Blue Sky's biggest achievement on Epic was going naturalistic for a more believable animation style. It's certainly a far cry from the Ice Age franchise or even Rio and required technical adjustments as well as a different approach to performance. However, scale was the biggest challenge in delineating the human and microscopic forest worlds, according to producer Michael Travers, production designer Greg Couch, and animation supervisors Galen Chu and Melvin Tan.
"Chris [Wedge] wanted it set in a forest like we have at this latitude," explains Couch. "He wanted to give people a new appreciation for what it's like to be in this world. Chris wanted kids to walk through the woods and imagine they could see a place where [our characters] are hiding. He didn't want it to be too alien. So we had to sell scale and how that would translate into characters and environments."
First came a comprehensive physics lesson on the impact of miniaturization, which affected the entire process from design to render to 3-D, so Blue Sky experimented with macro photography and depth of field. In fact, most of Epic was composed with narrow depth of field within the forest environment.
"We also had to look at how textures and materials would appear at that scale," adds Travers, a former technical director and CG supervisor. "This was part of a visual thematic in bringing the audience viscerally into it so that the things you see when you're small are revealed. Things like leaf textures where you can make out individual cell structure within the leaf body.
"We did a lot of work with transmittance, which is how light transfers through an object or body and changes the actual color and surface properties when it's lit that way. We also changed our dynamic simulations. When the characters go into that scale, the speed is different. Everything in a natural environment appears slower because this world goes faster. So our dynamic solvers for fluid and particle simulation all had to be adjusted to rev down the speed to achieve that effect."
Even a simple water splash changes shape and becomes a giant blob of particles. You can even see the little meniscus that connects all of the objects that interpenetrate the water, such as the lovely moment when Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), the Mother Nature-like figure, selects a pod as part of the cycle of life.
"One of Chris' themes is look closer," Couch adds. "You think you know the world you're looking at, but if you look closer you find something unexpected."
Wedge adjusted the camera lens and the stereo so there's a subliminal effect in how the forest world looks. And nothing is more emblematic than the samurai-like Leafmen riding hummingbirds and shooting Boggans with arrows. They are the evil combatants that represent darkness and decay bent on destroying the lush forest. Yet the shooting of an arrow explodes like a shotgun when it hits a Boggan in this world, and there's an exaggerated recoil.
Epic represented a giant leap overall in technical complexity for Blue Sky, including optimizing code and data sets to fit everything inside the renderer. Meanwhile, the animators had to learn a new style of animation, toning it down for a more natural look.
"We had to get out of our comfort zone for doing cartoony characters and we had to be more observant and reference based," remarks supervisor Chu. "We also had to have a full understanding of mechanics in calculating physics and weight at that scale."
However, when it came to animating the two principal humans, the eccentric professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) and his estranged teenage daughter, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), they relied on familiar archetypes: a Norman Rockwell-inspired paternal figure and a smart city girl who's totally out of her element in the miniaturized forest.
"Our rigs have gotten heavier and heavier and on Epic we revamped the whole human bipedal rig and made it much faster," offers Tan. "We were able to play blocking and animation in real-time."
But the most difficult characters to animate were the slug and snail comic relief sidekicks, Mub & Grub (Aziz Ansari and Chris O' Dowd), the amorphous blobs with extended eyeballs. "We had a new system we tested out for them with limbs and equivalence and allowed them to glide on rough or undulating surfaces where they conformed wherever they moved." Tan adds.
Blue Sky has certainly come of age with Epic as it moves at its own accelerated pace. We now know of four upcoming features: Rio 2 (directed by Carlos Saldanha, April 11, 2014); the CG Charlie Brown (directed by Steve Martino for 2015); Anubis (a mummy's curse movie coming July 15, 2016); and Ferdinand, the reworking of the classic pacifist bullfighting story (to be directed by Saldanha and tentatively set for release April 7, 2017).
Animation Scoop Contributing Editor Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies and a regular contributor to Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood.