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Brad Bird on returning to the world of Incredibles 14 years later

“Family doesn’t just mean a biological relationship. It means people that have your back.”

a scene from Incredibles 2
Helen and Bob Parr are back after 14 years away.
Pixar

It’s taken 14 years, but Incredibles 2, the follow-up to the beloved 2004 Pixar superhero classic, is finally in theaters. And though all that time has passed for us, no time has passed for the Parr family, who pick up right where they left off, battling supervillains, struggling to find their place in a world that doesn’t always trust those with exceptional abilities, and squabbling with each other.

In those 14 years, too, Incredibles director and screenwriter Brad Bird has made his mark in other films, from the 2007 Pixar release Ratatouille to his two live-action films — 2011’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and 2015’s Tomorrowland. That makes Incredibles 2 his return to animation after 11 years away. And since he’s one of the best animation directors ever (having also directed 1999’s The Iron Giant), it’s tremendously exciting.

Incredibles 2 is a lot of fun, but it also has a surprising number of things on its mind, including a continued wrestling with the role of people who have exceptional talents in a society that still needs everybody to take care of each other and not look out solely for their own self-interest. And yet it’s also a technical marvel — beautiful to look at, with terrific animation and wonderful designs.

So I sat down with Bird, as well as producers Nicole Grindle and John Walker, to talk about the new film — which they were still tweaking here and there when I chatted with them. (Before our interview, they were discussing whether to change one tiny detail before release.)

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Emily VanDerWerff

So much of this movie seems like it’s going to put the characters at odds with each other, but you never quite end up doing that. How did you develop that story to build their divisions while still reaffirming their strength as a family?

Brad Bird

Well, they are against each other for a second.

Nicole Grindle

It’s true.

Brad Bird

I think one of the things that people respond to in these movies is that we represent people as having individuality, different ideas. They argue. They all have, I think, reasonable points of view. You understand the kids’ point of view is a little in conflict with the parents’. The parents have little conflicts with each other. They air out these things.

That’s the way my dinners used to be when I was growing up, and still are with my wife and boys, but when push comes to shove, we pull together. I think family doesn’t just mean a biological relationship. It means people that have your back and understand you and people you can be real with.

I think there’s something reassuring about having adversity, but that group, when that comes, pulling together. There’s something hopeful about it, and I think people like that.

Premiere Of Disney And Pixar’s ‘Incredibles 2’ - Red Carpet
Brad Bird (left), John Walker, and Nicole Grindle attend the premiere of Incredibles 2.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

There’s some commentary about being enslaved by our screens in this movie that’s quite overt. At first I was like, well, are they talking about smartphones right now, but it does reflect the television paranoia that existed in the 1950s and ’60s. So we’ve been talking about this for —

Brad Bird

For a while.

Emily VanDerWerff

For, like, a century now.

Brad Bird

I don’t think it’s only bright, glowing screens. I think it’s something that can preoccupy you. They had a really cool thing in the Harry Potter books, the pensieve, where you stare at your own life but you don’t participate in it. I thought that was fascinating. That was kind of the same thing, and yet it was done in a way where it was more like a classic old tale.

It’s human. We benefit and are imprisoned by our own intellect. A lot of stories are dealing with the chasm between our intellect and our soul. The intellect helps us in many ways do amazing things, but it also keeps pointing us toward Armageddon or something that’s going to be bad for us or some way to misuse our power, so we’re constantly wrestling with what to do with our own brains.

Our soul is not keeping up with our brains, advancements in our soul. In one way or another we’re wrestling with these things, and have been in storytelling for thousands of years.

Emily VanDerWerff

The design of this film has such a sharpness to its angles and sort of a ’60s “new frontier” aesthetic. It’s present in the first film, but it seems even more heightened here. How did you develop that?

John Walker

I don’t think there’s any conscious decision to change the style from the first film. I think it may just be that we have the ability to render that stuff more vividly. We can do it more accurately to the designs. We couldn’t quite get there on the first one.

Nicole Grindle

We also have some really good character designers. We have Matt Nolte and Tony Fucile. Reprising that role in Matt Nolte and Deanna Marsigliese [a character and costume designer].

Brad Bird

You and Teddy Newton came in and did some guest jobs.

Nicole Grindle

Having all these great designers and the ability to execute on what they were putting out there in a way that we couldn’t on the first film was pretty awesome.

Emily VanDerWerff

The notion of animated characters acting is so important to a movie like this where they’re human and have to be recognizably human. How has this technology advanced from the first film to now, in terms of being able to get a nuanced performance from these characters?

Brad Bird

If we use the analogy of racecars, we have much faster, better, slicker cars, but they’re nothing without really great drivers. I think that’s even more important. On the first film, the models were the best we could do, and they were better than anyone else’s, but the animators still had to break the models in order to get them to do what they wanted to do.

There were things that looked horrible if you rotated them slightly, but if you put them back where the animators had them, they worked for that frame. The animators have a lot of input on how those controls work, so the more sophisticated the controls are, the better able [they] are to capture nuances that they couldn’t before.

We had better cars, and our drivers are more experienced.

John Walker

On the first film, he would give a note, and it might come back halfway done the next time, and it might take two more times before, “Okay. That’s it. Good to go.” This time, you give a note, it comes back sometimes the same day.

Brad Bird

And it would be perfect. Bam.

John Walker

Just, like, stunning.

Brad Bird

That’s just artistry. It helps that they have great tools, but great tools are nothing without great artists who play them.

Emily VanDerWerff

Brad, you worked on The Simpsons all those years, and they never aged. The Incredibles characters haven’t aged either. Animation does that so often. What is so interesting about being able to see characters at the same age in different time periods?

Nicole Grindle

It feels possible, for one thing.

Brad Bird

For me, it limits this concept. If they age up, then their powers are only superpowers. They don’t comment on the part of life that they’re in or their role within a family, and they just become powers, and to me that’s kind of boring.

Emily VanDerWerff

The first movie had so many great superhero one-off names, like Bomb Voyage. This one has even more. How much time do you guys spend kicking around one-off jokes?

Brad Bird

That’s an example of the kind of thing that I’d be stupid to close it off to my ideas. I come to the story guys and I go, “Here’s the basic idea. What do you guys think about ...” and the walls get filled with all kinds of wacky things. We laugh and trade ideas, and people pitch things that have no chance in hell of ever being on the screen, and it’s a blast. That’s what makes films fun.

Emily VanDerWerff

Brad, you’re really interested in ideas of exceptionalism throughout all your films. Incredibles 2 is really interested in how we can be exceptional and still fit into a community and into a society. What thoughts were you having about some of those ideas when you were working on this story?

Brad Bird

Oftentimes I just go with, “This seems right, I’m going to go there.” I am told later the implications of what I’ve done.

John Walker

This is reverse-engineering, yeah.

Brad Bird

Yeah. I just kind of go, “That’d be cool.” You know? I bumble around in the dark, and when I find something that feels right, I go with it. I’d love to give you a very scholarly answer, but I just fumble around in the dark, and luckily, I have really talented people fumbling along with me.

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you notice some of those tendencies in yourself when you look back on your work? Even if it’s not this, do you notice other themes you’re interested in and like to explore?

Brad Bird

Kind of, but I’m sort of startled if I find something that is a variation of something I’ve done before. It’s never an intent. I don’t go, “You know, my style is this.” I just kind of go, “This would be great. I don’t like that. I’ll change it to this. Now I like it.” Later on, some sort of pattern emerges.

Hopefully, someday I’ll do a film that isn’t about that and surprise everybody.

Incredibles 2 is showing in theaters.