Director as cheerleader? Budget-minder? Technician? What are the different sides to directing an animated feature?

Director Joel Crawford on making DreamWorks Animation’s ‘The Croods: A New Age’.

When Joel Crawford took over directorial duties on The Croods: A New Age, he found himself with a pretty daunting task; continuing on the story from DreamWorks Animation’s successful first outing in the franchise and further crafting a sequel that had already had been in initial development.

With a wealth of experience as a story artist at the studio, Crawford capitalized on that knowledge and leapt into his feature directing debut. He recently discussed his work at VIEW Conference, and befores & afters had a chance to ask what that directing process was like for him, including dealing with the inevitable sleepless nights making a major motion picture.

b&a: Congratulations on making this film—I wanted to talk to you about the process of directing. This was effectively your first experience, right?

Joel Crawford: Yes, and also I didn’t work on the first film. So Croods was one of the rare movies where I got to see it with fresh eyes when it was finished. And I love the movie. I’m such a fan of Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco.

Director Joel Crawford.
Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

When I was approached about taking on this project, the pressure was there of, ‘How do I take what I love and I know fans all over the world love about the first Croods and then bring my vision, my identity, to that?’ There’s definitely that pressure let alone the first feature directorial debut. There was a lot to figure out.

One of the best things was having Chris Sanders around at the studio. He was working on other projects but he came in and he’d go over the script and give me his notes, tell me about things he tried in the past, and he’d say, ‘Sometimes you have to just leave stuff on the cutting room floor.’

Which means there’s so many great ideas that didn’t make it into any of the iterations of the first Croods or what he had done a little bit on Croods 2. So that alone just gave me not only confidence but also helped me see what he’d tried and where the characters were at. I could say, ‘Oh, I got this. I see the bumper lanes.’

b&a: I think a lot of people outside animation aren’t always super-clear what a director’s role is. Are you more like a cheerleader, or more like a budget-conscious person, or more like someone into the technical side of things? Of course, it’s probably all of them. What’s your experience been on this film?

Joel Crawford: Well, I’m not budget-conscious, that’s for sure! [laughs] So, Mark Swift was the producer on this. He and I are great partners where Mark—he’s really creative as a producer—and he had fantastic character notes and things like that. But on the budget side, I didn’t have to worry about that because Mark was so good at going, ‘Let’s go for the best idea. Let’s not shut down any ideas while we’re brainstorming and then let’s figure out how we can do them.’

The Croods (left) meet The Bettermans (right).

That was a relief that that wasn’t part of the equation as a director, that I could instead just go, ‘What’s the best story and how do we tell it?’. In animation, because everything’s created from scratch, there’s less chance for happy accidents on set. Everything has to be very planned out and calculated. And so, I think starting from working with the writers and figuring out the script, that was the first step. We sit in a room—it’s probably very close to the live action process where you’re sitting in the room, bouncing ideas around with the writers, and we’d plot out the story and then the writers go away and create the script.

I think where it starts to diverge from the live action process is, in live action once you get the script, you go to the set and you’re shooting it and that’s where everybody can be in that moment on the set and react and they can improvise, they can change lighting, you can do all these things in the moment, which has its own challenges, I’m sure. But in animation, we’re trying to take that moment and stretch it out over a two year process of making the film and make sure every department feels like they’re living in that moment so that things can be plussed and added to but they all relate around the same idea.

For example, in storyboarding, a lot of times the storyboard artists will get the script, and you can see when things sometimes aren’t working in the script and the board artist has to react and change something, change a line of dialogue, change a conceptual idea of the staging of the scene. And so, you’re improvising. And I think for me, the ability to improvise every step along the way not only allows for each department to add their own ideas and go, ‘I have an idea to really sell that.’ But it also keeps the process fresh because you’re constantly evolving the idea and pushing it as it gets more developed.

I know as a director, I have to see things so many times in editorial, storyboards—I’ll see animation over and over and then I’ll see the lighting and the finished film. And what’s really great is when I had a vision for something but an animator said, ‘Oh, can I try this?’ and it was better than what I was picturing. Now it’s fresh to me and I get to see that with fresh eyes. And I love that experience because it can easily get stale.

b&a: Actually, I still can’t believe this is how animated films are done, which is that they do take two or three or four or five years to make. And I just wonder as a director, how do you maintain that motivation for so long? How do you not second-guess everything in the middle of the night? Perhaps you do, which is part of the process. I’m really curious about keeping that momentum going for three-plus years.

Joel Crawford: I think as the movie goes from just a script on the page to seeing storyboards, the personalities of the characters really start to come alive in a very comic book way. And then, to see it edited together, each step, I think it’s almost like your little drink stands on the side of the marathon, where people hand you water, and you go, ‘Oh, I feel energy again.’

A scene from ‘The Croods: A New Age’.

For me, each one of those little milestones where it goes from storyboarding, to animation, to lighting, to the sound effects and everything—each step I can geek out about, which keeps me excited.

But I think to your point about how do we keep it evolving, I also feel fortunate that I get to basically put up a version of the movie in three months, which has storyboards and I’ll bring the actors in and record. We have an amazing cast and I’ll record the script with them. And sometimes they improvise. And then out of that, I’ll watch the movie and I get the opportunity to go, ‘You know what? We’re going to go back and rewrite these lines because of something that Nick Cage added.’ And now, I’m going to have Emma Stone react to that. I don’t get to have them on set, but I get iterations that I can create these dynamics that actually come from the cast. And that’s an exciting thing to me to make it feel like moments that they share, even though it’s three months apart when I record them.

b&a: Do you remember having any of those ‘wake up in the middle of the night moments’ and second-guessing things on the film?

Joel Crawford: No, because I didn’t get sleep! [laughs] You’re always thinking about the story structure and going, ‘Is this A story leading into the B story? Do those come out at the midpoint?’ And all these things that you can plot on paper and they drive you crazy. There’s so many times where we go, ‘This is by the book what makes sense to do.’ And then you watch and you go, ‘It’s not very interesting.’

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth Belt.

Then something that just feels like it’s fun and maybe doesn’t check the right boxes but you go, ‘You know what? I’m engaged. I’m entertained. And it’s pulling me into the story.’ So it’s a constant battle in my head of spontaneity and fun and structure. And those things do keep me up at night. That’s the nice thing about having the story locked to this point where my brain is like, ‘Okay. It’s done.’

b&a: Was there a moment or some point you can talk about in Croods 2 when you finally saw it as boards or you finally saw an initial render or final render where you went, ‘Ah, yeah. That’s it. We nailed it’ even though it may have been quite a long road to get to that point?

Joel Crawford: There’s a lot of moments like that where I was blown away when I saw the final lighting. There’s a joy ride with Eep and Dawn where they go out outside the wall. That was a scene that we originally cut out of the movie because it was less important to the story of what they see out there as to how Eep taking Dawn outside the wall affected her and Guy’s relationship. And the conflict came from that.

But one of the things that we found was that the relationship between Eep and Dawn, Eep being this girl who’s seen adventure and now meeting this other girl who’s lived in this gilded cage, surrounded by a wall, she can never leave—the experience of being with those two characters when they go outside the wall was, it was so powerful and fun that I can’t imagine not having that in the movie now. But when we cut it out, you didn’t know what was missing, but it’s one of those scenes that as it evolved from animation into lighting and into effects, it’s gorgeous, I’m so happy it’s in because it’s just one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

b&a: I’ve done a lot of stories over the years about the technology at DreamWorks. You’d been there since around the mid-2000s—now that you’re directing a film, I wonder if you can talk a bit about the evolution of technology from your point of view and also from a director’s point of view?

Joel Crawford: Yes, well, I remember storyboarding on Kung Fu Panda and then seeing how it moved to previs or layout. At the time, we would just see a t-pose character. You put all of this love into this performance and then you’re watching that! The layout artists were fantastic and phenomenal but the tools at the time were really primitive from our point of view now. So, for the longest time, sometimes from a narrative story point of view, scenes would take a hit by being in a layout stage when audiences would view them because it was almost like some of that character wasn’t translating.

Now one of the huge things on these movies is that we have the technology to actually pose out characters quickly and without dipping into animating because the layout is just to get the cinematic angles of the characters and try and allude to their expressions. Jon Gutman, our head of layout, was very much like, ‘We’ll follow the storyboards and give you the 3D version of that.’ And it was fascinating because, instead of having it fluid, which you could do easily when they’re posing out the characters, they snapped into specific expressions, specific poses that would hit the story beat I needed.

And I remember people at the studio at the first screening—we had this sequence that was all layout—and they’re like, ‘That was amazing. It was almost like the animator’s had posed it out.’ And so, that kind of technology has, for me as a director, extended the storytelling process where now I can get it in 2D hand-drawn drawings and Photoshop, or if I’m still working out stuff I can use the layout team in that very same way. And our team in layout were hilarious and funny and able to even push jokes and find jokes cinematically with the camera.

Another technological leap is the animation tools that we have. It’s really impressive because usually when we’d look at the first pass of animation, you’re seeing the character but you’re seeing it only rendered very lightly. Now we have new processes where lighting can already getting in there and set up the lights, which means we can do almost a preview of what it will look like even just in animation dailies.

It’s like a hint of the beauty that it will be in lighting. And in terms of trying to track the story and not being distracted by what’s not there or what’s there and isn’t supposed to be, it’s awesome that technology is able to get it closer to how it will be without getting sucked into the beauty of it.

b&a: I have a final question about trailers. In visual effects, where a film might not be out until June one year, there’s often trailer shots done a whole year early. And in fact these shots are often their own projects. Does that happen for animated features? Did that happen on this show?

Joel Crawford: Yes, we actually do that, too. For this film, though, there’s hardly anything we’ve cut out of the movie, which is rare in animation. Sometimes, you’ll animate a scene and as it gets to the finish, you go, ‘You know what? We don’t need that scene.’ And you’ve spent a lot of man hours doing that. But here it was like, what we’re working on is in the movie and what’s in the trailer is in the movie.

However, the Universal marketing team along with the DreamWorks marketing team were fantastic. They’d give us an early cut, whether it was storyboards that they repurposed or layout, and they’d go, ‘Here’s the shots we’re planning on doing for the trailer. Can production prioritize those shots?’

So, those shots went into production a little bit earlier than others. For me, it was great because if there were some shots that I was going to be launching in two months and I got to launch one of them earlier—for example there’s the wolf spiders in the trailer—which means I got to get a glimpse of those guys. It was a real treat to go through that trailer process.

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