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What Blue Sky Studios Taught Me: The Movie is Just the Tip of a Very Big Iceberg

What Blue Sky Studios Taught Me: The Movie is Just the Tip of a Very Big Iceberg

When it comes to producing film
and TV, the final product is immensely visible compared to the amount of talent
and effort that goes on behind the scenes. For a major film studio, the unseen
work is massive, complex, and took an evening with Blue Sky Studios to learn
how critically important it is to simply getting a film made.

This past Tuesday I had the
pleasure of attending one of the events in the current
being hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
devoted to animation: an evening panel discussion by creative and management
members of Blue Sky Studios held at the Academy’s (rather nice) theater in New
York. Featuring co-founder Chris Wedge, director Carlos Saldanha, producer John
Donkin, and art director Tom Cardone, it was a rare, in-depth peek at the inner
workings of a large CGI animation studio.

What surprised (shocked?) me the
most was the sheer complexity of it all. At about 600 people, Blue Sky is a
very large organization, and every one of those people and the projects they
work on have to run like clockwork to get things made, completed, and out the
door. Everything is planned, everything is tracked, and above all, every dollar
is put to work. As John Donkin reiterated throughout “Math is your friend!”

Did you know it can take up to 18
months to create a single character from start to finish? I didn’t, and you
should have seen the Gannt chart they use for the process. Any
environmentalists reading this better hope they’re electronic and not on paper!
It’s not just the characters either; the nature of CGI means that everything
that will be on-screen has to go through similar processes to ensure they are
cohesive and fit within the overall film. Backgrounds, settings, lighting,
colors, even special effects all have to work together, and they all require
the same degree of effort that the character design does. And this is before
any of the animation is even begun!

The second thing that really hit
home is the amount of creative effort that is put into a film. As passive
viewers, it’s all too easy to watch 3+ years of work flash before our eyes in
90 minutes and come away with a poor opinion of everyone involved. A film is
more than the sum of its parts, but all too often when one part fails, the
entire film suffers.

Readers of this site are going to
be more forgiving than the general public no doubt, but I’m reminded of Walt
Disney, and his very real willingness to shoulder complete responsibility when
a film flopped. He was aware that everyone else gave their best effort from his
direction and could not be blamed for the end result. Modern studios are
different than Walt’s of course, but Chris Wedge was quite proud of the
artistic effort that went into Epic, and rightfully so! Just as much effort was
lavished on the film as any of his hits, and through an objective lens, that
film is just as superb as any other.

The challenges that Blue Sky face
are the same as any other CGI studio. They are fighting a battle against
technology that is extremely expensive, developing rapidly, and getting ever
more complex. Combined, each development makes an already complicated process even
more so; with no end in sight. One hopes that the push for realism in CGI films
eventually stutters to a halt. CGI technology is about more than photo-realism
(even if David OReilly is able to
prove otherwise
) and the brief teaser of the forthcoming Peanuts film that
was shown is hopefully proof of a simpler, and no less appealing aesthetic.

At the end of the evening, I came
away with an immensely better view of the studio than I had just two hours
before. There were no juicy secrets spilled, or revelations revealed, but there
was a story to be told about how a few people got together back in the
late-1980s and who now get to make wonderful films every day.

Ultimately it’s all about people,
and what we see on the big screen is the culmination of a herculean effort by
large numbers of people putting their best effort forward. The vast majority of
those people labour in relative obscurity, but their talent is invaluable
nonetheless. The public can be unduly harsh sometimes, but that is because they
simply do not know, not merely because they do not understand.

Filmmaking is a hard and
unforgiving business, but it’s through studios large and small that these
terribly complex, time-consuming, expensive works of art are made, and taking
the time to simply appreciate the piece of the iceberg that lies below the
surface will improve your enjoyment of them entirely.

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