December 19, 2013

The Cinematography of "The Incredibles" Part 2

See Part 1 here.

Continuing with my case study of the shot compositions from Pixar's film "The Incredibles". All images used here are ©Disney/Pixar (unless otherwise stated).

Composition in film includes many different aspects; color, shape, line, contrast, positioning, cropping, viewpoint, rhythm, perspective, proportion, geometry, and many more.

The dinner table sequence is a nice one that showcases how well you can move the camera around depending on which character(s) you want to make as the focus of the shot. With 5 characters all facing inwards, turning their heads left an right according to which other person they are talking to, you create scenario that can have a million different ways you can shoot this scene from. With endless possibilities of angles,

A 2 shot. Looking over mom's shoulder makes it seem like your almost seeing the baby through mom's eyes.

Warm colors, warm lighting, all conveying a comfortable family environment. Vehicles, furniture and other props all evoke a design sense of post-modern 1960s. Basically the 60s vision of the future is The Incredibles' entire design theme.

Well shot and beautifully executed, the audience always knows where all the characters are, her with Helen and Dash looking at Bob, it motivates the camera to cut (to see what they are seeing).

Center Bob, he's the focus, the secondary focal points are the kids acting awkward around the fact Bob's had enough and leaves the dinner table because Helen just mentioned something that was obviously a touchy subject with Bob. Triangular composition and the rule of thirds keeps appearing in the cinematography.


Characters are never blending into the background too much, color tones and shape (silhouettes) are always clear to make the image fast and easy to read.

A low angle to catch mom's reaction/disapproval as Dash starts to pin around the table.

Moments like this make it more apparent how each character's personalities are reflected in the super powers that they have. The mom is pulled in many directions at once, any mother of 3 kids must be flexible. Bob is the typical protective Dad, a symbol of strength and sturdiness, but deep down he's just a big teddy bear. Violet (as in shrinking violet) is timid, introverted, shy. Her powers are turning invisible and force fields, all elements to protect herself and to stay hidden.

Notice below how everyone's facial expressions are clearly readable.

This moment personifies their family in a nutshell. As many family arguments can easily grow into a bigger conflict especially when individuals may have had a bad day, tensions rise and conflict emerges from what started off as a normal dinner conversation. Turmoil isn't the idea here, but that when push comes to shove they stick together, at the sound of the door knock, they get right back in their seats, nearly all their powers were being used at that moment, and they've rehearsed many times how they must keep them secret, so they all quickly get back into position and become 'normal'.

Seeing the whole family in one room reminds me of how very carefully and deliberately the character designs were made, complimenting their personality and their powers.

The design of all characters in this film not only tells us a lot about who they are, their personalities, and their purpose, but they themselves are also main compositional elements. Not only does their body language and performance obviously convey what they are feeling and most importantly everything they do (and how they do it), but it also helps to push the story forward.

The actual shapes of their bodies, the silhouettes they create, even by just standing there, taking up screen space, usually being the focal point of the shot, and contributing to the scene's composition.
Courtesy of: 

Here's some concept art and sculptures for the characters designs from the Art of The Incredibles book.

© Preston Blair
See how their designs obviously played a big role in how the compositions would be created for the shots they were in. The character's scale, proportions, silhouette, all factors that affect the staging of the shot.

Since in most cases, the characters are the main focus of the shots, they need to be posed and positioned according to what is going on in the sequence, show what their intentions are, what their thoughts are, and they express this through their body language. But the shapes and form their bodies create in the frame are themselves strong compositional elements.

Composition is all about the way a viewer's eye moves through the image. Cinematography is the art of controlling eye movement. Deciding on the composition of a shot, is deciding which direction to lead the eye, what to stop on, and where to go to next.

Nice over the shoulder shot, shows his point of view, camera is tilted down then tilts up to follow dash back to his seat. A sense of depth is always trying to be achieved in every shot.

Nicely laid out, screen geography for this whole dinning room sequence is flawless, even when we crossed the axis to introduce a new character (Frozone) the viewers are never lost as to where the characters are in proximity to each other, we always know where the characters are, who they are communicating with and their body language remains clear and concise.

I keep referring to the "axis line" -- this is when you have two characters talking, imagine an invisible border line between them. Now the rule states that you need to keep the camera on one side of that line and never cross over to the other side. But of course in filmmaking rules are often made to be broken, in this case there are many ways to cross the axis line and still not disorient the viewers. It is a solid principle to follow when scene planning.

