To say Epic’s path to your local movieplex has been tortuous is to say that the Grand Canyon is just a big hole in the ground. Born from a shared vision of the spectacular, unseen world of tiny forest dwelling creatures, Blue Sky’s latest animated feature, Epic, concludes a 15 year quest by two Oscar®-winning directors to make a film they felt had never been made before.
Part comedy, part action-adventure, the film pits the forces of good and decay in a deadly struggle for supremacy, complete with bumbling humans, a love-struck talking slug, ninja-like Leaf Men and their relentless and mortal enemies, nasty little bugs intent on the forest’s complete destruction. Visually stunning in stereoscopic 3-D, Epic is yet another stellar feature from Blue Sky Studios, best known for their prolific Ice Age series, quietly nestled far from Hollywood in Greenwich, Connecticut, a stone’s throw from upstate New York.
In one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure to conduct, I recently spoke to both Chris and Bill about their new film, their tremendous friendship, mutual respect and respective recollections on the herculean effort it took to finally get this film made.
Dan Sarto: What originally drew you to the idea for this movie?
Chris Wedge: Well, Blue Sky has been around for 26 years, this year. We started back in the mid to late 80’s with ideas about images. Images we wanted to make, images you couldn’t make any other way, and hopefully, images you hadn’t seen before. So, I’m always working from the idea of images when I start a project. When I start thinking about animation, I always start with the world. Where would it be really cool to be? You can’t really do it any other way. You can’t take a camera there, you can’t do it with 2D or stop-motion animation. It’s just the only way you can do it. So, the idea for the movie that became Epic started with an exhibition of Victorian fairy painting that Bill Joyce turned me onto in 1998.
DS: So the collaboration with Bill on this film started way back then? Tell me a little bit how your collaboration worked, how the Leaf Men [Bill Joyce’s 1996 book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs] book was involved, what was adapted …
CW: I’ll tell you how. Every collaboration is different. Bill and I have done a couple of things together. We started this project out together 15 years ago. The inspiration came from just a notion that we can go tell a story in the forest. In 1998 I met Bill for dinner one night in New York. He’d spent the day at the Frick Museum [The Frick Collection museum] and he showed me the catalog for a show of Victorian fairy paintings that he’d seen. As I was flipping through this thing, it was just blowing my mind. The detail in these worlds, that’s when I said, “Look, ‘this’ is where we go to make a movie!”
Years went by. Bill and I are good friends and we would talk about this and that whenever we’re together. The idea to make this movie, started 1998 but we didn’t have a first draft of it until five or six years later. I brought down Jim Hart, who worked together with Bill to write the first draft. We had done a lot of talking and a lot of dreaming about it back then, but then the film languished for a couple years as other things came up. Bill, Jim and I created the basics of the world together, and from there, I developed two complete, separate drafts. It had some more fits and starts.
Around 2004, 2005, Bill was involved back then along with Greg Couch, who was also a production designer. They started with a completely immersive painting style. I wanted something that felt classic, authentic and convincing, so we were looking at, N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham, classic, big story illustrations and paintings. Around 2007, Bill went off to do his own thing and I didn’t get a green light on the film until 2009.
At that point Bill was involved with Moonbot and The Guardians so we didn’t collaborate that much on the production of it, but he was there in spirit. The production, to be fair, was done completely at Blue Sky. Bill had early input and we kept Bill up-to-date as much as we could while we were making it. But for the most part the design and the story telling all happened here at Blue Sky.
Bill Joyce: The first thing I remember is we were driving out to your boat and we were getting close to being done with Robots. It was early spring. It was a Friday and it had been such a “week.” We were talking, “You know, if you want to do ‘this’ again, if you want to work together ‘again,’ you need to start thinking of something.” And I thought, “Awesome” and said, “Leaf Men,” which really was referring back to the show at the Frick that I’d seen on Thanksgiving weekend ’98. We were all up in John Lasseter’s suite at the Waldorf Towers, and I brought a little book from the show. You were like, “They’re so awesome!” But it wasn’t like, “Let’s make this movie.” It wasn’t until we we’re driving to the boat, I don’t know, three years later?
CW: Chris Meledandri introduced Bill and I over the phone and then we had dinner in Santa Monica. You were around pitching Santa Calls and we were an upstart animation company. You and I were always talking about things to do. We had developed Santa Calls. We did an animation test at Blue Sky and then it got shit-canned by Fox. And I remember being on a phone call with you when you said, “Well what do we do?”
BJ: We had wanted to do a Robin Hood movie, but everybody was three inches tall…
CW: Everything builds on something else. It started with the notion that people have had for centuries, that there are little creatures that we can’t see, little beings living in the woods. They know about us and stay out of our way. It was this Frick catalog, with these articulate paintings of little civilizations, of Kings, coronations, weddings and funerals for these little creatures, that I remember being influenced by the most …
BJ: Funerals, yeah.
CW: …a funeral for a bird. A bunch of little guys standing around with a dead bird and everybody looks sad.
BJ: …basically, it just queued up at that point. We were getting done with Robots. I wanted to figure out a decent story. Jim Hart and I had been talking and we finally came up with something we thought was good and we pitched it to Chris and he liked it.
