Getting Animated

Going behind the scenes—literally—at Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich.


Blue Sky Studios

As a fan of animated films, I’ve seen a number of Blue Sky Studios’ productions theatrically; as a parent, I’ve seen them repeatedly. Robots, Horton Hears a Who, the Ice Age trilogy—all big hits at my house, as well as around the globe: Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs became the third-highest-grossing international film of all time, taking in $657 million in international ticket sales this past summer.

The Academy Award-winning Blue Sky is also a big hit here in Connecticut. Taking advantage of the state’s aggressive tax credits for film and TV production, the computer-generated animation company moved last January to Greenwich (barely, as the driveway leading into its offices starts in New York), where it employs 350 full-time artists, animators and other essential movie-making types. It encompasses the entire third floor of a squat office building overlooking scenic Greenwich backcountry, a bohemian outpost nestled amid button-down hedge fund and investment firms.

Imagination and artistic spirit are apparent at every turn in this hip sea of dimly lit cubicles (the better to see the double computer monitors that everyone uses). One set of animators’ cubicles is built up like a treehouse fort, complete with wood-planked walls and floors; other work spaces are festooned with movie stills and pirate flags, action figures and cartoon art. Table tennis and pool tables stand ready to relieve the tedium of the meticulous animation process. Blue Sky also stages events to keep its employees fresh and inspired, from guest speakers and Oktoberfests to talent shows and yoga classes. “Blue Sky is definitely a young, forward-thinking creative environment,” says Christina Witoshkin, manager of marketing and communications, and my tour guide. “It’s a marriage of fine art and science. It’s an intensely eclectic place.”

Fun, yes, but as at a traditional movie studio, a trip behind the scenes quickly exposes the exacting work, long hours and dedication needed to generate that silver-screen magic. The next trick Blue Sky is conjuring up is Rio, an original animated adventure slated to hit theaters in April 2011. With the project already in the production “pipeline,” almost everyone here will be exclusively devoted to it over the next year-and-a-half. And yes, with the amount of effort that will be required, 18 months won’t seem nearly enough time. Let’s just say that writing a story, developing characters, then digitally rendering an entire world is a massively intricate, technical and labor-intensive undertaking. Not only does every character, movement and blade of grass have to be generated perfectly, flow together and look great in each of the tens of thousands of frames required for a 90-minute film, but there’s also film distribution, marketing, merchandising, publicity. . . .

The process can be daunting. “We have to create an entire universe, and come up conceptually with all the rules that govern it,” says Mike Knapp, art director for Ice Age 3. “We then have to translate that to a computer process, where we can manipulate it all to tell a story.” A key part of that requires transforming characters from rough sketches to a three-dimensional form for use in the computer-animation process (as well as later for action figures and toys).

To accomplish this, drawings are passed to sculpting supervisor Mike DeFeo and his team, who fashion multiple models of a character in clay as well as digitally. “Digital modeling is easier for doing certain things, but with clay you can be more stylized,” says DeFeo while shaping a work-in-progress, one of dozens in his work area. “It really helps us flesh out a character.” A single model can take days to complete, and each needs multiple versions in various positions.

Eventually, each character will become “like a virtual stop-motion marionette,” says animator Pete Paquette—a self-contained 3-D unit with hundreds of articulation points imbedded in the computer code that will allow him to put it into a scene and manipulate it as needed. Paquette shows me a less-than-10-second scene for Rio he’s been blocking out for the past three weeks to get the movement to flow naturally, a grind that involves working repeatedly with the same 200 frames of action. “Yeah, I see it over and over again in my sleep,” he laughs.

Once the animator is done, the scene goes back into the pipeline and through other departments like Materials (which adds items like clothes or fur) and Lighting (shadows, reflections, etc.). Of course, there’s also editing, sound and all the other technical touches a live-action film requires. A “short” 18 months later and—voilà!—you have a finished animated feature.

Ironically, when Rio is finally released theatrically, the actors who spend a few days lending their voices to the film will walk the red carpet and hear the cheers. But in a tiny corner of Connecticut, the folks at Blue Sky will be the ones taking well-earned bows.

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Getting Animated

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