Inside Blue Sky Animation Studios
This week, Screen Invasion was invited along with a few other outlets, to visit Blue Sky Animation Studios in Greenwich, Connecticut. The studio behind some big animated hits from the last decade, including the Ice Age series and Horton Hears A Who!, gave us a peak behind the curtain to observe the best and brightest minds in computer animation as they work on the studios upcoming releases.
The event coincided with the August 20th DVD/Blu-Ray release of Blue Sky’s most recent project Epic, which earned a worldwide box office haul of $251 million. On hand was Academy Award-Winning Epic director and one of the original founders of Blue Sky Studios, Chris Wedge, who spoke at great length about the studio’s history since it’s inception back in 1987, as well as the films which he himself has overseen. Blue Sky designed all of their own animation software and quickly caught up to their peers, Pixar and Dreamworks, by launching their own successful franchise with the Ice Age series. What started out as a company consisting of 20 employees, has grown into a major force in studio animation with an army of 500 digital artists.
We were guided through a maze of elaborately decorated cubicles and work stations where effects artists were hard at work on two of Blue Sky’s upcoming features, Peanuts and Rio 2. We visited with individual representatives from each stage of the animation process to learn about the ins and outs of creating a digital world. The space in which these artists are given to create is an amazing environment with dry-erase hallway walls where employees scribble drawings, ping-pong tables, and several desktops adorned with virtually every piece of modern pop-culture ephemera. Despite the pressures of delivering polished pieces of work on extremely tight deadlines, every member of this team has a smile on their face.
We began our tour by meeting with Blue Sky’s Lead Sculptor, Vicki Saulls. Vicki’s job is to take conceptual designs of characters from hand-drawn artwork and sculpt a polished and three-dimensional rendering of what the look and profile of that character will ultimately become. Her office is filled with all of these various sculptures going all the way back to the Ice Age films, and most of us who were in the room were fascinated by the complex detail of each piece. Have a look at some of them below:
Next we visited with Blue Sky’s Senior Character Technical Director, Sabine Heller, from the Rigging department. Here, Sabine demonstrated how she essentially maps out each character’s movements. For example, when an animated character smiles, she inputs a marker that will cause all reflex actions associated with that smile, like dimples forming in the cheeks or eyebrows raising. Her job is to make the characters fluid and allow the animators to focus more on the characters as they relate to the story. I was mostly impressed at how remarkably well she handled the tedium involved with capturing every character’s smallest movements.
Then we visited Lead Storyboard Artist Warren Leonhardt who showed us the process of mapping out the story so that the animators have a guide to create the world in which the characters inhabit. To most of us outsiders, his job seemed like it was probably the most fun. Warren is a remarkable artist, and his excitement when he talks about his work is infectious. We were shown a series of storyboards that played out a scene from Epic in which the characters wander around a laboratory. Warren provided the narration for the scene, and the continuity was amazingly detailed. Warren spoke about his transition from Art school to pursuing a degree in animation, and it’s obvious that he made the right choice.
Our last leg of the studio tour led us to David Sloss, a Senior Animator at Blue Sky who gave us a look at the process of giving life to a character and environment. This is perhaps one of the most meticulous tasks associated with creating a fully animated film, as the movements and idiosyncrasies of the characters have to pair seemlessly with the story. David demonstrated how he and the other animators would shoot video of themselves acting out scenes in the film to use as a point of comparison when animating a scene. The finished product when compared to these live-action demos is fascinatingly similar, which makes watching them side-by-side very cool. To provide you with some perspective, it takes one animator an entire week of work to finish three seconds of completed animation. To say that animators are hard-working people is an understatement at best. Though to be fair, they genuinely love what they do.
Finally, we were led into the screening room where Chris Wedge along with Production Designer Gregg Couch and Art Director Mike Knapp, gave a presentation explaining how they discovered inspiration for the story behind Epic. Couch presented photos of insects and natural plantlife that were used to design the various species of the inhabitants of the forest in which the film takes place. He spoke about finding inspiration in the strangest places, and how realism can be used to inspire any story.
Couch and Knapp worked in conjunction on the film, and cited specific examples of plantlife that were used in the story itself. For example, the wardrobe and dress worn by the character Queen Tara (voiced by Beyonce Knowles) was inspired by something as simple as the petals of a flower. For a racing sequence in the film, one of the characters appears to be wearing a leather jacket. Knapp explained that for inspiration, they took the basic look of a beetle and added only a few touches to make it appear as if he was dressed to race. When they showed us the photos side-by-side, it’s almost a perfect match. In essence, nature is so unique that certain aspects didn’t necessarily need to be changed. This is the true genius of the folks who inhabit the world of animation – they find inspiration in places where others may never think to look.
By the end of the tour, I was completely astonished. The world of animation is ever-changing and always evolving, and the skill and passion applied to every frame of these projects is truly something to behold. We were able to see bits and pieces of the upcoming Peanuts, but because it is still in development we aren’t allowed to say much about it. The artists who I met are some of the brightest minds working in the film industry today, and the only reward they ask is for people to enjoy the worlds they work so hard to create. Chris Wedge and company have built a talented studio that is constantly pushing itself to be better and dream bigger.