Epic is not only Blue Sky's best movie but also director Chris Wedge's most personal, too: a swashbuckling, samurai action/adventure that takes place in a lush, microscopic forest world. It beautifully translates N.C. Wyeth for Alice in Wonderland meets The Adventures of Robin Hood. Throw in Seven Samurai and Gladiator for good measure with just a sprinkling of Avatar for seasoning. It's familiar and new; naturalistic and fantastical. And it's about looking beneath the surface and discovering hidden truths about life and nature.
It all started 15 years ago with a dinner conversation between Wedge and his old pal, Bill Joyce, who had just visited the Frick Museum in New York, where he was enchanted by an exhibit on Victorian fairy paintings. They went into real woods and imagined an adventure about heroic Leafmen: Joyce helped lay the foundation and wound up writing the children's book, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, and Wedge took inspiration and went in his own direction for Epic.
"My philosophy is always to make an excuse for the way computer animation looks and to try and make it as natural as I can," Wedge explains."The look I was after on Epic was something definitely inspired by the masterful N.C. Wyeth. That's a look that I was after and that Greg Couch, who was the primary production designer, applied with is own twist. If you look at those great old paintings, there's a continuity of style in the brush strokes themselves and in the application of detail and color. For us, it's trying to apply the same level of reality on faces and veins in leaves."
It was a process of reverse engineering: define and build the world, figure out a story, and populate it with characters who become more refined and understandable over time. Yet it was an organic evolution. For Wedge, the theme was about connection: "Many leaves, one tree." And the forest is protected by samurai-like Leafmen riding hummingbirds and picking off Boggans with arrows. They are the barbarian force of decay.
"My [plan] was to get everything up as fast as we could and I had reels up in nine months," Wedge adds. "Scale was so important. They had to do it twice: what the world looks like from our scale and then what it looks like from theirs. A lot of the things we carefully designed so their world would look the same but alien. You're standing at a tree trunk at one moment; the next moment you're standing at the base of a fern. But the composition is similar.
"One of our R&D guys, Hugo Ayala, did a research paper on the physics of being a Leafman and presented it to the crew. And so the relative strength gives them the ability to jump the equivalent of 30 feet. The recoil of an arrow would send you backward, so we made sure that every time a Leafman fired an arrow that his feet were firmly planted either on the ground or his bird. And whenever a Boggan gets hit he'd just go flying."
But the first revelation came to Wedge when he noticed a sparrow outside his window flying up to its nest beneath the eaves of his house. The blur of flapping wings gave him the idea of how speed should work in the forest world, so it was possible for Leafmen to ride on the backs of birds and go undetected by humans. It was like the difference between listening to vinyl at 78 vs. 33 1/3.
Creating the forest was an outgrowth of the fur simulation they created for Rio, only with better algorithms.And they had to rig all of the leaves and trees for wind movement. The ambush sequence was very satisfying for the director. "Every Boggan that goes splashing in the water looks like a chess pawn," he says. "When we were looking at some of these shots in 3-D, there was so much more information on the screen that it wasn't about the narrative, it was about the experience."
However, Wedge admits that his favorite moments are the discussions between the wacky professor, Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), and his estranged teenage daughter, M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), who shrinks down into the mysterious forest world like Alice falling into Wonderland.
"Digging as far in as we could, it's the toughest stuff to animate, to gauge from a design perspective how much realism we wanted in the proportions and how much detail we wanted in the faces," Wedge explains. "It took a lot of time to get that. For Bomba, I wanted a character actor from the middle of the last century: he's Sterling Holloway or Danny Kaye or Norman Rockwell -- all knees and all elbows. His profile is always zig-zaggy."
M.K. (Mary Katherine, named after Joyce's late daughter) blossomed into a beautiful, kind, and spirited city girl defined by her hoodie. She's the heart and soul of Epic, so believable in look and performance. "The hardest scene was when M.K. blows the dust off a scroll and has a vision, a memory that she relives, and that was about five departments shaking hands to get the animation and effect of the vision in the 3-D dust done properly.
"The other films I've been involved with I was only interested in making the one movie, but I've spent the better part of the last eight years thinking about this one and it could be I'm not done thinking about it -- we'll see. I think there's plenty more to mine -- that's for sure."
First let's see how Epic performs at the box office starting May 24, and if it generates Oscar heat.
Animation Scoop Contributing Editor Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies and a regular contributor to Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood.