The Croods (which grabbed nine Annie nominations today, including best animated feature) certainly stands out in a year dominated by survival and the inevitability of change. In fact, every country that directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco visited on their press tour embraced the prehistoric family as part of their own cultural identity.
"We were lucky in having cavemen to work with because there were no cultural gaps and the end result was that people around the world saw the Croods as being their family," Sanders reflects. "We realized that wherever you are, it's inevitable that the one constant will be change inside your own family."
"It's the first time I worked on a movie with such an international crew that you didn't have to explain anything," adds DeMicco.
What makes it work, according to the directors, who are now writing the sequel, is the triangle between Grug (Nicolas Cage), daughter Eep (Emma Stone), and boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds). "All three characters will push against each other and change each other, but we couldn't have Guy come into the story and just taking over," Sanders explains. "He's smarter than Grug and could become the default leader of this bunch, so we had to be be careful that he had gaps and missing pieces in his character so that these guys have a nice balance."
Indeed, despite the fact that Guy is a scientific genius with a laser-sharp focus on the future, he's a dead-end character who needs the Croods as much as they need him. "If he doesn't run into the Croods, he will live his life full measure and wind up in some salt flat," Sanders says.
"We have a lot of stuff we never used, including an early version of the tar pit back when there was still a village full of people and Guy had a different name. The last thing he said was, 'Quick, choose your pose. When they find us, we have to be in an interesting pose.' He was much cookier. He was much more focused on innovation and ideas. We always managed that Eep would be the conduit between these two guys."
Of all the movies that Sanders has worked on, including Mulan, Croods has the highest population he's ever dealt with because you've got a family onscreen for nearly every shot. "And it is one of the reasons why we used the motion capture stage downstairs for layout. That stage was new to us. But where it became useful was in gathering all the animators together. The rehearsal space became very important, especially in the cave scene where you had to choreograph seven choices for blocking this ensemble comedy. It was daunting at first."
But DeMicco recalls that in the building of the sets there's an important moment when Guy comes to Eep's rescue and parts the curtain of branches. "He can't see the family so we built a wedge of grass and rock to hide them. That was a lengthy discussion about staging. We wanted the surprise of him discovering the family."
World building, of course, was integral to the process and led to the road trip to Zion National Park. There was too much visual development going on that they had to expand the world beyond the village. And they needed a road trip for real world reference.
"As long as the family kept moving, they could see anything, which opened up the opportunity for beautiful landscapes," Sanders says. "Christophe [Lautrette], our production designer, treated us to mega pre-historic slide shows. Likewise, we could go to him and ask for certain pieces such as the maze for the family to fall into so they're separated. That was a very specific piece of geography we requested."
Meanwhile, the cave paintings reveal technology that reaches back all the way to the beginning of filmmaking with matte paintings while utilizing the cutting edge of what we can do today with fluid dynamics and particle simulations. "There's 100 years of technology in one shot when you turn it sideways," Sanders insists. "You'd have to resort to poetry to really quantify the feeling it gives you. But it always felt comforting and familiar to me when we saw these finished shots because of those beautiful paintings that were always going on in the farthest part of the shot."
Overall, DreamWorks took 3D-based mattes to a whole new level at the studio, thanks to visual effects supervisor Markus Manninen, with so many locations, so much lushness, and such imaginative geometry.
And what can we expect from The Croods 2?
"And the plus of having it be an ensemble is that there are other characters that have yet to be explored," DeMicco adds. "Grug solved a big part of his story, but not the rest of the family."