Recently, we were invited to the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emeryville, California, right outside of San Francisco, to preview their latest animated feature, "Incredibles 2." We got to see footage, speak with the filmmakers, and preview production artwork from the highly anticipated sequel, which one again reunites the super-powered Parr family (led by Craig T. Nelson and Helen Hunt) as they face off against villainous foes and work to maintain the family dynamic that really makes them so special.
And while we'll have plenty from our time at Pixar in the days and weeks ahead, we first wanted to share what we learned from an illuminating press conference that featured writer-director Brad Bird, producer Nicole Grindle, and producer John Walker.
1. A Condensed Schedule Is Nothing New to the Team
During our time at Pixar, much was made of the condensed schedule that the production team had to deal with while crafting "Incredibles 2" since, as it was originally planned, "Toy Story 4" would be released this summer and "Incredibles 2" would come out Summer 2019. Now, the reverse is true, with "Incredibles 2" bowing a full year before the fourth installment in that beloved franchise.
But as it turns out, the team is used to it.
"The original 'Incredibles' was supposed to be after 'Cars.' Our reels came together a little earlier than 'Cars' did, so we moved up," Bird explained. The same situation happened here with 'Toy Story 4'." Bird admitted that it was a "challenge for us," but -- in some respects -- it wasn't as difficult since the studio is "three times bigger than it was" during the first movie.
2. Also, the Schedule is Nothing Compared to 'Ratatouille'
Bird was also quick to point out that when he inherited "Ratatouille," a feature that was set to be the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Pixar animator Jan Pinkava -- and also the first movie released outside of their distribution deal with Disney -- he had even less time to get the movie done.
"Yeah, when I got involved in 'Ratatouille,' it was a little over a year," Bird interjected. "And we only retained two lines of dialogue and two shots from all of the previous versions that had been done. It was like running in front of a train laying down track."
And considering how "Ratatouille" turned out (it's one of the studio's best films), we have high hopes for "Incredibles 2" with or without its truncated schedule.
3. Bird Was Initially Uneasy About Returning to the Superhero Genre
When the first "Incredibles" was released back in 2004, we were still almost a half-decade away from the debut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the glut of superhero movies that came in the wake of its creation. What was it like heading back, after all that? Leave it to Bird, the king of the metaphors, to explain:
"On some level, it's like going out to the football field, and there's been way too many games on it, and there's just dry dirt with a few sprigs of grass. It's clunky. Life doesn't grow there anymore." The filmmaker admitted to thinking, "well, that's been covered." Bird also said that the sheer number of superhero stories being told -- in both movies and on television -- made things "very hard on a story level." (Bird also mentioned that Tim Kring, creator of "Heroes," told him that his show was a mixture of "Incredibles" and "Crash.") Still, Bird was undaunted.
"I returned to what makes us unique, which is a family. And superheroes have to hide their abilities. That is unique to us. And there's plenty left to explore," he said. Walker then added: "When we were trying to sell the first 'Incredibles,' people said, 'Well, what is it? A spy movie? A family movie? A superhero movie?' And that's the strength of the films. It's not just rooted in superhero stories."
Try as you might, you can't pin down the Incredibles.
4. The Idea to Age the Characters Was Considered
"Incredibles 2" starts immediately after the events of the first movie. Like about fifteen seconds before the credits for the first film start, with much of the movie taking place just a few months after they stopped the Underminer (the villain glimpsed at the end of the first film). Not that this was always the plan.
"I thought about aging everybody the way everybody does, and I thought, 'No, that sucks.' That's about as deep as it went," Bird said. Part of that had to do with how the filmmakers formed the original movie.
"One of the conceits of the original film is that, I tried initially -- when I started to work on the project long before Pixar, even before 'Iron Giant' -- I went to a comic book shop and thought, 'I've got to think up new powers.' After a half an hour in the comic shop, I realized every power has been done," Bird explained. "Then, right after that was an original epiphany: I wasn't interested in the powers, I was interested in the idea of having a family and a reason to hide the powers. Once I had that insight into what I wanted to do, I picked the powers based on who they were in the family. Men are always expected to be strong, so I gave Bob super strength. Moms are always pulled in different directions, teenagers are insecure and defensive, so she has invisibility and force fields. Ten year olds are nothing but energy, and the baby could have powers or no powers. It reminds me of how babies can grasp languages easily."
These thematic concerns wouldn't work if you changed that dynamic. "The insight into those periods of your life disappears once you age them up," Bird said. "I'm not interested in a college-age Jack-Jack. I'm interested in my sons growing up."
Bird also said that keeping them the same age makes the movie more "iconic" and pointed to his nearly decade-long run on "The Simpsons," where the characters didn't change at all.
"It's worked out rather well for them," Bird said with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.5. Sorry, But 'Incredibles 2' Isn't Inspired by #MeToo
When a journalist of color brought up the fact that, besides Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone character, Lucius Best (aka Frozone), there wasn't that much representation in the "Incredibles" universe, Bird assured that, "It's in there. It's just not in the sections you saw."
The filmmaker also made sure that we knew that the sequel's storyline was not a reactionary one. "Some people have remarked that we geared this towards the #MeToo movement because it's got a female lead," Bird said, sounding somewhat exasperated. But the Helen storyline was always a big part of where he wanted the movie to go (more on that momentarily).
Circling back to the representation issue, Bird said that they had actually designed Honey, Lucius' wife, who you only hear in the first film. "We didn't end up doing it, because it's funnier as a voice. We designed the character and the character appears in the movie, but not as Honey. We have used her design and she is a hero," Bird explained. So look out for Honey; she's in there!
You can tell that Bird takes these issues seriously and he's happy with the work he's accomplished. "The first walk-around Disneyland character who was black was Frozone," Bird remarked. "I think we've done okay."
6. Two Elements of the Story Always Stayed the Same
Development on "Incredibles 2" initially began way back in 2010, before Bird made his sojourn to the land of live action filmmaking with "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" and "Tomorrowland." But back then, he was just toying with ideas -- and not much else. Still, those ideas made it into the new movie.
"The two ideas that were in my head, as the first movie was ending, [were]: A role switch between Bob and Helen, and showing Jack-Jack's powers; making Jack-Jack a main character. Those were in from the beginning and never left the project," Bird said. Not that the rest of the movie wasn't constantly evolving.
"What changed was the plot, the superhero/villain plot. That shifted endlessly. It drove me insane. Because I was always faced with a release date and if something didn't work, I had to throw it away immediately, I couldn't bang on it. That half of the story was shifting always."
What that villain plot is remained elusive, even after spending all day at Pixar. Apparently, based on the trailer, there is a skull-faced baddie called the Screenslaver. Intriguing ...7. They Took the Challenge of Continuing the Story Seriously
When someone brought up the pressure of continuing what is largely considered a classic, Bird dismissed the notion.
"It's really distracting to think of that," he said. "If you think about pleasing an audience that has no definition, if you try to think about pleasing that -- and what they'll like two years from now -- you'll just curl into a fetal ball and never come out of your room. The better way to think about it is -- I'm going into a darkened theater, and what am I going to see? If you think of it that way, you're always connecting with the person who wants to be told a story. I'm more comfortable connecting with that person. You want the characters to feel consistent, and the world to feel consistent, but you don't want to be able to know what happens next. That's the challenge and it's not an easy challenge to meet."
Walker chimed in, noting that, "The fact that we took 14 years to do it suggests that we took the challenge seriously." That got a laugh, but it's true. And you can feel Bird's passion for the project.
"Many sequels are cash grabs. There's a saying, 'You don't do a sequel, you're leaving money on the table,'" Bird said. He then continued: "Money doesn't get me up in the morning, making something that people are going to care about 100 years from now is what gets me up." Damn straight.
8. There Were Guardrails for Jack-Jack's Powers
If you've seen the trailer, or saw the Jack-Jack versus the raccoon footage screened at D23 2017, then you know that a big concern for "Incredibles 2" is Jack-Jack's powers and what that means for the family. (We saw a whole presentation about them, but we can't discuss it until after the film opens.)
When it came to his approach to Jack-Jack's powers, Bird said that there were limitations they had to impose on what he could or couldn't do. "Really, the first limitations would go to the story team, when I was saying, 'Here's this scene, here's this scene, let's explore it visually.' I didn't put a lot of limits on them, initially. So, they started doing anything," Bird said.
"Then we said, 'Alright, we've got to settle down a little bit towards act three.' Then there were a few points where they said, 'Well, it'd be cool if he had one more power.'" Bird describes the whole thing as "we tried to stick to our diet and we broke it a couple of times."
The main guiding principle was treating Jack-Jack like a real baby, so what interests the character would be what is interesting to a baby. ("He can't anticipate the villain's move," Bird said.) "He's still a baby, but he has these powers that he has limited control over," Bird revealed. So expect some surprises, but not anything that a baby wouldn't be interested in.
9. 'Incredibles 2' Isn't Pushing an Agenda
Much has been made of Bird's obsession with exceptional individuals and a kind of Ayn Rand-ian objectivism. And while there is certainly a streak of this running through his work, it's hardly any movie's central focus. When someone asked the filmmakers if "Incredibles 2" would be similarly concerned with this idea, Bird shot back.
"It explores a lot of ideas," Bird said, noting that he didn't make the sequel to "push some agenda." He elaborated: "You create something that is hopefully fun and entertaining, and there are places you can put ideas here and there to give it dimension. The first mission, with the first movie, was to entertain the crap out of people. But the second thing was, there were some things we wanted to comment on -- the role of parents, how teenagers view the world, midlife crisis."
Similarly, Bird said, that the new movie tackles "the roles of men and women, the importance of fathers participating, the importance of allowing women to express themselves through work, and that they're just as vital as men are. There are aspects of being controlled by screens. There are feelings about the difficulties of parenthood."
Bird noted that, "all of those things are in this movie, but if I start to single out any one of them, it doesn't give an accurate portrait of the movie."
Ever the king of metaphors, Bird noted that talking about the movie like this takes away from its inherent fun.
"It sounds like you're getting broccoli, and not dessert," he said.
"Incredibles 2" hits theaters June 25. We cannot wait.