films, such as Blade Runner and The Third Man, are set in set in either a dystopian vision of the future city or focus on the dark underbelly that is always hiding in today’s cities. In order to highlight and exaggerate these negative spaces, the movies take place largely at night and/or in desolate and unwelcoming locations. The Incredibles, however, purposely reserves the use of these kind of techniques for the Syndrome’s evil lair. This contrasts that with the rest of the scenes, which are set during the day and paint a far more pleasant, if not dull, picture of the city and the suburbs. This helps to further emphasize the film’s good vs. evil motif.
The Incredibles plays with the idea of non-places like we saw in Heat. Scenes take place in generic banks, office buildings and hospital waiting rooms that could be anywhere. Unlike Heat, however, these non-places are purposefully juxtaposed with extremely specific locations.
The Incredibles also touches on some of the critiques of modernist architecture that Jacques Tati made in Playtime. There are two shots in particular during the scene in Bob’s office that are almost identical to the office building in Playtime. The first is the shot of endless rows of identical, monochrome cubicles. The second is the extremely long and hallway that is created by those cubicles.
The Incredibles use of the city, however, is quite different from the other animated movie that we’ve watched, for instance Akira. In Akira, Neo-Tokyo is a place of excitement and thrill, as well as danger and chaos. It is extravagantly bright and colourful. It essentially becomes a character itself and it is just as important to the narrative of the movie as any of the characters. In the Incredibles, the city is mostly just used as a backdrop for scenes, though it’s not without function. The animators use the repetitive and characterless city architecture to contrast with the exciting action that is taking place in front of it. It purposefully doesn’t draw the audience’s attention away from the characters’ interactions.
And finally, a comparison of The Incredibles with other movies we’ve watched would not be complete without discussing its relationship with the James Bond franchise. The architecture and technology in The Incredibles took much of its inspiration from the 007 films. The production designers utilized these aspects of the James Bond world to instantly evoke an overall sense of style, intrigue and danger. Sets like Edna’s house share the swanky, mid-century modern style that is commonplace in the Bond movies. One particular similarity is two floating staircases that can be seen in both Edna’s house and the Whyte House Penthouse from Diamonds are Forever. The design of Syndrome’s villainous complex is clearly influenced by the over-the-top lairs of James Bond’s nemeses, in particular, Ernst Blofeld. Syndrome and Blofeld, in You Only Live Twice, both develop the same evil plot of rockets launching out of volcanos. The Incredibles and James Bond also both share an appreciation for clever, high-tech gadgets. One final connection that I can’t capture with photos is the film’s score, which is based off the work of John Barry who was the composer for the early James Bond movies.
It’s been twelve years since the ground-breaking work of The Incredibles came out. And in that time, Pixar has only continued to up its game in both the fields of animation and storytelling. Pixar has continued to explore the concept of the city and its design and function. The 2008 film, Wall-e, tackled the possible future of earth if humans continue to pollute it. With the cities overrun with trash and buildings deteriorating, humans escape to spaceships where they can forget the ruin they’ve caused. Not only do the animators craft a post-apocalyptic city built of trash, but they also design a whole new world for this future society. Although Big Hero 6 was produced by Pixar’s cousin of sorts, Disney Animation Studios, it was made possible by the Pixar innovations that came before it. With Big Hero 6, the production designers took the opportunity to imagine what a future utopian city would be like. They chose to create San Fransokyo, a city that is obviously a mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo. What the animators were able to create in this movie is the single largest and most impressive virtual world ever created. In only twenty odd years, Pixar and Disney Animation Studios have made advancements further than anyone thought was possible and it is clear that they will only continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what technology can do.