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Behind The Scenes of Blue Sky’s Epic

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On Tuesday, August 20th, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will release a special features jammed Blu-ray Combo Pack, Deluxe Edition Blu-Ray, and DVD of the lushly animated Epic, a film released in theaters May 2013 about the war between Leafmen and Boggans—the battle between life and decay. Geek got an exclusive peek into Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, Connecticut where Epic was created.

Formed in 1987 as an offshoot of staff members from Disney’s Tron, Blue Sky arose during a second wave of CGI studios in the mid-1980s. Other animation studios such as Pixar and PDI were popping up at this time thanks to the advent of ray tracing technology, an image rendering strategy developed in part by one of Blue Sky’s founders, nuclear physicist Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy. With ray tracing, animated images are recreated realistically by measuring their interaction with the surrounding light-source. The number of reflections rendered determines the feel of the animation. While Blue Sky’s Ice Age was processed with less reflections to give it a more cartoonish look, Epic was rendered with more reflections to be a much more realistic experience. The foundation for the Blue Sky Studios would become the in-house image rendering software which is still in use to this day.

Getting the animation to the point of rendering was a much less straightforward than just writing a clever script and drawing it out. For Epic, the idea began as a conversation between the film’s Oscar-winning director Chris Wedge, also one of Blue Sky’s founders, and children’s book author William Joyce. The tiny beings from Joyce’s The Leaf Men would be the starting point. Art Director Michael Knapp and Production Designer Greg Couch created a vivid world inspired by the natural forms found just outside the Blue Sky office in the Audubon Center in Greenwich. The idea and set design is forwarded to Editorial and Story departments where they create story arcs, character personalities, and scene-by-scene layouts by feeding ideas back and forth to each other. Storyboard artist Warren Leonhardt mentioned that the entire film is drawn out before it is sent to the animation team, and he spent much of his time creating scenes that the viewer never sees. Once the story is developed, it is sent to animation. Animators act out their scenes in real life and film them to pinpoint the exact movements they want their characters to make. Riggers program trigger points on all the characters that act like puppet strings so animators can activate and seamlessly connect the characters’ motions. Sabine Heller, Character Technical Director at Blue Sky, spent 8 months programming the trigger points on Nim, the six-armed, four-legged caterpillar voiced by Steven Tyler. She said while it was certainly the most challenging character she’s ever created, it was also the most rewarding. The foundation for Blue Sky’s business may be their proprietary image rendering software, the real power in the studio is the constant collaboration amongst all the employees to create the final product. Behind the scenes at Blue Sky is a team of highly cooperative and fiercely intelligent individuals working together constantly.

Following our studio tour, director Chris Wedge answered questions. He professed his love for 3D as an immersive experience and mentioned that the competition between studios is no longer about access to amazing technology but who can figure out a genuinely good and new idea. Epic Bluray and DVD will be available for purchase at http://www.foxdigitalhd.com/.

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