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Book Review: 'The Art of Epic'

Fred Patten looks at this visual feast of concept art, sketches, storyboards and other digital art from Blue Sky’s latest animated feature.

The Art of Epic (Titan Books). Epic © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The Art of Epic, by Tara Bennett.  Foreword by Chris Wedge.

London, Titan Books, April 2013, hardcover $34.95 (144 pages).

This is the latest in the series of lush, full-color coffee-table art books that thoroughly cover a major CGI animated feature.  Epic, produced by Blue Sky Studios for 20th Century Fox Animation, was released on May 24, 2013.

The feature is nominally based upon William Joyce’s children’s picture book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs (HarperCollins, 1996).  However, author Bennett says that it was really inspired by an art exhibit that William Joyce and Epic’s director Chris Wedge saw together.   “It was after visiting an exhibit of Victorian fantasy paintings at New York’s Frick Museum that Wedge and executive producer and production designer William Joyce began exploring the potential of fleshing out a fantastical, unseen but vividly imagined world in a movie.  Joyce had visited a related world in his illustrated children’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, a tale about tiny Leaf Men that restore nature’s balance in a garden.  The notion that these tiny warriors could be made into action heroes spurred them, along with executive producer James V. Hart, to begin creating a completely original story.” (p. 9)

The Art of Epic consists of over 300 pieces of concept art, character sketches, storyboards and digital paintings, each identified by the artist, illustrating the character or setting in detail in the feature.  Leading artists are production designer Greg Couch, art director Michael Knapp, set designer Sandeep Menon, and lead character designer Sang Jun Lee, plus such artists and animators as BJ Crawford, Robert MacKenzie, Mike Lee, Tim Bowers, Jake Parker, Jim Jackson, Tyler Carter, Marceline Gagnon-Tanguay, Clayton Stilwell, Vicki Saulls, and many others.

The lead characters are Professor Bomba, the eccentric scientist, and his dog Ozzy; Mary Katherine, his daughter; Ronin, the leader of the Leafmen (note the change from Leaf Men to Leafmen); Nod, the happy-go-lucky Leafman trooper; Queen Tara of the Jinn forest people; Mub & Grub, the comedy-relief slug and snail; the caterpillar savant Nim Galuu; Bufo the toad bookie; and evil General Mandrake and his son Dagda of the Boggans.  Lead settings are Professor Bomba’s house; the forest; Queen Tara’s Moonhaven; Nim’s tree; and the Boggans’ Wrathwood.

Director Chris Wedge and these artists explain their thoughts and goals in making Epic.  Blue Sky Studios started with films such as the Ice Age movies, Robots, and Rio that used computers to create imagery that was bright and shiny.  With Epic, their goal was to develop natural-looking, complex forest scenes.  They started out with the character of Professor Bomba, the comical stereotypical absent-minded scientist obsessed with proving that there really are tiny warriors in the forest.  It was not until their fourth outline of the story that his teenage daughter Mary Katharine began to take prominence as the audience-identification character through whom the viewer sees the story.  The gentle story in The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs of saving an old woman’s garden grew into “the story of an ongoing battle deep in the forest between the forces of good and the forces of evil.”

Professor Bomba has spent his life in his old house at the edge of the forest trying to get proof of the tiny men he is convinced live in it.  His wife left him years ago, taking their daughter Mary Katherine with her; but when she dies, the now-teenaged Mary Katherine has nobody else to turn to.  She returns to her father, whom she loves but does not believe in.  One day he is late returning from the forest, so Mary Katherine goes in search of him.  She sees glowing leaves drifting to the ground and catches one in mid-air.  This shrinks her to the size of the tiny Jinn who live in the forest.  They range from fully human, part human and part plant, and anthropomorphized animals such as a toad, a caterpillar, a slug and a snail.  She meets their Queen Tara and their Leafmen samurai warriors who ride on hummingbirds and protect the Jinn’s home, Moonhaven, from the evil Boggans who seek to destroy them.  “EPIC tells the story of an ongoing battle between the forces of good, who keep the natural world alive, and the forces of evil, who wish to destroy it. When a teenage girl finds herself magically transported into this secret universe, she teams up with an elite band of warriors and a crew of comical, larger-than-life figures, to save their world...and ours.”  (Epic official website)

Tara Bennett is the author of many articles for popular culture and movie magazines, and several movie and TV companion books.  Her The Art of Epic is smoothly written and contains much information about the movie from the director and artists who worked on it.  Above all, this is a visual feast of closeups and production art (preliminary models, etc.) for the movie’s many fans.  Those who liked the movie should not miss this book.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major 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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