Looking back at Blue Sky’s first feature film and the art and tech behind it.
When director Chris Wedge’s Bunny won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1998, it seemed as though the director and the studio he co-founded, Blue Sky Studios, had only just then burst onto the animation scene. But Blue Sky had, in fact, been operating since 1987 when a team of computer graphics and visual effects artists who had earlier worked on the seminal effects film Tron established the studio and quickly developed advanced rendering software (CGIStudio). This period was still early days in the history of CG, with Blue Sky making its name working in commercials and later film VFX, before transitioning into a powerhouse animated features studio.
Wedge’s Bunny, a film about an elderly rabbit living alone in a cabin, would capitalize on Blue Sky’s ray tracing rendering technology and its ability to deliver a realistic but also painterly look. “I thought if we can make the shadows soft enough,” says Wedge, “if we can put enough detail into the scenes, it would look like a dream or a memory – that’s what I wanted Bunny to be. It was more driven by the look and the feeling I wanted than any story – in fact I didn’t really have a story until we were half way through on it.”
Blue Sky continued to deliver on visual effects and animation for films, at one point effectively becoming Twentieth Century Fox’s in-house effects department. But Wedge says “all along we had been looking for investors to help develop us into a company that made animated feature films.”
That opportunity presented itself when a partnership with another effects company was ended and Wedge made an ‘impassioned plea’ to Fox for Blue Sky to be able to make animated feature films. They listened, offering the studio the chance to produce a screenplay that would become the break-out hit Ice Age, released in March 2002. Almost 20 years later, Disney announced, as part of their acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets in 2019, that Blue Sky would be shut down in April 2021.
With Ice Age now celebrating its two-decade anniversary, befores & afters went back to a past interview with Wedge about the film to present to you now.
The evolution of Ice Age
Ice Age has become one of the most popular CG animated comedies of all time, but the film, about a prehistoric mammoth, sloth and saber-toothed cat who find a human baby, was not always intended to be in that genre. “There was no comedy in this first draft, I promise you,” says Wedge. “A character died on every page.”
So when the project came to Blue Sky Studios, the director looked to help infuse it with more fun and detail, starting with the main characters. “We have this reluctant hero Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) who turns out has a dark past,” outlines Wedge. “He wants to isolate himself from society. We have this guy who is striving for attention in Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), so they make a fun pair. And we have this saber-toothed cat Diego (Denis Leary) who has malevolent intentions. So all those ingredients were going to mix in a certain way and we had fun writing that.”
Building on the relationships between Manny, Sid and Diego made the movie more fun, but Wedge soon realized that despite the title being ‘Ice Age’, there wasn’t actually gong to be any ice seen until about half way through the film. “The story started in the autumn at the turn of seasons while animals are migrating. So I thought, let’s come up with a way to use the ice age as a character itself – let’s make a glacier a character that is chasing another character down a hill. OK, if it’s a huge glacier let’s have it chasing the smallest animal we can think of!”
The director scoured animal designs that character designer Peter de Sève had made so far during production. “He had reams of drawings,” says Wedge, “and one that we hadn’t used was this little squirrel. Peter drew some saber teeth on it so now it looked like a prehistoric creature. That’s the way Scrat was born.”
From there, Wedge and his team delved further into Scrat’s existence. “So what’s he trying to do? we asked ourselves. How ‘bout, he’s just trying to bury his nuts and the glacier won’t leave him alone? And maybe by digging a hole for his nut he starts a cracks that actually gets the glacier moving!”
“It was on a Friday afternoon that we were trying to crack this thing,” adds Wedge. “We sent Bill Frake, one of our veteran story artists, home with it over the weekend. On Monday he came in with three walls of drawings he had done that pretty much represented what our first Scrat sequence ever was going to be – that Scrat would try to bury his nut, start a crack that would start a glacier falling, and all that action would escalate so that Scrat got away with his life and little else.”
Frake’s pitch also set up some of the rules of ‘Scrat-ness,’ as Wedge explains. “Firstly, he never speaks – it’s all pantomime. Then, it’s always his nut that he’s after, and thirdly, he can never get his nut. We’ve been able to do it in each film and in shorts, too.”
Scrat might never speak but the squirrel did need to utter all manner of exasperated sounds during his nut-related (mis)adventures. That role would ultimate fall upon Wedge himself. “We were about a year and a half into Ice Age and I ran into editorial and they said they needed some sounds for Scrat. I just grabbed the mic and made some sounds. Those sounds I made on our very cheap microphone, with a commuter train driving by outside our building, are the sounds that are pretty much all the Scrat sounds in Ice Age – we never replaced them.”
The debut feature for Blue Sky Studios was of course a huge learning curve for those involved. Wedge says the studio had the technical know-how in terms of animation and rendering but quickly needed to hire production managers, art directors and story artists – doubling the 80 staff who were already at Blue Sky.
One of the biggest challenges the director faced was simply getting finished shots through the pipeline. For Wedge this required learning about the procedural side of crafting an animated feature film. “We’d be able to come up with some silly nonsense and cut it into reels,” he says, “but to get it into the computer we had to start from scratch and pull 3D layout together and watch these scenes in a form that made sense for a camera but didn’t have any indication of performance.”
“Then we had to get it to animators with the story reels and also layout and animation,” adds Wedge. “We had to have that be the synthesis of cinematography and cinematic storytelling but also with a performance inside, then be able to go back and refine the timing to make the jokes or physical comedy work. It was a process of doing things over and over again. I found my role in it as the person who kept talking the movie onto the screen, just constantly saying the same things over and over again to many different people – to coax the movie out of them. That’s what the director’s job becomes.”
This process worked well inside Blue Sky Studios, reflects Wedge, but the director was less inclined at first to participate in the obligatory test screenings. “I didn’t understand why I had to do that,” he states. “I knew what I wanted to make. We walked into a preview theater and there were so many faces but none that I recognized. There were young families from all sorts of backgrounds that were different from mine. And I thought, uh oh, I don’t know what I have to say to these folks – I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”
But that particular test screening played beautifully, says Wedge, and also changed the director’s appreciation of such screenings and even his approach to filmmaking. “I had this sensation that the movie was coming off the screen and hovering over the audience and the audience was joining up in the middle of the theater, and a dialogue was going on between the movie and the audience. From that point on I did everything I could to smooth the movie out and make it a ride and help that conversation with the audience. It changed my whole perspective about who and what storytelling is for. I was able to detach myself from all the technique and technology and all that it took to get what was on the screen and connect me back to how people watch the movie.”