Incredibles 2 and an Inside Look at the Secret to Pixar’s Success

Nearly fourteen years ago, the animation powerhouse Pixar released one of its most critically and commercially successful films to date… The Incredibles. On the surface, it was a high octane, fun-filled superhero romp. But at its core, it’s a story about family, fitting in, and wrestling with the recognition of one’s inherent value and self-worth.

The film was an instant hit, and as a superhero flick, it all but cried out for a sequel. But since its release in November 2004, Pixar has given us two Toy Story sequels (and a third is in the works), two Cars sequels, and a Finding Nemo sequel. For years, fans have asked: “When do we get to see the Parr family suit up again?” And for years, director Brad Bird replied, “I’ll make it when I have a great idea.”

He must have finally gotten his great idea, because, this weekend, the world finally got to see the long-awaited sequel. If early box office receipts and critic reviews are any indication (it broke the record for an animated film opening, and as of this writing sits at a 94% Rotten Tomatoes rating), the second installment of the Parr family’s wacky adventures is on track to be as big a hit as the first.

We were fortunate enough to have a conversation with the award-winning editor—and long-time Pixar veteran—Stephen Schaffer, about the process of making a Pixar film, and what it’s like to work with Pixar director Brad Bird.

The Process of Editing Animation

It’s been said that every time you make a movie, you actually make three movies: the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit. The shape of the film changes at each stage in the process as you come up against unforeseen obstacles. What worked on paper sometimes just doesn’t work on video and what made sense on location sometimes falls flat in the editing bay. It’s quite common for editors to use only 10% of the footage that was shot—their job is to whittle down all those dailies into a tight, seamless edit.

When you’re editing animation, that ratio is reversed. Stephen Schaffer, who won an ACE award for his work on Wall-E (the first time the award was given to the editor of an animated feature), says that, typically, a Pixar animated film is about seventy-five percent complete before it enters the final editing stage.

The reason is a principle that Stephen likes to call “experiment early.” It’s relatively easy to make changes at the early stages in the production process, when the movie is still a bunch of drawings. When a shot is fully animated, alterations become much more time-consuming and, therefore, expensive. “At Pixar, we like to say, fail early.” That just means you are putting your ideas out as early as you can.”

Stephen describes the process of editing an animated film as a “dance between the editorial and story departments.” Everyone throws their ideas onto the table as early as possible so that they can be sifted through and tested. The creative collaboration between departments is far more back-and-forth than it typically is on a live-action film.

Some animation directors prefer to keep the film in its early stages until it’s ninety percent finished, while others are comfortable moving forward into animation much earlier. When Stephen worked with director Brad Bird on the first Incredibles, Bird wanted to make sure they were experimenting early. Action sequences and story beats were hammered out long before any actual animation had begun. “We really kind of spelled out the whole film in the story reels. We had all sorts of animatics and camera moves, and it just was real sleek pre-production. That one was very close to what we ended up putting out on film.”

Part of the reason for the thoroughness was that Bird knew he was taking a chance. It was his first feature at Pixar, and he was pushing for more realistic human animation than they had ever attempted before. Bird’s results, of course, speak for themselves. Not only was The Incredibles a hit, the animation in the film drops the jaw even after fourteen years.

On the second Incredibles movie, Bird leaned more on his core team of artists, animators, and editors. The sequel’s release date was moved up a year, which meant the production schedule shrunk and every stage of the process was in crunch mode. According to Stephen, Bird told his team, “It’s going to be ugly until it’s not.” There was no time to make a shot look pretty before it was handed to the next person. Throughout it all, the team had to trust each other, and Bird’s leadership carried them through. “I love Brad,” Stephen says, “He’s got this kind of infectious energy that I need every few years to reinvigorate my soul.”

“Ugly Until It’s Not”

Bird’s phrase, “It’s going to be ugly until it’s not,” perfectly captures the process of creating an animated film. Since nothing is set in stone in the early stages, animation production can seem like controlled chaos. The production schedule on Pixar films can be long (five years or more) and for most of that time the film remains plastic. Whole characters and storylines can be added or discarded. It may be a messy process, but if the departments work together and trust each other to do their best, the film slowly but surely takes shape.

The beauty of the process is that you can try anything to see if it works. As the editor puts a sequence together, he may decide that he needs a new pose or a new shot—or sometimes just a few new frames—and he can request it from a story artist. Together, the artist and editor build the sequence until it’s ready for review by the director. Fine-tuning happens along the way, but the process is messy by design.

“You don’t want to perfect it too much because of course, your director’s always going to have his opinion. You want him to be able to tear it apart, and feel that it’s okay to do that. He becomes part of a triangle of director, editor, and story artist and you tackle it that way. You want to experiment in that part of the process because it’s just three or four people versus an army of layout artists or animators or lighting designers. It just gets a lot more expensive. The more you experiment, the further down it goes to the production line. Like I said, you want to fail early and often and work out all the things that could go wrong or aren’t quite working.”

Animation has changed over the years from being primarily drawn on paper by hand to being primarily digital. But the basic handoff from one department to the next has stayed the same for almost a century. Once a scene has been written, the story department begins drawing storyboards to show what that scene would look like on film.

Once the storyboards are approved, they are assembled into a story reel, which is sent to the layout department, who add the background and environment for the characters, then to the animators, who bring the characters to life. At that point (pending approval from the director), the animated clip is in the hands of the editors, who assemble the clips into sequences.

The Pixar Process

At Pixar, there are some major differences in the process. Storyboards are still the proving ground for most of the story beats, but once the story artists and editors have gone through several iterations of a scene, the action is “shot” as a rough scene.

In the behind-the-scenes video “The Making of ‘The Incredibles’” (available on the Incredibles DVD), Brad Bird describes how disorienting it was at first to review shots that weren’t fully animated. Since his background was in traditional animation, the computer-generated models seemed disturbingly incomplete. “It took me forever to figure out what to look at! You would have the person walking through the scene and intersecting his body would be a dummy of another version of the person with clothes on. And you’re just going… Is this the film?” Eventually, Bird was able to get his mind around the bizarre appearance of half-animated shots and focus on the story itself.

The rough scenes are tinkered with until the director is happy with the pacing. Then the scene is sent to the animation department, where movement and expression are added to the characters. At each stage of the process, the director and heads of story give notes, sometimes sending a shot back three or four times before they’re satisfied. As lead editor, Stephen is usually present during these note sessions. “Basically, the animators show their work to the director in the morning every day. We call them morning dailies. He gives notes on all the shots. They go back to work on the shots all day, and then typically we have an evening review where he looks at all those shots again that he gave notes on.”

Once the director is happy with a shot, it’s sent as a video clip to the editorial department, where it’s cut with the rest of the footage. At that late stage, animation editors are essentially performing the same job as a live-action editor: cutting and splicing clips in a timeline. The key difference is that changes can still be made if the director needs them to be. Frames can be dropped, added, or shifted depending on the needs of the scene. “It’s always a living breathing thing,” Stephen says.

Stephen is involved in every stage of the process, ready to give input and making sure he is aware of any particularly challenging shots. “As the editor, you’re sitting in all the story pitches. From the first pitch to the delivered pitch, you’re in every session.” He also works closely with the artists and animators to make sure he captures their intentions as he cuts a scene together. “First, it’s between the story artist and the editor. You put your first cut together. You usually bring the artist down. He’ll take a look at it because you really want to get his intention, whatever he was intending from seeing to be.” Adjustments are made. Details are fine-tuned. Once all the wrinkles have been ironed out, the editor begins the cut.

Technological advances have helped streamline the production process. In his years at Pixar, Stephen has seen the tech improve for just about every department. “We’re able to see animation earlier in the process than we ever were before. We’re able to make decisions quicker. But then there are drawbacks too. It’s a big tax on the render farm for all this new technology.” What hasn’t changed over the years is the basic progression from one department to the next. “We still go through the same process of script-to-storyboards, storyboard approval to layout, layout to animation, then on down the line through lighting effects, and all the timing.” Stephen is impressed with the new tools, but he says there’s no substitute for working fast and hitting deadlines. “Certainly, the drives have gotten smaller and smaller, but otherwise, it hasn’t really changed for me,” he says, and the artist in him is thankful for the consistency. “You can’t take a carpenter’s tools away, man. I need the Avid.”

In several action scenes in the new Incredibles film, Stephen was given the opportunity to, as he says, “do my thing.” The animators gave him lots of extra shots and extended handles so he could fine-tune the sequences. He’s particularly proud of the fight between Elastigirl and the Screen Slaver. “It was a lot of fun,” he says. “Personally, I love action cutting. I don’t know who doesn’t.”

Incredibles 2 has some of the most realistic and vivid animation of any Pixar film to date.  Bird has said in interviews that the animators were finally able to give him what he dreamt of doing in the first film. But though the technology at Pixar is amazing, it only makes up half of the secret sauce. The studio is well-known for its congenial atmosphere and relaxed working environment that contribute to the creativity of its employees.

The Pixar building was designed by Steve Jobs, who wanted to build a workspace that would promote “accidental” encounters between coworkers (according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs). The hope was that these unplanned meetings would result in an explosion of creativity. Turns out, Jobs was onto something.

One design feature at the studio is the enormous atrium where artists, animators, editors, and computer programmers mingle and swap ideas. “Having that kind of exchange every day is invaluable,” Stephen says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just been having coffee with one of my fellow editors and at the end of our conversation, I run back to my room to try out this thing that he told me to try, a shortcut on my keyboard or whatever.” The collaborative environment is crucial to the way Pixar films are put together. Everyone is working together, exchanging ideas and giving each other feedback.

Another bonus that Stephen gets from working at Pixar is a ready-made, on-call troupe of talented voice actors. Big Hollywood stars can have a hard time fitting recording sessions into their busy schedules, so Pixar animators and computer programmers will pop out of their offices to record “scratch dialogue” that can be used temporarily. “You’d be amazed at all the different talent that these people have outside of their day jobs. We have all these great actors that we can pull in one of our two studios at any time and record stuff.”

Always Be Learning

In 1975,  Walt Disney founded CalArts, the art and design school outside Valencia, CA. It was meant to teach the long-standing animation and creative arts heralded by the Disney Studios. Brad Bird was one of the original animation students in the inaugural class. The original instructors of those classes were legendary animators from the early days of Disney animation, known as “The 9 Old Men.” Despite their experience and knowledge, they had a profound belief in the importance of education and learning. In the 2007 documentary, “The Pixar Story,” Brad Bird said this of them, “The 9 old men—these guys were unbelievable masters of this art form, yet every single one of them had the attitude of a student.” That mindset is shared by Stephen.

Stephen relies on his assistants to process dialogue and storyboards, and to hold down the fort while he’s sitting in story meetings. A good first assistant who can run the room is invaluable to the lead editor, and Stephen knows firsthand how valuable the relationship is from the other end as well. He got his start working with veteran editors who didn’t want to learn digital systems. “They pretty much-needed people that could be their hands. I would operate the Avid with them sitting right there. I would do every cut and everything else that they told me to do.”

That kind of mentorship formed the backbone of Stephen’s education. “I was fortunate enough to have some really generous editors that would just let me literally sit for hours in the back of their room and just watch over their shoulder, and not saying anything, just observing and watching. You’d be amazed how much you learn.”

His advice for aspiring editors—animation and live-action—is to pay attention and absorb all the knowledge they can. Even though Stephen has decades of experience, he is always picking up tips from his coworkers at Pixar, both casually at lunch and in official story meetings—all of which he tries to attend. “I try to be wherever the director is, so that if he’s ever talking about changing things or adding frames or doing any kind of stuff, I can at least be there to hear about it, so I don’t have to be told through an email chain or I don’t cut the film through email. I have to hear it from him.” As much as possible, pursue face-to-face collaboration. Discussing your craft and listening to the insights of your fellow editors is the best way to improve, all the more so if you can be physically present with them at the same time.

Stephen also encourages aspirers to be patient. “I came up in a time where you had people that were putting five, ten, fifteen years into something before they were going anywhere. I think it’s the polar opposite now. Kids have gone through school and taken all these classes and now they’re ready to sit in your seat. I know from my own experience that it’s not that easy to do.”

Lead editors want to hire assistants who are knowledgeable and ready to work, but more than that, they want assistants who are willing to learn. Learning never stops, after all. Stephen’s advice is to take your time. Don’t expect perfection too early, in a film or in a career. In the words of Brad Bird, “It’s going to be ugly until it’s not.”

Photography by Deborah Coleman/Pixar.

Christian Leithart

Christian Leithart writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama.