By Mark London Williams“What’s a visual effect if the whole damn thing is a visual effect?” It’s a rhetorical question from The Incredibles’ supervising technical director Rick Sayre, trying to delineate how his duties on the hit superhero film are both similar to, and different from, their counterparts on a live action movie.Of course, in the age of digits, even the phrase “live action” is subject to debate. But The Incredibles, sticking to the comic book sources that inspired it, is all animation, so is there any part of the film not under Sayre’s purview?In a certain sense, no, but Sayre is quick to note that he had an effects supervisor, Sandra Karpman, who oversaw all the stuff one might guess an FX supe has to oversee: force fields, fires, and Frozone’s ice beam, among them.In fact, Sayre breaks down the production into three key areas: floor effects, visual effects, and a second unit.The floor effects would be the “traditional” part of filmmaking—actors being filmed on sets. Except, of course, that the bodies of these thesps exist as ones and zeroes, so what kind of a “shoot” is Sayre really talking about?As it turns out, one that would be pretty recognizable, in terms of logistics, to anyone overseeing a film using the more traditional biological sorts of performers. One that even includes a search for locations. “The layout department did the equivalent of a camera scout,” explains Sayre. Readers might be wondering: How do you scout inside a circuit board?Say you built a submarine set, Sayre allows, from designs by the production designer. “You could say there’s nothing to be discovered.” Everyone on the film, after all, already knows what the submarine is supposed to look like. But then “the DP’s gonna find shots that the PD didn’t know about.” The submarine will yield new camera angles and staging possibilities, once it actually exists.And so too any submarine—or the villain’s island, to use one Incredibles-specific example—built inside a computer. The set is designed, then programmed in, before the actors are put on it. And a certain amount of serendipity is allowed in the room.Speaking of rooms, Sayre notes another trick borrowed from the world of “real” filmmaking—“live action conventions,” in his doff of the hat to 100 years of pre-CG movie making. “The set”—the house of The Incredibles clan—“does not fit within the interior.”It’s the old interior/exterior matching shot fake-out, and the same physics apply on either side of the pixilated screen: the rooms “built” by Pixar occupy more square footage than the frame of their super-yet-middle class abode could actually contain.And the “convention” list doesn’t end there. “It would be crazy to build the whole house,” Sayre affirms, so if one were to peek around the virtual corners, one would find… nothing. Or perhaps the silicon equivalent of bailing wire and gaffer’s tape.Any set not needed isn’t designed, and isn’t “programmed” in; just as in the physical world, building an entire, functional house for the purpose of a few shots in a couple of rooms chews up too much of the production budget.For costumes, “we had a couple of tailors, people who had experience with real clothes.” Mr. Incredible’s wedding tux, for example, was “cut” from a pattern broken into separate pieces, then all put back together, so it will fit, and look right. “The programmer is going to be completely useless,” in knowing how the costume is supposed to fit, Sayre says.And the similarities for Sayre—who notes he’s been at Pixar “a long damn time”—don’t end there. “Brad (Bird’s) storyboards were much more like live-action storyboards—all about the movie: sets, camera angles.”“He knew he was asking a lot,” and Pixar, in the form of Sayre, responded. Usually in clever ways. Sayre not only brought in a camera operator used to working in live-action films in order to use “a focus ring, real F stops and virtual cranes” with the in-computer cameras (Sayre didn’t want it to look like a videogame; he wanted the look to be that of achieved by a bulky camera perched atop a tripod); he also “hired a matte painter for this film.”And not virtual mattes, either. Actual, analog painted ones. “That was a crazy, heretical thing,” he laughs, “but the film “is full of ’em,” and for the same reason any other film would be: to save money.Remembering something Bird had pointed out, Sayre talks about effects being “not as amazing as you remember them” after you break it down. One example he gives is the work of Weta on The Lord of the Rings films, which he finds impressive. “They’re matching puppets with live action” cutting back and forth between digital effects, built effects, real actors, and the like.”Sayre did the same thing—moving from matte work to programmed/built shots and environments—in his superhero saga. He refers to the sleight of hand that all movie makers use, and allows that his work was no different. “Not as amazing” as you might think.Just incredible.
Written by Mark London Williams