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‘Ice Age: Collision Course’ – Filmmaker Interview

// Featured, Interviews (Festival)

Ice Age: Collision Course is directed by Mike Thurmeier with co-director Galen T. Chu.  Mike has been working on the Ice Age features and shorts ever since the franchise’s debut in 2002, when he worked as a lead animation and contributed to some of the story.  Mike also animated and provided layout for the film’s first short Gone Nutty (2002).  In 2006, Mike was supervising animator for the second feature Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) and landed his first director role in the franchise for the short No Time For Nuts (2006) – winner at the 34th Annie Awards in 2007 for Best Animated Short Subject.  Since then, Mike has continued his work as a director for the Ice Age series, teaming up with Carlos Saldanha in Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) and Steve Martino in Continental Drift (2012). Mike was supervising animator on Robots (2005), senior supervising animator of Horton Hears a Who! (2008) and even worked as an animator on Fight Club (1999); could this scene have been a sign that Mike was destined to work on Ice Age?

Lori Forte has been the producer of the Ice Age films since the very beginning, supervising the writers and contributing story ideas to all of the Ice Age features.  Since joining the team at Blue Sky, Lori was also the producer of Epic (2013). Before the Ice Age films Lori was executive producer of Fox Animation Studios’ feature Bartok the Magnificent (1999) and was also a teacher of screenwriting at the American Film Institute.

Skwigly were able to catch up with Mike Thurmeier (Director) and Lori Forte (Producer) at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and they were very happy to talk about their latest film…

How did you both join Blue Sky?

Lori Forte: Well, I was developing some animated projects for 20th Century Fox, I was a producer and had a producing deal and one of the projects I developed was Ice Age.  And it’s interesting because it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be 3D, we started thinking of it for 2D and then ultimately they were going after Chris Wedge because they wanted to work with Chris.  Chris was looking for a first film to direct and we had this wonderful script Ice Age, so they put us together and it just worked out really great. So that’s how I came to Blue Sky and as soon as we started pre-production it was really clear that it was the place to be.  It was outside of Hollywood, just a great group of people, it had a real family feeling and we were all making a film for the first time, so it really felt like a great thing. It just evolved and grew and I’ve been at Blue Sky ever since.

Mike Thurmeier: I came right out of school at least a year before Ice Age came to Blue Sky.  When I came out of school in 1997 the industry was just really blowing up, everybody was getting into it. I had been trained up in Canada at Sheridan College in traditional animation so I didn’t know anything about computer animation at all. When I came to Blue Sky for an interview I sat down with animator Steve Talkowski who gave me a little demo on computer animation on Softimage.  It was like a light bulb moment, it totally opened my mind.
It was a great place, you could tell there was an energy to the company. They had big ideas and dreams and, they definitely wanted to get into features and had done stuff like Joe’s Apartment. Maybe when I started, they were just doing some work on Alien: Resurrection – the CG alien swimming through the water – and it looked really great.  So when I came on it was like Okay, hopefully they’ll get a feature going.  I did some special effects, commercials and a couple of little feature shots and then one day there was a big announcement“we’ve got Ice Age coming in”! It was great because at that time they literally had a lamp where they took off the lampshade and there was a green light bulb on it and they said “green light”!

LF: It was a really sweet gesture, they made it really special to say that this was a ‘go’ project.

MT: So we did some storyboarding and mostly we just started to develop the look of the animation and how the characters would move.  I remember building characters out of just spheres and animating what a cat run might look like, how would a mammoth move. It was very guerrilla tactics, just anything to get the movie up on its feet while these guys were working on the story.

LF: But Mike became one of the star animators, which is clear because he moved up pretty quickly to become a director.

MT: I think I was so excited to just be on a movie. I was throwing everything into it and between Chris, myself and a couple of the other animators we kind of just found a style to the animation that fit the look of the film and, I guess, the budget. It wasn’t an enormous $150,000,000 movie, it had to be done economically especially since Blue Sky had no prior experience, so I think the look of the film is definitely dictated by the conditions in which we had to make it.  But I think that was a strength to it, it gave it a different look that set it apart from some other films.

LF: I think we were amongst the first to do a movie outdoors in nature with animals with fur. The technology wasn’t as advanced back then so it was a lot more difficult.

MT: I remember we were almost in the middle of Ice Age andShrek came out. That was mind blowing because PDI had a leg up on a lot of technical aspects.  I remember it being like Oh my god, look at what they’ve done with cloth and fur! I was glad our film was a little more stylized, so there wouldn’t be the pressure of trying to match up to it, because that was an intimidating film when it came out.  I think Monsters, Inc. came out right after that too and they had the great fur, so luckily we had a style thing going for us which really helped.

Absolutely, well I imagine in the first animation you had to do things very manually, by using sort of semi-transparent plains with textures on protruding from the models?

MT: Yeah, it wasn’t real fur at all, just painted fur cards like you said.  It’s funny, when you see Collision Course versus the first Ice Age, you can definitely see the evolution.  From the second Ice Age through to this one it has all basically been the same character models. They’ve evolved a little bit but we’ve added a few things so they can move a little better than they could before.  But they were rebuilt from the ground up after the first movie.

Well I imagine in the second movie one of the biggest technical challenges, especially as far as rendering is concerned must have been…

LF: The water!

