With movies as slick and polished as Pixar’s, it’s easy to forget how time-consuming and challenging they are to make. Take Incredibles 2 – Brad Bird’s belated sequel to his 2004 smash hit.
Although the challenges of making the original Incredibles are well documented – at the time, a lot of its animation and effects were still untested – Incredibles 2 brought challenges of its own. Not least when, over a year into its production, Bird and his team realised that the original villain concept simply wasn’t working. Rather than struggle along with what they had, they did what Pixar often do in these situations: they scrapped the original villain and came up with another.
When we caught up with producers Nicole Grindle and John Walker in June, Incredibles 2 had just enjoyed a huge opening weekend in the States. It marked the end of a long road for the producer duo, and the sense of relief and contentment radiated off them. They were, in short, chuffed to bits.
And with good reason: the pair, and the animators they worked with, clearly worked hard to make the best movie they could, whether it meant working and reworking the script or delaying the creation of key sequences until the last possible minute.
Here, they talk candidly about the challenges of making Incredibles 2, their memories of producing the first film, and lots more.
I’m guessing you’re pleased with the weekend [box-office] you’ve just had.
Nicole Grindle: I’m thrilled.
John Walker: Stunned, actually.
NG: We were just grateful to finish it! That’s as far as we were committed, so to have this response is tremendous.
Obviously, there was quite a gap between this film and the first. So did the production come together quite quickly in the end?
NG: It was quick, but it felt long, because it was hard!
JW: The first film we made in four years, and this one we made in three. Or Brad [Bird, director] wants to make sure I say two and a half. But it was about that. It was really challenging. It’s a big movie, it’s a complex movie, and it’s long by animation standards. To get that done in three years was challenging.
We never felt like we had a good grasp on organising it and knowing where we were going. We were constantly working on top of one another, and it was very chaotic. Exciting, but it was nip-and-tuck for a while.
The one thing we had was, we’d made that raccoon sequence with Jack-Jack, because we liked that and it was something we tried to fit in the first movie but couldn’t. We always had that. We liked it, we had it, it was finished. We kept saying, [desperately] “Well, at least we’ve got this!” [Laughs]
“If we go straight to hell, we’ve got a baby fighting a raccoon!”
NG: It was very encouraging for the crew!
And you know, we never have a finished script at Pixar. Ever. Right? I don’t know if any animated production does. I mean, you have a rough outline, you storyboard it, but it’s a visual medium, so you have to start putting things up there and change them. You’ll find a sequence like the raccoon fight, where you think, “That’s going to be in no matter what.” So you start making that.
But then [Brad Bird] is writing desperately, and he changed the villain plot at least twice, if not three times, until we landed on this one. So we were just making the stuff that we knew would land.
We were saying to him, “We need something else to make. You have to lock something. You have to lock something.” So there was that pressure on him as well.
JW: Especially the action sequences, because they take a long time. We have to get them to the effects and lighting department early – they need months and months to do some of that stuff. All the ice things at the end, all that stuff takes forever. So we’re like, “You gotta give us this, man!”
NG: And that was the last bit. The third act was the last stuff that we could lock. We were like, “Well, there needs to be something there. So time’s up, put your pencils down. We’re making that!” [Laughs]
JW: You get Grumpy Brad when you go [smacks fist] “You gotta finish it, man!”
NG: You’re pulling [the script] out of his hands. “No, no, no!”
So how far in did the villain change? Because I found that interesting, how it fits with the 60s theme. And now I learn that it wasn’t there from the beginning.
JW: It was completely different.
NG: There are a couple of ideas he’d still like to make movies out of, in fact.
JW: We went through maybe three iterations. The first one he pitched involved AI, there was a second one that was more about media, and the third was the Screenslaver.
There was a pivotal screening. The second version was about media, and that was gonna draw Helen out on her assignment. And everyone said, “You know, that’s not enough. The stakes aren’t high enough.”
NG: And it wasn’t a good reflection on her. She didn’t end up being motivated the right way. It really needed to be about saving the family and supers.
