Early on in in Brad Bird’s “Incredibles 2,” Holly Hunter’s Helen/Elastigirl must stop a runaway train on her new Elasticycle. Through her unique abilities — stretching, catapulting, somersaulting, and splitting — with the cycle aiding as an extension of her form and function, she saves the train and its passengers. It’s a thrilling set piece that both establishes the need for the Supers to be reinstated as the protectors of Municiberg and elevates Helen/Elastigirl as the protagonist, with husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) as a stay-at-home dad.
Balancing the Super and the Mundane
“Helen proves her case by somersaulting over the police cars and getting on the case,” said Ted Mathot, story supervisor, during a recent sequence breakdown at Pixar’s Emeryville campus. “What makes ‘The Incredibles’ so incredible is a combination of super and mundane. But the first time we looked at the sequence it was super all the way through.”
So the team added a call coming through during the middle of the chase, with her adolescent son Dash (Hugh Milner), wanting to find his high-top shoes. It’s a nice character beat that stretches Helen in a more personal direction.
In terms of execution, though, the first hurdle was figuring out how Elastigirl keeps up with the train without slowing it down. By emphasizing her stretching, they came up with the idea of extending the set and adding more stunts, having her leap higher and changing course. This shifted the direction of action horizontally as well as vertically.
The Flexible Elasticycle
They also made great use of the tricked out Elasticycle. “It needed to be an extension of her abilities, flexible and nimble,” said animator Kureha Yokoo, a former motorcyclist. “We went with a conventional motorcycle design but with special features. Brad said, ‘Just make it cool, man!'”
With the flip of a switch, there’s a magnetic connection that enables the bike to stretch acrobatically with Elastigirl, allowing her to jump from rooftop to rooftop, and then catapult on top of a construction crane onto the side of a building and then down onto the top of the train.
At one point, she crashes through a warehouse and, to better sell the glass destruction, the VFX team created greater and larger shards. They also worked with camera and lighting to add more blur and lights. (Speaking of lighting, it’s a city with striking daggers of light, as well as a gorgeous red hue inspired by the hyper-reality of Douglas Sirk movies.)
Once on the train, Elastigirl is forced to split the bike in two as it goes through a tunnel, with her waist stretching over the top of the train. However, when she approaches another tunnel with too low a clearance, she ditches the Elasticycle and it explodes on impact with the tunnel.
Stopping the Train
Initially, Elastigirl muscled her way into the train and hit the brakes to stop it. But since this was a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train, Pixar upped the difficulty by having her slim down, climb into the train and press a fail safe mechanism. This separated the two cars to slow the down the train. Then, as a nod to the first movie, she parachutes down to stop it.
“We uncovered more about Helen’s character,” Mathot said, “She’s the protagonist now and in the first movie she’s pretty close to perfect. It was very challenging in this one to have her flawed in some way. It took some time but we did it.”
And in the runaway train sequence, there were moments when she’s afraid or makes mistakes. “Brad would say, ‘Don’t make it perfect because life is not perfect,'” said Amit Baadkar, the effects animator. “Helen’s tire slips off the edge the girder just for a split second, and when she jumps from one part of the train to the next, you can see her legs scramble just a little bit.”
Added Yokoo: “Even when they’re putting in this extra texture or grit, and the atmosphere in the air, and then the lighting, it’s all about character.”