In this series of episodes, we talk to many of the scientists at Blue Sky Studios, which created the Ice Age series of animated features, including the recently released Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. In episode 3, we hear from co-director Mike Thurmeier, art director Mike Knapp and head of lighting Andew Beddini. Special thanks to Hugo Ayala. Web sites related to this episode include www.blueskystudios.com and www.iceagemovie.com
Steve: Welcome back for the third and final installment of our series of Science Talk interviews with the scientists and other creative members of the team at Blue Sky Studios. Their latest venture, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, featuring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary and Queen Latifah, is now playing everywhere. In this episode we'll hear from art director Mike Knapp, head of lighting Andrew Beddini and co-director Mike Thurmeier. First up, Mike Knapp.
Knapp: Well, here at Blue Sky, the art directors, most of the directors and the producers, we figure out the look of the movie; and so my responsibility is, sort of, overseeing the development of the artwork for the look of the movie. Sometimes on a good day, I'm able to contribute some of my work as well when time allows, but working with the team of designers and color artists, whose art work thinking is passed downstream among like modeling, layout assembly, materials, lighting and helps kind of explain to those departments what we're aiming for in terms of the look of certain sequences or the ideas behind certain sequences. So we design the sets; we, you know, come up with the color palette for the film. You know, I create a color script that sort of maps out how the color is going to change from sequence to sequence to, you know, kind of, help the emotional beat of each sequence; the color helps support that or time of day, things like that. We provide a lot of photo reference to different departments, to kind of, you know, when we are referencing reality, we do paintings that accompany photo reference to say, okay, these are ideas of like, lichens and moss on the ground; but then we'll do paintings: Okay, this is how we want to interpret them. So we create artwork to, kind of, convey the interpretations of those things. And then we work, you know, very collaboratively with the other departments to, kind of, help translate those visuals into the final film.
Steve: So for the audience, for Scientific American, it's [a] real science-interested audience—lichens, symbiotic relationships; they are the algae and the fungus living together in harmony and peace. You have to come from a starting point; you must actually study the way real lichens look and then decide how you want to alter that to make it work in your world.
Knapp: We do a lot of, you know, photo research, looking at, you know, [whether] the Ice Age world might have more, you know, fungi growing on the base of the pine trees or things like that. When we get down into the dinosaurs' world, it becomes more, you know, more moisture, water building up on the limestone and then feeding into the lichens that are growing on the surface. And so we try to find elements that are appropriate, as appropriate as possible to this fantastic world; but still, you know, we try to take our cues from reality in nature. We'll do fantastical things and sometimes, the members of our studio
the[with a] more scientific background will totally call us on it. And they're like, "Yeah, that would never happen or never work." We sometimes push things a little bit, if it, you know, creatively helps, kind of makes something a little more fantastic or is needed for a desired effect. But for the most part, we try to take our cues from nature and some thought of science in this process, so that there is a logic to the world that works and is supported by the different departments along the way.
Steve: So other than the obvious one of dinosaurs and mammoths occupying the same world at the same time, what kind of things did you get called on in the context of, you know, the story you're telling?
Knapp: Well, in this case, a lot of the plants in the dinosaurs' world, you know, initially we started pulling plants that we liked to look at, but then we have one of the members in the modeling department studied, you know, paleontology and dinosaurs in particular, but also a lot of the plants at that time. And so he started leading us, in you know, in a better direction in terms of what would be more historically accurate and what kind of organisms you know, thrived then, what they looked like and even what families of those plants still survive today and what we can look at for better reference. [Because, there's a] lot of, you know, drawings from scientific journals and such from, you know, over the centuries really; but it's hard to find in some cases, very distinct reference to explain to the other departments
of what these things look like—when you get up close with a camera, you know, what does the surface of this leaf look like? How pulpy is the stem? You know, what's the material of this particular, you know, plant? So, they help point us in some good directions to, you know, ground us a little more in "reality" you know, for this world that the plants survived along with the dinosaurs underground. And then we tried to have some kind of logic to the world that the dinosaur survived in. It was sort of like a giant cavern, you know, that got covered in ice at some point, but the heat from volcanic activity deep underground has helped melt out this huge space that became this little troposphere, you know, that the dinosaurs have lived in and it's become its own self-sustaining, you know, ecological system. So, we tried to find some sort of fantastic logic within there to help us along with the bigger ideas; and then using the ice roof is also, sort of, a diffused light source [that] the sun is you know, coming through and we didn't want to set the movie underground and feel like you are in a cave the entire time; we wanted to have a little more range than that. So these sorts of things, there was a lot of people, you know, asking questions and raising flags and then us having to, you know, figure out a decent answer or discuss with them, like what a possible solution might be and then those sorts of things.
