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Anatomy of an Animation Studio: An Evening with Blue Sky

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event, Anatomy of an Animation Studio: An Evening with Blue Sky. The event was part of An Animation Showcase: From Celluloid to CGI. The presentation was held at The Academy Theater in NYC. The event was sold out.

Patrick Harrison, The Director of NY Programs and Membership, introduced the Blue Sky Studios group of presenters.

Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, John Donkin, and Tom Cardone all had their respective list of extensive experience in the realm of filmmaking.

The Academy Lighthouse Theater, NYC

Chris Wedge, is Co-Founder and Vice President of Creative Development at Blue Sky Studios. He is an executive producer, director, writer, and animator. Before Blue Sky, in 1982, Wedge worked for MAGI/SynthaVision as a principal animator on Tron. He was animation director for Joe’s Apartment and Creative Supervisor for Alien: Resurrection. He studied at Ohio State University and State University of New York at Purchase. In 1998 he won an Academy Award for the Blue Sky animated short film, "Bunny". He has taught animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the voice of Scrat from "Ice Age".

Carlos Saldanha is a Brazilian Director, Producer, and Animator. He holds a Master’s degree in Computer Art from SVA. He created two award winning films "Korky, the Corkscrew” (1992) and “Time for Love” (1993). Saldanha met MFA instructor Chris Wedge at SVA and joined Blue Sky in the studio’s early years. Carlos worked as an animator on "Bunny" and as a creative supervisor on "Fight Club" via Blue Sky Studios. He co-directed "Ice Age" and "Robots" with Chris Wedge. He directed "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown", "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs", "Rio", and "Rio 2". Carlos Saldanha has also founded BottleCap Productions to “shepherd, develop and produce feature and television work for the domestic and international markets”.

John Donkin is a Producer with Blue Sky Studios. Donkin was a part of Cranston/Csuri Productions and the CGRG lab creating then cutting edge computer graphics. He was a Technical Director on "Bunny" and an Associate Producer for "Ice Age". He has since worked as a Producer for "Rio", "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs", "Rio", "Ice Age: Continental Drift", and "Rio 2". He is responsible for development of production pipeline at Blue Sky Studios.

Tom Cardone is an Art Director, Background Artist, Animator, and Traditional Painter.  He has worked on "The Nightmare before Christmas" (effects color timing and paint via Walt Disney Feature Animation), "Beauty and the Beast" (digital painter), "The Rescuers Down Under" (computer animation assistant), "Chicken Little" (visual development artist), "Aladdin" (background artist), "Pocahontas" (background), and "Hercules" (background supervisor). He was Art Director for "Horton Hears a Who!" and "Ice Age: The Meltdown". His Traditional Paintings are featured on the Arthur T. Kalaher Fine Art website.

Patrick Harrison, Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, John Donkin, and Tom Cordone

We were treated to a screening of "Bunny", from a 27 year old print out of the Academy archive. "Bunny" won an Oscar for the studio in 1998. It’s a beautiful short film. It tells the story of an elderly rabbit and a moth but the underlying tale is about the reality of aging, the strength of love, and the realization of death. It's the kind of story which links us all.

Chris Wedge (Co-Founder) had the microphone first. He talked about how the NY Academy and Blue Sky are strongholds for the East Coast which drew applause from the audience.

Chris Wedge endeavoured to describe a 20 year history in 90 minutes. In 1987 they pooled their savings and set up an old coffee maker and some used furniture and started an animation studio. They were the 1st generation to try and make a business out of it. They needed to "develop the technology, to make the stuff you use. The objective was to make objects as realistic as we could make them."

Blue Sky was trying to make the impossible, possible. In the beginning, they supported the venture by doing commercial projects with their new CGI studio. Chris Wedge said it's the people and the collaboration between them which makes Blue Sky what it is. The number of those people has increased considerably. Blue Sky had approximately 600 people working on their recent film "Epic" while they had about 80 people on staff when they created "Bunny".

