Bring In the Giant Reptiles

Carlos Saldanha, Mike Thurmeier and the rest of wizards at Blue Sky Studios give us a sparkling new Ice Age adventure in glorious 3-D’and throw in some Jurassic-era monsters to spice things up!

First things first: The creators of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs are well aware of the fact that the big lizards were extinct by the time Scrat, Manny and the rest of the gang were roaming the earth! So humorless scientists and naturalists should save their judgment until they see how cleverly directors Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier have incorporated the Jurassic creatures into the film’s storyline!

By now, audiences have grown accustomed to seeing the exploits of the Ice Age gang on the big screen once every three or four years. The first outing in 2002 which cost about $59 million and brought in $383 million worldwide, showed that there was room for other innovative CG-animated pictures outside the DreamWorks and Pixar circle. The 2006 sequel brought in close to $652 million worldwide, so there was no question that Fox and Blue Sky would go for a threequel.

This month, the feature is ready to take a big bite out of the summer box-office with more spectacular animation and a crazy off-center storyline that should keep Up, Transformers and Harry Potter a good run for their money. The fact that, like many of the other animated releases of 2009, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is presented in stereoscopic 3-D makes it even more of an event movie for the whole family.

According to Saldanha, the Blue Sky team began to contemplate a third movie right after the sequel became an even bigger hit than the original. ‘Overall, the third movie was a bigger challenge for us because we added a lot of new elements and brought a higher level of complexity to both the animation and the storyline,’ says the director, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for the short Gone Nutty, (featuring the trilogy’s saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat). ‘We wanted to be true to the heart of the characters, but we also added one more main character which creates more complications. I love the chance to follow these characters that everyone seems to love, continuing to explore them as they evolve. But it’s equally gratifying to create a new world, energy and story path for them.’

One of the film’s new characters is a swash-buckling weasel named Buck, voiced by popular British comic actor Simon Pegg. ‘He is a cross between Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, and he’s been trapped in this world of dinosaurs, so he serves as a tour guide in this place,’ adds Saldanha. ‘On top of all the new characters, we wanted to take the film to a bigger, better level’we have this massive world of the dinosaurs, and our big goal was to have our original characters fit into this new background. On top of everything else, we had to do it all in 3-D!’

Thurmeier, who was also nominated for an Oscar for directing the 2006 Scrat short No Time for Nuts, has worked on all of the Blue Sky movies. He had just finished working on Horton Hears A Who! when he got a call from Saldanha who asked him to join him in directing Dawn of the Dinosaurs. ‘What it comes down to is that the Ice Age movies are fun to work on. These characters are well loved and there’s a good vibe about the movie and working with Carlos. What I liked about the third movie is that they kind of play it straight. It works as a road movie, but it also has a certain Journey to the Center of the Earth genre feel to it which allows us to create more action scenes.’

Third One LooksOut of This World

Just as Shrek the Third was light years ahead of the first Shrek movie in terms of CG capabilities, the new Ice Age movie was able to play with a more advanced set of tech crayons than the first outing. ‘It’s a huge step forward for us at Blue Sky,’ notes Saldanha. ‘In terms of what we’re able to do with radiosity, lighting and shadows, depth and scale’it’s a lot more complex. We also created this world of dense forest elements’a kind of a lush Shangri-La with waterfalls [under the Ice Age universe]‘we are constantly looking at ways to improve our technology so that all the special effects really look invisible.’

Obviously, embracing the new stereoscopic technology and using it appropriately were a huge concern for the animators and technicians of the film. The process added at least three to four months to the production schedule, Saldanha points out. ‘We had to make sure the depth was right’and the left eye view and right eye views were matching. Our main approach was to allow audiences to completely immerse themselves in this world. We weren’t going to throw things out at you, just for the sake of using the 3-D. We wanted it to be more organic and easy on the eye. I think it definitely feels more naturally fluid, and you can see that we put the integrity of the story first. Of course, it’s a lot of fun to see the dinosaurs and the action sequences in 3-D!’

Thurmeier says he learned a heck of a lot working on his first 3-D movie. ‘At first, I wasn’t too excited about the technology, but I’m completely won over now,’ he admits. ‘The immersive quality of it and the fact that it feels like peering through a window makes it very appealing. The rendered CG animation paired with stereoscopic technology gives the film a very tactile, tangible quality. We all really learned as we went along!’

The co-director also brings up the point that good animated movies have always been about great characters. ‘You can have all the amazing settings and scope, but what really goes up on the poster and what people remember are the characters’Sid, Diego, Manny, Scrat. The movies are all strongly about the definition of family, without shame. It’s a nice, pure sentiment about the family unit, no matter how you define it. A lot of animated movies can come across as smart alecky, but there’s a pure heart factor in all the Ice Age movies.’

Dancing with the Scrats

There are certain sequences in the film of which Thurmeier is particularly proud. One involves a rodent tango between Scrat and his girlfriend Scratte. The other is a flashback sequence involving the new character Buck who tells the others about his encounter with this mythical beast in the the lost world. ‘It looks completely different from the rest of the film because it has a monochromatic Sin City feel,’ notes Thurmeier. ‘I also love one of the final dogfight air battle scenes where the guys are riding on the back of the terradactyls.’

Thurmeier says it was ironic that he was co-directing a CG-animated movie featuring giant dinosaurs. ‘It’s funny, because Jurassic Park was a hugely influential movie for a lot of guys my age,’ he says. ‘I remember seeing it five times when it first came out. Luckily, our movie isn’t striving to be realistic. Our amazing designer Pete de S’ve is known for making very cool, interesting characters, and the approach was that the dinosaurs had to have the same Ice Age sensibility’We didn’t want to scare the pants off the kids!’

Next for Brazilian-born Saldanha is directing Blue Sky’s spring 2010 feature called Rio, which is about a young macaw who leaves the comfort of his cage in Minnesota to fly to Brazil in search of his roots. Not surprisingly, he’s quite pleased with the state of animation around the world. ‘What’s exciting is that the quality of animation is getting better every year ‘ I think the whole world of animation is getting richer and going beyond just telling stories for children—and this is all in the span of 14 years since the first Toy Story movie came out. We’ve certainly come a long way.’

Fox/Blue Sky’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is currently playing in theaters nationwide and will have its global rollout throughout in July. For more info, visit www.iceagemovie.com.