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A Beautiful Blue Sky at AMPAS

Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, John Donkin and Tom Cardone talk all things “Blue Sky” at the Motion Picture Academy’s New York event.

Scrat and the ever elusive acorn.

On May 12the New York chapter of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences hosted “Anatomy of an Animation Studio: An Evening with Blue Sky,” an event saluting the metropolitan NYC area’s only world-class CGI animation studio. On hand and onstage were studio founder and key director Chris Wedge, director Carlos Saldanha, producer John Donkin and art director Tom Cardone.

A bounty of Blue Sky character maquettes and concept art were on display in the theater lobby, but the evening began for real with a screening of Bunny, the studio’s Oscar winning short and first foray into narrative storytelling. (According to AMPAS New York chapter head Patrick Harrison, we were watching a “27-year old print,” a nifty trick for a film made in 1998.) Even for an early effort, its refined depiction of lighting, shading and texture foretold the sophistication of the studio’s future creations. (Its poignant depiction of an elderly rabbit’s encounter with a pesky moth included near-subliminal character touches like the slight tremor in the paw lovingly holding the picture of her long-departed husband.)

From left to right: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, John Donkin and Tom Cardone.

Even in the company’s earliest days, ten years before Toy Story, Wedge dreamed of making the “ideas and images” in his head tangible in CGI. Ice Age, the studio’s first feature and ongoing franchise was produced “on a tiny budget that put restrictions of what we could do—could we do fur?” (Realistic looking fur and water were two of the hardest challenges for CGI to capture.) “We did fur in Bunny,” Saldanha reminded Wedge, who responded “it was cruddy looking fur.”

Wedge compared the birth of computer animation and the hardware than made it all possible to the earliest days of filmmaking, when the Lumière brothers had to build their own cameras to photograph their motion pictures.

Before Blue Sky’s birth, Wedge worked at MAGI-Synthavision, one of the earliest CGI shops, where much of Tron’s groundbreaking animation was produced.  He recently joined the ranks of animation directors helming live action features—sort of, taking a sabbatical from Blue Sky to direct Paramount’s Monster Trucks, a live-action/animated hybrid scheduled for a 2016 release.

A youngster by comparison, the born-in-the-1960s Saldanha co-directed Ice Age and Robots with Wedge, and helmed the Ice Age  sequels The Meltdown and Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and the Oscar-nominated short Gone Nutty starring Scrat, the studio’s acorn-coveting mascot. (Not to mention two pictures set in Brazil, the land of his birth: Rio and Rio 2.)

Producer Donkin’s bona fides go back to Cranston/Scuri Productions, a 1980s CGI pioneer where VAX and Cray “super computers” did the heavy number-crunching to produce mind-bendingly realistic animation of unreal subject matter. (Wedge described a similar early goal for Blue Sky: “making real things do impossible things.”)

Production chart.

“When we started Ice Age I didn’t know what I was in for,” Donkin confessed. Storyboards and early stage CGI renderings are common sights at behind-the-scenes animation events, but the AMPAS audience was treated to complex, arcane charts tracing the multitudinous steps in a film’s story construction and breakdown, character development and design, and asset management: “it’s like cans going down a production line—you can’t animate a scene if the character isn’t ready.” Donkin summoned up his role in that production line thusly: “it’s the director’s job to make a thousand decisions every day; the producer is there to help him make informed decisions.”

Robots was a film Wedge wanted to make before Ice Age. He described the fun of searching out hardware to transform into the film’s mechanical cast and environment. Early concept art showed radiators turned into buildings and gears representing the layers of the city. (Designer William Joyce would eventually create a much more streamlined stylized look for the film.) “The film’s theme was obsolescence,” Wedge explained, with steam powered technology beneath the city, electronics at the top, and a mechanical look inbetween.

Another production chart.

Moving on, Wedge confessed “I wanted to make an action movie,” describing his motivation behind creating Epic, a good-vs.-evil story populated by tiny forest beings. “Comedy works well, but I wanted to stretch the boundaries.” Inspiration for the film’s look came from myriad sources including Victorian fairy paintings, some by residents of insane asylums. The physics of replicating human-sized physics in insect scale was analyzed and mastered, and the dynamic results were shared with the audience in an excerpt that rivaled any action scene in a superhero movie.

Blue Sky’s art director Cardone boasts a killer CV, with background work on Disney’s 1990s megahits before joining Blue Sky to work on Ice Age: The Meltdown and Horton Hears a Who. He described the design and staging challenges of imbuing each Blue Sky picture with its own style. “We start broad and narrow in.” Hundreds of drawings and paintings are synthesized into a style guide “to get everybody on the same page.” Color keys are created to underscore the specific emotions of a particular scene, and a “color script” charts the progression of those keys from the beginning through the end of the film. (In Rio, green represented the safety of the rainforest, blue the fun and excitement of the city, and red the danger the film’s heroes faced.) In order to make the characters pop out of the screen “we place well-lit characters over dark backgrounds and vice-versa.”

Math is Your Friend

Blue Sky’s growth was summed up in a simple statistic from Wedge: “Eighty people worked on Bunny…and we had 600 people on staff when we made Epic.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.