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Animation Oscar Race: Why ‘The Croods’ Is ‘Frozen”s Only Real Challenger (FEATURETTE)

Animation Oscar Race: Why 'The Croods' Is 'Frozen''s Only Real Challenger (FEATURETTE)

In the Oscar animation arena, competition is fierce. The conventional wisdom has $600-million global smash “Frozen,” Disney’s best princess musical since “Beauty and the Beast,” leading the pack by a good distance. It just returned to number one again in its seventh week at the box office. 

Two old-fashioned 2-D stories, Hayao Miyazaki’s historic “The Wind Rises” (which has been winning some critics prizes), and France’s “Ernest & Celestine,” should be among the Oscar final five. And Pixar sequel “Monsters University,” which was nominated for ten Annie Awards and a PGA, will probably squeak in on sheer craftsmanship, if not storytelling, knocking out the year’s animation blockbuster “Despicable Me 2” ($921 million worldwide) which appears statistically unlikely to land an Oscar nomination (although it did land a PGA) because unlike “Monsters Inc.,” the original film did not.

“Frozen”‘s strongest competitor comes from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation, which put together a formidable filmmaking partnership. Soon after he left Disney, Chris Sanders (Oscar-nominated “How to Train Your Dragon”) joined up with Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) who had been developing “The Croods” for Aardman Animation as a stop-motion film with John Cleese (who retains story credit) before Aardman split with Glendale-based DreamWorks, which took over the movie. This spring “The Croods” grossed $573 million worldwide.

Since “Shrek” collected the first animated feature Oscar in 2001, DreamWorks has scored one more, for Aardman’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005), while Disney/Pixar has taken home six (including Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”) to Warner Bros.’ one (George Miller’s “Happy Feet”). 

I talked to the “Crood” writer-directors on the phone about how they created this clever caveman family comedy –with a strong, brave girl maverick (voiced by Emma Stone) at its center.

Anne Thompson: How did you come up with this high concept of a terrified family hiding in a cave who are forced out into the world?

Chris Sanders: This movie was more visual than anything we had previously worked on. Animated films never end up where they start. They develop and change along the way. We knew from the beginning the general nature of the world we were working with. We did a lot of storyboarding as well as writing to find the story. And music [composed by Alan Silvestri] would play a huge part in this. We knew the dialogue couldn’t carry the big themes, so music was designed into the movie, houses for music and moments so that the largest turning points of the film could be spooled to by just music.

Kirk De Micco: We’re both writer-directors, so we make our script knowing we’ll service it later with the right visuals and music. The neat thing about animation: because you build animatics, we were able to share them with Alan early in the process, earlier than you’d ever do it in live action, when you have nothing to show until you shoot something. In fact, he started talking to us when were doing storyboards. That gave us the confidence to paint the family, knowing we’d build the themes. It’s like doing a music scout while looking at the whole script animatic, where to lay in the moments along the way so that it hits when you need it and resonates with the audience. You can’t start a big theme at the end, it’s woven through from the beginning. Like reaching up for the sun, those themes are played through to the very end, the two images of light are the bookends of that story arc.

When did you see that these basic caveman family fears and need for growth might tap into a global universality? 

Sanders: We didn’t realize, because we work on these things in a very intimate way. We don’t think about the larger implications. In the case of this original story we had the ability to let the movie take us where it wanted to go. The direction it took on its own was this profound journey to answer questions of human existence. It happened that the Croods exist without any sort of trappings of society, cars, jobs, schools, telephones. Nothing around them places them anywhere. We didn’t realize you’ve stripped everything away and gotten down to people period. It’s just a family. When we relieve them of all distractions you get down to big questions: father-daughter relationships, larger themes of why are we here? That was the thing that Kirk and I had discovered within just weeks after I started on the film.

De Micco: When I started with John Cleese, it was more of a buddy comedy. The theme of fear of change was being played out. But when Chris was shown all the projects at studio, he liked the Caveman movie.

Sanders: There are two types of movies I’ll always take: one about a submarine or a caveman, they’re just appealing at a universal level of elemental existence. One thing I discovered that was amazing as I dived into the film was the joy of working with cavemen. These people don’t have any guile, they can get upset and act like a child with no social filters. We look at them as children.

De Micco: But we never make them dumb. We give them beginners’ minds. They had blind spots, they would burn themselves once. Then they’re not keen on burning themselves. They just don’t know a lot of things, they’re learning as they go, looking at the world through beginner’s eyes. Their hearts are in right place. They were appealing to work with.

What’s the writing process?

Sanders: We work on the outline together. I’ve found if you do that together and map out the course of the movie, you can then divide up sequences and write them individually. He won’t write the way I will, he has an original voice, he’ll do sequences and fit them in the movie. Then we trade pages, make comments and changes. It’s a great way to work, so long as our sensibilities are the same, and he’s not trying to make a comedy while I’m making a tragedy, and we agree to work on the outline that’s going to fit together.

How did you come to focus on the father and daughter?

De Micco:  This is the first DreamWorks family film that actually features a family– that’s hard to believe after 25 years. The father-daughter relationship between lead character Grug [Nic Cage] and his daughter Eep [Stone] became central. It starts with the atom of fear of change. That’s funny, we got a lot of mileage out of that emotional counterpoint, the fear of change as kids are growing up. 

When we went on the press tour country to country Chris and I were amazed. When we started showing it in Berlin, we didn’t know what to expect, it’s a cold house with 1500 people reading subtitles. They loved it. It was an amazing experience, going from Italy to France to Korea and China, where everyone said, “This is a very Chinese story about a father and daughter.”

Sanders: Grug can be controlling and overprotective, he sees the world and its dangers. We needed to sympathize and understand where he’s coming from, or he could be unlikable. We saw the 2-D opening cave painting with the little caricatures as funny gallows humor. When we first showed the film, none of the kids laughed, we thought we were in trouble. At the end of the film at the Q & A, we asked, “What do you think of Grug the dad?” 

“Well, the dad had to be protective of all of his family.” 

They were paying attention, it was like a Grimm’s fairy tale: if you don’t listen, things can happen. We wanted to make sure everyone understood where Grug was coming from and make the creatures something you hadn’t seen. We wanted people to see the world through Grug’s eyes, he’s out of his element: “wait, wait, wait!” It’s such a topsy-turvy world. It helped us along the way to have a recognizable father doing his level best to keep his family safe. People got it. 

Why cast Nic Cage?

De Micco: The reason we had in him mind is he has such a beleaguered put-upon quality in his voice, and so much heart, he’s just trying his best. You hear a guy who’s trying, that’s what we loved about Nic’s voice.

Was there a crisis point where you had to go back to the drawing board?

Sanders: That did happen. Early on, the original version of the film had a village full of cavemen. I was working with Kirk for a year, we had done a lot of writing and storyboarding of some of the world. We would draw a sequence and the cavemen were so fun, this seems swell, all these characters and complex caves with rickety shelves, it was appealing. But it was one of those situations where it just –we couldn’t put our finger on it, it wasn’t taking off. 

After a year I went to go to write and direct “How to Train Your Dragon,” and left Kirk with the caveman village. After a few weeks, he called me, said “Come on down, I have to show you something.” Kirk had been wrestling with this for years. He said, “Forget the village! It’s one caveman and his family who lose the cave and go on the first family road trip to find another. They change.”

When you heard it, it rang like a bell. That was the answer, to back away, it’s not going to move anywhere. The village was an anchor holding the story in one place. It needs to travel, there’s no such thing as a caveman wagon train. 

De Micco: We’d head toward “The Flintstones.” We started in a light fun place, we knew where we wanted to end up, with a dramatic emotional moment, not going too heavy but emotional. Usually in these films, it goes in the other direction, somebody dies or a village gets burned or a character leaves. From a Looney Tunes type beginning we deliver emotion through a side door. The opening hunt is one big long comedy set piece. 

(SPOILERS AHEAD) You do not know that at the end, at the edge of the cliff, Grug is saying goodbye to his whole family.

The movie goes to some pretty dark places.

