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'Ice Age' Goes Epic with 'Continental Drift'

Ice Age celebrates its 10th anniversary with the franchise's first action/adventure

Manny, Diego and Sid all return in Continental Drift. All images: TM & © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

It's hard to believe that the Ice Age franchise is 10 years old. It's not only helped Blue Sky and Fox prosper but has also become a global phenomenon, with the last entry, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, raking in a record $690 million internationally. That accounted for nearly 80% of the box office. The latest and fourth installment, Continental Drift, has already taken in more than $200 million internationally this month prior to Friday's domestic opening.

"I think they just have an interesting dynamic," suggests Steve Martino, who co-directs Continental Drift with Mike Thurmeier. "Sid's the lovable loser, and Manny's the curmudgeon and Diego's the tough guy with a dry sense of humor. And Scrat as a character is pure animation: it's pantomime; it's physical comedy; and his mission in life is simple and getable.

"Those characters are personalities that we relate to. They may look odd in terms of being a mammoth, a tiger and a sloth, but we see ourselves in them. They goof up; they do those things that we do; and therefore we connect with them in a very real way. And we try in our storytelling to find those things that are relatable in a big way. And I think that the Ice Age world is one that you can't pin down. You can't say that it's necessarily North America or South America. People around the world can claim this as their group of characters and a place that is their home."

Sid reunites with his family.

For Continental Drift, Martino (who co-directed Horton Hears a Who!) and Thurmeier (who co-directed Dawn of the Dinosaurs) were tasked with taking over from Carlos Saldanha, who, in turn, took over from Chris Wedge. They complement each other well, with Martino's art direction background and Thurmeier's animation background. They worked together through editorial and then segued to a divide and conquer approach the last year, working with animators in their respective area of specialization.

"As we worked through the entire filmmaking process, we would often refer to Ice Age landmines being ideas that would come up that are too similar to ones that we'd done in the past," continues Martino. "We could leverage off the body of work that our main characters have created, but with some unique ideas. We have Manny learning about letting go of his teenage daughter, Peaches. We have Sid's family come back, they have a big reunion, Sid's all excited, and we find out they've only come back to drop off Granny with him and then they bolt. And we have Diego find a girlfriend, Shira [voiced by Jennifer Lopez], a saber tooth pirate.

"Mike and I sat together and came up with our cornerstones: What are the things that we want to do with this story that are important for distinguishing this film from the others? We talked about it wanting to be a more epic adventure, larger in scope, using 2.3:5 aspect ratio for the first time, and we wanted to take the 3-D storytelling component and create something bigger and better than we had ever done at Blue Sky. We pushed the depth on this but more than anything else, we integrated the stereo component into the filmmaking process much earlier. I think the 3-D component is a lot like working with a cinematographer where you're choosing lens for a particular shot, you're deciding whether you want a deep space or a flat space shooting style."

The film introduces a new set of characters

"The trick is when you get to animation to figure out what's best for the franchise," adds Thurmeier. "With Horton and Rio and the upcoming Epic, the character rigs are so much better yet the new Ice Age characters have been held back slightly to exist in the same world. Still, they're a little more elaborate and organic than the classic characters. But the big character advancement is incorporating simulation on top of characters: [pirate baddie] Captain Gutt's beard is a simulation. We wanted it to flow and blow in the wind and react to his body and we didn't want to rely on traditional follow through techniques because they're not technically accurate and crash into each other. The sim team also did jiggly fat on a new elephant character. Now they're taking it further on Epic."

Since Manny, Sid and Diego are cast out to sea, the dynamics of waves and ocean and 3D clouds are very important. In fact, CG water was the big new advancement for Blue Sky. The water effects were achieved by using a combination of software, some developed in-house, and some off-the-shelf. While water, splashes and cloud rendering was done in Blue Sky's proprietary renderer, CGI Studio, Houdini was used to generate data for simulations, and Realflow for some splash effects.

"We have a big storm sequence and it all had to be prevised to get the waves correctly," explains art director Nash Dunningan. "We even had a seasick test early on, where we all sat with the glasses and figured out if it was going to make someone in the audience feel ill or have we pushed it too far with the rocking of the waves. I would say just because it's simulation based, it probably approached realism as far as the fluid aspect of it; color wise, it got stylized with the lighting: Dark aqua and dark green. The destruction had to feel threatening. The perfect storm sequence had to have the right scale."

CG water was a big new development for the film and the studio.

As far as the clouds, they became a compositional element as well. Matt Wilson built cloud settings in a real space so they could be lit and rotated with dynamic camera movement through and around them. This also provided great parallax, especially in stereo. "This was a huge component in getting the skies right," Dunningan adds. "He could render out some temps in just a fraction of the time it used to take and check out what it would look like with the right atmosphere and the right color."

"The artists here are of two minds about the sequels," Thurmeier says: "'Oh, another sequel?' But it's fun to animate on a sequel because you know the characters so well but you want to keep pursing new stories."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.

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