In the animated feature “The Croods: A New Age,” which bowed Nov. 25 in select theaters, the first prehistoric family encounters the Bettermans, a family a few steps evolved beyond the cave people. When the Croods stumble on their lush treehouse compound, it looks like paradise to them. It’s so appealing, in fact, that even the animators wanted to spend time vacationing in it.
Production designer Nate Wragg came on early in the process, working with director Joel Crawford and the animation team to oversee the visual look and design and how the idyllic habitat came together.
“It was a Willy Wonka kind of environment,” Crawford says.
The Croods — again including the voices of Emma Stone as Eep, Catherine Keener and Nicolas Cage as her mom and dad, Cloris Leachman as her grandma and Ryan Reynolds as the Cro-Magnon Guy — find themselves in a totally different environment from what they were in, in the 2013 original film. That meant all locations had to be designed from scratch. The inspiration? “National Geographic Magazine or documentary on steroids,” Wragg says. “We tried to take things that we know have existed and embellished them and idealized them in fun and playful ways.”
But that was just a jumping-off point. “Everything was more colorful than you would imagine, more fantastical — but not magical,” Wragg notes. He didn’t want things to look like a world from “Lord of the Rings.”
The Bettermans — Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann voice Phil and Hope, with Kelly Marie Tran as their daughter, Dawn — make things that hint at modernity while surviving within the green ecosystem they’ve built.
Wragg was able to get creative when it came to designing objects the Bettermans might have invented to make life within the compound more enjoyable. A water wheel powered by a fall striking the branches of a palm tree that runs the habitat’s irrigation system “wasn’t exactly whimsical,” he says, “but it made sense because it was practical.” There was an elevator, a version of what would be a man cave “and something as simple as just a window within a wall” — all things that nodded at comforts we have in today’s world.
Wragg says the Bettermans have a better sense of existing as a unit within their walls. “Life wasn’t that hard anymore. … They’re almost living as if they’re on vacation — at least, in contrast to the Croods, where life is difficult.”
VFX supervisor Betsy Nofsinger pushed existing technology and worked closely with Wragg using modeling, surfacing and digimat to add more “lusciousness and a stylized look, right down to the water,” she says, adding, “We had to organize color and make sure it wasn’t busy-looking.” The effort was a completely collaborative one for all teams, with departments from lighting and VFX to art and design working together on every detail.
Making the oasis take shape was so much fun that Wragg almost wanted to crawl inside. When he looked at the theme park-type setting the crewwas creating, he says, “I wanted to stay here.”