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The Cinematography of "The Incredibles" Part 1

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Here is Part 1 of 3 on a case study of the shot compositions from Pixar's film "The Incredibles, I'll go over how the relationships of all the visual elements on screen were meticulously crafted to form a point focus in every shot. It is through the arrangement and control of all the elements on screen that the filmmakers were able to guide the sight, thoughts, and emotions of the audience. All images used here are ©Disney/Pixar (unless otherwise stated).

The cinematography in the film is an art form all by itself.

It involves three main factors:

Placement of people and objects within the frame.

Movement of people and objects within a fixed frame.

Movement of the frame itself.

The concept of the ever-changing image can be very difficult to execute because it involves the simultaneous control of all these three main factors of cinematography. The filmmaker, unlike the photographer and the theatre director, creates his visual compositions in a flexible, ever-changing arena.

In animation, the term staging refers to the purpose of directing the audience's attention and making it clear what is of greatest importance in a scene; what is happening, and what is about to happen. This can be done by various means, such as the placement of a character in the frame, the use of light and shadow, and the angle and position of the camera.

In a 3D/CG animated movie, cinematography can be split between two areas. Layout and Lighting, but overall creating strong compositions is the end goal of this process. It is all created to emphasize the subject/mood/action of the image and make it both easily understood and aesthetically pleasing to the viewer. The directors have ultimate control over the camera, lighting, depth of field, perspective, and subject placement - and have the freedom to adjust these factors endlessly until the desired picture, movement, and effect are achieved. Unlike live-action film, once you've shot your actors on location, done some retakes and reshoots, wrapped principal photography, you're then stuck with what you got! Editorial and post-production can make some adjustments, visual FX and compositing tricks can add, remove and cheat lots of things, but overall, you're locked in with what you have.

There are often many months and even years of pre-production work to plan out the visual look, with costumes, sets, props, and character designs, but eventually, each shot of the animated film is designed as well. The storyboard and pre-viz artists compose their scenes and sequences long before anything is fully animated on the computer, and they keep refining how the shots cut together and how every scene is staged until it is exactly what they want. At Pixar, they are known for literally spending YEARS doing thousands of story sketches of every single shot to visualize the script, communicate the story effectively, and portray the characters and environments most clearly and entertainingly, always adjusting and perfecting along the way.

A scene comprised of elements that are just there - permits the audiences' attention to wander and lapse, but in The Incredibles, every shot has a center of attention.

Upon my first viewing of this movie in the theatre, I noticed right away how fantastic all the shots were set up, obviously lots of thought and care was placed in the compositions. Not that many other animated films before and after did not, I just felt that this particular film seemed to pay extra attention to this. I had never noticed such deliberate care in the camera work, designs, and colors in a computer-animated cartoon before. Lots of great staging, clear lines of actions, and plenty of dramatic angles; taking full advantage of the superhero/action-adventure genre that it was.


How is the composition of every shot determined?

It all starts with the storyboards. Building the storyboard is an integral part of putting together an animated feature and it's the first stab at figuring out the cinematography. The process provides not only a visual interpretation of the script but also allows designers and animators in all departments to get a feel for what will be presented on screen. 
After the screenplay is developed, creating the visual story is the next step in the animation production process; it's composed of consecutive story sketch panels that depict the action and staging of the film's script.

The procedure taken to get each animated shot completed is a long and tedious one, here's a basic summary to give you a hint of the many steps taken to produce a shot from concept to completion (Courtesy of Frank Baker).

1) Storyboard Sketch – Hand-drawn (digitally or with pencils & markers) storyboard panels that plan out the staging of every shot, which later get compiled into an animatic (story reel). Assembled with all the panels placed back-to-back with the recorded dialogue track. This allows for the directors and editors to see where they can trim down the feature film to an appropriate length of time, observe all the sequences in order and see how well they play off each other, as well as plan out all the camera moves and determine the length of each scene. Once an animatic is complete, it becomes the vision of continuity that will drive the entire production from that point forward.

2) Layout and Key Animation – Layout helps the director plan the location and motion of the camera, the position and main poses of the characters (blocking), and the timing of each shot. Using rigged character models, animators control every aspect of the character motion, providing the physical acting for the scene according to the storyboard's poses and the guidelines provided by supervisors and directors.

3) Surfacing, Set Dressing, and Final Layout – The process of surfacing requires the application of the finished models that define the form of particular objects and environments. All these models are positioned to form the set and its surroundings. The placement of models helps to promote the purpose of a shot, leading the eye, or allowing the character to interact with their surroundings.

4) Simulation – After the characters' bodies are animated, the motion of their clothes and hair are added. This motion is based upon the movement of the characters, using a computer simulation of the physics of fabric and hair. The simulation takes into account gravity, weight, stretchiness, friction, and other factors, as well as the collisions of each garment against itself and its surroundings. Ensuring that the hair and clothing move in a manner consistent with the goals of the shot.

5) Shading and Lighting – Shading is the process whereby an object is given color and a tactile quality that helps us to recognize what material the object is made from. An important step in shading is determining how the object reacts to light; how light is absorbed, reflected, or internally scattered by the form. Once shading is complete, lighting adds virtual lights to each scene, creating the look of the final images. Colored filters are used to affect light and shadow, and atmospheric qualities can further enhance the mood of the sequence. Finally, physically-based optical effects such as the focal qualities of the lens, and the blur of moving objects and characters provide the familiar cinematic cues of reality.