Steve: Questions and flags from a scientific viewpoint.
Knapp: And helping us, forcing us to find a more reasonable logic; because it just makes you buy into the world more when you feel like, you know, it has some sense of reality to it. It's not realism like from my artistic standpoint, I'm not so much interested in realism as I am in [a] naturalistic feel and when it feels naturalistic, it can be heavily stylized and fantastical, but you still buy it, and that's really what, you know, we were aiming for here.
Steve: That can really jar some people, so that you know, the plant stuff as you're talking about, that could really jar people who actually would notice something like that.
Knapp: Well, you know, to get a lush, dense vegetated area, you know, we've got technology that can do grass, but there was no grass at that time. So we tried to find alternatives to that to still make it feel lush. So the lichen became sort of like your base coat of paint to some extent. And then we used [a] lot of different varieties of ferns and smaller cycads and equisetum and tried to use those sorts of plant life to populate the lower ground, and then we started getting into the hanging mosses and the overgrown plants, the parasitic plants growing on the larger trees, and then that starts to really get some life to it and feels like, you know, these plants are thriving on and around these other, larger plants that become, sort of, the anchors to the world.
Steve: So, what you're saying is this movie is really for paleobotanists. They're the ones who're really going to enjoy it.
Knapp: Not specifically for them, yeah. We've probably driven them crazy by the time they've watched the film, but hopefully they'll appreciate the effort and the pain and embarrassment that we went through in, you know, going through this entire process; but yeah, I hope so, hope so.
Steve: Next, I spoke with the lighting designer, Andrew Beddini. You know, I know or at least I think I know, what a lighting designer does, you know, [on] Broadway or live action film, but what does that mean to be the lighting person in an animated film?
Beddini: Well, basically, it's very similar actually, it just translates directly into a computer-graphic 3-D environment. You know, you're working with precise measurements; you're working with realistic scales; but it's all just kept within a computer. You know, typically we'll work within a set, you know, that needs a sun in it, you know, balance lights, [fill] lights, typically what would happen in a live action set. If it was an interior setting, we'd be putting lights inside of lamps and things like that to just create the realism. But what separates us in terms of, you know, our competitors, such as Pixar and DreamWorks is that we render everything with a 100 percent ray tracing, and we've always been doing that. So that's pretty much a Blue Sky exclusive. And what really sets us apart is the accuracy that that provides. It really creates a real world lighting scenario for the lighting artist to work with. And not only does it provide a superior look, but it actually makes it much easier for the artist to work with. For example, when we're working with, you know, shadows and things of that nature, basically we just have to set, you know, a radius for light, you know, how wide it is and the shadow is automatically calculated. A lot of differences with, you know, some other renderers is that, you know, that step has to be processed independently and, you know, has to pick up on that and work with that as a special treatment. With Blue Sky's lighting pipeline, it's all automatic and that's one of the tremendous benefits. Another thing that we've been working on over the years and we keep implementing more and more as we move forward with our projects is we've been implementing [a] technique called radiosity more and more. And basically radiosity is like, I guess you can best describe it as the next-level version of ray tracing. You know, as I was explaining before, we get a lot of things like reflections, and correct shadowing, all automatic with ray tracing, what radiosity brings is bouncing color. So essentially, let's say you had somebody with a red T-shirt walk up to a white wall, you'd essentially get that red cast on there, and when it's implemented in the entire sets and with things within close proximity, it just makes everything look very real.
Steve: The software to do that was all developed here?
Beddini: Absolutely! It's very interesting. The ray tracing technique was basically built, you know, in the '80s here at Blue Sky, and it's pretty much unchanged ever since. And it just [so] happens that the code for radiosity was also built around the same time. It's just, it was completely impractical in the '80s from [a] processing power point of view to implement it. You know, [a] frame that takes us maybe 10 hours [to] process for a film, back in the '80s would have taken like 12!
Steve: Thousands [of] years.
Beddini: Yeah, like 12 to 15 days. So, that's one of the reasons why, as we are stepping further and further into, you know, these new technologies, you know, processing power count[s] so much in terms of what we can put up on the screen. I think it's very important for the audience [member], you know, I think there's a lot of [voodoo] that, you know, people just say, "It's just magic'" and it gets [thrown] up on the screen. But I think it's very important, especially when kids go and see films like this, that they realize that stuff they're seeing on the screen, basically their home computers are capable of doing this work now. And one of the things, you know, I spend a good amount of time in the educational environment as well, and I personally believe that, you know, if you have a budding animator at home or budding, you know, lighting technical director, get them some software and it's very easy. Kids are, you know, they're very inquisitive, and they can learn the stuff for themselves very easily, and I've always pushed like that with my nephew. I've got him doing stuff, and he's, like, 11 years old and, you know, its not a far stretch to get into this kind of line of work, especially if you get your children trained really [early].
Steve: We're talking just, you know, a regular home PC or is it...?
Beddini: Absolutely! A PC or a Mac, and there's a lot of software that could be downloaded free.
Steve: Free software!
Beddini: Free software—yes, absolutely. They teach us the fundamentals of this kind of stuff and, you know, it's not going to give you the pristine technology that a studio like ours has, but it can give you the fundamentals to create some pretty amazing looking imagery. And you know, we've definitely seen the talent pool become younger and younger. You know, back when I first got into the industry, 13, 14 years ago, you know, it was somebody that had a master's degree in computer science and, you know, he went through several, you know, degrees to get here; you know, we're hiring people right out of high school now. You know, a friend of mine, who works down at Peter Jackson's company, Weta, there's three brothers that are working there right now.
Steve: They're six years old!!!
Beddini: No not six years old, but you know, they're basically, the youngest brother was barely in high school when he started working at Weta, and it's just amazing thing what they're able to do.
Steve: Finally, I talked with co-director, Mike Thurmeier, first in his office. Mike started out as an animator. When most people think of an animator, I bet they still think of somebody who is drawing maybe on [cells].
Thurmeier: Yeah. You'd be surprised how often, I mean, these are not dumb people; these are educated people but they ask me like, "So you guys draw every frame?" And the best question I had, now that it's in stereo, like, people have a rudimentary knowledge of knowing that stereo is two cameras shooting, so they ask, "You guys draw the same image twice on the computer?"
Steve: That's absolutely wrong!
Steve: So what is it that you really do day in and day [out], as you animate?
Thurmeier: Well, as an animator I mean, you know, in the Disney days or the traditional days, I mean, everything kind of rested on the animator—the design, the line work, the motion, you know, the backgrounds were drawn by the layout team. But now, I mean, you know, CG is much more complicated. There's many more steps in the pipeline. So you start with the paper design, by the design department—they do the drawings. And then [you] go to modeling and sculpting. And then it's built by modelers, like, the CG geometry is built in three-dimensional space in a computer program called Maya; and so that has to be built by separate artists and that has to become, what we call rigged, which is, you sort of put in control points, you know, for arms, fingers; all that stuff has to be kind of custom built, and you have to make sure the geometry deforms nicely when you're moving that. All that stuff comes before it gets brought to the animators, and they're, kind of, given this model—it's like having a puppet. And so nowadays, the animators are generally responsible for animating the puppet, you know, the characters; anything you see moving on the screen, that's character based [and] will be handled by the animation team.
Steve: Are there databases of these kinds of physiological form[s] yet, or do you actually, do you talk to anatomy experts? How do you get it to be the way you want it to be?
Thurmeier: That's a good question. I mean, you know, generally the films we've done here at Blue Sky are not going for complete naturalism. So I mean, there's definitely more of a cartoon element to it, and that's just based on your eye and, you know, taste and stuff like that. But even that being said, I mean, we still look at [a] lot of footage of stuff. Like say, in our previous films [in this] one we've done [an] elephant, mammoth elephant[s]. So we'll, you know, go to the Natural History Museum, we'll see the stuff in person, see the size; we'll talk to, you know, experts, go to the zoo, you know, you look at a lot of footage, you know, and we'll go frame by frame to the footage and try and understand how the gait is working. And we use all that and then create an abstraction of that that works for our stuff. On our next film, which has been announced, it's called Rio, there's humans. This is for the first time, we've really done, you know, [a film] with humans as the lead characters. And so there's a lot of work going on right now, looking at anatomy. I think Jimbo, one of the lead animators, brought in a life drawn model and set up a camera and just had
it[her] go through all these motions, like jaw movements, neck movements, head movements, you know, very localized to see what the muscles are doing. And I don't think it's super important for us to know exactly what's going on physically and I need to don't even know how many muscles are doing that.
Thurmeier: But a rough general knowledge, and you know, the rigging department, the guys that put all the controls in there, that's sort of their job to work with the animators and come up with the best of appealing looking stuff.
Steve: I remember in Ice Age II, when the whole herd of mammoths walks onto the screen, just the hugeness and the slow, you know, kind of, stately movement.
Thurmeier: Yep, yes.
Steve: So was that something [where] you really did...
Steve: ...study the animals or was that more just the way you wanted it to be?
Thurmeier: Definitely. It's funny for a scene of like all those mammoths, we actually took the main mammoth Manny and created derivative versions of him changing the model size and all that kind of stuff to create enough different characters. And we have at Blue Sky something that we call BSS[anim] and it's sort of a tool where you can do an animation on a character and save out that data as a file; and then [so] if you have a scene, like you're just walking there you can import that animation back onto a character. You don't have to start from scratch every single time, because it is very time consuming. But yeah, you think about all that stuff when you're animating but ultimately you have a camera set up, you're pointing in a certain direction, it just needs to look good from that camera angle, and you are just going for feeling. So a lot of times, you throw reality out the window and go for whatever [looks] good.
Steve: Right, as a co-director now on the next film, how do your responsibilities change from being a lead animator?
Thurmeier: Well, going from Ice Age II to Ice Age III—well I did Horton in between; I was a supervising animator on Horton and it was like a week after I [was] done [with] that, Carlos was like, "You've gotta come over." It's incredibly different. I mean, you know, animation as a department is a huge step in the pipeline but it's still only one department. When you move to co-directing, your world completely opens up; co-directing with Carlos, and you have to see every step of the pipeline from the pages that are being written by the writers and working with the crew.
Steve: Will you be at the re[cording] sessions [with the actors]?
Thurmeier: Yeah, I mean we split it up, I mean Carlos will definitely go; he is the main director so he would always be there; sometimes I would be there and sometimes I wouldn't depending on the needs of the studio at that time. Like there's a lot of meetings or I need to work with the layout on a particular sequence [because they had to get the cameras approved]. But yeah, the scope is huge and, you know, keeping your mind on absolutely everything of what going on in the movie you have to be able to answer every single question from, [you know] 350 people in the studio and they can't move until you know what to tell them. So it was staggering. But creatively it was interesting because as a supervising animator I wasn't actually doing that much animation; I was just kind of keeping tabs on all the other animators. So creatively I was starting to, like, lose steam, and I was not as interested. Even though it was fun, it was great to work with people, I didn't have anything like, "I did this little piece of film," where as an animator you can point at something and say, "I did that."
Thurmeier: Like Hugo did the lava stuff in a sequence and he can say, like, "I did that lava and it looks great." But as a supervisor, I helped these guys [do it], but I can't put anything on my [show reel], I can't take credit. As a director, I feel like you get back some of that creativity. Because you can say, "Ah I remember when we came up with that idea for that sequence and I remember working with the story guys or working with the editorial." And so even though you are not doing the work creatively, there's definitely a bigger sense of involvement.
Steve: We then went over to a small screening room to see some clips from the movie, where I asked him about his early influences.
Did you watch TRON when you were a kid and did that inspire you?
Thurmeier: Oh, yeah—well, I mean I was pretty young, I was maybe seven. But, yeah, to tell [you] the truth I wasn't that impressed with computer graphics for a long time.
Steve: For good reason; [and] you watched TRON...
Thurmeier: Yes. It was a kind of [quirky] and weird, and I appreciated [it] on the geek level, but as an artist, you know, I didn't even know I wanted to be an animator really till later in high school. I drew a lot but I did not really realize it can be a career. I went to for traditional animation. I went to school in Oakville, Ontario in Canada, to Sheridan for traditional animation, and you know, around that time, I mean, Jurassic Park had come [out] and that completely blew my mind. Like I could not believe what I was seeing; but I still wanted to do cartoon stuff and then Toy Story came [out], and I said, "Man like this was so much fun;" like this is what I wanted to do, so that kind of turned me around. And then I came to Blue Sky. Well actually, Blue Sky interviewed me at Sheridan, and I didn't know anything about computer animation; I had never even sent an e-mail. But they were like don't worry, we can train you. And so I came down, and they were awesome. Actually, I can remember the moment when the computer animation clicked in my head. [because] I didn't really know about it. But one of the animators, his name is Steve Talkowski, he sat me down, at this desk, they were [on] one of those silicon graphics machines. And [he was like, "T]his is computer animation;" [and he created] this sphere and then did a bouncing ball. And the great thing about a bouncing ball test in computer animation is the graphic of the xyz data on the graph editor, it looks exactly like you would imagine it, it looks like the path of a bouncing ball. So he showed me, okay, [here's the] translate y, which means the up and down movement, and the forward movement is z; and so he drew this graph, and I saw the ball bouncing which is like (click) like the light went on, clicked in my head, like, "Oh, I get it." So like that, kind of, I began my training in computer animation.
Steve: So it's all applied mathematics.
Thurmeier: Yeah, I mean, exactly. I know nothing about mathematics but luckily to have these nice fancy interfaces where it feels intuitive.
Steve: Somebody else made it so that it works for you.
Thurmeier: Yeah, there is a lot of math underneath to make sure that it is very user friendly.
Steve: Then we put on the glasses and started looking at some images.
Looking at some 3-D here and it's pretty good 3-D.
Thurmeier: Yeah, the 3-D, you know, the approach we took was, I mean ultimately you have to make the film, you have to think about the 2-D theatres because really, you know, out of 8,000 screens, I mean only 1,500 are 3-D. But our approach wasn't to, like, throw stuff right in your face and poke your eyes [out] with stuff. I like the [idea that] some stuff [pulls] forward, but really, [it feels like] you're looking into a window of this world. So that was sort of the approach, and we learned a lot of things along the way.
Steve: It's the famous squirrel that is always after the acorn, and it's just sort of erupted out of the screen.
