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Book Review: The Art of 'The Croods'

Fred Patten describes why fans of the new DreamWorks feature will love this definitive movie art book.

The Croods © 2013 Dreamworks Animation, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

The Art of The Croods, by Noela Hueso.  Foreword by Nicolas Cage.

London, Titan Books, March 2013, hardcover, $34.95 (171 [+5] pages).

Any movie about cavemen implies evolution.  “The Art of The Croods traces the evolution of the comedy adventure movie with over 400 pieces of concept art, character sketches, storyboards and digital paintings, along with interviews with the key animation talent.”  (publisher’s blurb)

These coffee-table art books about today’s CGI animated features no longer claim to have anything to do with the making of the movie.  They do, of course, but there are no finished screen shots or publicity photographs, or how-we-filmed-it photos dominated by computers and VFX equipment.  These 176 pages are all showcases of the original production art by DreamWorks’ artists, broken down by characters and settings.

First there is a one-page summary of the story.  The Croods offers no sugar-coated realistic anthropology.  It is set during the “Croodaceous” Age, full of fanciful creatures, giant earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, and it shows one small caveman family (and its future son-in-law) inventing fire and the taming of wild animals all by themselves.  The first meeting of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthal man is implied.  Caveman Grug and his family of wife Ugga, teenage daughter Eep, younger son Thunk, feral baby Sandy, and ancient mother-in-law Gran, spend every day huddled in their cave, hiding from the giant monsters and vicious predators and diseases and natural disasters that killed the other cavemen.  Eep wants more from life, and she meets the implied Neanderthal youth Guy who shows her such marvels as fire and shoes.  An earthquake destroys the cave where they have always lived, forcing them out to join Guy in his search for Tomorrow past the coming massive earth shifts that will destroy their world forever.  Grug, at first stubbornly refusing to give up the old ways, finally is converted into an enthusiastic embracer of the future.

The art book presents the characters, at first generally and then singly, including Guy’s pet sloth, Belt.  The movie conveniently has a small cast, so several pages can be devoted to each character, showing a variety of preliminary designs as well as the final one.  This is followed by the cave and the Croods’ jungle world outside the cave – the plants, birds, and animals that they meet; the tundra past that with its completely different plants, birds, and animals (including giant flocks of small carnivorous birds); the coral field; the gorges; the maze where the family splits up and has different experiences; the night under the stars, where the cavemen first see past the world’s dangers into the heavens; and the climactic journey through crumbling cliffs and over flowing lava to the high mountain of Tomorrow that represents the new future.  The book closes with an “Anatomy of a Scene”, the detailed making of sequence #2975; the story and layout drawings, modeling and surfacing, character TD (rigging) and animation, crowd duplication, character effects, visual effects, matte painting, stereo 3D, and lighting.

Each section is filled with full color artwork, with each piece identified by its artist:  co-director Chris Sanders; production designer Christophe Lautrette; art directors Dominique Louis and Paul Duncan; character designers Takao Noguchi, Carter Goodrich, Shane Prigmore, Timothy Lamb, Joe Moshier, Shannon Tindle, and Arthur Fong; visual development artist Margaret Wuller; layout artists Christophe Lautrette, Michael Comfort, and Lorenzo Bambino; modeling artists Manny Fragelus, Philippe Brochu, Jeff Hayes, Phil Zucco, and Abraham Meneu Oset; surfacing artists Fernanda Abarca, Robbin Huntingdale, and Ronnie Cleland; rigging artists Mariette Marinus, Sven Pohle, Koji Morihiro, Yukinori Iagaki, and Valentina Ercolani; crowd artists Spencer Knapp and Liron Topaz;lighting artists Gabriel Portnof and Matthew Waters; colorist Tianyi Han; and many, many others.  The art pieces range from individual character designs, several to a page, to huge panoramas requiring large fold-outs.

The Croods is filled with “critters”.  Author Hueso explains, “Nor could everything be made oversized, which was a natural impulse.  ‘The first, easiest thing to say would be something like, ‘It’s a rabbit, but it’s a giant rabbit!’ recalls director Kurt DeMicco of conversations in pitch meetings.  That would get attention.  But then we realized if all the creatures and atmosphere were giant, the Croods would seem like miniatures and our movie would become ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Caveman’.”  (p. 66) The art staff created dozens of fantasy creatures from gigantic to tiny.  Those that stand out at all are given humorous names (although they are not used in the movie); from important creatures like the saber-toothed Chunky the Macawnivore, and the ferocious Bear Owl that tries to get into the Croods’ cave, to the creatures that they see in passing such as the blue-furred, long-armed Punch Monkeys, the Lyotes, the Trip Gerbils, the Jackrobat, the Ramu, the Girelephant, the Piranhakeets, the Land Whale, the Turkeyfish, the Fish-Cat, and the Crocopup.  Others only in the background are not named, such as Christophe Lautrette’s “Big, Weird Thing”.

Author Noela Hueso, a 16-year veteran at The Hollywood Reporter, conducted dozens of interviews with the production crew of The Croods to write this in-depth story of the movie’s creation.  In addition to the text, numerous key quotes are highlighted throughout the book.  “We believe there are certain things an audience will expct to see in a caveman film – things we were determined to deliver, including physically powerful cavemen with beginners’ minds, broad action, and fire.”  - Chris Sanders, director.” (p. 11)  “While the characters and environments have very stylized shapes, they’re unified by the naturalistic textures and realistic animation they share – whimsical creations treated very seriously.” – Kristine Belson, producer.” (p. 21)  “The Croods live at the narrow end of a deep canyon – a prehistoric cul-de-sac.  It’s a subtle metaphor that illustrates where the Croods are, both mentally and as a species.  If nothing changes, they’re at a dead end.” – Chris Sanders, director.” (p. 71)  “The movie’s central theme has a great deal to do with the idea of living instead of surviving and the idea of risking instead of always playing it safe.” – Jane Hartwell, producer.” (p, 154)

The Art of The Croods is not an “everything that you could want to know” book about this movie, because it leaves out the “making of” part – the photos of the voice actors, the directors and producers, the production crew at work, and so on.  But it really delivers what the title promises; the art of the movie!  If you enjoyed The Croods, you have to have this book!  If you want to see all the different kinds of art that go into a modern Computer Graphic Image movie, you have to have this book!  If you want to see the art of many of the best current CGI animation artists, you have to have this book!

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the firsttheatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded thefirst Americanfan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and wasawarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 forintroducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August1996.  Amajor stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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