At each stage, the filmmakers refine the shot's composition. The final cinematic image is made to position all the visual elements within the frame in a manner that accurately displays the intended situation, action, and story. There's an average of 1,500 shots in an animated film, so you can just imagine how long it can take to develop the scene planning for an entire movie.

For every Pixar movie, a color script is created. I'm not sure at which stage in the entire film-making process this is produced, but I'd think it would be during or after the storyboards. This is essentially a rough look at the color keys, palettes, and tones for the entire film. This 'visual script' gives you a good look at how the color arcs relate to the story. Lou Romano created the one for this movie, the intention was to richly visualize the story like a long illustrative comic strip, this is made to help plan for the computer-generated coloring and lighting process to come later on.


Let's begin with the terminology I'll be referring to as I go through the shot analysis of this film.

Extreme Wide Shot / Establishing Shot

These types of shots give us the big picture. It displays the location we are in, they tell us about the setting our characters are performing in. If the characters are in the shot at all they are usually so small we can barely see them, it's not about our characters it's about the environment and the world where the scene is taking place.

Long Shot / Far Shot

When we need to see our characters and what they are doing in their environment, we go for the Long Shot. With this type of shot, they are not establishing the ‘world’ so much as establishing the character(s) in that world.

Full Shot

This is a full-body shot of the character. There is some space above and below them inside the frame. No part of them is cropped off unless they are behind an object. The environment the character is in becomes less important. This shot is all about the ‘who’. This shot wants us to look at our characters, see them move about, do full-body gestures, walk around, interact with others.

I consider Extreme Wide Shots, Long Shots, and Full shots to all are "wide shots".

They used wide shots throughout the film to help establish or re-establish the location the characters were in. The closer you go in on a character the more clearly you can see what they are doing, and how they are interacting with their environment or other characters.

Medium Shot

Medium Shots are widely used throughout the film, they are a reliable standard to show you the character nice and close, but not too close, usually cut off at the waist, plenty of space is left around the character, giving him room to act out, gesture, and still see the character about the environment he's in. It's not too intimate, but it's showing you something specific.

There is a slight variation like the Medium-Full Shot, where the characters are cut off around the knees.

Close-up Shot

The close-up is usually the full head and sometimes a bit of the top is cropped off and includes the neck and a bit of the shoulder. It's an emotion-teller and an information-giver. This shot is ALL about the subject, it tells us the important stuff we need to know to understand the story. We can tell what the character is feeling and thinking.

There are variations on these too, like the Medium Close-Up, which crops the character off somewhere between the ribs and the chest.

The closer you frame your main subject the more it becomes all about them. The background gets phased out as the focus closes in on the character or object you are centering on.

Extreme Close-up

It can be used for a very intense or super intimate moment or it can just be a very useful information tool. It depends on what the director wants to show you and why. In this shot, nothing else matters but the subject matter. And it’s usually only a portion of that subject matter. Backgrounds are usually unrecognizable, you can only see the character or object as they cover most (if not all) of the frame. It keeps the audience informed about the story, the characters, and the situation, up close, in detail, clear information-giver.

There's not much room for the character to move, so the audience can focus on the expressions and emotions. You can call this a "cut-in" also, instead of zooming in, you cut the camera in closer, or to a different part of the body to show something important.

Depending on what the director wants to show the audience, every type of shot has its purpose, how the filmmakers decide how close or wide to frame a scene, depends on what they want the focus to be and what information they are trying to display.

Let's have a quick look at camera angles...


The camera is level to the ground and the lens is lined up parallel to the main subject.

Up Shot

The camera is pointing up at the subject.

This is called a 'Low Angle' in live-action.

Down Shot

The camera is angled to point downwards towards the subject.

This is called a 'High Angle' in live-action.

Up Shots place the viewer beneath the focus and Down Shots

place the viewer above, both physically and psychologically.

I'll talk a lot more about this later.

Bird's Eye View

Worm's Eye View

A more extreme version of up shots and down shots where the angle

of the camera is pointing nearly (or entirely) straight up or down.

Over The Shoulder Shot

(OTS) One of the most efficient and widely used methods of shooting a conversation scene, or even to see the vantage point of one character as s/he glares at another. Sometimes the characters are nearby, sometimes they are far away, the shots reverse back and forth and can be used in combination with up shots and down shots, depending on the camera angle and height or placement of characters.

1 Shot

2 Shot

3 Shot

Group Shot

These are pretty self-explanatory, 1 shot: one subject in the frame. 2 shot: there's two, when you get more than 3 in there, you've got a group shot.

There is an endless combination that can be used to describe a shot.

Here's a 2 Shot, Medium Shot, and a slight Up Shot all rolled into one.

Low Angles

When the camera is sitting right on the ground.

Each angle and framing technique and the combination they are used in - can all help to tell the story and to display the information on-screen so that the audience can follow along easily. A variety of shots is important, but as I will show you, the Incredibles excelled at using dynamic angles and perspective to make the film very visually exciting. I've noticed that different film theory books have slightly different terms for this sort of thing. My terms here are more akin to Animation Filmmaking, some studios and directors have variations on these as well.

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