Incredibles 2 is just around the corner, and we are counting down the days! We recently got to watch a scene featuring Elastigirl at various different stages of production. In the scene, Elastigirl attempts to rescue passengers on a runaway train, while riding a very impressive piece of Super technology called an Elasticycle.
It takes multiple departments and areas of expertise, as well as a lot of collaboration, to make an action sequence like this come to life. Read on to find out how the sequence progressed from a story reel (a sketched version of the scene), all the way to the finished product.
The first building block to creating an action sequence is a story, which starts with a script, and is followed by a story reel. A story reel looks like an animated version of the sketch above, and layout artists, animators, and special effects artists use it as a springboard to create the final sequence.
“All of our films here start in the story department,” said Ted Mathot, Story Supervisor on Incredibles 2. The story reel helps “to communicate what the film ultimately will be … It’s a way to do it relatively quickly, through drawings, temp music, temp voices, sound effects. It also serves as a blueprint as [the film] moves through production.”
When developing an action sequence, it starts off pretty simple in the script. “It’s one of those scenes that looks a bit innocuous on the page. It will just say ‘Amazing action scene ensues,’” said Mathot. “When a story artist gets something like that, it’s sort of a mixture of terrible fear and intense enthusiasm.”
We can only imagine! The runaway train sequence, which introduces the multi-faceted Elasticycle, started as a sequence that mainly focused on Helen, so the team had to figure out how to add layers to the scene to build upon the worldview and story of the film, like interactions with police and a hilarious phone call from home.
“Because it’s an Incredibles movie, we had to have a balance of the mundane and the super,” Mathot recalled. “We realized she’s super all the time, so we had to get the mundane in there. Brad [Bird] had the idea to have a phone call come in from Dash, and it’s the most innocuous thing ever. Let’s drop it in at the worst possible time, when Helen is going 100 miles an hour into oncoming traffic.”
What results is an action-packed sequence that brings in that classic Incredibles humor that we’ve all come to know and love. Up next: layouts.
The layout department takes the information given to them by the story department, and literally figures out how to best lay it out onto the screen.
“Our goal in layout is to cinematically translate these awesome [story]boards,” said Mahyar Abousaeedi, Layout Supervisor. This scene in particular proved pretty popular for the team.
“We got the storyboards, and everyone was like, ‘I hope I get the motorcycle sequence.’ Half my team couldn’t wait to get into an action sequence. It took about six or seven layout artists, and we worked on it for a long time.”
The layout team even worked with a stunt coordinator to help them figure out some of the logistics of the scene, and had to answer questions that might sound simple but are actually complex in execution, like “How does Helen actually get through the intersection?” One layout artist even went through six or seven different versions to answer just this one question.
Said Abousaeedi: “The boards are loaded with tons of information, but once you get into the space, there can be a lot of blind spots. Those are all puzzles we are trying to figure out as we bring in these characters.”
Another challenge? The speed of the Elasticycle itself.
“We had to balance this train that’s going about 100-150 miles per hour and balance it with the speed of the Elasticycle. It needed to feel like the train was getting away, but the bike could keep up. We started designing the city based on Helen’s ability to weave through traffic at about 100 to 150 miles per hour,” elaborated Abousaeedi.
Speaking of the Elasticycle, let’s get into its design and animation!
Animation and The Design of the Elasticycle
Said Kureha Yokoo, Incredibles 2 animator: “Initially, Brad wanted a blank slate for the [Elasticycle] design, with very few constraints. The one constraint that he had was that it be super, super cool.” Based on the sketches above and the final product we saw, we can say that it really, really did turn out that way.
The animators were sure to remember that “form follows function” when designing the Elasticycle (“It should be an extension of Helen and showcase her strength,” said Yokoo).
One of the questions they needed to answer? “What does it mean exactly for a bike to embody elasticity and flexibility?”
The animators went through hundreds of drawings and designs before landing on the final product, and often that creation process was very cyclical in nature, moreso than in other Disney•Pixar productions.
“Because so much of the pipeline was happening simultaneously, the process was really collaborative and non-linear, which was really great … Art, story, layout, [and] animation all had to figure out what was possible all at the same time,” Yokoo noted.
Despite those aforementioned hundreds of designs, and research into other sports as reference (including various watersports, snow sports, and skateboarding), the design ultimately went back “to a design that looks more like a conventional motorcycle.” said Yokoo. “As soon as we figured out a rough configuration for the bike, we wanted to move quickly into three dimensions, and start working out some of the issues that don’t necessarily reveal themselves when you’re working on 2D drawings.”
Another challenging element was figuring out how to make the Elasticycle believable to the audience, within the world of the film. Said Yokoo:
“Because the machine doesn’t exist in real life, we had to try and sell the physics of it by incorporating enough realistic and familiar physical elements into the movement.”
Usually, once story, layout, and animation come together, it’s time to add the special effects. However, in the case of Incredibles 2, a tightened schedule caused this process to become a lot more collaborative than usual. Said Amit Baadkar, Effects Technical Director:
“Usually for effects simulations, we rely on animation. Once they are done, we come in and do all our simulations based on the animations. Because of the compressed schedule [on Incredibles 2], there was a lot of overlap that kept happening. Sometimes you do the simulations, and then the animation changes. We collaborated a lot more than we would normally do.”
So what is the role of the effects team?
“Effects animation is the creation and animation of visual elements like fire, water, smoke, and other dynamic elements,” said Baadkar. “Our role as artists is to adjust the settings and environment around these simulations to get the desired look. These simulations can take anywhere from several seconds to several hours, depending on the scale, detail, and complexity of the effect. On the runaway train sequence we had a team of about six talented effects artists and animators working on glass destruction, sparks, smoke, and explosions.”
When creating effects for this sequence, like tire smoke coming from the Elasticycle, the effects artists do not just add a random amount of smoke and call it a day. “It was important that we feel the effect, but not draw the audience’s eye directly to it,” Baadkar noted. It is all about finding that perfect balance.
One such effect that we got to preview — which required the perfect amount of balance — was an explosion that occurs in the film during the runaway train sequence.
“Mahyar’s team put together a rough version of the explosion that was really, really big. We actually went smaller than that. We wanted to keep it bigger than we normally thought it would be … we really wanted it to pop.”
And pop it will! We can’t wait to see the final version of this action scene when Incredibles 2 hits theatres June 15! Check out our interview with Brad Bird and the filmmakers here, and our interview with the production design team, and get excited!