Head of character animation Jakob Jensen talks about new characters and new looks for returning characters in DreamWorks Animation’s just released ‘The Croods’ sequel.
The comedic, paleolithic adventures of DreamWorks Animation’s favorite Stone Age family, The Croods, won three awards for its animation - two of those for character animation - following its 2013 release. Seven years later, Eep, Grug, Ugga, Guy, Thunk and Gran Crood have returned in The Croods: A New Age, now showing in theaters, with not only a new world to explore and a new family to collide with, but also sporting new character animation, helmed by long-time DreamWorks character animator Jakob Jensen.
Jensen, a Denmark native, started out as Guy’s lead animator on the first film, for which he won an Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation in a Feature Production. While he’s immensely proud of the aesthetics for the characters he’s known and loved for over a decade, Jensen says the newer and brighter world in The Croods’ sequel, as well as the larger emphasis on comedy over drama, called for a revamp in character animation.
Working closely with director Joel Crawford to analyze and review each shot and sequence, Jensen, having done character animation for How to Train Your Dragon and animation supervising on Astro Boy, worked as the link between Crawford and the animation team; he sought to understand each animator’s sensibilities, giving notes and offering insight during production on The Croods: A New Age to bring cohesive performances to the screen. While the job typically leaves little time for doing one's own animation, Jensen continued to lead the charge on Guy’s development, using his free hours to tend to the animation of his familiar, fictional friend.
And friendship, along with family, was a theme throughout production on the second instalment of the caveman family’s explorative feats. We recently got the chance to talk with Jensen about not only the new character looks and production challenges the film faced over the last seven years, but also how the tight-knit family dynamic among the production team helped inform the animation and overall vision for the film.
Victoria Davis: You’ve done plenty of character animation for other DreamWorks titles, How To Train Your Dragon being one, and when you look at the first frame in the second film, there's a change to the characters where their faces are a little bit rounder, softer and fuller. It looks like Croods characters have gone through similar changes, looking softer than how you animated them on the first film. Why the adjustment?
Jakob Jensen: In many ways, it was driven by our director Joel Crawford’s efforts and vision for the film as well as Nate Wragg our production designer’s desire to enhance the designs from the first film, to make them fit the flavor of this second story. So, we made subtle changes, generally on our legacy characters, some more than others, so that they're still very much recognizable as themselves, but adding more classic appeal to them by simplifying things.
When we made the first Croods, there was an effort - and there still is, in some regard - to have very photoreal rendering in the CG skin where you see every freckle and every wrinkle. And I think, rather than continuing that effort, we wanted to collectively have a more distilled and caricatured approach to it. The film, as you can tell from the trailers, leans more heavily on the comedy aspects of storytelling. So, I think that goes hand-in-hand with it. It's not that it's more cartoony, I wouldn't say that, but it has more design-focused elements to it.
VD: This whole new world for the Croods is even brighter than the world outside the cave in the first film. There’s so much more color and vibrancy and we have new characters, the Bettermans, who are like this new world as well: shiny and soft with a lot of color saturation in their faces. Were the character changes also considered to help decrease the contrast in animation between the two families?
JJ: We did want to make sure that the Croods could cohabit the same space, with a similar design language to the Bettermans. But actually, and it might sound like a contradiction, we sought as much contrast as possible, both in the design as well as the motion and performance of the characters. It was sort of touch-and-go sometimes too. I doubted for a while that these families would be able to coexist in the same world, but everything came together.
I like to talk about the Croods operating as a unit, which is very much what the film is about, in contrast with the Bettermans who operate very much with this individualistic approach. From a design perspective, we always try, when possible, to illustrate the Bettermans in their own space without overlapping one another visually, whereas Croods are always visualized as a group.
VD: From designing two very different families living in the same world, to creating another new world for the Croods and reimagining their own character design, what were some of the biggest production challenges?