Yes the flood, that great scene! I heard you were really pushing your technology to the limits at the time?

MT: We do that on every movie actually! On every film, they come to us and say “you guys, what are you – insane? We can’t afford this!”

LF: But they figure out a way of doing it, there’s incredible genius there in terms of how they make something look great even when they say they can’t do it.  They feel it should be better and we think Oh my god, that’s brilliant the way it is. I mean, how could you top that?

MT: On this one the script called for more visual effects.  There’s a volcano eruption, an electrical storm, there are space things going on with Scrat, teleportation machines, all this kind of stuff where we had to do these exhaustive meetings with myself and co-director Galen in a room with all the heads of the departments.  We’d be watching the story reels of each particular sequence and the departments would be telling us how much it would cost to do every particular effect.  We would have to get down to the fine grain details of “Well, you know the way you’re composing this shot, you’re showing the mammoth walking through snow here and if you show that then we have to put footprints in the snow and that’s going to be an extra effect, but if you tilt the camera up a little bit and don’t show it then we can put that toward something else”.  So we went through every scene and every little effect and worked with them to get it down into a contained amount of stuff we can do.  But it was great because in the midst of actually making it when we’re in production our effects supervisor Elvira would come to us and say “Look, we’ve got a little extra time, so remember that you wanted that thing?  We can do that for you now”.  We ended up getting extra stuff added on, so I think the movie looks like a much more expensive movie than it should, considering the budget.

IceAge_InterviewMike Thurmeier, Wez Allard and Lori Forte at Annecy Animation Festival 2016

When doing a 3D stereoscopic movie, how does that effect the storytelling or the animating?  Do you have to adapt the story to work with that?

MT: Yeah, we have a really great stereo team led by Dan Abramovich at Blue Sky. He’s very much about getting us the material as soon as possible at various stages and so even in ‘board form we’re looking at stuff and we’re thinking about how it could be utilized in stereo.  Dan is very careful, you can’t just throw everything at the audience all the time, you’ve got to have peaks and valleys and rest points.  There are certain sequences where, for me, they work better in stereo than in 2D because you can focus the eye on a particular spot a little easier in stereo, you can put the focus and those characters right where you want and let more stuff fall back.  We’re always thinking of that through the whole movie because we want to make sure people have an experience in stereo, but it is tricky.
LF: It is interesting because it wasn’t in Dawn of the Dinosaurs. We were already in the midst of the making of the movie and in the middle of the movie they said “Oh, we’re going to do this is stereo 3D”.  And then you had to sort of backtrack and figure it out, and it was the first time the studio was even doing it!

MT: We had to kind of retrofit it.  You do have to think about it a lot and I think Blue Sky has got better and better at it, so I feel like you get your money’s worth if you go in 3D. It’s not going to hurt your eyes because you’re not going to be poked in the face all the time – you’ll get a nice, tasteful but dynamic version of stereo.

When you conceptualized Manny, Diego and Sid from an animation perspective, how much of an inspiration were the actors who did the voiceovers to the look and the way the characters moved?

LF: We designed the characters first before we had the actors, so what we normally do when we’re casting is listen to voices from interviews, TV shows and movies the actors had done. We’d listen to the voice and look at the design of the character and see what voice felt like it would really come from these characters.  So we did it that way except with the one exception – John Leguizamo was struggling to find a voice for Sid and he actually sent us like forty to fifty different takes, all different types of dialects and ethnicities because he was not quite figuring out what he should do.  And then we showed him the design of the character and he looked at it and he said to us “Well, he’s got those big buck teeth, that’s got to be some kind of speech impediment there!” Then he started doing the lateral lisp and it just snapped!  So him looking at the design of the character gave him the inspiration for who Sid became.

MT: Yeah, when we listen to the voices their performance and the dialogue definitely would influence how you perform the character, even if it’s subconsciously.

Coming back to the start, you said you came from a traditional animation background.  Obviously, Blue Sky is a computer animation house, but do you think if someone wanted to go into computer animation it is important to learn animation traditionally first?

MT: I think there’s a lot of value in studying traditional arts, for sure.  In my first year of animation school at Sheridan College, a lot of it was just focused on drawing, like life drawing and painting and figure drawing, stuff like that.  I think that made a huge difference, especially in understanding form and movement, even through still drawings.  So I think you don’t need that to be a computer animator but I think it helps, especially if you can sketch quickly, because then people can run through a lot of ideas as thumbnails.  I think it does help if you have a better understanding of those principles without the technology being a crutch or getting in the way when you have to make it on paper.

And from a story perspective it must be vital to be able to get out ideas quickly and work collaboratively?

LF: Yeah absolutely!  We had storyboard artists who still work in 2D, they don’t do it on paper anymore they do it right on their Cintiqs and their computers, but yeah it’s always still 2D drawing.  Even though they don’t have to be brilliant works of art, you still need to convey emotion and you still need to get the body movements so that even in a single panel you get the emotion of what’s going on in the sequence.  So I think traditional drawing is very good to have.

Ice Age: Collision Course is released in the UK this Friday, July 15th.
Hear more from filmmakers Mike Thurmeier and Lori Forte in the next episode of the Skwigly Podcast, up this Wednesday. 

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