Character development "Epic"

John Donkin (Producer) took the mic, next. His portion of the presentation was analytical and interesting.  When starting a movie they first have to ask, what is the big idea behind the movie? How do you go about producing it?

He described the process in detail. You take the script and break it down into sequences at 35-40 sequences per location. (He projected an excel sheet showing breakdown of sequences. Saying that “[this was something done] very early in the process”.) If you take the number of pages in a script and allow for one minute per page, this gives you an approximate idea of the [length] movie.

Asserting that "Math is your friend" he projected a couple of equations used to further determine resource allocation.

Total # of sequences / amount of resources = resources per sequence

Total length % of sequences / amount of resources = resources per sequences

If there is something out of balance, there should  be a good reason for it.
He projected a pie chart showing all departments in the studio. The point being there are many departments and many players.

While the allocation of resources is loosely outlined the story is being focused on. Storyboard artists work with directors and the story is sometimes recreated and reworked. (For example, Scrat was really flushed out and recreated in the story-boarding phase of Ice Age.)

Regarding the development of new characters, it takes a great amount of effort and it is also a "huge production management task". (John Donkin projected a Shotgun screenshot of a very detailed database.)

He next focused on the project process and projected the image on an hourglass on the screen. Donkin explained, “In the beginning we think about what’s possible and what we can do”. Then we “narrow down ideas [and] this is the difficult part.” This is the work that NEEDS to be done. Lastly, we focus on making the best version possible and “plussing what [we] already have”.

Character development "Ice Age"

The mic was passed to Chris Wedge. He spoke about “building a world”. He said the process starts with inspiration. You create different ideas, take walks in the woods, and then pare down your ideas. 
As he spoke he projected paintings by Mary GrandPré, (Visual Development), Buck Lewis (Visual Development), and Greg Couch (Visual Development).

Chris said "the movie [he] really wanted to create was 'Robots'". He projected an illustration by William Joyce (co-creator, producer, and production designer for Robots). “The fun part was [looking] into [our] world and finding objects to anthropomorphize. “For example a boat motor was part of the inspiration for Rodney’s physique and found, cast iron, radiators became the inspiration for some of the architecture. Sometimes, found objects became inspirations for characters in other ways, “maybe you are what you do.” For example, Rodney’s Dad is literal dishwasher.

Wedge explained how the movie dealt with the topic of obsolescence using technology both literally and figuratively.  "First steam, and later, combustion and electrical engines replaced human and animal labor.”["Journal of Evolution & Technology"] This concept was used a tool for character and story development.

The next world Blue Sky Studios created lived in the woods. "Epic" was inspired, in part, by Victorian fairy paintings like those by Richard Dadd. (Some of Dadd’s most famous works were created while committed to psychiatric hospitals). Wedge elaborated saying he was inspired by this kind of imagery because it's focus on “things hidden we [don't] know [are] there.”

For inspiration they also looked at works by Adventure painters like N.C. Wyeth. “The Leafmen were Samurai riding humming birds.”

Idea was if “you break the world down, the world we know, we move down into a whole new world.”
He projected a painting by Greg Couch. For example, “flower textures up close look alien and plants can . . . become architecture.” Wedge continued saying they “[wanted] to inspire kids to take a walk in the woods and wonder if the Leafmen [or the Boggins] really [existed]”.

“It’s a ‘power of 10’ thing.” When you push in with a microscope “you [can] go up inside something to see differences in physics.” (For example, insects can lift 50 times their weight.) [About.com/education]

Wedge showed a very entertaining demo of real life experiments with rubber bands that worked as a first reference for the Leafmen’s bow and arrow. The experiments lead them to have the leafmen “plant themselves [in order] to hit their targets with precision”.

Tom Cardone (Art Director) spoke next. He said, “We want the look of every movie to be different.” He said the design starts out broad and then narrows. “We work with drawings and paintings, first. We create a style guide, which is a collection of observations.”