JW: For the first year and a half, maybe two years, we didn’t really address whether supers are legal or not. It was sort of waking up to that and saying, “Wait a minute, we didn’t really finish that in the last film. Whatever we do here has got to address that.” That’s sort of what triggered the version we have now.
Right. So how do you divide up the duties as producer?
NG and JW: [in unison] We don’t.
NG: One person starts a sentence, the other one finishes it.
JW: We’ve worked together in this capacity before, so we were both trying to figure out how this was going to work, and the HR people at Pixar were pushing us to divide up roles and write job descriptions and all that, and we were just, “Ehh. How about we’re just partners.”
We went to our crew and said, “Look, we want this to be simple for you. You can talk to either of us. The other one won’t take offence. Each one of us is completely qualified to make any decision you need, and we won’t second-guess each other. We’ll take care of the communication. That’s not your problem. We’ll take care of it.”
And it worked out remarkably well!
NG: We had almost 400 people on the show for a long period of time. So it was an organic division of labour – people would find either one of us in the hallway or send or note, and between the two of us we could respond quickly. But we’re very much on the same wavelength, so.
JW: At Pixar, there’s usually a producer and an associate producer, and I was an associate producer on a couple of films, Nicole was associate producer on a couple of films, so we both know that role. We didn’t have that role on this. We were just equals, and we divided those decisions.
So that early screening you were talking about, that would have been one of your early, story reel versions of the film.
JW: Yeah. You’ve probably seen those. And Brad is known for his really detailed story reels. But we didn’t have time to do the story reels he likes to do. And really didn’t need it as much. Part of the reason we developed the process on Iron Giant, in particular, was because we were trying to defend ourselves against studio executives. Oftentimes, they would look at story reels that were not very detailed and give you the wrong notes, because they couldn’t see through it, and where it was gonna end up. The more detailed we got, the fewer notes we got, because they knew what we were going for.
NG: And it was reassuring to the crew as well. On the first Incredibles, they’d go, “This is gonna be great, we know what our marching orders are…” But it wasn’t that way this time.
JW: We just didn’t have time for it. It was much messier. The outcome of the film was more in question. It was like, “Is this gonna be good? Is it gonna be as good as the first?” There were a lot of people, who were new to Pixar, who had just never worked with Brad – they’d only heard about him. The myths get a little… “He’s got everything figured out!” “He arrives with the whole thing in his head!” “You’ll love working with him!”
Then they’re like, [plaintively] “Where’s that Brad Bird?” We’re like, “Ah, sorry!” [Laughs] “It’s gonna be a little more chaotic!”
NG: There’s a lot more trust involved.
JW: “What happened?” Well, welcome to the world of actually making movies instead of talking about it.
-The first film was challenging in its own way, because of the new ground you were breaking with animated human characters and so on.
JW: We’d just never done that before. Pixar had never done it before.
NG: All the simulation, the clothing and hair – which is actually really important when you’re making a film with humans in it, to make it believable. Otherwise it looks distracting.
JW: It just looks awful.
NG: It takes you out of the movie. You want just enough to make it feel like, “Alright, that feels organic. I’m just paying attention to the performance.” We couldn’t make very many characters on the first film.
JW: Everything on the first movie was, “Well, you know, we don’t know how to do that. But we’ll figure it out before we’re done, we promise.” We kept getting closer and closer [to release] and this stuff was still a science project. We’re going, like, “Guys, we have 8 or 900 shots that include this stuff. We really need it. Where is it?”
NG: Or we would put something up and it’s just really ugly.
JW: The technical challenges on the first film were immense. The hardest thing about it. But 14 years have passed, and the technology’s much improved. And we have artists that were working together for 14 years, and new people as well. The crews at Pixar are staggeringly good at what they do – they’re just amazing. If you can point them in the right direction, they will make a beautiful film for you. They’re like a Ferrari – you’ve just gotta be careful driving them around turn three, you know? Don’t take it into the wall!
I get the impression that some of Jack-Jack’s powers couldn’t be achieved in the first one, so you got to revisit those this time.
JW: There’s a little section on the DVD with me and the technical director arguing with Brad Bird. He wants gooey Jack-Jack. I just watch that thing and cringe, because we just look like such assholes. [Laughs] All of us, you know? Bird’s kind of petulant and we’re kind of wormy and smarmy about it, and it’s like “Oh god, who are those guys?” But we just couldn’t do it. It was taking an immense amount of time, it was like, we could do gooey Jack-Jack, but we wouldn’t deliver the film on time.
NG: The truth is, we did it on this film, but it was hard – it took a long time. We couldn’t have done more than we did without just burning a lot of gas unnecessarily. It’s not something that lends itself well to digital animation. But he wanted it. He was adamant, just on principal.
JW: He was saying he didn’t get it on the first one, so he wanted it this time. So we got it for him.
NG: But it’s true that Jack-Jack couldn’t have been as prominent in the first film because of all those powers. We were liberated to do just about anything except for the gooey Jack-Jack, and we did do that. But we were liberated to do just about anything he thought of on this film, which was fun.
Are there things that digital animation still can’t do, in your experience?
JW: We can do anything.
NG: We can. Sometimes it’s really expensive and time-consuming, so then you have to make the choice whether it’s really worth it to, again, burn all this gas on something that’s not advancing the story. But they can do just about anything.
JW: Certainly, a lot of the techniques we use, they use on live-action all the time. That’s the big reasons we have so many superhero movies, is because it can be executed well.
JW: And around half of those movies are animated. Probably more than that. They’re using exactly the same stuff we’re using, except they’re rendering it photo-real, and that’s not what we’re doing. We’re evolving caricature and design, so our stuff doesn’t stuff look real, but in many ways I think it’s more believable than what you see as rendered photo-real.
JW: We’re in the hands of a master director, especially in the action sequences. Bird’s staging of action is impeccable. It makes those sequences exciting and completely believable. We were all-in for those things. And you compare them to some of the live-action superhero movies, and there is no comparison. This stuff is just better, you know?
NG: Brad can keep his eye on the storytelling. I think that’s what makes his films unique. Everything supports the story – he wants to make sure the viewer knows where they are in an action sequence, and again, he’s building that excitement towards a character-based conclusion to the action, and how it contributes to the overalls story. I think that’s part of the reason why the crew loves working with him so much – it’s one big master class. He explains why he’s doing things visually and in storytelling.
He’s really kind to the artists, and the only time he gets angry is when he’s frustrated with the storytelling, and he’s very clear that he’s not angry at the artists. But he imparts so much knowledge about why we need to do certain things to support the audience. Which indicates that he keeps his eye on that throughout every single thing. I think it’s really easy for filmmakers to get lost in all that technology and animation.
It’s deep, it’s deep water, and he’s able to keep going back and forth between the storytelling and the minutest execution of the animation – effortlessly.
JW: There’s always something going on in his action. It’s not just bang, crash. Even the first Underminer sequence – they’re battling Underminer, but they’re also trying to figure out who’s going to babysit Jack-Jack. So you’ve got something else going on – it’s not just stop the driller, it’s stop the driller and who’s got Jack-Jack. Because that’s important.
When Dash runs in the first movie, he runs on water for the first time and he delights in it. But he didn’t know he could do that. It’s a chase sequence, but it’s also a character moment.
Do you think other studios have been influenced by Pixar and The Incredibles?
NG: It’s hard to say.
JW: I do think there was some of the first Incredibles, a tip of the hat to us, in some of the humour we’re seeing in some of the superhero movies. I don’t know if we’ve influenced that or not. But it felt familiar.
It’s interesting, too, though, that other studios are redoing parts of films if they don’t work, like Lucasfilm and Solo. That strikes me as a very Pixar thing to do.
NG: Yeah, but you have to have some money to be able to do that! So not everybody can imitate that! [Laughs]
Very true. Nicole Grindle and John Walker, thank you very much.