Coming Out Of The Ice Age

John C. Donkin, Blue Sky's associate producer, reminisces on how the studio transformed itself from a small boutique into a major feature film contender.

Sid, Manfred and Diego are the results of years of planning, talent and passion. All images  and © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Sid, Manfred and Diego are the results of years of planning, talent and passion. All images and © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

How does a small boutique studio such as Blue Sky Studios turn itself into a major player in the feature animation world over the course of two and half years and make a successful animated feature on time and budget? On top of all that, do it in New York? The simple answers come in the following key words: planning, talent and passion. These three tenets go hand in hand. A shortcoming in one may be able to be overcome by strengths in the other two. On Ice Age we were fortunate to have strengths in all three.

Planning

Even before the script for Ice Age crossed the threshold of Blue Sky's doors, we were already working on the pipeline and infrastructure, which would allow us to take on a project of this magnitude. The effort that goes into small projects such as commercials or contract work for features is a far cry from the amount of work that it takes to produce a full-length feature. For some perspective Ice Age has over 25 characters, approximately 35 sequences and 1400 shots. The actual length of production (the point at which we started doing animation which ended up in the film) ran about 65 weeks. The film is about 80 minutes in length -- that's a little bit over a minute per week of actual production.

Director Chris Wedge studies the storyboard for Ice Age during production. Photo: Barbara Nitke.

Director Chris Wedge studies the storyboard for Ice Age during production. Photo: Barbara Nitke.

The math alone gets to be overwhelming. A major challenge is to figure out how to be able to produce this much work in such a short amount of time. It became clear early on that we had to convert our way of working to accommodate the scale of the project and crew. On smaller productions, it's a relatively simple matter to keep everyone busy and productive. As the scale of the project increases in scope this becomes a major challenge. It is required that each artist has all of the tools and materials necessary to work through the material quickly. In order to accomplish this, we had to structure the production pipeline to be more of an assembly line. Each department needed to function independently of one other and have a constant supply of work to do (inventory).

On small projects it's possible for different departments to work nearly simultaneously. This is not possible on a large-scale project and requires a different discipline both technically and creatively.

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Manfred races to save Diego. Creating a furry, four-legged creature like Scrat proved to be an animator's challenge.

In order to accomplish this assembly line approach we had to break apart the procedures that are normally done within a small group and redefine them so that they could be reformed into discreet production steps. Each step is sorted into departmental groups. A production manager who is responsive to a single master schedule produces the inventory of each department. This master schedule is designed to allow work to flow from one end of the production pipeline to the other.

During the course of production on Ice Age, it was necessary to modify both the structure of the pipeline and the subsequent schedule to accommodate things that we learned along the way. Managing the pipeline and schedule was a very active process as the production progressed. We needed to be able to be flexible to allow creative changes or to accommodate technical issues. The primary goal is to forecast bottlenecks and to make adjustments in the workflow to avoid them. Without allowing this flexibility, we would have fallen into holes from which we could not have escaped.

donkinice05.jpg John Leguizamo provides the voice of Sid the Sloth. Photo: Barbara Nitke.

Talent

When Blue Sky began production on Ice Age, the studio consisted of approximately 65 people. At the height of production we grew to more than 170. There was an incredible ramp-up that occurred during a relatively short amount of time. Our recruitment strategy was twofold: to look at raw talent even above experience and to find people who would be great to work with. In the end our crew consisted of a healthy mixture of new people with little or no production experience, along with people who had a wealth of experience.

In animation, lighting and modeling we brought on a group of fresh young talented people who just had "it." They were able to animate or pose a character with strength and emotion. They were able to light a scene with sensitivity and beauty. They were able to capture the shape and form of a character or a background and realize it in three dimensions. We hired the best talent we could get our hands on and enticed them into our culture. Many of our entry level people grew into new positions as the production moved forward.

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Because this was Blue Sky's first feature, we had to build up or create new departments. These included Story, Layout, Art and Editorial. For these departments we were fortunate to bring on some experienced talent whose previous work included such films as Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, A Bug's Life and The Iron Giant, among others. These people provided leadership that went beyond the screen. They understood the rigors of a long production, and understood that times would be easy and other times would be so very difficult.

Part of the challenge of any collaborative work, particularly an artistic one, is to find ways of managing and delegating critical creative decision making. On Ice Age, Chris Wedge was the pivotal creative voice, but there was a reliance upon others who tried to capture or ignite his vision. This wasn't always a breezy experience, as we were all learning together, yet somehow the elements came together to create a unique look at a foreign world.

donkinice07.jpg Ray Romano's voice helps to make Manfred the Woolly Mammoth lovable. Photo: Barbara Nitke.

Passion

Chris Wedge is a demanding director in that he is always pressing to have the best work on the screen, and no detail is too small to scrutinize. The culture at Blue Sky Studios is very much one of attention to detail. This attention comes out of the fact that everyone who worked on Ice Age carried with them a passion: a passion to do the absolute best job possible, as well as a passion for the film to succeed. The importance of success in the collective at Blue Sky led to extremely strong team building within and beyond individual departments.

donkinice08.jpgIce Age features spectacular set pieces like this ice and lava laden landscape. donkinice09.jpg Diego and his saber-teeth show us why it's called the Ice Age.

I believe that part of the strength of the crew, and the reason the team worked so well together, is Blue Sky's New York location. Artists relocated from the West coast, or chose New York over the West coast, because they were drawn to the project and the culture that has been created at Blue Sky. People were here because they wanted to be here.

When Ice Age was first read at Blue Sky, we were thinking, "This is the worst possible film we could try to produce as our first feature: it's a travel film, all of the characters are furry, four-legged animals...Oh! Except for the humans...Humans! And it takes place in the great outdoors." Computer generated films to date (at that time) did not include furry four-legged talking animals standing next to raging waterfalls. How could we possibly do this movie?

After some careful reflection, some creative thinking, clever design, ingenious technical achievements, and a lot of sweat, we turned these apparent negatives into positives and Ice Age now stands on the screen, a proud achievement for all of us here at Blue Sky.

John C. Donkin is an associate producer at Blue Sky Studios and was in charge of the production of Ice Age; Blue Sky Studios first CG-animated feature.

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