BJ: The summer we were finishing Robots, in the backyard of the house we were renting, the pasture was filled with fireflies. It was like, “Here’s our movie!”
CW: Well, we had been thinking about it quite a bit.
CW: We had been working on the first draft of the script. We were having a barbecue. Bill stayed up in Westchester County near Blue Sky while we were finishing Robots and as summer evenings go up there, the sun is out late, the nights are balmy and beautiful. We were having a couple of beers in the back of this house and Bill said, “Come here guys I got to show you something.” We walked down in the twilight into the dark woods, into a little glade of trees. There were so many fireflies in the trees, on the leaves and in the air that they were lighting the woods up! You could see by the light of fireflies…
DS: Wow! That sounds spectacular.
CW: …it was so magical. We just stood there, staring and thinking about how magical this movie could be. I have to say that was just one of innumerable moments where over the course of this movie, either with Bill, or Jim or with people at Blue Sky, when we’ve had these little moments, these little revelations about how cool things could be. We put the first draft of the script up on reels and we watched it. It was a movie, but unfortunately, or fortunately, it didn’t convince Fox it was worth making at the time. So we went back to the drawing board. The film you’re seeing today is two stories evolved from where we started. But everything we thought of contributed to what we ended up with. It was just a very long development process followed by a pretty traditional animation production process.
BJ: Yeah. Once we got that first version up on reels, we realized we had too much movie. We had too much story. It was like…we got some babies to kill. It wasn’t that hard to kill them. Each time we simplified the story, there was a sort of collective sigh of “aaaaah.” But it’s always hard to kill babies.
CW: Just making a joke.
BJ: Just making a joke.
DS: Of course…
CW: Because the original story had a baby in it.
DS: Got it. What made Fox finally say, “OK, let’s do it?”
CW: This has been a passion project of mine for a long time. Fox knew it was. There was a moment where I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next and with the options that I had in front of me, I was able to leverage the movie into production, with the full support of Fox. But it took a bit of doing from me to express…
DS: How much you wanted to do it?
CW: The completeness of my passion for this thing.
BJ: A very, very diplomatic way of…
DS: That was fantastically diplomatic. Bill you’ve worked for so many years in so many different mediums, from books to television to film to interactive. Is it difficult to watch your ideas worked on, adapted, morphed by other people into other projects? Tell me a little bit about that dynamic.
BJ: Well, from the start, this project was really about the idea of this world. I’d explored that world a little bit in the Leaf Men book. I was never interested in doing an adaptation of that book. I was just interested in the world and the idea of these miniature Robin Hood figures that we don’t see, that guard and take care of the forest. That reverence for nature and the ancientness of the civilizations that are just right under our nose, that was what was compelling.
Of all the adaptations that have used my work, this one had the most freedom to sort of go in any direction without me feeling like it was losing the essence of the book or idea that I had started out with. Chris and I agreed very much on the idea that something’s gone amiss in this fantastic world. Nobody has really explored that in the movies before and that’s what we wanted to do.
Our reverence for nature, the awe that we wanted to convey, the sense of adventure, we were always in agreement on that. The specifics and the particulars work themselves out over time. Jim and I wrote the screenplay and the first, I don’t know how many drafts. I worked on designs for several years. They were just little doodles. It’s interesting to put them together, a bunch of art from the production process. There are things I doodled on napkins at the very beginning, ages ago. Since then we’ve gone through 10,000 iterations in the designs and the development, the way things looks. In essence, they are just elaborations on these basic ideas that we had at the beginning and that we agreed upon. This project was really pleasant in that regard.
In a couple of the movies I’ve been involved with, early on it would be like, “The characters don’t look this way” and I would get overruled. They would end up looking somewhat different than I wanted them to look like. But on this, it was very much, we are working together to find a look. So there weren't any of those encumbrances [of source material]. It was awesome. It’s not always easy. We are trying to make up a world. There were a lot of different people that came in, a lot of different artists and talents that went into this. That’s part of the fun of animation. Bringing in lots of different people.
You pick up bits and pieces from hundreds of people over the course of these projects. But this one was very pleasurable, because it didn’t come from something that I had thought of myself. It came from a story and a world that we all greatly wanted to do.
There were 10,000 little “Eureka!” moments along the way where somebody else would draw something or somebody else would do something and I was like, “Awesome!” For me, this has been one of the most pleasant and rewarding experiences. It took a long time. But you know, these things tend to take as long as they should, no matter what you do. If it takes 11 years then pretty much you needed those 11 years to get it figured out.
Movies are simple. The hardest thing sometimes to remember is that stories in movies are a lot less complex than you realize. In the 90 minutes we usually have for an animated feature you can’t do The Lord of the Rings. But you can evoke that feeling...
BJ: I wrote on it, I drew on it, I was an executive producer. Sometimes I told Chris I thought he was nuts. A lot of times I told him I thought he was awesome and perfect. Sometimes he told me to shut up and sometimes he’d tell me, “God I am really glad you’re on this.” That’s the way it works, the way we’ve always had fun working together. We crack each other up. We like the same stuff. That first day, sitting in that hotel room, when Chris and I were looking at this little book from the Frick, the feelings we had looking at those pictures, that’s what this movie is.
CW: That’s what started it that’s for sure.
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.