Epic (available on Blu-ray/DVD) is an animated family adventure that reveals a fantastical world hidden from the human eye. In the forest, there is an ongoing battle between the forces of good, who keep the natural world alive, and the forces of evil, who wish to destroy it. When a teenage girl (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) finds herself magically transported into this secret universe, she teams up with the Leafmen, led by Ronin (voiced by Colin Farrell), and a cast of odd-ball characters, who must work together to save both their world and ours. From Ice Age director Chris Wedge, the film also features the voices of Beyonce Knowles, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari and Armando “Pitbull” Pérez.
With award season in full swing, Epic has picked up five Annie Awards nominations, including directing for Chris Wedge. During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Wedge talked about how it took much longer for Epic to get to theaters than he had expected, that it took awhile to get a green light because it was different from what people had come to expect from him, what finally got him the production go-ahead, how even though it’s arbitrary to put out prizes for art, he still loves the Academy Award he has on a shelf (he won Best Short Film, Animated for Bunny in 1999), what he thinks it would take for an animated feature to win Best Picture, and how he likes going to see all of the other animated features. He also talked about the live-action/animation hybrid film about Monster Trucks that he’s currently developing, and that’s expected to be done in about a year, and the goals they have at Blue Sky Studios. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: When you decided to move away from comedy and tell this big action-adventure story, could you ever have imagined the journey would have taken as long as it did, to get it out there for people?
CHRIS WEDGE: Well, I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination. It took longer than I was hoping, but we got it done. It can take a long time, for different reasons. Once I got the green light for the movie, it took about four years to make. I know that sounds long, but that was the easiest four years of it.
When you decided to pitch a new idea to the studios, did you think it would be immediately embraced? How did people respond to the idea, when you brought it to them?
WEDGE: Yes, I did think that, after the success I’ve had, that they would just say, “Okay, whatever you want to do.” So, I pitched it with some abandon, in the beginning, and I was a little surprised that they were perplexed by the fact that they weren’t just getting another colorful comedy out of me. It was a little worrisome. I grew up watching classic animation, and I have always felt that the roots of animation is in fantasy and taking it in places that you can’t go, any other way. Not that there’s anything wrong with comedy, that’s for sure, but I just wanted to try something different. When I pitched it, I guess there was an expectation that it would be something they were all used to, and it wasn’t. So, it took awhile to turn it into something that people understood would be entertaining. By the time we got there, we were good.
What do you think it was that kept people from giving you the green light, and what do you think it was that finally got them to say yes?
WEDGE: Oh, to be fair, at the beginning, the first script I had was terrible. It was awful! It was just earnest and flat. I was more fascinated with the world and how the thing would look than the story and the characters, at that point, so it was corny. It took a few drafts to breathe life into the characters. It just takes a long time to develop, but there came a point where I had their support. In the meantime, there was an evolution in the industry where we started seeing animation that didn’t look like animation, necessarily. Films like The Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped people understand that maybe, in the future, animated films are going to be something that are more like live-action movies, and maybe the techniques that distinguish live-action filmmaking from animation will intermingle a little bit more.
Did you ever worry that this film might just never happen?
WEDGE: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I had sleepless nights. It was awful. I don’t know why, but this one stuck in my head. It was all I wanted to do. There was really no other animation idea in my brain, for years. It was just the only thing I wanted to make. That’s probably not the best recipe for success, but I finally got it done.
WEDGE: Yeah, I guess. Award season is the luck of the draw. You sit and you watch the Oscars and you think, “Yeah, that film was good, but I liked this other film better,” or “Good for them!,” or “This guy will get it because . . .” I probably shouldn’t say this during award season, but it’s arbitrary to put out prizes for art. Look, I’ve got a little golden man on my shelf and I love him, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a little surreal.
What do you think it would take for an animated feature to win Best Picture and not just Best Animated Feature?
WEDGE: You’re just going to have to have a film with a concept and characters that trump what anybody else is doing. That day may not be long off. The acceptance of animation in the business arena, in the marketplace and for audiences is evolving. Technology has certainly helped. Animation has always been about technology. You can’t have animation without technology. But, the popularity of it has come along with technical evolution because of the ability to create worlds we haven’t seen before and animated characters that perform with a fluidity. It started with Disney, and now we’re ever closer to versions of human beings. The lines are certainly being blurred between what a live-action movie is and what an animated movie is. I just have a hunch that, when the day comes where an animated film can win Best Picture, we will have been living with the idea for awhile, that there isn’t much of a difference between the two. Animation, as big as it’s gotten business wise, is still in a tiny box, in terms of what people think it is and what they think it’s for. People still think it’s just for kids, even though, if it’s funny enough, they’ll enjoy it. I’m looking forward to the day it doesn’t feel that way.
