Issue: Volume 36 Issue 4: (May/June 2013)

Epic!

By: Barbara Robertson

The director of Epic is Chris Wedge, a voice actor, director, producer, and the vice president of creative development at Blue Sky Studios, which he co-founded. His film credits trace back to the 1982 Tron, for which he was a principal animator. Computer graphics geeks will know him as the director of the short film “Balloon Guy” (1987) and the animation director for the 1996 live-action film Joe’s Apartment. In 1999, Wedge won an Oscar for his short film “Bunny,” and showed the computer graphics world they could use radiosity in moving pictures. Three years later, in 2002, he received an Oscar nomination for directing Blue Sky’s animated feature Ice Age, which showed people that CG films could be as wacky as Looney Tunes. Since then, he directed the 2005 Robots, has been executive producer of nine animated short films and features at Blue Sky, and has given the Ice Age character Scrat his voice in features and shorts.

Wedge’s latest animated feature film, Epic, shrinks a teenager and sends her deep into a CG forest where she bands together with tiny characters to save their world – and ours.

Here, Wedge discusses Epic with CGW Contributing Editor Barbara Robertson.

When did you start working on Epic?

It’s been in production for almost four years, and before that, I was developing it for about 10 years. We’ve been working on it for a long time. It was in development hell for a few years because we wanted to push the limits beyond what other people wanted to do. I felt we could have made this movie four or five years ago, but that wasn’t the time for it.

In what way are you pushing the limits?

It’s an action/adventure movie. It doesn’t roll out like a cartoon. The pace of the story­telling and the pace of the cutting, the decision about where to put cameras, is more akin to a live-action movie than an animated film. From the beginning, it was about this place, the woods we know, but an alien world when you get close. And inside that world, we have a crisp, big, action movie.

Epic

And that world is spectacular. What inspired the style?

We always try to hide the computer’s hand as much as we can – not that we’re making apologies for the technology – but we want to make worlds look as natural as we can, to push the look to the limits of naturalism. Radiosity was part of the tool kit we used years ago for ‘Bunny’ to make that natural look. Since then, we’ve developed other ways. But, in Epic, it has more to do with the choice of the world and our design approach. We chose to use something more like the illustration style used 100 years ago by NC Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. I think that whether people know it or not, they associate that kind of vivid illustration with fantasy. For me, computer animation is about the most powerful way to communicate fantasy because you can do it so completely. And, storybook illustration has an amplified live-action look to it. If you look at NC Wyeth’s paintings, they’re natural but muscular and colorful. That’s what we started with. But, you go with the moment. Part of what inspired us were the environments themselves. Going this close to a leaf. Standing under a fern the size of a tree. We used a lot more ambient light, a lot more bounce.

Did you try to emulate live-action lighting?

Lighting for us works differently than with live action. It comes from the design department. We come up with a broad color script for the movie, assign colors and tones to characters, mood, places. Once we have composed the cameras, we go in and make color thumbnails of key shots in every sequence for continuity, but there’s still a little bit of spontaneity available when we actually light the shots.

Part of what our rendering can do is a translucency in the skin, so as the rays dig in, there’s subsurface scattering, which gives you something that looks fleshy. You can add color to give an earlobe, for example, a sunlit look.

How did you decide how detailed to make the environment?

My approach is to do everything fuzzy first. Paint the whole thing as fast as you can at one level of resolution and then keep turning the focus knob to make it clearer. When we had the first draft of the script in 2004, I did drawings and paintings, sometimes very impressionistic – silhouettes, colors, impressions of things. We did a lot of simple designs over the 10 years of development. About a year ago, materials started digging in. We maybe dug in too far – talk about level of detail!

Once we had established a level of detail for something like the veining on a maple leaf, we had to apply it to everything: bark, clover, the color of hair, beetle shells. We just kept going and going and going. There was no end to it. Finding the world was time-consuming, but never anything we had doubts about. The only issue was how much detail we could pack into it. The technology is well understood. It was just the amount of material we had to contend with. We killed ourselves on the details.

Epic

Epic has several human characters. Did that worry you?

We were all, believe me, aware of the dangers out there. The challenge was to design characters with close-to-human proportions, but not perfect. We stylized everyone, gave them agile, long limbs, long necks. We proportioned them appropriately to what they were doing. I wanted to make them as appealing as we could. I didn’t want to step into the uncanny valley. We could have done a lot of detail and failed if they moved like cadavers. We’ve seen it in other movies.

Did you develop new technology for the film?

Every film evolves a little bit – the renderer gets faster, the renderfarm gets faster. We integrated crowd technology we hadn’t used before and did more cloth simulation than before. But, the big piece of technology we developed for this movie is stuff most people won’t see. We had to re-conceive our rigging technology. It was necessary for the style. Human characters, of course, are the most difficult to animate. Their motion is subtle, and their movements myriad. So we re-tooled our character rigs to be lighter and faster. Animators had better feedback on more complex rigs than they had before.

Did you use motion capture?

No, no, no, no. Actually, we were one of the first to try motion capture back in the ’80s with Brad deGraf. Maybe this would have been a good project to try it on. But for me, it’s an aesthetic thing. Motion capture is bound by the same physics we’re bound by. Animation is our opportunity to break through; we can be more expressive with animation. We have characters that leap like crickets; they fly 30 feet. I wanted to be sure they were acrobatic. And, I wanted the film to have a bit of a nostalgic feel. I wanted the tone to be contemporary – the dialog, the relationships, the way we created the characters. The dialog is not jokey. I’m hoping it’s sharp and contemporary. But, the style of animation and visual style have a nostalgic feel.

You picked singers to voice some characters. Is this a musical?

No, it’s not a musical, although Beyonce did a beautiful song for the end of the movie. I cast people whose voices work well with the characters. I hate it when people say, ‘Oh so-and-so did a magnificent job with the character.’ For me, if I can recognize the actor’s voice, it takes me out of the movie. Every character is a collaboration among writers, designers, animators, and voice actors. I want the characters to stand alone and not be so recognizable that you picture an actor’s face.

Beyonce

For Queen Tara, I wanted an iconic, contemporary voice, a strong woman. And, to be honest, we have to market our movies. So, Beyonce was the best idea but one I never would have gone with if I hadn’t listened to her beautiful speaking voice. She’s like the Morgan Freeman of female voices: present, resonant. Her voice fit the character really well.

I picked Steven Tyler because Nim Galuu is a flamboyant character. I wanted a voice that was idiosyncratic, larger than life, bonvivant, bubbly. When [Casting Director] Christian Kaplan suggested his name, I said, ‘Yes, that’s it.’ I love the texture of his voice, there’s so much energy. He’s fun to listen to, and he’s so much fun to be with. He never stops. He really is the most enthusiastic friend you had in middle school, and he never grew up.

What do you like best about this film?

I don’t know if there’s one best thing. I hope it feels a little different for people, that it’s a complete rendering of a world they haven’t been to before. I hope it has some fun, surprising ideas. From the beginning, some of our references were old Errol Flynn and Robin Hood movies. Good, old-fashioned fun and banter with good-natured swashing and buckling. It has heart and emotion, but in a lighthearted, swashbuckling way. There’s a lot I like about it, and I hope other people do, too.

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