Epic, the new animated adventure from director Chris Wedge and his gifted team at Blue Sky Studios, opens the door to a world inhabited by fantastic creatures hidden from plain sight.
Civilized man’s obsession with magical creatures that live in verdant, unexplored regions of nature has inspired numerous works of art, from Victorian novels and paintings to early 20th century trick photographs and modern pop culture figures as disparate as Tinker Bell and The Smurfs. In May, filmgoers around the world are invited to enjoy a completely new take on the miniature world hidden in our backyards in the 3-D, CG-animated offering from Oscar-winning director Chris Wedge called Epic. The visually stunning new Fox/Blue Sky feature centers on the battle between the good forces that try to keep this wonderful natural world alive and the evil forces of decay.
Speaking from his Blue Sky Studios offices in Greenwich, Connecticut, Wedge says he and Joyce had been talking about collaborating on a big action movie exploring this hidden world back when they were both working on the studio’s 2005 pic Robots.
“Bill Joyce and I were thinking about places to go in animation, and this notion kept coming up—to build a big action-adventure movie about these creatures that you almost see from the corners of your eyes, this natural environment that looks both familiar and alien at the same time.”
World-renowned author/illustrator Joyce, the Oscar-winning director of the 2012 short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and exec producer of features such as Meet the Robinsons, Robots and Rise of the Guardians, says he’d been obsessed with the subject after visiting an exhibit about Victorian fairy paintings at the Frick Collection museum in New York.
“I’d seen Peter Pan at Lincoln Center with my children and gone to that exhibit at the Frick,” recalls the Baton Rouge-based artist. “I had the catalog from the exhibit—and the paintings were incredible—you could see this ancient civilization of fairies in miniature form. That idea of these ancient creatures in the natural world really got Chris stoked.”
Wedge and Joyce threw some ideas around and eventually brought in screenwriter James Hart (Hook, Dracula, Muppet Treasure Island) to draft a feature that included these characters and this mystical world within an adventure framework.
“We all love the same things; Robin Hood movies, swash-bucklers, grand adventure movies,” Joyce points out. “I remember the three of us shared this wonderful summer evening at this tree-lined glade. Chris and Jim came over with some brandy, and there we were, three grown men, drinking brandy and surrounded by the brightest fireflies and beautiful trees in a moonlit glade in the Adirondacks. That was the backdrop for our movie.”
“Some places you can’t go any other way but animation,” explains Wedge. “We had been developing our technical abilities at Blue Sky, and we had the ability to create entire natural worlds in CG animation. I thought it would be fantastic to use stereoscopic technology to immerse audiences—visually, intellectually and emotionally—in this animated realm.”
After production was greenlit three years ago, Wedge and his team at Blue Sky got to work on fleshing out this meticulously crafted forest, where tiny seeds seem as huge as boulders and a butterfly is visualized as a flying tapestry of colors. The film’s storyline, which centers on a young human girl (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) who shrinks down to the size of the other creatures to help the Queen of the Forest realm (pop star Beyoncé Knowles) and her helpers find a precious “Podling” baby, went through many drafts until Wedge and his team finally landed a version that was exactly what they were looking for.
“The first thing that counts is that you have to deliver a story and movie experience that grabs them emotionally and satisfies them,” notes Wedge about his studio’s eighth theatrical feature outing. “This film plays on an emotional level that exceeds what we’ve achieved before. It feels more cinematic: It takes a crew of talented people to join in the vision and help execute it all together.”
Everything Is Illuminated
Of course, CG animation and cinematic technology have come a long way since Wedge directed his inspiring short Bunny back in 1999. As co-founder and VP of creative development at Blue Sky Studios, he has overseen the growth and evolution of his studio and delivered global blockbusters such as the Ice Age series, Rio, Robots and Horton Hears A Who! Let’s not forget that he is also the voice of one of the most popular characters in animated movies of the past decade—the acorn-collecting saber-toothed squirrel from the Ice Age franchise.
