Epic cover

On page 84 of The Art of Epic, author Tara Bennett alludes to director Chris Wedge referencing "some of his personal filmmaking heroes" in planning battle sequences and goes on to relate how Wedge and his colleagues discussed these references. It is somewhat telling that Wedge's heroes go unnamed, since to do so would have clarified what informed audiences must know by now; Blue Sky studio's Epic is a film that heavily references many others.

While comparisons to Nelvana's Bill Kroyer's 1992 film Fern Gully are inevitable, influences from The Phantom Menace, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of OZ, and even Yellow Submarine are evident, along with any other film featuring a matched pair of comic relief characters. Other cinematic cliches (such as a hero the audience assumes to be dead reappearing at a crucial moment), pop up as well.

Although five screenwriters could not seem to develop material that felt more original, the production team helmed by Greg Couch, William Boyce, and art director Michael Knapp certainly did. Epic is a visually stunning film, an amazing leap forward for Blue Sky; no previous film by the studio has been as technically impressive or imaginatively executed, and this is where Tara Bennett shines as Blue Sky’s chronicler.

The studio’s artistic revolution was not instantaneous, and Bennett does a fine job in tracing the arduous hours of research and observation that began in the initial stages of development. Examples of how the Blue Sky team captured nature’s minutae are found in the concept art of Leafman and Boggan armor and weapons. Animals that appear in only one scene are depicted in skeletal structure. Forest vegetation is studiously reproduced. Bennett leans heavily on the details of color schemes and callouts, and as a result, the book is a vivid experience that approximates the finished film.

The Art of Epic is an exercise in artistic opposites; the good guys are colorful, attractive, and inhabit lovely environments. The bad guys are dark and ugly, living in withered areas of toxic blight. The Leafmen, Jinn, and their environs are shown first. Designer Jake Panian's harmonic visions are copiously presented, with his impressionistic concept art one of the highlights. One of the most impressive layouts depicts a forest stream shown in the film, with eleven different locales singled out for individual detail.

The Boggans, their evil leader Mandrake, and their dire hell called Wrathwood follow, making for some of the most arresting illustrations in the book.  Clayton Stillwell's designs recall Hieronymous Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder in their hideousness.

Each major character in the film has a chapter devoted to them, and Bennett wisely chose successive stages of developmental and concept art along with digital final frames; the evolution of character design towards more appealing and sophisticated forms mirrors the development of Blue Sky studio into a recent major player in advanced computer-generated animation.

Bennett weaves details about digital animation throughout the text rather than saving them for a separate chapter, giving her text a pleasing continuity, and one quickly gets the sense that her informative interviews with the artists are highly focused. Her choice of rich and fascinating images contributes to a book that, in some respects, may outshine the film. The Art of Epic serves best as the chronicle of an animation studio making stunning technical leaps; their future films will surely benefit from the making of this one.

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The Art of EPIC (Titan Books) Written by Tara Bennett; Forward by Chris Wedge