Issue: Winter 2019


He is suave and debonair like James Bond. He has the fighting skills of Jason Bourne. He has the derring-do of Jack Bauer. And, he has the high-tech toys of Inspector Gadget. His name is Lance Sterling, and he's the world's best spy. But when he is accidentally turned into a pigeon, the solo operator must rely on his geeky technical officer to help him save the world in Blue Sky Studio's latest computer-animated feature comedy, Spies in Disguise.

The film, distributed by 20th Century Fox, opens in theaters December 25, just in time for the holiday season. It is directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who are making their directorial debuts.

The film centers on "the world's most awesome spy," Lance Sterling (Will Smith), who protects the globe from grave threats and dastardly deeds by all types of baddies. Lance is the "face" of the operation, although behind the scenes, he relies on the technical wizardry of the young but socially awkward scientific genius Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) to build remarkable gadgets so that Lance is able to successfully complete his missions. However, things go horribly wrong when Lance ingests Beckett's latest experiment, a biodynamic concealment serum, which transforms Lance into a pigeon. Nevertheless, he still must stop techno-terrorist Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), his archenemy, despite his new form.

"Lance turns into a pigeon, which sounds ridiculous, and it is, but in all the best ways possible," Quane says. "Lance works alone and doesn't put his faith or trust in anyone, and ends up getting framed for a crime he did not commit and has to turn to the one person he would rather not: Walter Beckett. But it forces Lance and Walter to have to work together to save the day."

The Dossier

While some may think Spies in Disguise is about a talking bird, think again. There's so much more. It's about relationships and working together toward a common goal. Without question, it's also a spy movie. As such, the filmmakers were inspired by all the classic Bond films as well as the contemporary ones.

"We both love the genre of spy movies - Bond, Bourne, Hunt (from Mission Impossible)," says Bruno. "We watched almost every spy movie. We examined the canon to see what we liked in terms of the action and adventure, and what makes it look sleek and sexy, so that it feels real and grounded but also exciting."

For further research, the directors visited the Spy Museum in Washington, DC, where they viewed some real-world spy gadgets up close and learned about real-world spy scenarios that they could then turn on their ear and make more outlandish in the film. "Again, the film has some grounding in reality in terms of actual spy missions and experiences," says Quane.

After conducting the background information, the filmmakers then moved onto the second phase of the operation, choosing a sleek, stylized aesthetic. Lance has a lot of straight, clean lines, and is shaped similarly to a martini glass - a small nod to the spy trope, Quane points out. Then they selected the movie's color scheme: a cold blue (for Lance) representing isolation, yellows/oranges (for Walter) representing teamwork, and reds (for villains) reserved for danger. "We found that being true to that color theory, whether in the location work or the characters' costuming, really helped ground the storytelling," says Quane. "You probably don't notice it consciously, but you feel it as you watch the movie."


Code Breakers

Both Bruno and Quane contend that Spies in Disguise is very different from other films by Blue Sky, especially known for the Ice Age series, but also for a number of uniquely styled features including Rio, The Peanuts Movie, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!, and Epic. "Nick and I wanted to make something that stood out in a slightly different way, but still be a Blue Sky film," says Quane of the studio's 13th animated feature. "We were going for something less vaudevillian than the Ice Age movies, and something more genre-specific."

Because Spies in Disguise is a contemporary film, not a period piece, the crew was given more flexibility in the lighting, giving the team a chance to play with practical lighting in the composition. "We challenged how we used the light and shadow in revealing the characters and also how we used focus," says Quane. "It also gave us a lot of flexibility technically. We wanted to push and challenge the studio to reach beyond some of the things it has done technically in the past, and everyone rose to the challenge."

The directors also approached the filmmaking with high cinematic aspiration in terms of the direction, the way the film was lit, and how it was shot, working with Cinematographer James Williams to bring a live-action feel and excitement to the animation. To ratchet this up further, the compositors worked especially closely with the lighting team to infuse Spies in Disguise with that gritty feel one would see in a [Roger] Deakins movie.

"We're not just shaping the lighting, we're also trying to make sure you get some of those aberrations you'd get from a lens, so the image doesn't look perfect and pristine, as most CG images do," explains Bruno, noting the group incorporated a little film grain as well, giving it a live-action feel yet still retaining the whimsy of an animated film.

The directors also wanted to take advantage of the voice actors' talent by integrating more comedic improv - again not often done with animated films.

"Oftentimes it's hard to be spontaneous with animated films because everything is so preplanned," Bruno points out. "We worked really hard with our writers and sat with Will Smith and Tom Holland to make sure we had a good blueprint for the script, but we would also deviate from that. Because, at the end of the day, this is a buddy comedy and you want it to feel as if these two characters were together, genuinely bouncing lines off each other, getting that rhythm you would get with a good friend, even though they [the voice actors] were not in the same room."

New Intelligence

The animation style of some Blue Sky films, such as Ice Age, Rio, and Ferdinand, is super cartoony and filled with lots of poses. However, that aesthetic was pared way down for this project. "We had to find that middle ground between the cartoony Rio and the more realistic Epic, and then balance that with characters that could perform both styles," says Jeff Gabor, animation supervisor. For instance, Lance and Killian are very contained characters in terms of their realistic, more relatable acting, and then you have characters like the pigeons Crazy Eyes and Jeff aka "Fanboy," which are more squishy squashy and bring a bit more levity to the story."

According to Gabor, Spies in Disguise incorporated some new technology, especially in terms of the character rigs, which were developed in Autodesk's Maya. "We developed rigs that could be broken up into smaller parts and then processed by the computer at the same time. For the first time, this gave us rigs that were faster than 24 fps," he says. As a result, the artists could iterate more.

In addition, the group developed a new pipeline for handling background characters and for generating large crowds. "That's something we started on this movie, and it's now leaps and bounds past where we started," says Quane.

Undercover Operative

Like so many spy characters, Spies in Disguise's Lance Sterling is flashy and well known - which flies in the face of being a spy. But that all changes when he is turned into a mundane creature that can hide in plain sight. "A pigeon makes a good cover," says Quane. "That was part of the irony and comedy."

Lance isn't the only pigeon in the film. But since he is a human trapped in a bird body, the animators did not give him the frenetic movements of this species. The other pigeons, however, are more bird-like, with that itchy quality in the way they move.

Indeed, Blue Sky is well acquainted with birds, having built a vast variety for its Rio series. However, for Spies in Disguise, the team stripped down and rebuilt an entire wing for all the pigeon characters. "It's amazing how complex simplifying something becomes in order to open that wing and then fold it back up into a shield, and still have it remain graphic and stylized," says Quane. "It seems like a simple task, but it was one of the more complex things animation had to tackle."

The more simplified design language resulted in far fewer feathers, which meant that any penetration between the feathers would be noticeable. "You couldn't hide it with 40 different feathers moving in and out of one another. If you do that with seven feathers, then you definitely notice it," says Gabor. "So we had to come up with a whole new collision-detection tool that animators could apply to their scenes."

Lance and his cover weren't the only characters to present technical difficulties. When Lance and Walter have to interrogate Kimura, Killian's hulking henchman, Walter "goo's" him with a device that liquifies his bones, rendering him temporarily boneless and turning him into a gelatinous blob. To create this challenging effect, the animators first used TVPaint's 2D animation software to previs the jelly motion, and then worked hand-in-hand with effects and the simulation team to make sure every part of Kimura (a combination sim and rigged model) felt squashy and believable.

"He's also covered in tattoos, so any overly--done stretching or cheats to the materials were going to be apparent," says Gabor. "Everything had to be done just right and blend together well. If one part of the body started overstretching and didn't pull from another part, it became noticeable that you were cheating the look."


World Domination

Spies in Disguise takes audiences on a worldwide adventure with real-world locations in Italy, Mexico, Japan, and Washington, DC, as the directors contend that portraying these actual locations helped further ground the story in reality. This was particularly important to contrast with the comedic value of turning the main character into a bird. Nevertheless, because this is CGI, modelers had to build all these unique locations, resulting in a tremendous amount of assets in order to make each locale distinctive. Complicating this further was that the locations were featured at various times of the day. Also, within these sets are subsets, as some of the action occurs underwater as well as from sky level. Sometimes the action is shown from the human eyeline level, and other times from pigeon eyeline level.

In Bruno's opinion, Venice is the most intriguing set in Spies in Disguise, with its exotic personality and the signature canals and landmarks, which the crew strived to re-create as true as possible, even in terms of their directionality within the city. "Our production designer and modeling department created interchangeable canal blocks that felt distinctly like Venice, yet could be rearranged to create more of this labyrinthian style of the canals that take you all the way to the Piazza San Marco, which is such an iconic location," he says. To sell the location further, the artists added just the right quantity of moisture in the air for Venice, while in Mexico, for instance, they accounted for the blistering heat.



Gadgets and Tradecraft

What's a spy movie without amazing gadgetry? On this front, Spies in Disguise also delivers with the typical spyware, such as cuff-link bombs and bow-tie cutters, but there's a lot of atypical technology, too, such as kitty glitter, which makes people momentarily happy so they lose their aggressiveness.

As one might expect from a techno-obsessed villain, there are drones, and lots of them, which are constantly interacting with the environment. On top of this, there are lots of simulations - bubbles, explosions, sparks, water, dust. "It's an action-packed movie,. Effects definitely had more work than they have ever had on a previous film here," says Gabor. "The scope of the work was ginormous."

According to Gabor, this required a strong relationship between the animators and the simulation and/or effects team. So, a significant change was made to the studio's pipeline in terms of how animation interacts with the effects and simulation teams, to bring them closer together within the review process with the directors. "It became much more of a single team rather than separate departments," he explains. "They were privy to the character animation directions, and we got to sit in on their reviews with the directors, too - which was not a common practice before this film."



Mission Complete

When the directors set out to make Spies in Disguise, their goal was to create a spy movie for the whole family. They also set out to create a unique film under the Blue Sky banner, and indeed they have. And the result was a cross-pollination between multiple departments, which interacted in ways they haven't historically done so.

But then again, there is no such thing, really, as "typical" at Blue Sky, which has been pushing the envelope in animation since its founding in 1987. Indeed, Blue Sky is synonymous with the successful squash-and-stretch style of the Ice Age series. However, let's not forget some of its other unique animated productions mentioned earlier. It's safe to say that we can now count Spies in Disguise in that same category.

"I am really proud of the film. I feel like it's a huge step forward for our crew in terms of their acting abilities as well as their technical abilities. And it's something that I'm excited to continue to leverage into the next movies," says Gabor, a veteran of Blue Sky's Peanuts and Epic. "The great thing about working at Blue Sky is the variety and swing of the projects, from The Peanuts Movie where we were animating on twos and included 2D animation, to Epic, which was very realistic and had detailed animation. And now there's Spies in Disguise, a hybrid of really textured, zippy animation pared down to subtle nuanced acting."

As Ian Fleming wrote in Casino Royale, "He was a secret agent, and still alive thanks to his exact attention to the detail of his profession." The same attention to detail exhibited by the team at Blue Sky.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.