Chris Wedge and Bill Joyce Talk Epic
DS: Chris, unlike much of your past work, in Epic, you’ve got human characters, not just animals. How much more difficult is that to do? How much does it change the development and production process?
CW: It doesn’t change the process. It just makes it harder. I learned early on when we were making Ice Age. With all my ideas about animation, I thought I’d seen it all. We built our company on our own. I’d been in animation all my life and I thought I knew everything. But when I finally got the film in front an audience, I was willing to do anything to keep them happy. If they thought something was boring, then, we don’t need it. This joke is trying too hard, we need more set up for the gag, or it just doesn’t pay off here. I could tell just by listening to the audience. I learned that the first thing they want is character. It really is the first thing they care about. They want to find somebody onto whose shoulders they can jump, to be in their laps, to be in their skin, to feel what it’s like to be them, or just be entertained by them. So that has become an important principal for us. Characters have to be fun. We’ve done a lot of comedy and it’s not easy.
But in this film, I wanted it to be more about the world. I wanted to make an action adventure movie, where in my mind the world came first. But the world’s inhabited by characters that have to live up to that same standard. They have to be compelling, creative and entertaining. You don’t have a movie if you don’t have a story, and if you don’t have a story, you don’t have engaging characters.
So, the human characters in our movie were a challenge, because in my mind I saw that, if I had had twice as much money, I could have made the film in live action with some animated characters. In the designs, I wanted it to look coherent. We had to design a world where you could believe that those slugs talk, but they still look like slugs. You could believe that those birds are just birds, but they happen to have saddles on and in this world, act more like horses do. The humans are designed in a way that they have convincing, human proportions, but they are not so close that you get into Uncanny Valley. The closer you get to the Uncanny Valley without going in, the more pressure you put on the animators to keep all the proportions intact. If it’s just a big goofy blue round character, you can pop the eyes and make its tongue wag, say something funny and bounce it off the screen. But the humans can’t. So there was a lot more pressure on everybody, twice as much, to put those nuances in there so the characters didn’t escape the reality of the physics that we know, but they were also broad enough to qualify as animated characters.
DS: So in the final analysis, is this the film you guys set out to make?
CW: Well it’s not the film we set out to make, but it “is” the film that evolved from there. In my opinion, it’s a much better film than we set out to make, because we didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning. With the first draft, I cut the whole movie together in about nine months. When I go back and read what we first did, look at those reels, I go, “Well, you know, maybe Fox wasn’t completely wrong to say you’re not quite ready to make this.” We were very serious about what we were doing, very earnest, maybe a little heavy handed because we were so excited about it. Then it took much more writing and much more visual exploration in storyboarding to find something that was entertaining.
CW: The toughest stuff is comedy. I always wanted an ensemble cast here. We hadn’t called the film Epic until about a year ago. I always wanted it to feel that big. Part of the formula for those big-feeling movies is a lot of characters. Watching their lives interweave, watching them arc through each other. I just wanted to create this tapestry of characters that connect to each other. But, you’d also have the stand-back perspective of a much bigger story because you see how all of them interact.
And that just took forever to accomplish. You try a little bit of this on this character, and see how that personality creates a different dynamic with another character. Or, you see how it affects the scene, or how it affects the story. It took many, many years to pull it all together. And a lot of it doesn’t really even happen until you’ve seen the characters moving, with the voices you’ve cast. Then you take the time still left in your production schedule to rearrange and make adjustments before the concrete sets, while the animation crew is still on it to make any necessary changes.
You know, like they say, ideas are cheap. But they’re inspiring…
BJ: Even the mistakes were cool! That’s the cool thing about animation. You really have the time to see when you are wrong. But I still feel like this is the essence of what we are going for.
CW: Look, when I was in the depths of my disorder about whether or not I was going to get to make this movie, and I mean I really went through some stuff, because I was living and breathing this for a few years and I didn’t know if we were going to make it or not, I remember waking up one morning and in that twilight of your conscious where you know you’re watching a dream, I saw footage from the movie four years before it happened. That ‘feeling,’ it just bubbled up. I had this jolt of insight that morning, and that is absolutely in the movie. Some of those moments, some of those shots, some of that kind of immersion is absolutely in the movie. We just thought about it for so long that the momentum of what we could put into it kind of rolled out into the movie.
BJ: Which is kind of what happened on Robots, even though I wish we’d had more time on Robots...
CW: Yeah we needed more time.
DS: Well, I thoroughly enjoyed Epic. Without dissecting it, I will say that even with all the action, the elaborate scenes and the lush backgrounds, everything felt really well composed on the screen. I didn’t feel ambushed, I didn’t feel distracted. Sometimes with animated films, they’re too frenetic, things feel too crammed together onscreen. I’m also not always a fan of 3-D, which often is so distracting where it’s supposed to be so enrapturing. But it works great on this film. It was really fun.
BJ: Awesome. Well, that’s what took 11 years. Chris, tell me if you agree with this. In my experience, basically, there’s I don’t know, we’ll put a number to it, 20 million decisions that go into making a movie. 90% of them are decisions the director has to make. There are all sorts of outside forces that are brought to bear in the course of making one of these things. All are intended to be in the service of making a great movie. But there are always elements that happen, pressures that come along that accidentally and unintentionally make that process more difficult.
And even if everything is perfect, even if you get your way every day, even if no one questions a single thing you ever think or try to put up there, you know you still have these 20 million decisions to make. It only takes a few that aren’t “right” to send things moving in a bad direction. It’s like building a beautiful ship or a beautiful airplane. In the design process it generally only takes a couple of decisions to get things wrong, where it no longer is “Yar” as they said about the way the ship sailed in Philadelphia Story.
So it takes an incredible amount of focus, tenacity and sometimes a little luck to make as many of those 20 million decisions be “right,” so audiences end up feeling like you just described about your experience seeing this film. Even when everybody is trying to do their best, even when everybody is trying to work at the top of their game, a few decisions along the way can derail it. And we had the luxury of getting to make a number of bad decisions and fixing them as best we could.
I’m glad to hear you like it because I like it too. Chris, Blue Sky and everybody who worked on this movie made an incredibly high percentage of right decisions. Aesthetic decisions, story decisions, mood decisions, all the things that go into making the experience you just described. As difficult and hard as it was, Chris just never gave up on this movie. He wanted to make it so badly. He could have just gone off and done other stuff, but he just said, “I love this thing. Shit yeah!” He stuck by it and he fought for it for a decade. He could have gone and made other movies. But he wanted to make this one and he did it. And that’s awesome!
CW: Thanks, Bill.
DS: Chris, it definitely seems like you would not be deterred.
CW: Well, I’m simple minded. It’s hard for me to hold two thoughts in my head.
DS: Well, as they say that can be a blessing and a curse. This time is seems like it was a blessing…
BJ: Well, I was blessed by working with him on this. This guy bled enough for the two of us. We’ve been friends a long time. There so many things in our lives that are tied into this movie. It’s going to be fun to get to see the movie together and watch people enjoy it, because it’s represents such a big chunk of our lives.
CW: Indeed it does.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.