Here's some notes from Storyboard Artist Mark Kennedy's blog (Temple of the Seven Golden Camels):

You can put the camera anywhere you want as long as you don't cross the line to the other side of the two characters. This way, no matter what shots you have, you can cut them together in any order and the green character will always stay on the right side of the frame and the blue character will always stay on the left.

If you break this rule and shoot one shot from the other side of the line, the characters will be flopped: the blue guy is now on the right and the green guy is on the left. 

This can confuse the audience because, for example, if the characters look similar, they may start to get the two people mixed up. Or they may think that the characters switched places between cuts, or they may think it's a time jump to a different location at a later time or something. It can cause unnecessary confusion in the audience's mind, and we always want to avoid that.

The problem becomes even more apparent when you're doing a scene where people are in action. For example, when a character is running, you want to consider the path they're traveling along as the line that you don't want to cross. Obviously, if you shoot from the other side the line, the character will look like he's going the opposite direction.

If you start to cut these two different shots together you will create a lot of confusion: did the character turn around and start running back the other way? Or is it two characters running towards each other and they're going to collide? 

That's why you'll notice that - especially in animated movies - a destination is always kept to one side of the screen or the other and the character is always traveling that way. 

Art by Eric Goldberg

Camera pulls out from the close-up of the radio, not all establishing shots start with an extreme wide shot, sometimes they start up close and truck out (or cut wide) to reveal the characters in their setting.

Rule of Thirds is everywhere.

In this sequence the camera orbits around Bob, slowly changing his screen location from being screen right to screen left. The camera gradually swings around them while they sit in the car, Bob wipes the screen by going left and settling into the position you se in the frame below.

This whole bit is up close and intimate, we want the audience to relate to their old war stories, reflecting on their past lives. The acting is all in their facial actions and reactions, the cinematography needs to compliment this part of the storytelling with simple angles.

The composition here needs to make it seem like we are spying on them along with this onlooker. So the camera is placed in the car with the character as we watch the car driving off.

The camera dives right into the fire, placing us directly into the chaos of this burning building with our heroes.

Our heroes bust through the wall, the angles don't want to give us any hints as to where they are until the audience clues in at the same time as our characters.

We establish Bob on screen right and Frozone on screen left. Revealing that they are in a jewlery store.

A quick shot to show the audience where the characters are in their environment, the exit and the hole the busted through are visible.

Establish the exterior, with a police car in view.

The axis is flipped here in order to reveal a new character.

Camera pans over to show the audience what the character sees.

Camera follows Frozone's hand, building tension as the officer follows the action as well with his eyes and handgun.

Awesome shot. The office is framed by Frozone's arm, almost foreshadowing the fact he's about to be a target now that Samuel Jackson is getting recharged!

To show how tense the officer is, he has his head tilted, forced perspective, and a slight up shot to tell us he's in control (or at least he thinks he is).

The action here is fast, so the composition needs to read very clearly, nice depth, you know where all the characters are in relation to each other.

Backup police officers burst in fast. The look around, asses the situation...

For the sake of the following gag to work there is a nice "cheat" happening here. The gag being this new police officer doesn't notice his frozen friend until he turns around to have the camera dramatically reveal him, where the first police officer had come through the front door and the backup team come in through the same door but magically don't notice their frozen comrade.

The effect would have been lost if the cops had walked right into the statue-version of their friend. But with clever camera work you don't even

This simple but effective techniques for visual storytelling reminds me of the book "Directing The Story" by veteran Disney storyboard artist Francis Glebas. In the book he teaches artists a structural approach to clearly and dramatically presenting visual stories. By reading through you learn fundamental concepts like how to convey meaning with images and directing the viewer's eye. Glebas also teaches how to spot potential problems before they cost time and money, and he offers creative solutions on how to solve them at the storyboarding stage.

Character screen spacing, character position and screen direction are all fundamentals to the designing of shots and sequences in filmmaking. Many of these principles are based around the 180 rule mentioned earlier. Here are storyboarding notes from Hat Lieberman regarding the importance in not losing your audience in terms of where your characters are within their environment.

