The Incredibles was a landmark film for Pixar Animation Studios. It was the first film from the studio where the main characters were human. This also led to the creation of a city where the characters lived. Compared to the fantastical worlds that were created for earlier films such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, which were all inspired by elements of our world, The Incredibles took place entirely in locales where humans were the key characters, and the scenes were shot from the perspective of humans. Municiberg, the city where the Parr family resided, was created and mapped out for the first film. Incredibles 2, though, gives us much more of the city. What is the process in bringing the city to life? I interviewed the city’s creators and we discussed this very question.
“We’re a sequel, so we had a starting place” – Ralph Eggleston
Back in April, I had an opportunity to view approximately 30 minutes from Incredibles 2. Afterwards, I sat down with some members of the film’s production design team for an exclusive interview. While watching the film footage, I was struck by just how much more of Municiberg we see. I could not stop thinking about it because the city seemed huge, yet everything we saw had incredible detail. This had to be a gigantic undertaking. Ralph Eggleston said that since the film was a sequel, they did not have to start from scratch as they “had a starting place.” Eggleston elaborated on this:
“We found an old piece of artwork, a map. They had built some of that city for the first film. We worked backwards from that, figuring out where things were, how tall the tallest building was.”
How To Build A City
That does not mean that their work was anywhere near complete. After all, we are not seeing the exact same areas of Municiberg in Incredibles 2 – that would be boring and seem like a retread of the first film. So what is the role that production design plays in building a city? Nathan Fariss spoke about how they started by thinking big and funneled down to the specifics:
“We choose what buildings we want, which buildings look good in which places, which designs fit where. Once the big pieces are in – you start big and then you go down, down. Once you have the plot points in place – (e.g.) this is where the Monorail track comes in – then it becomes, why don’t we make a sidewalk cafe over here with tables and umbrellas and things like that. Parking meters, parked cars – here’s where the speed limit sign goes.”
It sounds like a straightforward process, but there are many layers of work to unpack here. Although they are tasked with mapping out the city, they are driven by what fits the story. The team will often create more than what we see on the screen (as pointed out by Eggleston), but the final product is arrived at with the story of the film in mind. We hear so much of the term “collaboration” when it comes to Pixar – this is a good example.
The Smaller Details Of A City
It does not end there, either. The city’s design is then forwarded to the layout department, as Fariss describes:
“Once we give that to layout and they start working on it, we start adding more. And they figure out where the cameras go, so we know we’re going to see this piece of this long block. It’s going to be seen in this one shot. So we put a couple things in there so it looks more detailed, so that the places you see in the camera have more detail to them than the place that you don’t see.”
We often equate “camera angles” with the physical cameras that we hold. To take a picture or film a video, we consider the angle from which we should shoot to capture the moment we want. Animation needs to consider this as well, even though there is not a physical camera someone is holding. The layout team works out where they want to place the “cameras,” (what will be seen and from what angle). Based on these decisions, production design has to go back in and expand on the details the audience will see. To create a frame in animation, from start to finish, is a lengthy process. Therefore, many details have to be worked out before animation ever happens, to make the most efficient use of production time. They don’t have an unlimited amount of time and resources to create everything; they have to focus on what the audience will ultimately see and add tons of details to make it all feel real. This is best encapsulated by Eggleston – “we considered every inch of every frame.”
One Runaway Train Expanded What We See
There are some sequences in the film that are significantly easier for the team to plan for – compare a scene in a room to one that takes place outside. Inside, you mostly see the room, where you may get a peek at the outside world through a window or open door. Outside, though, there is much more that needs to be created to make a city feel real. Fariss compares the two types of scenes:
“For something like “Pillow Talk” (a sequence in a room with Bob and Helen Parr), where they’re sitting in bed, you make that hotel room, fill it full of stuff, you’re done. You give it to layout, they put their cameras in, the characters in, animation animates, easy-peasy. As soon as you start traveling, especially at a high rate of speed, every single shot is a completely different set. So it’s one after another, after another, after another. Each one of those needs to be built by somebody, by hand. You can’t build a whole train sequence out and give it to layout, let them shoot and film in it. It has to be this big, collective effort.”
The sequence that he is comparing to the hotel room is a runaway train scene that we viewed earlier. A train is traveling at an exceptionally high speed, with the city zooming by quickly in the foreground and background. Imagine how many buildings, vehicles, signs, and more structures are seen just in this sequence. I’m sure it’s an astronomical number. There is so much, as an audience, that we both see and don’t see. Later, when we are watching the film at home and can pause it, we will inevitably notice the level of detail that we miss when the “camera” zooms by, while following a high-speed train. That all has to be made by someone.
Creating the city was a painstakingly collaborative effort. I can’t wait to get a look at the final sets of the city. Everything I’ve seen looks, in the words of Edna Mode, “maaah-velous.” Incredibles 2 hits theaters on June 15th.