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Issue: Volume 36 Issue 3: (Mar/Apr 2013)

Crood Awakening

By: Barbara Robertson

Was a family road trip ever as prehistoric as the one forced upon Grug (Nicolas Cage) and his family in The Croods? Written and directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, the Dream- Works Animation comedy shakes up a world of fun and danger as the Crood family members discover life in a big, wide, wonderful (mostly) world. On the way, the accidental travelers discover that the most important changes are happening within the family.

In addition to Cage, the film stars the voice talent of Emma Stone as Grug’s adventurous daughter Eep, Catherine Keener as good wife Ugga, Clark Duke as the meathead son Thunk, Cloris Leachman as irascible mother-in-law Gran, and Ryan Reynolds as the charming, inventive Guy, who is not a member of the caveman family.

Before The Croods, Kirk DeMicco was writer/director for Vanguard Animation’s Space Chimps and the writer for Alligator Planet’s Here Comes Peter Cottontail: the Movie, Alcon Entertainment’s Racing Stripes, and Warner Bros.’ Quest for Camelot.

Croods fellow writer/director Sanders previously received two Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature for DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon (2011) and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2003). Also, while at Disney, Sanders was a writer and story supervisor for Mulan, writer and production designer for The Lion King, writer for Aladdin, writer and visual development artist for Beauty and the Beast (Oscar nomination for Best Picture), and a character designer, storyboard artist, and visual development artist for The Rescuers Down Under.

We talked with DeMicco and Sanders a few weeks before The Croods released.

Why cavemen?

DeMicco: We wanted to talk about the fear of change. In that day and age, what would be the biggest fear? You could expect that they would fear fire and new technology. But, the biggest fear for Grug was losing his daughter and family, and the story grew out of that.

Sanders: At the beginning of the movie, Grug has one job as father of the family. There are no hospitals. No police. No neighbors. He has to rely solely on himself. So in this world, his hardest job would be keeping the family alive. His solution to that problem is to keep them inside the cave. They will stay alive if they stay inside. This movie is ultimately about hope versus risk.

How long did you work on the story?

DeMicco: The story originated first with John Cleese here in 2004. It was originally intended to be made in stop motion with Aardman. But Aardman went to Sony in 2005, and the movie sat around. Then Chris came over from Disney. We kept a similar theme but wrote a different story – one without the technical limitations of stop motion. This feature needed CG to tell the story.

Why did you need to use CG to tell the story?

DeMicco: It’s a road trip movie; the world’s first family road trip. So clearly one reason is the number of sets. Stop motion is slightly domestic. We wanted big, epic landscapes. A world larger than life in the ‘Croodacious’ period. That’s something CG is perfect for. In stop motion, you have more of a village with character interaction. There aren’t as many sets. And certainly not as many explosions.

Why does the family leave the cave?

Sanders: Eep [the daughter] sees firelight outside at night. The biggest family rule is that they can’t go out of the cave, but when she sees the equivalent of a little sun, she sneaks out and chases the firelight through the canyon. Guy, who is human being 2.0, is carrying the fire. Grug goes to look for her and the family comes outside the cave. Then, there’s an earthquake.

The Crood family confront unexpected internal and external fears when they follow Guy (in pants and body paint) out of their cave and into the larger world.

What were your design goals for The Croods’ and Guy’s CG models?

Sanders: We built The Croods to survive believably in the world the live in. It was fun to build cavemen from scratch. As far as movies are concerned, at one end we have the cavemen in Quest for Fire who are like people, but they can’t speak. At the other end are the Flintstones, who have cars, photographs, traffic signals. Our Croods are probably closer to Flintstones, but they are CG cavemen. They have beautiful shapes, but radical.

Grug is like a gorilla. Gran, an alligator. Eep has a swimmer’s body but her movements are based on a tiger. Guy is more like you and me; he has a different physiology. If The Croods want to keep Guy around, there’s no way he can get away. They are many times stronger. There’s a scene where Eep grabs Guy by the neck and picks him up with one arm.

How does the relationship between The Croods and Guy drive the story?

Sanders: Guy, who is a lone male, needs The Croods. And, The Croods need Guy. There’s a sweet, simple romance between Eep and Guy. She’s drawn to him; he represents everything she’s dreamed of. He is the world’s first imagination. But, fire is the more important thing. If they keep Guy around, they’ll have his fire and can survive outdoors. On the downside, Guy infects The Croods with ideas of the future, tomorrow, hope, adventure. And, Grug just wants to find a cave.

When they do find a cave at the end of the film, they don’t fit. They’ve grown. Their imaginations have been sparked. So Grug has to make a big decision. He has to answer the question raised by his daughter at the beginning: What are we doing this for? When he decides, he decides in a really big way.

Where do The Croods go once they leave the cave?

Sanders: The interesting thing about writing this movie and what made it so difficult is that there weren’t specific destinations they needed to arrive at. The most important things going on are changes happening within the family. The adventures they go through are interchangeable. The challenge for Kirk and me and the story crew was to get the right balance of action and emotional moment during the journey. We discarded a lot of sequences because others worked better. To some extent, the places they go are meaningless other than sparking reactions among The Croods.

How did you divide the work between the two of you?

Sanders: For the most part, we had two sets of eyes on everything. The one thing we divided was the writing. One of the most important things with co-directors is that you need similar sensibilities, and Kirk and I have similar sensibilities. We’d sit across from each other and divide the sequences up for writing. Then, we’d trade pages and comment and change each other’s pages. As long as the scenes plugged into the outline we had worked on together, it worked. That was the one thing that was collaborative.

Did you have any particular technical challenges in making the film?

Sanders: The gigantic challenge was building the world. There are no man-made features. No buildings or things like that. Everything in our movie is an exterior. Even the inside of the cave is natural. So that was a large problem. We also employed matte paintings to fill out the world; we have some effects that are giant matte paintings.

DeMicco: The other thing was the characters. Usually there are crowds of extras in a CG film. This film has a low population of characters, but the characters are on screen all the time. It’s an ensemble comedy; everyone is a lead. There are seven main characters plus 21 creatures. So, choreographing the comedy and the action was an interesting challenge for the animators.

Did you ever use motion capture?

DeMicco: We did something sort of cool. We started with storyboards, but the animators did motion capture to help block the scenes. So when the layout artists started, they knew where the animators wanted interaction.

There’s a sequence where Grug is trying to keep fire away from the family. It’s a physical sequence and the motion capture gave us great reference footage. It’s light and quick for the animators to do motion capture. They can show it to us and ask, ‘What do you think?’

Did animators always block scenes before layout?

DeMicco: Not before every scene, but it was an opportunity to be downstairs with the phones off, and sit with production design, animation, and layout in the room at the same time. It helped us get together and talk about a scene, what was the important part, what we were looking to say. With storyboards, the artists might work hard on blocking a scene for the two characters talking, but the five behind might be round circles, and that might not be helpful to the animators. It also helped production design. We could talk about if we really needed to go to that side.

What danger does the family encounter?

DeMicco: All sorts. The world is changing underfoot. That’s the big danger chasing them. There are the menacing piranhakeets and another danger, the macawnibor.

Sanders: The villain in this movie is change, and the embodiment of that is the collapsing continent pursuing the characters. So we try to do that in fresh ways. Rifts, vents, lava, shock waves that chase The Croods. But, that’s a faceless threat. We wanted an identifiable face and character that would chase them. So I designed Chunky, the death cat. He’s our take on a sabertoothed tiger. He’s like the crocodile in Peter Pan. He catches Grug’s scent almost immediately and follows him all the way through the film.

Above, Director Chris Sanders’ version of a saber-toothed tiger provides a constant threat.

Were there any particularly interesting applications of computer graphics in the film?

Sanders: One of the problems was creating tar. The [CG crew] did a brilliant job. They got the consistency we hoped for. It was actually a cloth simulation that they adapted. One of the guys said something interesting: We can do anything, but we can’t do everything. CG has come to a point where they can make it. But there’s a limit to how much.

DeMicco: The crowds department was run by one guy, Spencer Knapp. You’ll see something very interesting in the piranha bird sequence. He fashioned it after the swallows in Northern Europe and tried to replicate their graceful nature with these birds. It was in the dynamics; he was constantly looking at the dynamics. When they first take off, it’s beautiful. Inspiring. Lovely to watch. Then they turn deadly. Everyone was taken by the birds story-wise, but also for the animation, the way the dynamics move. The fluidity, the poetry was amazing.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.

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