De Micco: We always knew the ending, we just didn’t know how to get there. We saw Grug making a sacrifice for his family and saying goodbye to his daughter. We’d remember where we were going: this guy has to get there, Eep and Grug had to get deeper and more fractious. We knew we had to heal something. It was more about story than plot. Knowing where we were landing helped the project.

Sanders: And I love female characters. On this film we had this amazing thing: we had four female characters, the daughter, mom, little tiny girl and grandmother. That means we didn’t have to be so precious with them. With a low number of female characters you tend to treat the one carefully and respectfully, which makes them flat. This was one film where we were not uncomfortable making broad characters because we had so many, so we could give them extremely interesting individual personalities. That was in the DNA of the movie, we were allowed to indulge ourselves and have interesting female characters.

Once we made and sold the story of one family that lives in a cave and goes on a search to find another cave, then in turn having an outside guy who comes in as agitator and stirs things up made perfect sense. We knew he’d have a different effect on everyone.

You designed some pretty far out animals, especially that crazy big cat.

Sanders: That was the one and only animal that I actually designed all by myself. It has a giant head, so big that if it’s standing on all fours you can’t see its face and we had to pull its feet down further. I have always loved characters with giant heads. 

Early on two designers were generating a huge amount of drawings. Kirk and I were trying to find how to frame up this world. One drawing was of a fanciful creature, an animal made up of two animals we would recognize today, a hybrid animal. That became the controlling idea of the film. We went backwards in time with animals we know today potentially fused together who would later separate into two species or be doomed to be extinct.

Like a chunky macawnivore, part carnivore and macaw. When we started the movie we knew that these animal creatures would take such long time to build that we couldn’t be sure, as we were writing the movie at the same time, we had them conceiving and building animals. To cover our bases we asked the designers to fill niches: a carnivore, things that live in air and water, creatures that looked like prey and predators. We tried to create enough animals so that for any situation we’d get into we’d have an animal that could exist in that environment. We weren’t’ sure what we would need and where we would need it. Some animals were created that never made in. Some came in and would leave again. One that we liked we cut mere weeks before we finished animation. I hope to get it into a movie sometime.

What role does Jeffrey Katzenberg play in managing all this? 

Sanders: Jeffrey is not here every day. He’s found a position in the process where he’ll visit the film now and again, not constantly. That’s a good thing, it brings a fresh eye for what we’re doing. I admire Jeffrey, he has the scale and scope and audacity of the movie in his mind. When we’re working we’re focused on the small machinery down inside the movie, the littler tiny gears and pulleys. He’ll say, ‘Wow, the third act is not big enough guys. This is a movie, this is an event on a great scale that is not necessarily made visual in the journey of the characters.” He’s not just being bombastic. The visual is fulfilling a promise we make to the audience.

How do you work with cinematographer Roger Deakins? Is this a new development in animation, having a live action cinematographer working with you on lighting? 

Sanders: We had been working with him on “How to Train Your Dragon” for well over a year and at one point when shooting was nearly finished he saw a shot and said “Where’s the ocean?” There was an entire missing ocean in the background of the shot. You become so focused on all these details in the foreground and the animation, that having two sets of eyes is a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times Kirk catches something.

Roger Deakins is an objective eye on every sequence. If he’s not there at the beginning he’s there in the middle and end to review our work, especially on “The Croods.” Even though the world is fantastic and fanciful, it needs to be real, as real as Roger’s lighting. The most important aspect is making us believe it’s real. He’s adept at elevating the light. Most animated films are egregiously over lit. He removes lights and makes it feel more dramatic and believable by doing so.

It’s a relatively recent thing. I enjoy watching Roger adapt to our medium. One thing he got a kick out of is in an animated film, you can put lights in the scene and you don’t see the lights or need a light source between them. You can do it, as if you have an invisible lightbulb, that really gave him the unlimited ability to place a camera and place light.

Would you want to cross over to live action?

De Micco: There are so many different stories to be told that are not perfect for animation, like a short or hybrid or live action film.

Sanders: We shot our own little movie during the course of this. It will be done in 5 or 6 months. 

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