This weekend, DreamWorks Animation’s new feature “The Croods” was unleashed in theaters nationwide. A zippy, prehistoric-set riff on the family-road-trip comedy, it features a clan of cavemen (and, it should be noted, cavewomen) who are forced to evolve after cataclysmic events threaten their way of life. It’s easily one of the most visually inventive and genuinely heartfelt movies to come out of DreamWorks Animation, and we were lucky enough to speak to Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, co-directors of “The Croods,” about the development of the movie, the differences between DreamWorks Animation and Pixar, who their favorite cinematic cavemen are, how Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins helped, and why they utilized Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in the score.
Sanders is one of the more interesting figures in modern animation. After working his way up as a story artist and designer at Walt Disney Feature Animation on things like “Mulan,” he co-wrote and directed “Lilo & Stitch” for the studio, a kind of under-the-radar project that few higher-ups at the company even knew was being produced. (It was animated entirely at the now defunct Florida animation studio, using such offbeat stylistic flourishes as hand-painted watercolor backgrounds.) The movie was, at the time, one of Disney’s few animated hits and was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It also spawned a cottage industry of spin-offs and sequels. Sanders was hard at work on his second feature for Disney, a computer-animated road comedy called “American Dog,” when Disney absorbed Pixar, and John Lasseter — who notoriously hated “Lilo & Stitch” for what he considered its reckless abandon of Pixar’s story-first mandate — effectively became head of the creative side of the company.
Lasseter promptly fired Sanders (and his “Lilo & Stitch” co-director Dean DeBlois) and handed his beautifully esoteric “American Dog” (whose characters included a giant radioactive rabbit and an eye-patch-wearing cat named Ogo) off to Chris Williams, a Disney writer who turned the project into the far more anonymous “Bolt,” a movie that, while entertaining, certainly lacked the distinctiveness of Sanders’ version. Sanders and DeBlois have been at DreamWorks Animation ever since, co-writing and directing the phenomenally popular “How to Train Your Dragon.”
Chris, what, exactly, happened at Disney and how did that experience shape the projects you took on at DreamWorks?
Chris: You know… It’s a very common thing in Hollywood. Because I had the opposite experience at DreamWorks (and I’ll explain that in one second)… I was working on a movie there called “American Dog” and it had the normal amount of problems, I think, that those movies have. And we were working out those problems. I take fifty percent of the responsibility for that thing. But at the same time I think it wasn’t exactly Pixar’s cup of tea – that sort of story. So they didn’t want to go forward with that particular version of the movie. And as you know they made their version of the movie and the one that they made was the one that they were much more comfortable with.
I think that was when I realized that I wasn’t necessarily going to be able to make the type of movies that I wanted to make there, which is why I decided to move on. So interestingly I came to DreamWorks and suddenly I was on the other side of the coin. I came over to work on “The Croods” but I was asked to take over the directing and writing responsibilities on “How to Train Your Dragon” because they were changing directions on that. I left a project they wanted to change directions with and came over to DreamWorks to work on a project where they wanted to change directions. I must say, I love DreamWorks. I like their openness to different directions. One of the things we’ve found at DreamWorks that’s a strength is that they don’t really have a “house style” per se, and if you’ve seen a lot of DreamWorks movies, you’ve seen that they’re very different from one another. And that’s really neat. Because if you’re working on an existing project or are pitching a new project, you have a great deal of latitude to set the course.
They have proven to be very, very good to you once they’ve decided that, yes, we’re going to go in that direction and actually keeping you on course. That happened on “How to Train Your Dragon” a few times where [DreamWorks Animation head] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] caught us being a little bit timid and he would point that out to us.
‘The Croods’ was originally an Aardman [the British animation studio that produced the ‘Wallace & Gromit’ feature, who had a notoriously difficult relationship with Katzenberg] project when they were still at the studio, right? What changes did you make to that original pitch?
Chris: This is when I’ll hand it to Kirk. He knows all the stuff about this…
Kirk: I actually started this with John Cleese in 2004. We had written a film for Disney that was an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book “The Twits.” Aardman and DreamWorks invited us over to take a look at some of their ideas and one of them was this idea about a technologically advanced nomad kind of guy who teams up with some primitive bruiser Luddite. It was kind of a “Midnight Run” angle. They lived in a village and left the village and went on an adventure and when they came back obviously they had come to some bond and understanding.
We developed that and worked on it with Peter [Lord, one of the top Aardman guys and most recently director of last year’s “The Pirates: A Band of Misfits”] and we were very happy with the direction it was going. But I would say it was a very stop-motion film, in terms of scope and the things you can’t do. There are scenes in our film that you just can’t do [with stop-motion]. So when Chris came on, the one thing we looked at was that we liked the basic theme, which was the fear of change, and that there was this guy (in Grug) who has an incredible of sense of fear because he lives in a world that’s very dangerous. But it was kind of intellectual, like talking about change and how change affects our lives, and it worked on an intellectual level but the emotional stuff wasn’t coming through. We wanted to make his relationship with his daughter be front and center. We didn’t want it to be’ Grug has this relationship with his daughter that he doesn’t understand, goes off on an adventure, and comes back and understands his daughter.’ We wanted them to go on the journey together and be forced to watch her grow and ultimately change himself. That’s why we decided to take that family road trip model. That’s kind of the biggest change.
And then the change, of course, when we’re conceiving a CG film, the visual development is different, the vistas became much more interesting. It had more scope. We were going to make a movie with more scope and that’s the biggest change. It’s a different medium. The theme is there but we tailored the story to the type of film we were making.
Were the creatures always these kind of fantastical designs or was there ever talk of actual dinosaurs and things?
Chris: We definitely wanted to avoid the dinosaur era. Even though we’re playing pretty fast and loose with the details, we wanted to give the impression that this was post-dinosaur land. So we opted to custom build all the creatures because we wanted the audience to be on the same journey as the Croods were on, meaning that, when the Croods encounter animals and go into new environments, they’re not sure if things are good, if things are bad, if things are dangerous – and we play the animals a little bit vaguely when they first encounter them. We give the audience and the Croods just enough time to wonder what’s going to happen next. That’s why everything was custom made.
Guillermo del Toro is a creative consultant at DreamWorks Animation and obviously the master of monsters. Did he have any input into their design?
Chris: We never really talked to him about the creatures.We saw him very rarely, actually. We saw Roger Deakins quite a bit, and he was very involved in the day-to-day staging and lighting and stuff. But Guillermo we would see him at company updates and things and chat with him about how things were going. But we didn’t see him in production meetings.
I didn’t know Roger was involved with “The Croods.” I know that, Chris, you used him as a visual consultant on “How to Train Your Dragon.” What did he do here?
Chris: He was in the same role as he was in “How to Train Your Dragon.” We ran our layouts and camera movements past him when we had enough put together where he could get a sense of the flow of the action. He advised us on our lights and our color. He’s really fantastic when it comes to taking elements away, simplifying things, and thus making them stronger. If you over-light a scene it makes things less powerful because they look more toy-like and flat.
One of the things Roger was really amazing about was, on “How to Train Your Dragon,” he got everybody comfortable with the idea of areas of pitch darkness on screen, where you could see no detail to the backgrounds. A lot of the things in “The Croods” takes place at night or in a very dark cave and I think sometimes people are uncomfortable with spaces with no detail on screen. But with him you’ve got to be very comfortable with that, because that’s something he does a lot.
I wanted to ask you about the music because the opening sequence has an orchestral version of the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk.” Where did that come from?
Chris: Jeffrey had pulled that in.
Kirk: Yeah, early on we had said something like a marching band type of thing and it always stuck and we were always talking about “Tusk.” And we were talking with Alan [Silvestri, who Sanders worked with on “Lilo & Stitch”] and he was involved from the very beginning. And from the very beginning we had that opening hunt and we wanted it to be a kind of stand alone setpiece and Alan said, “What about the USC Marching Band [who famously contributed to the Fleetwood Mac song]?” We wanted it to feel almost like a football game and he came up with that idea. So we did it with the USC Marching Band and then, when we were scoring it at Abbey Road, they did some more tracks and layers.
What were your touchstones, when it came to caveman material? Obviously the long shadow of “The Flintstones” is felt.
Kirk: I love that. The long shadow of “The Flintstones” is felt…
Chris: The long shadow of “The Flintstones!” That’s actually a really good question. I think we took a lot of inspiration, at least initially, from the old Warner Bros. cartoons, where we have that nice, fast-paced opening that lets you understand things more. We wanted to introduce the Croods in action because with cavemen, you don’t want them talking, you want them out there running around. Our cavemen can run sixty miles an hour, they can throw rocks for miles, they can climb really well, so physically they’re very gifted but mentally they’re the cavemen you want them to be. They have these beginners’ minds where everything they see is going to be very challenging for them and hard for them to accept.
I would dare say that these guys are pretty original. Because on the spectrum of movie cavemen, with “Quest for Fire” on one end, with guys who speak a language that no one can understand and on the other end of the spectrum in the 2D, fully English-speaking side, is “The Flintstones.” And they have cars and jobs and phonographs and lawnmowers. And we’re somewhere in between those two but we’re a little closer to “The Flintstones” just because of the language. We certainly discussed what level of vocabulary they would have. We did discuss the idea of them not speaking English at all or even a made-up language that we would be able to understand but would be, sort of like “Clockwork Orange’s” future-speak, this would be past-speak.
We discarded all of those because of the story we were trying to tell. The story we were trying to tell is a pretty big story and it’s a pretty bold one. We’re talking about the very meaning of existence in this film and all of the Croods are struggling with one of the biggest questions of all, which is – why are we here? There’s no bigger question, I think, that you could really pose, to any character in any movie, really. So issues that large, they’re going to have to talk about it. That said, we were very careful to keep our ears open to certain words that would tend to shatter the world. And there were some.
Kirk: Like ‘vocabulary!’
What are you guys working on now?
Chris: That is an excellent question…
Kirk: Because we’re not really sure. We’ve been working the past few stuff talking about the movies. We’ve been working together for 5 years, so there are folders on our computer that we’re looking to dig into and pull some stuff out. But we haven’t had that conversation yet. I think we need a little vacation. Chris looks very tired.
Chris are you helping Dean at all on the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel?
Chris: Yeah I’ve been looking in on that. I haven’t been able to contribute any storyboards yet. There was a thought that I could but not yet. I really had to finish this up first. This was monumental in scale so now that I’m done with that, there is a definite possibility I’ll do a little bit more on that one.
“The Croods” is in theaters now.