JJ: Having worked on the first Croods, being tasked with the responsibility of head of character animation was daunting to me because it was the first time I got to play that role. From the get-go, it was important to manage the audience’s expectations, as this story is going to live in the same universe as the first one, obviously, with our own take on it. My soapbox about our performances, and our philosophy as a crew, was always making sure that the performances of the characters were grounded in some sort of reality. Maybe even more importantly than in the first film, because that story was more dramatic.
But, in comedy, it seems to be a golden rule to ground the performance in reality, otherwise it's simply not funny. There's nothing worse than seeing a performer know that what he or she is saying is, quote-unquote, “funny.” And then it becomes terribly unfunny. So, I was very self-conscious and that was an interesting effort to ride that balance.
VD: Another challenge for this production was three reschedules as well as a production halt and restart, plus the pandemic this year. It’s really been a wild ride for you guys these past few years. How did you overcome those hurdles?
JJ: The biggest challenge definitely was working on this film while we were all in quarantine. We were about 50 percent animated when, in March, we were all sent home with no date to return. But I keep saying that, as far as the social cohesion of the group of animators in our case, it couldn't have happened at a better time, because we had already really established our relationships with one another, with Joel, with our characters, and the style of the film. It was a well-oiled machine at that time.
And so, when we were sent home, frantically trying to figure out how to do this remotely with all our various hardware setups and whatnot, it only took two or three weeks before we were really up and running again. In my mind, that’s quite impressive, to have a decent output and finish practically on time.
VD: I was reading the production notes and I thought it was really interesting that, for certain scenes, like with with the Thunder Sisters, inspiration came from heavy metal bands, which is such a surprising design choice given the world the trailer showcases. Did you enjoy those grittier scenes?
JJ: It was hilarious. Not to speak of the complexities - I won't give away any spoilers - but it involved an army of characters, sitting and riding on characters, something we certainly could not have done with our older software. PREMO is our fancy-shmancy new, state of the art software that allows for all these kinds of challenges to be made somewhat easier. It was like driving a new race-car version of what we were using before. We couldn't have done these scenes without it.
VD: What other design inspirations did your team draw on for this film?
JJ: One thing we always do is look at what we call lipstick cameras from the performances of our actors. We draw a good amount of inspiration from them, but also their general performances in other films, to inject some of their DNA into our characters. But we inject ourselves into the characters as well when we film acting and motion references, where we ourselves stand in for the characters. And it's quite ridiculous and fun to watch. In the cases of Grug, for example, we get our inner silver-back gorilla out. As with the first film, everyone on the crew adopted some animal behavior.
So, there's a mixture of performance references, actor references, and animal references which, in the end, makes these characters into their own unique thing.
VD: You've animated on many DreamWorks films before, not just How to Train Your Dragon, but also Shark Tale, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda 2. What made working on Croods, as a character animator, more fun and special than those other projects?
JJ: The making of this movie has been such a joy to be part of. And it's particularly because of the people involved. From never really knowing Joel before, to getting to know him...and of course, I've worked with producer Mark Swift for many years. We go way back to the days of Amblimation, where we worked on Balto together. Joel and Mark made a point of sharing their leadership philosophy as kindness through leadership and just having a good time. It's a cartoon, after all. And I believe that it shows on the screen that we had such a great time creating this story.
VD: It sounds like a family animating a family, which seems very fitting.
JJ: Exactly. You know, sitting here at home, I was just writing to the supervisors and we always start with ‘I miss you guys.’ It’s been so much fun with such a great group of animators, most of whom I had worked with before, and who are considered my dear friends. Just to get to play with them for that long in an environment that was so supportive...not every film you work on is like that. But I was sitting in these meetings with all the other heads of departments, and realized very early on that everyone was working to realize the same vision: to create a movie that is so filled with love and laughter and that, I think, is genuinely funny.
DreamWorks Animations’ The Croods: A New Age is now open in theatres.