Cardone spoke about the development of "Ice Age 2". He projected illustrations by Peter Clark (conceptual designer). Cardone said they went back and dissected what Peter did in his visual development drawings for "Ice Age" to create their style guide. “We looked at what he did [and] what he repeated.” They reverse engineered the creative choices of the artist.

Cardone spoke about using a method of "order to chaos of shapes" to enhance the story.
For "Rio" they used sidewalk patterns and 60s and 70s textile patterns from observations made in Rio de Janeiro and “[they] got all of this into the plant life”. They used this pattern exploration and "referenced rainforest plants that followed [a similar] style and then we simplified them. All of this was done to emphasize the story.”

Cardone showed style frames from "Rio". He talked about the ways they brought color and life into the forest. They had to make sure characters read well in the busy foliage of the jungle background. They made the background simple and cooler so you could read colors. They began the process with Digital paintings and sometimes material paintings (1"x2") to work out the color scheme.The film color schemes were created for atmosphere, color palette, and character.

In creating color keys “you look for something special, a hook”. He said the Directors talk about what emotions they want to convey. He looks at paintings for inspiration and as a jumping off point. He looks at values and color for emotion without necessarily considering subject matter of the paintings. All elements come together and color script is created. The time of Day (of each sequence in film), the emotional beats in the film, and consultations with the Directors all influence the final color theory decisions for the film. For example, in RIO the green of the rainforest is equated to a "safe haven and paradise". The complimentary color to green is red which is equated "with danger and bad stuff". Also, the dirt is red in areas where the rainforest is removed. Blue and Violet are equated to "fun songs and fantasy sequences". Human beings are naturally sensitive to color change. This kind of attention to detail in production is used to support the story.

The story is also emphasized with the use of light and shadow. Cardone explained, “we look at old movies from the 1940s for lighting examples. The shadows direct the eye and frame the characters and the main events of the scene.” Light over Dark or Dark over light is used for a clearer silhouette of the character. Value structure is controlled so character is clear.


Carlos Saldanha (Director) talked about character creation. Sketches by Peter de Sève (character design for Ice Age) were projected. He said when you create the drawings you start to hear the character's voice. The character Skrat emerged and then re-emerged from the Blue Sky story room. Saldanha said “Skrat was going to die in the first sequence, originally . . . we had to go back!”

We watched part of the trailer for Ice Age.

Carlos was one of the first animators at Blue Sky. “We tried to push the boundaries for quick motion.” In the beginning, they didn’t have the same kind of technology for things like fur. “Sometimes not having the resources gives you a chance to push your mind.” Using the “voice [of Chris Wedge for Skrat] was temporary, but then there was a campaign to keep the original voice”.

“'Ice Age' was a success so we were able to do 'Ice Age 2'” and by then we had more advanced technology for fur. “ [For Skrat] we were able to do fur, but we still wanted the character to look like Skrat. Skrat was a big star [now] and had to be included in lots of scenes”. Elements were pushed for Skrat and he became more important in the story. 

We watched the intro sequence for "Ice Age".

Illustrations by Bill Frake (storyboard artist) were projected on screen.

Saldanha said in making "Rio", “I created a love story for my city and country. I wanted to go home.” The story was based on the story of Spix’s macaws which are extinct in the wild. He projected multiple exploratory character study examples. Sketches by Sergio Pablos (character designer) were projected on screen.  Saldanha explained, “You start to give pointers to [the] designer and [make] character changes keeping details you like.”

Once they find the main characters, they begin to create character sheets. The characters are still being pushed and pulled around. The creative team will sometimes recreate the characters as they might look at different ages (child, teenager, adult, aged, etc.). The artists create exploratory studies of character emotion, and play around with color scheme of the character.  Blue Sky sometimes uses pencil and paper and material models to do this. They also use zbrush and 3d programs to help with visualization. 