There are no "right" or "wrongs" with storyboarding, only methods that work better than others. Figure out what you want to convey in a scene, and find the best way to present those ideas to your audience.

Maintaining Screen Side:

This is a simple theory of cutting that can easily help create a sense of continuity within a sequence and or exchange. The idea is not exclusive to 1 character interacting with another. The same principle can be used between 2 different groups of characters, or even a character and an object (I.E. A telephone. A man waits anxiously for a very important phone call).

 The example above is a bit rudimentary for the sake of demonstrating the concept. More realistically, you will have characters moving around as they interact. In this case what we can do is create multiple patterns to track the exchange. The important thing to focus on when trying to handle multiple staging set ups is making sure the audience clearly sees our new staging occur. The simplest way to achieve that is by having characters physically cross paths on screen. 

As long as you continue to establish any new screen spacing, the sequence should maintain a certain level of continuity that will allow the audience to follow along quite easily.

Maintaining Screen Direction:

This is a similar theory to the above scenes, however involves more characters and objects moving in and out of frame.

As long as you continue to establish any new screen spacing or direction, the sequence should maintain a certain level of continuity that will allow the audience to follow along quite easily.

The most important thing to remember with storyboarding is that; anything and everything we can do visually will invoke a specific response from the audience. The key is to determine what exactly you want the audience to feel and then find the best way visually to achieve that reaction."

The following sequence is nicely laid out. We follow Bob sneaking back in to his own house. He's what up late "bowling" with his friend, he's done this many times, so he knows he'll get in trouble if his wife suspects him of doing any 'covert hero work'.

A layout like this with a light source in the room creates nice and simple visual balance to the overall composition. Similar to these samples from the film Se7ev.  Off-centered subjects near the Rule of Thirds, plus a light source in the background to help add balance to the image.

The moulding on the back wall running behind his head through his eyes is no accident, it leads your eyes to the focal point.

Below is a classic use of shot progression, cutting back and forth between the characters, each time the framing gets closer and closer on the characters to help intensify the argument escalating between them. This has to do with framing and cutting more so than fancy cinematography, but as the story, dialogue and action grows in intensity, the shots get closer and closer on the subject until there's a breaking point, in this case, when dash zips by to listen in.


The argument is broken once they realize the kids are listening in. The the shots calm down again with wider framing, less angular perspectives.

We end on the extreme wide of the street they live on. Reinforcing the idea they are a regular family living in a regular house, having typical marital/family struggles and inner-conflicts.

Brad Bird chose these shots, storyboard artists may have sketched out a dozen different ways this escalating argument might be shot, but ultimately the scene evolved from initial drawings and concepts to the final pictures you see here.

It reminds me of this great clip where David Fincher discusses cinematography:

The following sequence is one of my favorites in the film. Once he arrives in his boss's office the camera stays on axis line the whole time as the camera flips back and forth 180 degrees, until we introduce the 3rd character (the mugger in the street) then a new axis line is established and a new camera setup is made.

Establishing shots, an extreme close-up and then a close-up of the pencil where they go after being sharpened, then a shot of his boss, almost building up a bit of anticipation while the shots also get us to know what Bob is in for as far as his boss's personality. Obsessive/compulsive, cold, dry, pale, muted color scheme, sterile, clean, immaculate, and precise environment. The post-modern, upper-class, corporate look and style is evident by the layout an demeanour of the of the boss character.

The central compositions are different than what we've been seeing thus fr in the film, to have so many shots demanding our attention, to first show Bob's total disinterest in his job, zero respect for his greedy boss, and the fact he's so bored with his life he really doesn't care why he's been called to his employer's office to be chewed out.

SO here's the setup so far. The camera flops back and forth staying on the first redline stageline, the camera nay tilt up or down, looking down at the boss or up at Bob slightly, but it's a 180 degree turn everytime the camera cu

He paces back and forth while lecturing him, you clearly see Bob's face, drained of life and doesn't care about what he's saying.

The ceiling light going through his eyes (behind his head in the background) is no coincidence, purposefully done to lead your eyes to the focal point (his eyes) and how bored, uniterested and annoyed he is with his boss.

Basic shapes + flat composition + simple forms with contrasting scales and values all help the image to read more clearly.

With Bob dead center, uninterested in this exchange, it leaves the boss free to walk around as the audiences' eyes follow him around, the boss is trying his best to appear and be as dominant as possible.

The expression on the boss's face is sort of subtle as he struggles to contain his "nooooo" answer. Staying reserved so he can blow up a bit 5 shots later, his frustration is building as Bob has an answer for all his questions.

Bob is finally interested in the lecture as he debates with his boss a bit since he doesn't agree with his ethics.

The angles shift according to how important the boss's body language is to what and how he's talking and reacting to Bob's comments.

Some nice shot progression happening afterwards, the scene builds up a bit in tension, eventhough Bob still isn't very interested in what the boss has to say, the framing gets tighter, the director wants to show specific things up close, clearly, in detail, to do this you make the frame tighter on the sunject.

The action cues the cut, we want to see what Bob looks down at. So we cut to his point of view of the letter on his desk.

For the first time we break away from the 180 degree flopping camera pattern. Why? because we're about to introduce a new character, allowing us to break away from this camera setup and go over to a new stageline.

The boss steps to one side to get into frame, well silhouetted on the white background, extreme close-up on Bob, great foreground/background depth.

This small character suddenly and undoubtedly tales control of the situation and the scene entirely with his sudden threat.

We show this shift in dominance with a powerful up shot.

You can't get a much bigger contrast in scale than this, you see the boss's body language despite how small he is on screen, seeing Bob's anger on his face was important.

He closes the door, wipes the screen.

The camera is low to show the nice profile and silhouette shape of the tapping foot. A condescending action to help build up the tension in the scene.

Close-up to show the anger boiling up.

Camera tilts up as he walks towards him.

We zoom in on the mugger, to see what Bob sees, it's a fast truck in to give a bit of a sense of urgency and anxiety since Bob was so eager to go and help the pedestrian, but was pulled away.

A clear silhouette is needed, since the robbery had to happen in shadow anyways, and to make it obvious that the act is done and the guy is getting a way with it.

Close-up to show the frustration in his face. Just before he snaps!

This whole sequence builds up to this, and you can't help but laugh as the boss is about to get what he deserves. It's the climax to this whole scene and we have the boss hurtling through the wall landing into a wall of filing cabinets.

Notice how the character poses are all different, leaning twisted, to add variety and rhythm to the image, with slight variations to the angles of the postures to each person.

As the camera tilts to reveal the damage done, we see the layers of punched-through walls, the tunnel effect, along with incidental characters peeking their heads through, all points to Bob.

A nicer finisher to this sequence, close shot on him to show the regret in his action. Realizing he's screwed up.

How every shot was designed in this film is impeccable, as I write this I notice more and more, and I will undoubtedly notice more in the future upon further viewings.

Mark Kennedy explores here some samples from classic Disney films, illustration, comics, and storyboards to describe some tips on staging and layout.
In The Incredibles, the use of shapes, lines, contrasting forms and values are always apparent.

The Incredibles used all these examples in its cinematography.

A view-through, placing the audience into the scene as if you're peaking into the room that the boss is recovering in.

The lines of action are nice here, Bob's depression and guilt, the agent showing his age with his posture and feeling compassion for Bob's situation.

There's so many ways to shoot this sequence, but the way they ended up shooting these angles conveys the character's emotions well, it had to be played as simple, the consequences to Bob's actions had to be shown and the characters' dialogue explains a lot as to what Bob has been doing the last 15 years.

Some great angles and lightning displayed in his home office. With only the light source of the lamp on his desk and later on the blue light from the tablet device, it forces the viewer to only look at certain areas of the picture, usually his face. We want to clearly see what the character is thinking and feeling through out the sequence, and the lighting helps to accomplish that.

Great camera work, showing Bob cautiously approaching the device on the floor, the camera acts as the character's point of view, slowly getting closer, the camera spirals in towards the device.

Great angles going back and forth from over Bob's shoulder, to showing the expression on his face, to showing the tablet, and back again. All for the purpose of showing how he's anxiously trying to write down the information, take in

This is my favorite expression in the whole film. Totally dumbfounded over what just happened.

The camera swings around and for the first time you see the reverse angle of his room, the memories of Bob back in his hay day, fighting crime and saving innocent people, the joy in his face over the possibility of him regaining his former glory is juxtaposed (fancy art school term meaning 'side by side') by the imagery of the framed clippings on the wall.

