The Incredibles - The Plane Scene
by Jon Turner
I get to give lots of talks about our work, but never get to show the films which drew any of us into animation, or inspire us now.
That’s a shame because if you want to know how to make films well, everything you need is within them.
‘The Incredibles’ is a great place to start. Yes, it’s an Oscar winning film, but there’s a good reason for that. I’ve seen the Plane sequence at least a dozen times and it always makes my heart race.
I’m not sure why though. I know they live. Even if I didn’t, I know children don’t die in Disney films, so how do they create a sense of jeopardy?
These things probably help:
Visual layout – The frame is almost sparse, which make the danger clear and easy to comprehend. We see the plane in the clouds. We see the missiles chasing it through the sky. The characters stand out from their backgrounds. Nothing competes with the red and black of their costumes. This is important as a lot comes down to their performances.
Staging – The fasten seatbelts sign comes on too late for children Violet and Dash to react. As the plane evades the missiles the children are thrown around the hull. You can either see or hear them behind Helen throughout her manoeuvres; so the stakes are never far from your mind.
Characters – One of the pleasant surprises with ‘The Incredibles’ is that all the characters are relatable. They aren’t just superheroes bashing villains and using their powers in big effects scenes. The children bicker, the parents bicker, the children and parents bicker. Holly Hunter’s character, Elastigirl, represents women in film, real women in film so seemingly effortlessly, which has earned her admiration and a great plotline in ‘The Incredibles 2’.
The family bicker with mum about mundane things like doing as they are told and fantastical things like how to use their powers, but it always feels real. At no point do they break character for a cool shot or action sequence. They are essentially a mother trying to look after her children and children trying to prove their worth to their mother. Maybe what is so effective with this scene isn’t the suspense of how it’s going to turn out, but the helplessness of a woman knowing they are going to die, unless her daughter does the one thing she has repeatedly told her not to do.
Elastigirl – I thought it was only me who had a soft spot for Helen Hunter’s Elastigirl and that was mainly because her powers are like Mr Fantastic’s. It turns out she has a big fan club and I think there’s an argument for her being the true hero of this film. She goes from stay at home mum, trying to keep her family happy, a normal life but with the added twist of them all having superpowers they aren’t allowed to use. To the person who uncovers her husband’s secret life, commandeers a jet and flies it to an island to save him. On top of this she has two children to protect from hired killers. She switches from mother to hero, back to mother effortlessly. She is firm when needed, but kind too. She is a great Pixar character, and a believable human. Perhaps the strength of this sequence is seeing someone you have a genuine affection for succeeding despite the odds.
Violet – The focus shifts to Violet as Helen decides she’s their only hope. Brad Bird’s direction in the film has already set her up as a slightly nervous character in the midst of adolescence. In the aeroplane sequence you can see that if everything rests on a young girl suddenly being able to do something she’s been told all her life not to do, this isn’t the young girl to do it. If Violet is their only hope, they are all doomed.
Music – It has a great Bond type score, which sounds like John Barry at his finest (although it’s actually Michael Giacchino and won a Grammy Award for Best Score). If you’ve seen any of Barry’s Bond films, these music cues let you know what is coming. It’s very good short hand and a quick way to heighten tension.
Pace – The cuts get faster and faster as we go from Helen realising the trouble they are in to Violet trying vainly to do anything to help.
A family argument mixes with a life or death situation and becomes tighter and tighter as the danger gets closer and closer and each avenue of escape is blocked off. Air traffic control isn’t responding to Helen’s requests for the missiles to be called off. Dodge as she might, every time she evades a missile more take its place. Violet’s force fields are too puny to survive more than a second.
In the 18 seconds leading up to the explosion there are 18 cuts. In the preceding 18 seconds there are only 8. The momentum of the faster cuts sweeps the audience up until the plane explodes.
Acting – The character and facial animation are both great. Helen looks like a mother arguing with her daughter, but also someone realising they are about to die.
Violet always looks like a nervous teen.
Colour - As soon as the plane drops into the clouds the colour palette of the visuals turns grey. This is a Pixar technique used in other films like ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Up’ to great effect. It’s a subtle change, but it makes the scene more claustrophobic and threatening. It’s not all about the CGI and special effects, colour speaks volumes.
Dreamlike/Nightmarish qualities – Waking up, falling to your death, with your children next to you, as they fall to theirs screaming in terror is a great nightmare scenario. Being able to save them is the perfect dream scenario.
Pay off – Helen turning into a parachute makes her possibly the best mother ever. The cuts slow down as the children are given time to take in how awesome their mother is, as they drift down towards the sea. If one of a mother’s roles is to protect her children, the parachute makes a beautiful image of this.
Conclusion - The secret isn’t to pile more effects on a big scene; it’s to build up the stakes. Want to know how to make a great film audiences will be drawn to? If you spend two minutes getting the audience to care about the characters and a minute putting them in danger, it’s infinitely more effective than adding more effects.
Pixar create great character films with sub context, which are at their best when they are subtle. ‘Finding Nemo’, isn’t just about finding a fish, it’s about coming to terms with grief. ‘The Incredibles’ isn’t about superheroes, it’s about raising a family, trying to do the best for them and get the best out of them. The family does bicker, but there’s a genuine affection between them.
Watch the plane scene here, a master class in how to connect with an audience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfDEl6pwDr4
Incredibles 2 comes out in the US on 15 June and the UK on 13 July 2018.