Thurmeier: I don't know I wasn't sold on 3-D for a long time, but, you know the more we started doing it, the more [I], kind of, felt like it was nice. I don't know it's just like, I've said this in other interviews, but I feel like it's [like] having another color to paint with, like a brand new color. It just adds, you know, a dimension you didn't have before and [it] kind of gives you a totally different feeling. So this is my favorite, one of my personal favorite parts of the movie. Because I think, when I came on the project, the third act really had not been developed, [the] second act/third act; and so I worked with the story guys and the coeditor. And so a sequence that we really delved into was this air battle sequence, which is the new character, this weasel riding on the back of this pterodactyl. Unfortunately we don't have sound for this one. But, you know, it's [funny] to me too; like
this; this sequence works great in 3-D. But it's often surprising to me that the shots that I don't expect to work [great] in 3-D stereoscopic, do; particularly quiet shots, shots of just characters sitting around or standing in a circle. I don't know, you just get the sense of depth and environment, it's really interesting. I mean this Ice Age III is much bigger a film than the previous two, I would say, and all the stuff we developed through the five movies we've done, I think, you know, is all on display. I mean, especially when we compare it to the first movie, which was definitely limited on time and budget and experience really. It was so graphic and simple and we tried to retain the graphic look, the design sense, but completely opened up the world.
Steve: That became such a big hit you were able to then really open out.
Thurmeier: Oh yeah, I mean, Blue Sky basically is built on that first movie, and it allowed us to sort keep the doors open and keep going. Robots, I think Robots is actually under appreciated from a visual standpoint. I think that movie if you go back and watch it—and I hope they release [it on] Blu Ray soon—the materials and the lighting are absolutely outstanding and, like, way ahead [of their] time. I mean just from a visual standpoint, and technical it's really, really impressive. And of course Ice Age II, which was huge; I mean I think, other than Pirates of the Caribbean, I think it was the highest, or the most profitable movie of 2006. [it did] $650 million worldwide on a pretty modest budget. You know, we did Horton which was very successful, and we learned a lot on Horton; it really pushed our character rigging to a whole new level. And now Ice Age III.
Steve: Six hundred and fifty, that's a Ron Howard number[s] there.
Thurmeier: That's pretty huge I mean that's more than The Incredibles, more than Wall-E, you know. Blue Sky is very recognized internationally which is really funny to me. Like I go anywhere internationally and we're heroes. Domestically we are still well loved, we are not, Pixar is the king of the jungle, you know. It's interesting, you know, I love Pixar, they are great. But so, you know, this was actually, I don't know how much you know about the whole, the story line or anything like that, [the] dinosaurs.
[Steve: I’ve seen the first two]
Thurmeier: Well you are going to, you know, before we run this I just wanted to say, we've gotten a lot of questions, everybody is like, "Ah, what are the dinosaurs doing in the Ice Age? You know, this is like, were you guys crazy? What's wrong with you?"
Steve: Why are you playing into the creationists' stand?
Thurmeier: I know, exactly.
Steve: But, so here's the thing, when I first heard the concept of dinosaurs when Carlos pitched the idea, I was like, "What are you talking about?" But it dawned on me that what we are trying to create here was like a genre movie, a King Kong, you know; they go to Skull Island and there [are] these crazy dinosaurs or whatever, Journey to the Center of the Earth. So for me I was excited because it became, like, we took this comedy formula for the first two movies, which is basically road movie with some laughs and, you know, you throw this action, you know, a genre element on to it, and that's basically what we got. And I mean [it's a] very similar storyline: These dinosaurs come up from, you know, this underground subterranean world of extinct creatures when Sid inadvertently takes some dino eggs. And what we are going to see here is the momma dinosaur coming back up to reclaim her babies.
(excerpt from the film)
Thurmeier: So, you know, obviously we had to create a dinosaur that was impressive for people to look at but, you know, at the end of the day, it's still a kid's movie. So we had to find ways to give her a little bit of character here and there, which is, you know, you saw the [shot where her eyebrow went up.] So it's been a, you know, an interesting balance.
Steve: That's it for our special series looking at the applied math and science that goes on at Blue Sky Studios, the home of the Ice Age series of animated films. Thanks to everybody at Blue Sky for the access they gave us. We will be back with our usual format in the next episode. Meanwhile, for all your latest science news, visit our Web site, www.ScientificAmerican.com. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky.