Joe Strike was there last week for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Blue Sky Studios' new home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
You can't move into the future without taking a look back.
It might've been mere coincidence, but the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Blue Sky Studios' new Greenwich, Connecticut headquarters took place just six days after an animation exhibit supported by the studio opened at an arts center blocks away from the company's former home in White Plains, New York.
The exhibit ("It All Started Here") at the White Plains Arts Exchange traced the New York-area origins of the animation industry. An assortment of antique equipment was on display to demonstrate the medium's technical progress: animation tables from long-gone studios, creaky moviolas -- and a primitive, tiny-screened computer work station used by Blue Sky's founders to create some of the still-spectacular CG animation for 1982's Tron.
Blue Sky's come a long way since that piece of hardware was last plugged in: a tiny outfit that was once known as MAGI/Synthavision has grown from a handful of dreamers into a full-fledged feature animation studio with a team of over 350 people.
The turning point, of course, came with 20th Century Fox's acquisition of the company in 1997, in the wake of the collapse of the 2D-animated feature market and around the time Blue Sky released its calling-card (and ultimately Oscar-winning) CG-animated short, Bunny. The company had already made a name for itself doing high-end, work-for-hire vfx and animation for an assortment of advertising and movie clients. With Fox's backing, however, Blue Sky created its first animated feature Ice Age, making both entities full-fledged players in the CG feature game. With four movies under its belt, the third Ice Age film Dawn of the Dinosaurs (due July 1, including stereoscopic 3-D) and future projects in various stages of close-to-the-vest development, Blue Sky was definitely in need of larger digs.
The move took place over the 2008 year-end holidays. The company said goodbye to its cramped, piecemeal home spread over three floors of a nondescript office building and headed off to its new digs: a spacious studio surrounded by 150 acres of undeveloped land one state, seven miles and a whopping 30 percent tax credit away.
Then, last Thursday, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell snipped a ceremonial blue ribbon in the company's meeting area/lounge as reporters, politicians and Blue Sky staffers looked on. "This is the second phase of what we're trying to do," boasted Jeff Berger, co-chair of the state's Commerce committee "We still want crews filming on Main Street, but we want to build an industry," based on digital animation. "The reason Blue Sky is here is because of the tax credit."
The lure of a 30% credit against all production costs up to a $15 million annual ceiling is hard to resist, but there were other reasons as well for Blue Sky's choice. "We did an exhaustive search in New York and Connecticut," Brian A. Keane, Blue Sky's COO explained. "We decided on a short list of Stamford and Greenwich and ultimately chose Greenwich," where the vacant top floor of a suburban office building was waiting.
"This space had the best footprint for what we were looking for. The entire floor plate of this building is 144,000 square feet of which we have 106,000, versus the 90,000 we had in White Plains. Our proximity to [New York City] and the airports were a plus, but the fact it's on 150 scenic acres and we could get the top floor was a factor too."
"To be honest, there aren't a lot of spaces in the northeast that can accommodate a company like ours, and we're very close to our old home in White Plains," added Blue Sky founder Chris Wedge. "Connecticut made some major concessions for us, the proverbial offer we couldn't refuse." One offer Blue Sky did refuse in the past was Fox's suggestion the company move west. "There was some discussion years and years ago, but not lately, and probably not for a while."
Once Greenwich was selected, the Blue Sky execs and staff began brainstorming what they wanted and needed in a new space that would be built to their specifications from the bare walls out. "The process gave us an opportunity to sit down with everyone and design the kind of space we knew we needed to do the work we do," Wedge explained. "It was the first time we've been able to do that. Everything else we've done was kind of cobbled on top of something else that never worked very well.
"Believe me, our architects got plenty of input from us. We're rarely the client, so we got a chance to be pretty vocal."
For his part, Keane described how Blue Sky put their new space to work: "We have an in-house theater that seats 70, three separate screening rooms, including a stereoscopic 3-D room, multiple story pitch rooms, multiple design rooms and a sculpting room. We have eight conference rooms; before there were maybe two or three that were truly functional for the same purposes. We standardized them so they're all uniformly designed and laid out, from the projectors and equipment and how the room functions, which makes it easier for groups to transition between them. Now people have the ability to meet within their own teams without having to fight other departments for conference room time. We now have state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities with Los Angeles, which we've already been using.
"We've been able to more than double the size of our computer room and render farm, which was a huge limitation in our old space. The floor plate there was fixed and we had surrounded the room with people in every direction, so it wasn't as if we could've just expanded it. That additional space allowed us to buy the new hardware and bring some 20 extra people to work on the stereoscopic 3-D version."
According to Keane, Blue Sky's new computer room is equipped with some 175TB of storage space. While the extra computing power gives the studio "the ability to have more overlap and get more projects into development," for the time being Blue Sky's focus will be on having the 3-D versions of its films ready for a same day release as the 2-D.
Not all of the new studio's amenities are aimed at increasing production. For starters, the building boasts a basketball court and an in-house gym -- and according to Keane, the wooded acreage surrounding the building sparks "the crew's creative energies, it provides them with views and foliage year round. Our guys have already been out jogging, they're cross-country skiing, sledding and having snowball fights. These are things we never had in the old space. It's giving back to the employees in a holistic way and keeping them happy and healthy."
While one might expect an animation studio to look as zany and uninhibited as the films rolling out of the building, the overall appearance of the space is relatively low key -- except for the animators who've made their corner of the building "into their own little world," according to Wedge. "They've built all sorts of rooms and villages; they've definitely personalized their space."
In fact, the most unusual design feature of Blue Sky's new studio came from the architect rather than anyone at the studio -- a blue swoop that runs along the ceiling, roughly from the employee lounge near the front to the 70-seat screening room further back in the studio.
"We had to make a concession for the way the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] worked where we put our theater," Wedge admitted. "We really wanted it near the entrance so people could walk right in when we had a screening, but we had to push it further back into the building. The swoop is graphically related to the Blue Sky logo but it also leads people to the screening room, and it imposes a kind of simplicity on the field of office cubes underneath."
In his office, surrounded by models and memorabilia of Blue Sky's creations, Wedge reflected on the company's long, strange trip. "When did I join Blue Sky? On the first day. Most of us were together at MAGI. A few years went by and we decided to pool some pocket change and started our own company, then MAGI went under and we kind of rose from the ashes and started from scratch. We've grown from six people to 350 -- and more will be coming."
He paused for a moment to inventory Blue Sky's previous homes. "One, two, three, four, five -- oh man, this is the fifth place we've been." An unbelievable progression? "It's all happened so slowly, you can kind of believe it." Wedge looked out his office window at the Connecticut landscape sloping away from the building and back up again in the distance. "It's like watching… the seasons change. You can't imagine it the way that it was and can't really remember how you got here. It's a little surreal, but isn't everything?"
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.