To celebrate the release of their latest film, Epic, on DVD and Blu-Ray, Blue Sky Studios recently held a press day at their studio headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut. A select group of reporters spent the day taking a tour of the studio and learning about the process of taking a film from initial concept through to finished product you watch on the big screen (or on Blu-Ray at home.) The film stars the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, and many more. Hit the jump for more about the animation process, interviews with director Chris Wedge, production designer Greg Couch and art director Mike Knapp and read 25 more Fun Facts you never knew about Epic and Blue Sky Studios!
At the press day, we were given tours around the studio to see all of the different departments that work on a film. The company commands an entire floor of the building, with a whole wing dedicated specifically to animation, where the cubicles are the most elaborately and painstakingly decorated of any I’ve ever seen.
The animators have a competition going to see who can create the most incredible cubicle- right now there is a pirate ship, a tiki hut, a replica of The Drunken Clam from Family Guy, a hunting lodge, the Epic jungle and the mayor’s office from Horton Hears a Who! There is also a whiteboard wall where each week a different animator is caricatured by the other artists. In the lighting quadrant, it is unseasonably dark at all times of day- each pixel has to be examined so they work in as low light as possible.
The process of animation starts with a drawing of a character, which becomes a 3D model that is either sculpted by hand or created entirely in a computer and printed out in a special 3D printing machine. Then “riggers” set up points on the virtual model so that it moves like real anatomy- when an animator makes a character smile, his chin has to move, his eyes crinkle and his teeth show. There is even an entire specific department that spends weeks just on each character’s clothing to make it move like real life.
- Chris Wedge, director of Epic, was also the director of Ice Age, and the voice of Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel.
- Wedge doesn’t usually re-watch his movies again for a few years after they come out, but he loved Epic so much he bought the movie on iTunes for $14.99.
- Wedge started at Disney before being one of the founding members of Blue Sky, and his first job was working on Disney’s Tron.
- The company started in 1986 with 6 people (including Chris Wedge), and today it employs over 500 people.
- Epic is the 8th feature film to be produced by Blue Sky Studios. The others are Ice Age, Robots, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Ice Age: Dawn and The Dinosaurs, Rio and Ice Age 4: Continental Drift.
- Epic has been an idea in existence since 2003, making it 10 years in the making before it’s release in 2013.
- Right now the company is working on projects that won’t be released until 2018. A movie that is planned for 2017 is currently in the modeling stage.
- In general, 350-400 people can be expected to work on one film. In a 90 minute film, each of 60 animators can take credit for about a minute and a half of screen time.
- While modeling takes place anywhere from many months to a year before a film is finished, the lighting stage can be finished as close as 6 weeks before a film hits theaters.
- For the movie Epic, the character of Nim was hand modeled by lead sculptor Vicki Saulls and her team, while the character of Mandrake was a virtual sculpt in the computer.
- Currently in the Blue Sky Studio “gallery” is a collection of Charles Schulz’s comics, to use as reference for the upcoming Peanuts movie. These comics are original strips from 63 years of Charlie Brown comics.
- Once a year, the studio holds an event where original artwork by the employees is sold in the gallery. There is also a yearly pitchfest, where any employee can pitch a movie idea to studio executives.
- One of the issues that the creators of Peanuts are currently struggling with is Snoopy’s nose position- when he faces front his nose is in the middle but in profile it moves further to one side.
- It normally takes about 5 months to “rig” a character so that he can be animated- Epic’s Nim took about 8 months because he has so many limbs (6 arms and 4 legs) and is so chubby that he has facial folds that all had to move along with his mouth.
- All babies born during the production of a film are credited on that film as Blue Sky Babies.
- In the credits of Ice Age, you can see actual drawings done by employees’ children ages 4-8 of the Ice Age characters.
- When animating a scene, the animator first acts out the scene live then shows the tape to the director to make sure he is animating the actions correctly.
- An animator who works 40-50 hours per week is expected to be responsible for 2.5 seconds of animation that week.
- There are some animators and designers who come from backgrounds that had nothing to do with animation, but rather from physics and NASA, and who work more on the technical side of bringing the story to life.
- The director, production designer Greg Couch and art designer Mike Knapp worked hard to place the 2 inch tall Leafmen into perspective- to them a bee would appear the size of a Rottweiler, and a flower the size of a yoga ball.
- A big reference for the creative team was macro-photography, which they used to see every detail on flowers, bugs, trees and other objects found in nature because that’s how they needed to appear in the world of the Leafmen.
- All of the Jinn people are inspired by bugs or flowers- specific Jinn include a moth-inspired woman who has pigtails like antenna, a racer Hell’s Angel biker inspired by a grasshopper, a racer inspired by a mosquito and a roller derby queen with a rosehip helmet.