Sculptures by Vicki Saulls (lead sculptor) were projected on screen.

Vicki Saulls

(I spoke with Vicki Saulls briefly in the lobby she said she does full drawings of the characters, but that it's [sometimes] easier for her to go straight to modeling. Her sculptures are beautiful.)

After Carlos spoke about dissecting character he then projected the Blu Final Callout sheet on screen. He said at this point you get technology and creative to work together. The feather technology created for Rio 2 was a 5 year project using voxels (volume pixels) similar to the fur technology.

He said they still do traditional animation for quick tests. Character creation can take 18 months and complex character rigs can take up to 2 years. Traditional animation tests are an alternative way to play around with the characters to see what they can do. (Here is a traditional animation test from "Epic" (sound removed) by BJ Crawford. For example, Rio was set in Brazil and they wanted to see how the characters might dance the Samba.“[We] had to animate a whole cast of singing and dancing birds”.

John Donkin then spoke on the subject of character voices.  When casting for a sequel, looking for additions to the existing cast, they want voices that match and fit in to the ensemble. He said sometimes casting had more of an effect on the actual character and sometimes the actor just gets the character. He said Kristen Chenoweth (Gabi) "Really, really, really, understood the character."

(Here is a link to a clip of Nigel and Gabi.)

Carlos Saldanha took the reign and continued to speak about the voice acting.  “Characters are created first but sometimes the actors just match. It sometimes inspires us when we find such rich voices. Jemaine Clement was perfect for Nigel. You automatically think about the animation when you hear his voice.” (Here is Jemaine Clement doing Nigel VO for "Rio 2".)

We watched an animatic with voice acting added. (Here is an animatic progress reel from a shot from "Rio" by Pete Paquette.)

After the cg cameras, sets, and staging are locked down the Animators come in. "They go into their own little world . . . their crazy little world. I love to see their thinking process. Sometimes they change the story, they motivate the story.”

We watched video ref examples by the animators acting out the VO. (Here is an "Epic" Comparison Reel by Blue Sky Studios animator Jeff Gabor.)

Q&A with the Audience

Q: “The Peanuts Movie, can you tell me about it?”

Chris: “No.” (Audience laughter) “It comes out Nov 6.”

Chris: “We respect the tone of [the original material], the humor of it, and we have respect for the original content just as we did for Horton Hears a Who!.”

Q: What animated movies inspired you growing up?

Chris: "The lush ones" Miyazaki and Snow White. “There weren't that many.  I was in to stop motion, Rankin/Bass.”

Carlos: “I liked [the motion of] Tom and Jerry and [their] getting beaten up.  We were allowed to do a little bit of that with Scrat, [but] we'd have a hard time getting away with some that stuff now.”

John: Chuck Jones was an influence for me.

Chris: I love the look of the classic films like Pinocchio.

Carlos:  Miyazaki

Q: Will you do the voice of Scrat?

(Chris Wedge did the voice of Scrat and it was great.)

Q: Do you have a desire to do pencil (hand drawn) animation?

Chris: “[During the] late 70s [and] early 80s technology 2d animation was kind of pegged as far as what you could make with it. [We felt] technology [could] give films more texture and life.”

Q: What kind of money is spent on Marketing for a franchise?

John: "It takes an army of talented people [to get] your idea into the culture via Ads, posters, etc. [in this day and age]."

Q: What decides when a sequel is made?

Carlos: “[The] success of the original film.”
(During ICE AGE they didn't know where would be a sequel. Now, they prepare for the future a little more.)

Finally, we watched a Peanuts teaser trailer!

It was a very informative presentation. It broke down the process of animated movie production into parts. Blue Sky Studios makes great work and they just seem to get better and better. They push the bar higher with each project. 

I am looking forward to the Peanuts movie!

"The Peanuts Movie" is scheduled to be released on November 6, 2015.