Blue Sky Studios artist-technicians talk about making ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’: Llamas, meteors, dino-birds and more

"Ice Age: Collision Course" - Blue Sky Studios

Blue Sky Studios artist-technicians talk about making ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’: Llamas, meteors, dino-birds and more

Film

What audiences will see on the screen when they put on their 3-D glasses to watch “Ice Age: Collision Course” is just the tip of the iceberg. (Pun fully intended.) The artist-technicians at Blue Sky Studios created, watched and fine-tuned countless versions of the fifth “Ice Age” installment. The final cut, the one that audiences will enjoy, is the culmination of tireless collaboration and creative problem-solving.

At the movie’s helm are co-directors Michael Thurmeier and Galen Chu, who were in constant communication with Blue Sky’s various teams throughout the production and, along with producer Lori Forte, have been part of all of the franchise’s films. “We have artists from many departments who handle different aspects of the movie. But it is essential that we are communicating and working together to achieve a common goal,” said Galen. “It really takes a village to make an animated feature of this scope.”

We recently visited the Blue Sky headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut, to hear directly from nine members of the team behind “Ice Age: Collision Course” about all the work and ingenuity that went into the animated film. From handcrafting clay sculptures to perfecting a plasmatic meteor to researching how llamas move, they recounted all aspects of the process and how it all came together.

The entrance to Blue Sky Studios.

Michael Knapp, art director
“The art director is usually one of the first people on board -- works very closely with the directors, the story department and, of course, the art team,” Michael said. “At the earliest stages, we help determine the look of the movie, the characters, the sets, the color scheme and color script for the film, thinking about how the film will be lit.”

He shepherds the look of the film all the way through production, starting with a small team of artists to home in on the right look. Once the look is finalized, more artists are brought on board to follow the direction.

Michael Knapp

"We create artwork that informs all of those things, whether it's fur, effects, lighting or composition. It's a dialogue that happens over the course of the entire production."

During that dialogue, Michael explains the art team’s thought process in ways that make sense to other teams’ technical process.

In “Ice Age: Collision Course,” the characters’ quirky hair styles posed a surprising challenge. "We did things with the fur that we hadn't really done before and we made a lot of work for ourselves, but the outcome was really fun,” Michael said. “But it was no small task to get done.”

Vicki Saulls, lead sculptor
When you walk into Vicki’s space, not too many steps from the entrance on Blue Sky’s floor, you may think you’ve walked into a whimsical museum. Gray sculptures of characters from Blue Sky’s films strike various poses and line shelves running across the walls, some handcrafted in clay, some 3-D printed.

Vicki plays an essential role early on in the process, realizing central characters before production and development teams start their work. She takes illustrations from the art department and sculpts the characters, getting feedback to make sure her interpretation of the drawings is on track.

Vicki Saulls

"The sculptures are used, initially, to make sure we have the volumes and everything correct before something goes into production,” she explained. “So it's just furthering the design development along. Once the sculpture's done, you can see that it has more texture in the fur and that sort of thing."

Once a character sculpture is finished, usually in about three weeks, Vicki uses a desktop scanner to scan the figure and build the model, which animators use for reference and marketing uses for making small toys, for instance.

A look inside Vicki's studio.

Jony Chandra, head of story
“My job is to be a liaison between the directors and the story team,” Jony said. This involves ongoing conversations with the directors to make sure he knows what’s going on in a character’s mind and understands all elements of the storyline so he can help his team realize the vision of the film.

When his team storyboards sequences, each story artist is asked to bring a bit of their own personality and perspective.

Jony Chandra

"That's part of our job as story artists,” Jony said. “When we board something, we are the actor. We have to bring something from us, from ourselves, into the scene. Because we have to understand what the character's going through. When you draw it, you have to be able to understand how they would act."

Jony points to a specific scene near the end of the film as a noteworthy example: A junior story artist was asked to tackle the sequence, her very first at Blue Sky. “She did it the first time and it wasn't quite there yet emotionally. So I kept telling her, 'You're going to have to make me cry.' And then she did it. It was shot by shot in the film. It was emotional.”

The story artists at Blue Sky have unique perspectives and interpretations of what a sequence looks like, and they also have unique skills. "But we try not to typecast them all the time,” Jony said. “Yes, you play to their strength, but you do want to give them an opportunity to try something else. That's how you help them grow."

Sabine Heller, character development supervisor
Sabine sees herself as a babysitter for characters, caring for them from their birth to their maturity in modeling, rigging (adding anatomy to each character so animators can make them move) and animation -- but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have favorites.

Gavin, one of the nefarious dino-birds in the movie, found a soft spot in Sabine’s heart because of her fondness for dinosaurs. She also has a special affection for evil characters: “They have a very large range, which is something that's very enjoyable for me when you look at what you have to do in rigging and also what you can do in animation."

Sabine Heller

The dino-birds in “Ice Age: Collision Course” are also an example of how work on past films can inform and benefit current films. The work done on the wings and feathers in “Rio” was a starting point for the dino-birds in the latest “Ice Age” film.

For new characters without such a starting point, research is required. Shangri Llama, a llama who contorts his body in various yoga poses in the latest “Ice Age,” required Sabine to study how llamas move, sit and chew.

To perfect a character, she shares her caretaking duties with colleagues in materials, rigging and animation, who help find direction for each character. “I think I’m most proud of the collaboration we have with everyone,” she said. “Without that, nothing could really get done.”

Sabine manipulating Gavin's facial expression and pose on her computer.

Nikki Tomaino, lead materials technical director and character lead
Nikki was given Gavin as one of the characters to take the lead on and says the dino-bird is also her favorite character in the new “Ice Age” film.

“I was pretty excited because I love those villainous characters,” she said. “Because we're doing these textures, I love anything dirty, grungy, gross and cellular. And I love Nick Offerman [voice of Gavin], too."

Nikki discussed the challenge of balancing realism with cartoonishness, something she experienced when going from the hyper-realistic “Epic” to the comic-inspired movie “Peanuts.”

Nicki Tomaino

“’Ice Age’ falls right in the middle of that. So we’re given a lot of freedom as an artist to explore that amalgam between realism and cartoon."

Nikki’s role involves a lot of time spent examining real-life materials, which are often photographed to be used as references when she and her team shows others what they’re working on.

Like Sabine, Nikki’s role allows her to see a character all the way through, from their infancy to the theater. “It’s kind of great to know that when you have this character you put a lot of work into that you get to support it all the way through. It's a comfort, in a way."

Matthew Munn, animator
Once a character is designed, molded, modeled and rigged, it’s time to make it move. Matt, who studied computer science in college and went to art school, is one of about 80 animators who worked on the movie.

What audiences may take for granted is how many hours go into some shots in the film. "You can get a shot that you can turn around in two hours. You can get a shot that'll take you five months,” Matt said. “It depends on what's happening in the shot -- how many characters are in the shot and the amount of time it lasts.”

Matthew Munn

By way of example, Matt said he’s worked on 10-second shots that required an entire summer to complete. In “Ice Age: Collision Course,” he saw some fellow Blue Sky animators take weeks to tackle one particularly complex sequence. (It’s the one that director Michael Thurmeier said he’s proud of.)

Amid the challenging shots is continuous collaboration. "I'll never just animate an entire shot completely isolated,” Matt said. “I'm constantly grabbing some of the guys around here, getting their eyes on it and getting some feedback from them, especially for coming up with ideas and things like that."

Matt animating characters for a dance sequence.

David Quirus, lead FX, lighting and compositing technical director
Another element of “Ice Age: Collision Course” audiences may not consider is the role effects (FX) plays, even in an animated film. In live-action films, FX match the background; in animated films, the sky’s the limit.

"'Ice Age: Collision Course' was a huge FX show for us, which was pretty exciting, because we got to work on a lot of interesting, unique things,” said David, who’s done FX for live-action films in the past. “It kind of gets us up in the morning and makes us want to come in, which is kind of awesome.”

 

David Quirus

At Blue Sky, FX always need to be rooted in something meaningful. “In the end, it's about the story, so if we want to kind of push those limits, we want to make sure that it's reflecting whatever's going on in the character and what our audience is feeling."

David took this into account when tweaking the look of a meteor hurtling toward Earth. Initially, particles were flying off of the meteor, but it was too graceful for something meant to reflect impending doom. In the end, a purple plasma did the trick.

Jon King, stereoscopic lead
At Blue Sky, 3-D is used for much more than simply startling audiences or making things look breathtaking -- it’s meant to evoke emotions. That’s what Jon and his stereoscopic (or simply “stereo”) department aim for.

The work Jon does follows the entire film, and 3-D is kept in mind right from the start. "That's actually very important for us,” he said. “In a lot of movies that you would see in the past, it would be very gimmicky, so you would have swords popping out at you and they would throw things at the audience. But for us, it is very story-based. We do tailor a lot to the emotions, so just like you would have lighting that creates particular moods for a scene and music or sound that plays to certain emotions, we can do the same thing with the stereo that we put in the scene."

Jon King

The relationship between 3-D and the actual storytelling of the film runs deep. In fact, every scene in the film is storyboarded and tagged with unique 3-D properties. Using a set of two numbers, Jon and his team are able to make a scene flatter or more volumetric, farther away or closer to the audience. Different combinations are used to arouse different emotions.

"If you, say, have a character that's going off on an adventure and you want to show the huge environments, we can make it feel really expansive, we can make it feel exciting.” That’s what Jon and his team did for the introduction of a place called Geotopia near the end of the film, which was made to look sprawling and deep thanks to the designated stereo dimensions.

A storyboard with stereoscopic guidance.

Roberto Calvo, CG supervisor
“What I like about this position is that it's both a technical and creative role, where I get to work with the departments to come up with creative solutions to the problems we get every day,” Roberto said.

Roberto pointed to meteors in “Ice Age: Collision Course” to illustrate this. He worked with the directors and art director to figure out the best way to create the meteors and their trails. This involved planning which department would do what, deciding who’s responsible for what, setting the schedule and determining which departments had more available resources than others.

Roberto Calvo

“It's like a big puzzle, and we have to figure out the best way, given the resources, time constraints and technical limitations, what's the best way of fixing all these issues throughout the show."

And like most puzzles, “Ice Age: Collision Course” wasn’t figured out on the first try. The final film is the result of many iterations and revisions.

"One of the hardest things is keeping track of everything,” Roberto said. “It's tough to keep all the plates spinning. There's so much going on in every single department and we have to be on top of it, so that's the hardest part. it's also the part I enjoy the most, because I get to see the whole process from beginning to end, and that's something that excites me -- seeing everything come together.”

“Ice Age: Collision Course” is now playing in U.S. theaters.

Read our interview with director Michael Thurmeier to learn more about the making of "Ice Age: Collision Course."