Ice Age not only marks the beginning of a journey into the feature animation world for Blue Sky, but is also the fulfilment of a vision that began in 1993 when the studio was formed by Ice Age Director Chris Wedge. Although founded as a commercial animation studio producing animation for television commercials, Blue Sky had a vision of creating feature-length movies. The studio received critical acclaim in 2000 when its animated short 'Bunny' won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Now a division of Fox Animation, Blue Sky has reached the goal of producing an original feature-length animation with Ice Age. “It was not easy, but we did it,” says Ice Age Co-Director Carlos Saldanha. “It took us nine years to build up the structure that allowed us to make this movie.”
The story and concept for Ice Age is simple. Three unlikely characters, a mammoth, a sloth and a saber-toothed tiger, are thrown together through circumstances to return a human baby to his parents while an impending ice age is constantly buffeting the quest.
The film went through an evolutionary process during production. For starters, Blue Sky faced the arduous task of converting an existing production pipeline suited for small projects, to a pipeline capable of handling a feature film. Blue Sky’s production pipeline had always been fairly straightforward as the company mostly dealt with television commercials with production timeframes ranging from one week to one year. Ice Age, however, proved a whole new ballgame and required the company to restructure itself, hiring more than 200 staff at the peak of production. For the most part, the changes to the production pipeline involved taking the existing and extending it to handle the movie. “We learned a lot as we went through the process,” says Saldanha. “It was very hard but in the end we came up with a very good structure that worked.”
Image: An acorn-crazy pre-historic saber-toothed squirrel known as 'Scrat' reacts to the onslaught of a new Ice Age.
One of the key characteristics of Ice Age is that it sports a very stylised animation look and feel. “We wanted to make the movie different from anything else, something that people had never seen,” explains Saldanha. “This required stylised characters.” At the concept level, Blue Sky already had predefined characters such as Manny the mammoth, voiced by Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond and Diego the saber-toothed tiger played by Denis Leary, which were based on existing creatures. In these cases, Blue Sky made frequent trips to the Museum of Natural History to look at skeletons as reference for character rigging and movement. Blue Sky also studied animals that were similar, such as elephants in the case of the mammoth and tigers for the saber-toothed cat. Other characters, however, had to either be invented or characterised from existing creatures. For example, Sid (John Leguizamo) is meant to be a sloth but in order to serve the story, he was given human characteristics such as biped movements, mannerisms and hand movements.
One such character that was ‘invented’ is Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel that unceasingly makes futile attempts to guard his acorn. Scrat (whose grunts and moans are actually voiced by Director Chris Wedge) was originally created to set the tone for Ice Age with a hilarious opening sequence to the film that sees him trying to bury his precious nut, unwittingly setting off an avalanche. Scrat originally was not part of the script, but after the resounding success of his opening sequence as a theatrical trailer, more comedic sequences of his misadventures were used to connect major scenes in the film.
Our three unlikely heroes embark on a quest to return a human baby to his parents.
No ordinary sloth, Sid takes on many human mannerisms and characteristics - making for some hilarious moments in Ice Age.
To Saldanha, the most challenging aspect of Ice Age was the ever-evolving storyline. From day one till the last day of the project, the story was constantly changing. The original script was a drama without much comedy but this changed as the story evolved and required much more comedic moments in animation. The ending for the film was also switched at the last minute for the movie to end on a more comical note with another of Scrat’s escapades. As the story was fixed or changed, production had to adapt quickly in order to stay within the available time and resources. Much so that became a balancing act where the directors had to be careful with what to change and what affected the story as a whole.
Technically, Blue Sky faced challenges with fur effects. It was originally intended that only the main characters would require fur, but once the technical solution was found, just about all the characters had fur. This was also the case with the effect of running water in rivers and waterfalls. Once a solution was found to create the effect, more running water shots were used in the film.
All modelling and animation was produced with Alias|Wavefront Maya, with many proprietary Blue Sky plug-ins developed to extend the feature set. Such plug-ins include tools for facial expressions, lip sync and one for follow-through animation that saved a lot of time. Blue Sky used their own in-house renderer named CGI Studio, which was able to give a good range of styles from hyper-real to stylised. For Ice Age, specialised extensions to CGI Studio that allowed fur effects and running water were developed as the film required.
Blue Sky’s success at the box office is only secondary to the fulfillment of the original dream to create feature animations. This passion and intrinsic drive to overcome the odds even reflects in production. “We went through a nightmare of setting up the pipeline for the movie and training people for it,” reflects Saldanha. “But everything was worth it because we went with an objective and we achieved it. It’s very fulfilling when you see the project complete.”
Image: Meet the weirdest herd of any age: (from left) Diego the saber-toothed tiger, Sid the sloth and Manfred the woolly mammoth.
For Carlos Saldanha, the completion and success of Ice Age also marks a milestone in a journey that began eleven years ago when the young Brazilian computer science graduate moved to New York to study animation. “At the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” says Saldanha. “I had a computer science major but I loved art. I figured that the best field would combine these two skills, so I packed my bags, moved to New York and took on a Masters in Animation. When I entered this industry I didn’t know that I could even do animation, but I went for it, worked hard and this is where I am today. Try to figure out what your vision and goal is, go for it, and don’t give up.” [3DF|CGN]
Words: Leonard Teo
Special thanks to Carlos Saldanha and Linda Zazza of Blue Sky Studios.
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