Low-profile studio stays afloat with 'Ice Age'

The nondescript glass building at 44 South Broadway in the New York City suburb of White Plains doesn’t exactly look like an artists’ paradise.

Amidst the lawyers and insurance companies here, however, is an office that’s notable only for the cardboard cutout by the front door advertising “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” Behind the doors are screening rooms, sculptures, posters, piercings, computers — all the details one would expect at a modern-day animation studio that employs about 300 people.

Still, for anyone who has visited the lush creative campuses of Pixar or DreamWorks Animation, it would be hard to believe that this is the home of one of Hollywood’s most successful animation houses.

But perhaps it’s the perfect location for Fox-owned Blue Sky, a studio that teetered on the edge of death for years, isn’t nearly as high profile publicly as its competitors, and works with the tightest budgets of any major studio’s animation operation.

Blue Sky hasn’t garnered as much critical acclaim as its competitors, either.

None of its features have won the animation Oscar or the toon industry’s Annie for best picture, but there’s no arguing with its batting average at the B.O.

Only 2005’s “Robots” was something of a disappointment, while the first and second “Ice Age” pics were big and huge, respectively, and this year’s “Horton Hears a Who” has already taken $274 million worldwide, with several foreign markets left to go. In total, Blue Sky’s four films have racked up over $1.5 billion in worldwide grosses. “There’s not as much luxury here, not the same time, and certainly not the same budgets as some who started before us,” admits company vet Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed “Ice Age” and “Robots” and solely helmed “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and the third “Ice Age,” which comes out next summer. “At the same time, we have more a family culture not being in L.A. and we put out stuff that I think is of comparable quality.”

When Fox acquired Blue Sky in 1997, building one of the most successful CGI studios in the biz wasn’t even on its radar. At the time, it was investing its animation money into a studio in Arizona that produced 2-D flops “Anastasia” and “Titan A.E.”

Instead, Blue Sky was merged with Fox’s VIFX, a now-defunct special effects company. Blue Sky was meant to contribute its CGI skills, which had been honed for years on commercials and only recently has been used in movies, starting with “Joe’s Apartment” in 1996.

Ironically, the man who many at Blue Sky credit as the company’s unsung hero never thought about feature films either. Former nuclear scientist Eugene Troubetzkoy, a soft-spoken Russian immigrant, built the proprietary technology called CGI Studio that powers Blue Sky’s films to this day. And he still heads the company’s small research team that tweaks the software.

“The goal of the artistic people was always to make movies,” the slender academic admits with a laugh. “Personally, I couldn’t have cared less.”

Most of the team who launched Blue Sky in 1987 came from the computer effects company that worked on Disney’s “Tron.” But financial reality kept Blue Sky away from movies for a long time as it struggled well into the early ’90s to stay afloat doing primarily commercial work.

“Most of us were working for negative salaries,” recalls Troubetzkoy.

At the same time, Blue Sky’s fellow CGI pioneers across the country at Pixar were staying afloat largely thanks to a corporate benefactor until they got their shot with 1995’s “Toy Story,” which blew open the doors for computer animated movies.

“Every time things were looking down, we always wondered, where’s our Steve Jobs?” says co-founder and chief technology officer Carl Ludwig, only half-jokingly.

Once Blue Sky started getting f/x work, the company finally had enough resources to make its move into films by fulfilling co-founder and VP creative Chris Wedge’s long-held dream to make “Bunny.” The 1998 Oscar-winning short proved that the company could go beyond designing characters and tell an engaging story.

Still, “Ice Age” took more than a bit of serendipity to come together. With the f/x market crashing, Fox was thinking about selling Blue Sky by 2000, Wedge recalls. He and former Fox animation topper Chris Meledandri were brainstorming ways to keep the company together when producer Lori Forte, who still works with the studio, brought in the script for “Ice Age.”

“It was an extraordinary script really and Meledandri said he would give it to us if we could turn it into a comedy,” remembers Wedge. “It was our one opportunity to do what we always wanted to do and prove to Fox that they shouldn’t sell us.”

That bet paid off big time, and established Fox as only the third studio, along with DreamWorks and then-independent Pixar, to launch a successful CGI franchise.

Four movies later, the company has clearly proven itself commercially and is now more focused on developing artistic autonomy. Unlike Pixar, which generates its projects internally, Blue Sky still relies on a small L.A.-based development team headed by animation prexy Vanessa Morrison, who took over last year after Meledandri left for a venture backed by Universal.

To that end, Fox is attempting to expand the shorts program at Blue Sky to foster new talent and ideas. So far, though, the focus may be more on the former — the next short in the works is an “Ice Age” spin-off for the “Horton” DVD that, one of the co-directors admits, came from a push for a “green” theme from the studio’s homevideo department.

Ask Blue Sky insiders what they’re most excited about, however, and it’s a pending move to Greenwich, Conn., where the floor of a much newer building is being designed exactly for the needs of several hundred animators. It could also help symbolize, employees say, that the higher profile for which Blue Sky has so long yearned may finally be coming its way.

“When I got here, ‘Finding Nemo’ was just coming out and people were finally saying ‘Pixar — that’s a name we know and trust and love,'” says “Horton” co-director Steve Martino. “I think we’re just finally getting to that place now.”

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