Director Mike Thurmeier and producer Lori Forte discuss Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios’ fifth installment of their storied animated action-comedy franchise.
One of the animation industry’s most critically acclaimed and successful franchises returns to theatres today with its fifth installment, Ice Age: Collision Course. Fan favorites Manny, Diego, Sid and family are back, this time on a quest to find a new home after the irascibly nut-crazed Scrat inadvertently sets in motion a series of cosmic mishaps that threaten the entire earth.
At their heart, the Ice Age films have always banked upon all too familiar emotional realities tied to the unlikely friendship and familial bonds between our three furry amigos, relationships forged under extreme conditions in the original film and repeatedly put to the test in each subsequent movie. Collision Course is no different – new characters and situations push the narrative to new heights, literally, but the film’s magic still revolves around a mammoth, a sabretooth cat and a sloth, each an outcast of sorts, each endearingly annoying, each representing something we recognize in our own friendship, families as well as ourselves.
At the recent Annecy International Animation Festival, I had a chance to sit down with Blue Sky Studios veterans Mike Thurmeier, the film’s director, and Lori Forte, the film’s producer, to discuss what’s in store for audiences in the new film, how the studio continues to create fresh, compelling stories, and what makes the franchise so endearing to audiences worldwide.
Dan Sarto: The Ice Age film franchise, with core characters Manny, Diego and Sid, are one of the most successful film franchises of all time in any medium.
Mike Thurmeier: Well, I've been saying, and I truly believe…Lori and Chris [Wedge, Blue Sky’s co-founder and director on the original Ice Age] had an amazing stroke of genius on the first movie to put these three characters together. I mean not only just the idea, a mammoth, sabretooth cat and a sloth, but their personalities. That started everything. If that didn't work, if those characters weren't so endearing, there'd be none of this.
DS: This is the fifth Ice Age film. How do you keep the narrative fresh? How do you capture new fans, while providing what the core fans want, without doing the same thing over and over again?
MT: Well, it's kind of two-fold. First, every film has involved a relatable development in somebody's life: the family coming together in the first film, then finding love in the second movie, having a child in the third one, now that child’s a teenager. Those are all like real steps in somebody's life. They center around Manny as the emotional core of the movie. As Lori always tells us, it's about stages of life that we can live through with these characters.
Then secondarily, Lori's a science nut. She's was like, "Oh, did you see the story on asteroids? An asteroid passed within 200,000 miles of Earth!" There's always some seed like, "What would happen if…what would our guys do?"
Lori Forte: Absolutely. I think it's exactly what you said. It's very important for us to come back to the characters we love and continue to care about them. But they can't be stagnant. They have to grow and change. Families grow and change. That's actually pretty much the theme of this movie. Manny and Ellie are facing an impending empty nest because Peaches is now at the age where she has a fiancé. We're introducing this amazingly funny new character, a mammoth named Julian who is Peaches' fiancé. He's voiced by Adam Devine, who's just a really funny and endearing guy. Julian’s very free-spirited and full of life. He's adventurous, will try anything and adores Peaches. He’s everything that's Manny's not, so now Manny's got conflict there which is very relatable to a lot of people.
Then you've got the empty nest, the fact that Peaches will be moving away. In Ice Age 4, Manny was struggling with the realization that his daughter was growing up. In this one he's got to learn how to let go. Again, it's another milestone in a family's life, and that's kind of what we like to do. We like to show milestones in people's lives that, in these character's lives, we can relate to.
MT: If you know the first Ice Age film, you would remember that the flying saucer Scrat finds in Collision Course actually appears in the first movie inside the Ice Museum. For me, remembering back to when we did that gag. I was like, "Wow. This is really out there, but I like it. It's good. I'm glad we did something like that." Now, years later, we get to bring that back. That's sort of the genesis of the movie.
LF: That spaceship was Chris’ idea. It was so quirky, so out there, so non sequitur, that we just loved it. We knew at the time that there was a story there. We knew we were going to come back to that one day, we just didn't know when. It laid the seeds for what this new movie became with Scrat. It connects Collision Course to the first movie.
MT: There's also another emotional connection to the first movie. John Powell, who scored the last few movies, was unavailable. The timing just didn't work out, so we had to find a new composer. We were lucky enough to get John Debney, who had just come off The Jungle Book. As we talked about the movie with him…there are themes of Manny having to let go of his daughter, having to open up emotionally, which are similar to themes in the first movie when he had to learn to accept his new family. He was the loner -- he had to get over this emotional hurdle. We reached back and looked at some of the musical themes from the first movie. They were used sparingly, but to us who know the films really well, effectively created an emotional connection.
David Newman did a really great theme for when Manny was thinking about his long lost family. We pulled that into this movie in the context of his having to accept change in his family and move on. It's every emotional. The end of the movie, the last reel, plays exciting and very emotional. I like that it feels like a cohesive part of the franchise. It's not just a one-off Armageddon-esque style movie. We really tried to produce this film in context of the whole series.
LF: But in addition to keeping people coming back to watch the characters they love grow and change, we also want to make sure our movies feel fresh and new. We always have a new big idea against which the emotional and personal stories play out, but we also introduce new characters. In this movie, we have three new characters.
There is this wonderful Shangri Llama voiced by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who's going to be part of this new world they have to find. They have to figure out how to save themselves from impending doom. We're bringing Buck back from Dawn of the Dinosaurs, who we loved so dearly. He's going to come back and make them believe that there's a way…
MT: …He offers a solution, a plan…
LF: …a solution, but they have to journey to this place where we end up meeting this new character. It's very, very different from anything we've seen in the Ice Age movies before, but it works really beautifully. That’s where we also meet Brooke. Brooke is the most beautiful sloth you've ever known. Now finally Sid may in fact have a love interest.
Those are some of the changes we're making. But again, it has to do with our characters. It sort of expands the herd. It expands their experience along with giving them some new ones. We try to keep it fresh, but also retain what we love about the franchise.
DS: Blue Sky films have always been known for their humor. Not just cheap yuks, but inventive and offbeat gags that often skew just a teeny bit off center.
MT: Well, there's plenty of that in this movie. We definitely came up with gags where we said, "All right, let's try this. It’s a little weird, but let's go for it."
DS: Your three main character, voiced by Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo...on their own, they're tremendous comedians. Their delivery is funny. When you're looking at an action comedy, what do you look for regarding how and where to make it funny? Situations? Gags? A silly character? How do you balance all of that when you’re making this kind of film?
LF: The first thing we start with is...I mean, for me it's always about comedy that comes from character. You wouldn't see Manny doing some of the things Sid would do. You wouldn't hear Manny saying some of the things Sid would say. You have to know your characters really well and you have to find comedy within those characters. Sid is such a unique, complex character with so much goofiness -- you get a lot of comedy out of him both physically and verbally as well as situation-wise. I mean, he always gets himself into troubling but funny situations.
But with Manny, it's different, because Manny's humor is...you wouldn't see Manny doing pratfalls the way Sid would. You wouldn't see Manny doing certain things like Sid, the same with Diego. They aren't like that. When each character has unique voices much different from the others, it's a lot easier to find the comedy that comes from their characters. In every movie, we basically know these characters well enough to understand how they would relate to certain situations…
MT: The comedy is definitely situational…
LF: It's situational, but it's coming from character. That's different from obviously pratfalls and gags, which are also brilliant. We have Crash and Eddie for gags. Crash and Eddie are brilliant. And we have Scrat.
MT: The script will start with lots of great material in it. We'll board it and cut it in editorial…it's an endless process of...well, not endless, it ends eventually. It ended last week.
DS: You mean it’s taken from you.
LF: Yes, exactly.
MT: Which is good. It should be taken…
LF: This is a story of Mike and Galen [the film’s co-director Galen Tan Chu] learning how to let go.
MT: Exactly. So, you edit the reels, you watch the stuff, you react to it, and then you look at where to put jokes and where to let it go. Sometimes you say, "You know, we're interfering with something here. Let's pull that one out, but let's put a laugh afterwards." You're just reacting to the material as you're putting it together, sculpting it, watching it in the context of a whole act or a whole movie. With a comedy, it does seem like the more dramatic you go, the more comedic you have to go to counter that. People love the emotional moments -- I love the emotion too. But, it is a comedy. You can't forget that.
LF: There are certain moments in action or in drama where it’s appropriate to insert some comedy. But sometimes you try and insert humor where it's absolutely not appropriate. So, you have to know that too.
MT: Actually, we found that with Scrat. From the get-go, we knew we had more Scrat in this movie than we've ever had because he's so integral to getting the action going, then throwing obstacles at our characters while he's out in the cosmos. But the stuff he does also has an effect on Earth. We found there was a tipping point where you can have too much Scrat, and it was breaking the narrative. A funny thing, you pull one one-minute sequence out of a certain point in the movie, and the audience stays with the narrative and the characters. It makes all the difference.
DS: I meant to ask about Scrat. Scrat is one of the funniest, most throw-back cartoon characters we’ve seen in recent times. He would be at home in the golden age of cartoons. Can you have too much Scrat?
MT: Well, in the script it's usually...say in this movie, the first page of the script says, "Scrat causes a celestial calamity that sends the asteroids careening…" There were little points written where you’d say, "This is gonna happen," but beyond that, it just became, "Scrat sequence TBD," or whoever was writing would say, "Insert hilarious Scrat animation here." Then we’d get together with the story artists and say, "Here's the situation. We've got Scrat out in space in a flying saucer. What should we do with him?" We could never do that material in any other Ice Age movie because we didn't have the situation set up.
It's like, "You know what'd be funny? What if Scrat gets messed up with a transport?" like something we’d see in Star Trek. One of our favorites was...we were sitting around a room and someone said, "You know, on these spaceships, they always have gravity. So what if Scrat accidentally turns off the gravity? Oh, that's funny. What if he turns it on too high?" Those situations are brought up just to help us think about how this character would react, with the goal of getting the nut. That's always the goal – get the nut. So you just throw these scenarios around.
LF: Honestly, there are always endless suggestions. There were so many we wanted to use and couldn't because it was just too much. A plethora of ideas just kept coming at us. To answer your question about Scrat, I don't see any end to him. There are so many things he can do. Once you have a notion of what he can do, you get so many crazy idea…
MT: It's like Bugs Bunny or any great cartoon character like you were mentioning earlier. I remember on the first and second movie in particular, we were buying box-sets of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films and watching these wonderful wordless performances.
DS: Stuff that's timelessly phenomenal.
MT: Yeah. Those were a huge inspiration for Scrat.
DS: Now that you’ve finished creating this behemoth of a film, looking back, what were the biggest challenges you personally faced?
MT: Well, with the production, I mean...I'll preface this by saying that crafting the story, working with Lori and the writers, the script, the storyboarding, and editorial, that was the toughest part. That's where your story's being told. That lasts the whole time. You always think, "It's never good enough, it's never good enough." You always have to look for the best.
From a production perspective, where my co-director Galen and I really had to exert control, like you said, over this behemoth of amazing, talented artists, with a limited amount time, was on the visual effects. The story called for a lot of complex visual effects, which is weird because it's a CG movie. Everything's a visual effect. But the film has more organic effects. There’s water, an electrical storm, a volcano and a volcanic eruption. We have an asteroid with this crazy plasma trail. We have scenes where it's snowing.
LF: We have planets doing things in space.
MT: Planets smash together.
DS: Effects work with sims you have to art direct.
MT: And design. The team was really great. We held these great meetings, I mean, great meetings. Super difficult.
LF: Long meetings.
MT: I'd have a migraine afterwards, but in the end, I was super thankful. They were complexity meetings. All the department heads would come around a big table and watch each sequence and story reel. Their comments would be very specific. They would call out each little effect. A story artist might just draw something that meant nothing to them at the time. But everybody else would say, "Well, how are we gonna do that?" A great example is, we'd show a shot of somebody walking in the snow. The effects lead, Elvira [the film’s effects supervisor Elvira Pinkhas] would say, "Well, you know, doing footprints in the snow is gonna take X many man-days for all these characters. If you tilt the camera up a little bit, or change the surface they're walking on to something else, we can lose that effect and put it towards a meteor shower."
We did that meticulous review across the entire movie until they had something that felt kind of fit in the budget. As we made the movie, a great thing was even though it already looked really good, and we were getting all the effects we were promised, Elvira would come out and say, "Look, somebody finished early. We have a few extra days, so that thing you wanted that we made you cut earlier, we can give you that back now."
But, the effects were really difficult to do. When I look at the movie, considering we didn’t have a $200 million-dollar budget, more in the neighborhood of $100 million, more or less, I think we have a much more beautiful movie up on screen than we deserve to have for the budget given. It's amazing. For me that was the trickiest part.
DS: Last thing. The Ice Age franchise has garnered huge international box office, even as the domestic haul has declined a bit over time. Does it impact your storytelling efforts knowing that you're really making a film that has to “work” for the whole world, not just for the U.S.?
LF: I don't feel it impacts our ideas or the story we're going to tell. We're still concentrating on making sure our core characters and their emotional stories are solid. That's relatable worldwide, I think. Scrat is relatable worldwide. As far as the ideas go, they're also relatable. The whole world's going to be facing [the threat of] asteroids, so everybody can relate to that. We don't necessarily think of things that will hit one market or another. We try to challenge ourselves. Each movie has to be bigger in scope than the one before. At least that's the way we've been working on them up until this point. I think this one is the biggest in scope of all of them.
MT: Collision Course has common human themes that speak to everybody.
LF: That's what we really strive to do. We’re not thinking about domestic or international...we do sometimes wonder why domestic isn't as good as international but that's beyond us. We're still telling stories for everybody who wants to hear them. Honestly, when we're making the movie, we really don't think about the box office. We don't ever think of ourselves as the ones to beat. We just don't think like that. It's really wonderful to know that we're the first animated feature franchise to have five films. That’s a milestone we're proud of.
LF: But we just focus on, "Are our stories progressing the way we want? Is this a story worth telling?" First of all, if there wasn't a story worth telling, we wouldn't have had a fifth film. If audiences want to see another one, it'll be great to do if we have the right story to tell. And if we don't, we won't.
MT: It's funny. Being outside of Hollywood, in Connecticut, you feel like you're away from the madness. We're just a bunch of people trying to work together and make something we like. It feels like we have a very normal life.
DS: It's probably a blessing you guys are away from the fray of Hollywood.
MT: Yeah. You're probably right.
LF: At Blue Sky, from what we can tell about the people we work with, there are no ego issues at all. Everybody feels they’re on an equal basis with everybody else, starting with Chris Wedge and the top guys all the way down the line. As far as what we just said about making movies for ourselves, that's the first thing Chris did with the first Ice Age film. He set the tone. He made a movie that he felt was very much representative of himself, the kind of story he wanted to tell. He's always saying, "I want to make a movie that I like. If I like the movie, I want to put it out there for other people to like." That has always resonated with us.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.