Chris Sanders
Chris Sanders

"When I left for 'Dragon' it was a lot more Dr. Seuss whimsical and when I came back, given this new story line, we both realized that it need to have more weight and reality, so we redid all the surfaces and made the whole world a lot more believable," Sanders recalls.

They wanted the world to be as alien and unpredictable for the viewer as it is for the cave clan. The landscape is Zion-like in its stylization (and as horizontal as the character design), and the creatures are hybrids (such as Chunky, the Death Cat Macawnivore). The camerawork is even more hand-held and voyeuristic than "Dragon," giving "The Croods" a documentary vibe.

Speaking of "Dragon," Roger Deakins was back as visual consultant and his influence can be seen in some of the nighttime scenes. The crisp, clean blacks and torch lit moments bear his signature.

"While it is a very low population for an animated film, they're onscreen together the entire time and it's all about the dynamics because there's no traditional villain," DeMicco remarks. "There's nowhere to cut to, there's nowhere to look, there's nowhere to take a break, there's no B-story. I think it took us a very long time to get a handle on tracking every scene for this ensemble. Unlike live-action, where they bring the last scene with them, we had to bring it with us."

Technically, what was the greatest challenge? Tar. That was a new element that the DreamWorks simulation team had never dealt with before but they eventually figured out the right viscosity.

"These types of stories where you have real people in extraordinary situations are my very favorite," Sanders admits. "I like characters that are mixture of good and evil and certainly more so than any other project I've worked on, these are subtle characters. It's strange to say that, because they run around and crash into things and their world is very hostile, but we had to strike a delicate balance because we needed the audience to sympathize with them and like them at the same time that these characters needed to be believably in opposition to each other."

A delicate balance, indeed. "The Croods" marks the first animated release of the year in a season where originals are in opposition to franchises. We'll have to see how it plays out, especially with regard to the Oscar race.