How the DreamWorks Toon Team Created

Cutting-edge technology — plus a deep creative bench — make prehistoric story possible

It’s telling that Barack Obama visited the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, Calif., at the end of November. The president, who was making the rounds of the Golden State’s fundraising circuit, wanted to praise the job opportunities and cultural influence of one of America’s most lucrative exports — Hollywood films — of which DWA’s animated hit “The Croods” is a prime example.

“The Croods” is a family road movie set in prehistoric times. With nothing for the animation and design crews to reference beyond fossils and theories, the creative team ended up creating a world that was fantastical, yet grounded enough to connect with audiences, according to co-directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco.

“The inspiration was to create a Jurassic world that didn’t exist but could have existed,” says “Croods” production designer Christophe Lautrette, adding that as the story developed, its world became more playful and whimsical, featuring mashup breeds that might have split into separate species farther down the evolutionary line.

But they had to make sure that audiences knew the story was set on Earth. “That was our boundary,” says Lautrette. For example, hybrid fauna included creatures like the Macawnivore, a giant sabre-toothed tiger crossed with a macaw.

Sanders says they wanted to include all the standard caveman tropes, but with a twist. For example, though the Macawnivore looks like a big cat, Lautrette says they reasoned that because it lived in the jungle, it would be multicolored similar to a macaw.

“Character is where the movie lives, particularly in animation,” says Markus Manninen, the film’s vfx supervisor. “This is something Chris (Sanders) felt very passionately about. The subtle detail gives the characters more believability. Microdetails make them far more expressive. … These are things that are hard to achieve.”

That’s where DWA’s cutting-edge computing power came in handy. For example, CG water was used in a scene where the Croods and Guy, a more evolved human who joins up with the family, swim in a lake. That technology — which added beauty and personality to the scene — would have been prohibitively expensive a few years ago.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had worked with Sanders on “How to Train Your Dragon,” came aboard to consult on the lighting, fitting advice into his “Skyfall” shooting schedule. According to Manninen, the d.p. helped the animation and vfx teams build a vocabulary to work from when creating the visuals.

“As the story came together, we continued to collaborate with (Deakins),” says Manninen. “He is a god in our world.”

As DreamWorks Animation preps its upcoming films — which include “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Happy Smekday,” “King Fu Panda 3” and “B.O.O. — Bureau of Otherworldly Operations” — it also is growing its opportunities in China through Oriental DreamWorks.

That shingle, based in Shanghai, is ramping up family-friendly projects for China that will also have global appeal. Plus, ODW is the sole distributor of DWA films in China, where “The Croods” took in a huge $67 million at the box office.

Meanwhile, back at the Glendale facility, professionals from a wide range of disciplines collaborate to make films that go out via DWA’s new distribution partner, 20th Century Fox, which took over from Paramount to release both “The Croods” and last summer’s “Turbo.”

“Not only do we have experienced artists, but also people from the visual-effects world,” Manninen points out. “We take the best of both worlds and fuse them together.”

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