With award season gearing up, do you go see the other animated movies to size up your competition, at all?
WEDGE: Yeah, as much as I can. But, I try to see them anyway. And it’s not because of award season, but because I want to see what my friends and colleagues are doing. It’s fun and refreshing to go and see what other people are thinking of. If anything, it’s a little intimidating because there’s usually a lot of brilliant work and a lot of brilliant ideas out there that you wish you had thought of, or that you just admire for the originality of it or the difference from what you’ve been thinking of. It’s the same thing with live-action movies. If you love watching movies, you love watching movies.
This film has so many characters and so many different types of characters, and it seemed like there were more actors voicing this than most other animated features. How crucial was it to find the right voice cast, for a project like this?
WEDGE: That’s a good point. At the beginning of this, I wanted it to feel like we had an ensemble cast. I was having trouble deciding who the main character would be, to be honest. In a Robert Altman way, I wanted to just be exploring this world through all these characters. Part of the satisfaction in watching them all would be in seeing how all their stories wove together and how it all wound up. So, I guess there are a lot of characters. I just let the main characters emerge out of a cast that I wasn’t really giving emphasis to, at the beginning.
You voiced a character yourself for Ice Age, with Scrat. Did you ever think about voicing a character for Epic?
WEDGE: I did and I didn’t. It’s funny because we make what we call story reels. We cut the whole movie together with the storyboard panels, and we put our own voices in there and steal music from other movies, to make a pretend version or outline version of the movie. So, you end up doing a lot of voices yourself then, and sometimes they stay and sometimes they don’t.
What are you working on now? Is the live-action/animation movie about Monster Trucks the thing you’re focusing on?
WEDGE: Yeah. I’m taking a quick step aside from animation and am trying a live-action movie. I had an opportunity to do it, and I’m getting a lot of support to make it. So, I’m taking a concept and turning it into something of my own. It’s going to be a live-action hybrid movie, that’s a fun character adventure movie.
What are the biggest challenges that are unique to blending live-action and animation?
WEDGE: I don’t know if I have that answer for you yet. In the pre-production stage, a lot of it is the same. You’re writing and designing and planning how the movie will be. I’m surrounded by a lot of live-action movie professionals, and I’m just taking their lead, as far as what to schedule to do next. I’m guessing the challenge is going to be not having two characters together, and shooting the live-action without having the animation. In animation, you get to get in between every frame and you work it all out together.
WEDGE: Well, they’re telling me that this film will be done in 18 months, or less. It’s gonna be done in a little over a year.
How many projects do you have in various stages of development at Blue Sky Studios? Do you try to keep multiple things going, at the same time, because of how time consuming the projects can be?
WEDGE: Yeah, the biggest trick at our company is trying to have the films ready to go. They have to be developed, planned out and ready to feed to the production pipeline. Blue Sky is over 500 people now, but that’s only one pipeline. There’s everything from the writing and designing and the story development to the modeling and rigging and animation and lighting and editorial. We can send one movie through at a time, so we just go like train cars, just one after the other, down the track. To continue that silly metaphor, the trick is to load every car up before it goes down the track.
When you started Blue Sky Studios, what was the goal then, and how do you feel that’s evolved today? Are you on the same track with it, or has it changed a lot?
WEDGE: You know when you’re going to go on a vacation, you’re going to go to some place you’ve never been, so you’ve read about it and you’ve packed the clothes you think you’re going to need, and you imagine where you’ll be staying and what it will be like. And then, you land there, and the instant you land there, it’s nothing like you thought. It’s something you couldn’t have imagined. You spend your week doing things that are surprising. And when you come back, your memory of it doesn’t match quite what your anticipation was. That’s what it is for us. I remember when we started the company, we just pooled our own savings together, which wasn’t much, and really just had very naive ideas about the kinds of images we’d be able to make. We didn’t think much about how we were going to make a living doing it. A lot of hard years of struggling to make a business out of it followed. Those were years we never would have signed up for, if we’d known what was coming. But eventually, we had enough momentum and enough success, so that we could transition to making the feature films. When we started Blue Sky, there hadn’t been an animated computer-generated feature film yet. It was a distant dream.
Epic is available on Blu-ray and DVD.