Blue Sky Studios' Epic

The studio behind the hit 'Ice Age' franchise lines up more new properties

Being able to successfully build a world both new and familiar for Blue Sky’s “Epic” shows just how far the studio’s computer animation capabilities have come in a decade’s time.

“Years ago, our limits with the technology were just keeping things on the screen and fighting off the glitches,” says “Epic” director Chris Wedge, who also helmed the original “Ice Age” pic. “Now, the technology is advanced enough to do anything, so the challenge is ideas.”

Deviating from the animation norm of comedy, musicals and talking animals may be the biggest departure for “Epic.” Wedge says he had no trouble selling the studio on the idea, adapted from William Joyce’s book about a teenage girl who discovers a civilization of tiny warriors fighting to preserve their forest home.

“I wanted to do something I thought animation could (handle) very well, and that is big action and fantasy,” Wedge says. “And so I went at it with a great deal of confidence in our ability to achieve it.”

That’s because Blue Sky has become, as Wedge says, a “well-oiled machine” that can reliably produce one feature a year with a staff smaller than most rivals. “It’s a very comfortable, matured creative environment where people can just go in and jam.”

“Epic” allowed the studio to innovate on several fronts, driven by Wedge’s vision of an adventure in the vein of the Errol Flynn classic “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and a look similar to such classic American illustrators as N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.

“Epic’s” more realistic style required the development of character rigs with greater articulation and movement that wouldn’t slow down the animation process, Wedge says. The forest environment also required immense attention to detail and more variations of the color green than the director thought possible.

Strategically, having franchises such as the “Ice Age” series (whose four entries have grossed $2.8 billion worldwide) or “Rio” and its upcoming sequel help offset such risks, while a mix of features is key to Blue Sky’s strategies going forward, says Fox Animation president Vanessa Morrison.

“It’s important that we nourish our franchises,” she says. “But it’s also really important to us that we develop original ideas as well.”

The studio’s current slate reflects that strategy, with “Rio 2” set for 2014; a CG version of the “Peanuts” comicstrip coming in 2015; an adaptation of toon concept artist Bruce Zick’s “Anubis” book property in 2016; and “Ferdinand,” based on the bull-based kidlit classic in 2017.

Wedge says technology will advance and remain important to computer animation, but the freedom to explore new ideas is most important. “We’re fortunate we have a couple of franchise worlds going on,” he says. “But the only way to get another one on its feet is to come up with something different.”

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