In the new Robert Zemeckis film, The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg’s dreamy illustrations are animated by way of a new three-dimensional CGI technology called “performance capture.” In this process, real actors (Tom Hanks plays most of them) are wired with small sensors attached to a network of digital cameras that simultaneously record three-dimensional facial and body movements in 360-degree views. (In production shots, the sensors themselves are attached to the actors’ faces, making them look as though they’ve been overcome by a rather advanced case of digital acne.)
Meanwhile, Pixar’s latest foray into cinematic invention captures more than just performance, and is, therefore, incredible for a number of reasons—not least of which is the fact that it’s not even remotely time-pegged to Christmas.
So what’s so incredible about The Incredibles? It’s not the brilliantly detailed portrayal of modern superhero culture writ large. It’s not the witty, demented parody of celebrity hero-worship positioned against the rampant passivity of civilian laissez-faire. It’s not their agility, their bravery or their will, their strength or their stamina, or even their ability to produce force fields at the dinner table.
No: what’s incredible isn’t performance capture but another phenomenon altogether. What’s incredible about The Incredibles is the art of design capture. Because when it comes to nailing design, the “Is” have it.
The Incredibles dwell in a kind of extraordinary dystopia, at once a celebration and an exaggeration of Eames-era modernism. Flanking either side of their suburban abode are split-level houses whose bland facades are punctuated by rows of tailored boxwoods: they’re robotic stand-ins, a kind of horticultural mutation of Stepford-wife stupor. Inside the house, chairs and tables sport blonde, Danish wood finishes, a mid-century palette further amplified by hints of color: chartreuse upholstery and avocado appliances form the perfect backdrop for a duo of wizened heroes who’ve been retired from active duty.
Yet as the pace quickens and the action builds, the design does too. Slick designer vehicles (think Philippe Starck on steroids) transport us to new architectural destinations: here are sites dotted by grand concrete allées, framed by volcanic window treatments and walls of perfectly gridded weaponry. Even Syndrome, the villain’s sensurround computer screen is well-designed, boasting well-kerned Bank Gothic letterforms within an icy blue-grey interface. It’s design run amok, at once exquisite and terrifying: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis meets Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Japan.
Yet beyond the fear factor, design is also featured as deliriously comical. Arriving at the estate of Edna Mode, visitors are led up a manicured hillside to an International Style house of uncertain provenance. Edna’s diminutive size (she admits to three-foot-eight) makes the scale of her minimally furnished home seem even more preposterous: from the Miesian lobby to the Bulthaup-inspired industrial kitchen (and let’s not forget the George Nelson benches) it’s an aesthetic travesty: design beyond reach. Edna herself is a kind of cross between the diminutive actress Linda Hunt and the design impresario Murray Moss—with dashes of Anna Wintour and Edith Head thrown in for good measure. In Edna’s domain, design manifests as a kind of Napoleonic obsession. A devout minimalist permanently clad in monochromatic shades of black and grey, she’s the ultimate cartoon embodiment of design. True to form, a glance at her profile reveals that while Mr. Incredible’s special power is “strength” and Elastigirl’s is “flexibility,” Edna’s is simply listed as “designer.”
The Zemeckis film has, of course, its own artistic merit: one scene at the North Pole features an Elf-manned command center, with an enormous obelisk made up of hundreds of round-edged black and white television screens, allowing the elves to monitor a world of sleeping children. (More echoes of Fritz Lang here.) But performance capture leaves you feeling like someone introduced an auto-pilot feature in Photoshop: in the end, it’s all too mechanically perfect, and no amount of dreamy illustration—or, for that matter, piped-in Bing Crosby holiday favorites—can fill the void.
Pixar’s technical contribution to computer animation is the art of texture mapping which, like performance capture, raises the bar for what’s visually achievable from storyboard to silver screen. But special effects are only half the battle and, at Pixar, they’re the second half. One has only to acknowledge the attention to morality (The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman and Peter Conrad have both called it “Nietzschian”) and consider the characters—funny, flawed and yes, flabby—to understand that at Pixar, the play’s the thing. But that’s not all: take one look at their signature character—the deliciously anthropomorphized Luxo lamp—and you’ll agree that design looms large in this new world vision. And thanks to Edna Mode, we now we have our very own superhero to prove it.