Warm colors makes it inviting, comforting, homely, you feel his emotions as you can tell how much he desperately misses being a hero in the spotlight.

When I first saw this film I was wondering if we would ever see his wall of memorabilia or if it was only going to be shown in the amazing teaser trailer they had released a year before the film.

When angles and perspective shots are used, they are not random, they are all setup with a purpose, to develop the characters to enhance and progress the story and to engage the audience, make them feel something.

He swings his chair around as the camera pans and trucks in, making an over-the-shoulder shot to see what Bob is looking at.

The use of camera angles in The Incredibles is dynamic and energetic when it needs to be, and most importantly, it's always appropriate.

I found these storyboarding tips by Giancarlo Volpe, it relates to many of the principles mentioned here so far, but it makes it clear the importance of planning the action in three-dimensional space. These are nice and simple fundamentals for displaying camera work and other technical aspects of scene planning.

I keep referring to the storyboarding process, because in animation, these storyboard artists are essentially the cameramen and cinematographers for the film.

This is an insert shot, used to break up the flow of shots around it and usually a close up to show some information to the audience.

Slick, modern, clean, simply design elements, hi-tech gadgets while still feeling like retro 50s/60s all present. Now the cool blue lighting helps to keep the focus on their faces. Thanks to the simple patterns of 1 shot, 2 shot, Over the Shoulder angles and profile shots for both of them, you're never bored even though they are just talking about technical stuff, you feel engaged, curious about the mission and the subtle flirting happening between them.


Shots like this and many others take full advantage of the wide aspect ratio, characters can be pushed quite fat to the sides, but given the other elements on screen, the compositions are still well balanced and carefully planned.

The translucent holographic grid/map between them acts as a nice added compositional element, the details of it were carefully placed to make it seem all high tech but still doesn't get a way of the characters' faces.

More inserts, quick shots of him getting ready, suiting up, staying close like this keeps information from the audience until the gag is revealed that's he's too big for the pod.

In the bonus features of the DVD, they made a montage of all the button-pushing shots in the film, you'd be very surprised how many there was, it's crazy!

Great foreground/background technique happening, the angle is flat yet we still have some great depth happening as well.

Great viewpoints, these are difficult camera angles to pull off, and to make them work well I'm sure took some experimenting. The camera moves and the camera angles never want to draw attention to them selves, they have to feel natural and they never make the audience wonder where they are, and the viewer never feels confused as to the geography of the scene and where all the character are situated.

Continue on to the epic conclusion in Part 3.


Max said...

That's just amazing. Can't wait for the third part.
Thank you SO much for all these.

Jonah Sidhom said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to put these together, so much great info.

BTW, I believe those last few pages of storyboarding tips are by Giancarlo Volpe.

Ron said...

Thanks Jonah!

Anonymous said...

By the way, it took me a long time to realize that the talk about triangles people make is as opposed to straight lines. I kept thinking that it'd be pretty logical for three people talking to form a triangle.

Arun said...

Thanks for a great writeup.

Unknown said...

This Is SO AMAZING, Bookmarked !

gjeaks said...

Thank you so much for your hard work. Eternally grateful.

tsoka said...

Great Work! Thx from Siberya, cant wait for third part

power3d said...

thank you again for all these information

Unknown said...

Dear Ron,

this is one of the best cinematic-related posts on the entire internet. There is so much to learn from your comments and your thorough analysis of the...hell, EVERYTHING - more than an entire university course could convey.

Thank you for your dedication and your will to share your insights with others.

p.s.: Now the posting should work ;)

Megan said...

FANTASTIC collection of sources to supplement your excellent analysis! Really a wonderful, instructive read--looking forward to part 3!

Bianca R said...

THANK YOU! Amazing analysis. Now I will watch movies with more atention trying visualize everything I've learned from this post. I watched to The Incredibles a million times when I was younger, but reading this is like watching all over again for the first time. So much impressing things we don't realise. Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Hello Ron, i translate, and remake all images your second post on Russian language, for russian auditory, i hope you like it too —

Ron said...

Wow, thanks Misha! it looks very nice!

Paulo Mosca said...

I can't believe this awesome analysis. Just thanks.

Unknown said...

Lost count of how many times I've come back here for reference and guidance.

Thanks for much for all the thought and effort you put into this!

Unknown said...

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