On the technology side, Wedge says there weren’t any earth-shattering advances since the last Blue Sky movie, Rio. However, for this movie, the artistic innovations helped them apply a lot of time and care to elements that they would deliver in a different style.
“One of the biggest skills is managing the creative process in a big movie like this,” he offers. “The development of the story, the application of the creative ideas, managing them through the production design team, the modelers, the animators, to help them contribute and do what they all do best. I’m simply awestruck by the ability of the people to accomplish so much work aimed at a singular goal.”
Those who love to dig into the development history of movies would love to know that at one point, the idea was floated to shoot Epic as a live-action/CG animation hybrid project. Wedge says they thought about shooting the Leaf Men as humans in samurai costumes.
“We wanted that kind of realism and aimed for audiences to buy these characters as humanlike as possible,” he explains. “If we pushed it too much, it would look alien, and too much of that CG realism would edge them towards the uncanny valley territory. The animators were challenged to animate within a certain range of emotions that wouldn’t break these characters.”
Another interesting point is that the little guys were able to leap and move around just like crickets do.
“By virtue of their size, the Leaf Men can leap about 30 feet—gravity works differently on them,” says Wedge. “Character to character, we used different animation approaches. For example, one of our human characters, the father, Bomba (who is voiced by Jason Sudeikis), moves much more broadly than the Leaf Men. We based him on movie stars like Sterling Holloway and Danny Kaye as well as some of the figures in Norman Rockwell’s classic paintings.”
Nowhere Near Scrat’s World
As the film’s supervising animator Galen Chu, who also worked on Blue Sky’s first three Ice Age movies, Robots and Rio, tells us…
“We have done a lot of cartoony animation in the past, and for this movie, one of our biggest challenges was pulling off naturalist motion and acting,” he says. “When we got the scene, we would brainstorm, get in the acting room and act out the scene to get our reference. We could see which one of our ideas read the best, and we had video footage that was really important for us. Chris always pointed the team to nature and invited them to draw from the real world, so that the performances were naturalistic and believable.”
One of Chu’s favorite scenes in the movie involves the heroine, Mary Katherine’s transformation.
“Part of the film’s conceit is that these characters in the forest are only two inches tall and the reason we can’t see them is because they move so fast. So when Mary Katherine has to return to her father’s house, she sees everything from a different perspective. Everything seems foreign to her because she has shrunk tremendously. She has to interact with her dad, who seems like a giant building in front of her. Then the housedog catches a whiff of the Leaf Men and chases them down, and they’re moving quickly like crickets. I think we succeeded in bringing together some very cool, unique ideas.”
Another element that returned Wedge to his childhood days was the film’s 3-D stereoscopic features.
“As a kid, I used to love to lay on my back and look through my View-Master for hours,” he says. “Perhaps that’s why I started making stop-motion animation. I loved the 3-Dness of it, and I was jealous of the way 2D animation moved. Now that we are able to bring 3-D to CG animation, it’s an entirely new composition tool. The lighting, framing and depth element totally transforms your camera composition and the way you experience a shot. I can’t explain all of it, but when you put the 3-D goggles on and look through the camera, the experience of the shot is completely different. We change the depth and focus points to adjust this world so that the audience gets a better immersive experience.”
Wedge, who is a huge fan of the original King Kong as well as classic Disney movies like Bambi and Pinocchio, says he always loved the way animation was able to take liberties and take audiences to places that weren’t necessarily just for children.
“People think animation is for children, but I’m not a child and I love it. As a child, I was mostly captivated by things that I didn’t quite understand. We make our movies incredibly child-friendly, but there are parts of the world where they explore subjects in animation that are quite mature. I always want to make movies that include everyone in the audience and offer material that challenges adults as well as children.”
Fox/Blue Sky’s Epic begins its run in U.S. theaters on May 24.