Bill Desowitz talks to Blue Skys Chris Wedge about his second feature, Robots.
When Chris Wedge first signed on to make Ice Age, the deal he made with Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri was that the studio would have to finance the computer-animated feature that he was most passionate about, Robots. Well, the director and co-founder of Blue Sky Studios in White Plains, New York, is now three months into production on his pet project a joyful collaboration with children's author and designer William Joyce (Rolie Polie Olie) and he feels like they're "eating their cake" despite the many creative and technical challenges.
It's the whimsical tale of a robotic world just oozing with personality and poignancy, as you might expect from the shared vision of Wedge and Joyce, who hit it off immediately about eight years ago. The movie, scripted by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood and City Slickers), involves a young 'bot named Rodney (Ewan McGregor) who grows up in a small town and travels to the big city to work for his idol, a famous inventor named Big Weld (Mel Brooks). Meanwhile, Rodney whose parents are voiced by Stanley Tucci and Dianne Wiest falls for a sexy exec named Cappy (Halle Berry). Drew Carey and Amanda Bynes also lend voice support as part of a gang of obsolete robots known as the Rusties.
Wedge says Robots is a metaphor for our technologically-obsessed culture, in which we disregard the values and humanity of the past. He believes that it's retro in the best sense of the world. In fact, he calls it "Futuro." "It's a world with a startlingly realistic quality. A lot of it is the quality of the materials, the attention to details and the lighting. We've been going to junkyards and car shows and airports for reference, all manner of things mechanical.
"One thing I've been saying lately is that it's not going to look animated as much as someone who took a camera to this fantastic world and shot a movie there. We're unleashing the power of the rendering software we've developed [at Blue Sky] and using it to its full potential."
While Fox has given Wedge and his fellow animators more than the $60 million budgeted for Ice Age, it's still nowhere near as much as Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks spend. However, at least Wedge isn't limited to the simple, stylized backgrounds that he was forced to employ on his earlier blockbuster. "We're using a new production management system to keep it in check," he adds. "And we've developed internal tracking and a crew of people that constantly optimize the software, using shortcuts. We have a brand new render farm and a crew of about 200 compared to 170 on Ice Age."
Wedge estimates that Robots will contain around 30 virtual sets, and that they've already modeled and rigged more characters than they had in Ice Age. In terms of software, Blue Sky continues to use Maya for modeling and rendering along with their own proprietary programs for rendering, special effects and compositing, including CGI Studio, the rendering system based on the raytracing concept. "It's a bigger and faster than Ice Age," Wedge concedes. "The story has just bubbled from inside Blue Sky and is finding itself as we go along. I just feel closer to this."
While Robots remains in production for 18 months (Fox has set a release date of March 11, 2005), Wedge is about ready to script his eagerly awaited sequel to Ice Age. "The challenge is to reconnect with our characters in another story while exploring different aspects of them. The tight wire we're walking is we want to keep the crew fairly small." But rest assured, there's going to be plenty of screen time for the lovable Scrat.
When asked whatever happened to the dark side he exhibited in his Oscar-winning short, Bunny, Wedge playfully replies, "If you left me to my own devices, you'd probably get something more like Bunny."
Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.com.