- Queen Tara’s dress needed to feel special and organic, because she is the life of the forest. The designers finally settled on the white iris because the petals reflect light almost like sparkles and the translucence of the petals is both feminine and strong. The other flowers that were used in her dress were honeysuckle and daisy for the train.
- The designers wanted architecture of the Jinn metropolis Moonhaven to feel grown rather than built. They used calla lily stalks as the columns of the great hall, and polished marble and granite in the floor. Architecturally, they drew from classic and art nouveau styles, and combined that with rock formations from the Adirondacks. Queen Tara’s sanctuary was inspired by morning glory.
- On the Blu-Ray DVD, there will be extras including a segment called “Leafman Physics” that explain how the world is different for the tiny Leafmen, and a segment with “Ken the Bug Guy” who explains all about bug camouflage in nature, which was a huge source of inspiration for the creators.
After the tour, we were shown a presentation by director Chris Wedge, production designer Greg Couch and art director Mike Knapp. They explained how they were influenced first by the forest, and the idea of what it would look like to be tiny in our world. They wanted children who saw the film to believe that it would be possible, if they waited long enough and stood very still, to see the tiny Jinn people in camouflage. They were heavily inspired by everything they saw in nature, including flower petals, plant stalks and bugs.
Director Chris Wedge said, “The very beginnings of the process for me…I rarely start with a story or characters or somebody else’s book. It always starts with a place for me. It’s the sort of place that you can only go with our type of movie, you can’t take a camera there. It’s a place that you can only do with CG…so this place that I thought of was the woods.”
Wedge also said of the score of the film, “I wanted a very classic sound, I wanted it to sound like a Robin Hood movie, or Seahawks or something. Something from when music composing was just blooming…Erich Korngold or Franz Waxman…all these guys that were just listening to Strauss and Stravinsky and putting it in movies, that’s what I wanted…and I thought Danny Elfman…I said I want this and he said yeah I get it and he’s never done anything quite like it.”
Color was of the utmost importance to the designers. Mike Knapp explained “there are certain shades of green that only belong to Queen Tara…the movie takes place in one day, we’ve got time of day going across it. We had a few parameters we had to work with to tell the story but basically we were tracking MK’s comfort level, we assigned a certain tone, like a rose color for her that I tried to weave in throughout to tell whether she felt at home or not. Bomba had a sickly turquoise-y color, when you’re in the forest with him you feel this turquoise tone, when you’re with the Leafmen it’s much more golden, more rich and saturated. Then Bomba’s color is also seen in his monitors, they have a turquoise tone as well which speaks to his obsession…and by the end of the movie that’s gone and it’s opened up. So we used color and lighting to tell the story and support the emotional headspace of the different characters.”
The leafmen ride around the forest on hummingbirds, and we found out why. “The Leafmen are like agile samurai, that can leap 30 feet and carry 6 of their buddies on their backs. We also wanted a very agile bird, so the hummers were that. They’re like little Kawasaki motorcycles and they could zip around the forest in them, they’re small and quick, like little jet fighters. The Boggins either ride on bats because they just seem icky, they fly at night. Or they ride on these grackles, these actually fairly beautiful sleek but large black shiny birds with a lot of iridescence on them to make a lot of commotion on the screen.”
Wedge also has fond memories of winning his Oscar for short animation. He said the best part was not the ceremony itself, but the nominees luncheon. “Weeks before the Oscars everybody that’s nominated comes to lunch. It’s a moment where everybody’s excited, it was short animation for me so we were relegated to the back tables. They’ve changed it since where you can sit with everybody so you can be across the table from oh you name it. But everyone’s really talkative and really excited. And then on Oscar night everybody’s like mmhmm. Everybody’s in their own zone. They tell you at the end of the luncheon you’re going to get 45 seconds and that’s all…and so they call your name, you hear this—I always equate it to the scene in the Godfather where Michael has to get the gun from behind the toilet to shoot what’s-his-name. And there’s the sound of an ell going over, there’s no music. Like blood in your ears sound, that’s what it feels like, oh this is for my award, oh my god, oh my god, maybe that’s my Oscar they’re holding. Then you get up to the stage and in the time it took you to kiss your wife, walk down, get on the stage, shake the hand of the pretty girl, say hi to the guy, take the thing and turn there’s a big clock in the back of the theater that says ‘wrap it up!’ That’s what I remember.”
The movie is not only visually appealing, it also has an all-star cast that includes Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Beyonce Knowles, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Sudeikis and Steven Tyler. Epic will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Twentieth Century Fox on Tuesday, August 20th!