Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco interview: The Croods

The co-directors of The Croods chat about the movie, Captain Caveman, Aardman, How To Train Your Dragon and more...

Chris Sanders is a genius. And as someone who loves both Lilo And Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon, the two earlier films he directed, The Croods couldn’t come soon enough. Kirk De Micco is no slouch either, having been with the project since its Aardman days. And the two of them spared us some time to chat about the movie. Here’s how it went, starting off with just Chris…

I like to think that after the success of How To Train Your Dragon, Jeffrey Katzenberg invited you into his luxurious office, gave you a nice cigar and poured you an expensive drink. Then, he pretty much let you choose what you wanted to do next. But was it always the plan to go back to The Croods? Was that always the plan?

Well, I fell in love with How To Train Your Dragon, but I also fell in love with The Croods. That was the thing I was really anxious to get back to, and really wanted to finish. Every story, every movie has things about it that you get extremely attached to. There was a story in The Croods that I was really attached to, and I had to get it done.

You started on The Croods in 2007. Given you were keen to tell the story, why did you leave the project for How To Train Your Dragon?

Ad – content continues below

I started on it in 2007, and I was around a year into it, and the only reason I left was that Bill asked me to. He said they wanted to change directions on How To Train Your Dragon, and the odd thing about that moment, as he was pitching the film, he didn’t pitch me the story. He said we’re going to give you the books and give you the script, and we’ll give you a cut of the film to take a look at. And you can decide whether you want to do this.

And I said, you know, I do want to do it. And he said don’t answer right now, take all this away and decide. And I said I really think I’m going to say yes. And that’s kind of unusual of me to do that. To be that sure. But I just had a vibe that I really wanted to do it, said yes, and that was an amazing adventure. I’m so proud of How To Train Your Dragon. But at the same time, it was also my crash course in all things CG. At that point I’d only worked in traditional animation. I think that really benefitted The Croods. When I came back to it, I knew a lot more about the capabilities of CG animation. 

In the past, you’ve said ‘the look of these films has caught up with the storytelling’. One thing that really struck me with The Croods is the colour palette is amazing. You’ve done a lot of heat and sun-drenched films, yet the shades here are outstanding. Is that one of the subtle ways that technology has evolved in the making of these films? Could you have got quite the same prolonged expanse of colour had you made this film in 2007?

You know, the technology was at the right place for us to build this world. The most difficult thing about doing The Croods was no doubt the building of the world. Every single thing in this film is organic. Organic things are tough. Very very labour intensive. And we have no man-made structures. You could argue that everything in this film is really an exterior. Even the interiors of the cave are exteriors. So building this world was the biggest thing of all, and the technology was there to do it.

There was a very important thing that somebody told me at the beginning. And it was this: we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. So you can give us any task and we’ll meet it. We just have a cut-off in time, after which we can’t keep building things. You have to make up your mind at a certain point what you need.

For us, the surprising technological challenge was the tar pit. We have no simulations for tar. We have water simulations, but tar, we didn’t know. So we talked a bit about it, and they really, really delivered. That tar is amazing. It was actually a cloth simulation.

Ad – content continues below

I had an image that all your animators went method on it, and singed their legs to go the extra mile for the realism. You’ve shattered an illusion…

[Laughs] I don’t think we had anybody actually jump into tar, no! The animators are fantastic though. They’ll shoot their own reference material, and just go into the car park or something. And they might shoot a very funny scene, or sometimes a serious scene. But they’re really just trying to work out the motion. Yet what we get treated to is hilarious video of someone running around a parking lot with a broomstick and a helmet! 

That’s a very Aardman way of doing things, interestingly enough. The Croods of course has its roots in Aardman, given that it was originally going to be an Aardman stop motion project. This being the second project in a row that you seem to have inherited once it’s started, do you draw a line for what’s gone before, or do you dig into what’s already been done as you try to find the film yourself?

The funny thing about it is that I had no idea that Aardman was working on it before. Nobody had told me! It was about a month before someone mentioned it. I started with what I saw. The funny thing is that I never really questioned where it had come from, and perhaps I should’ve!

Presumably though, firstly that wouldn’t have made any difference, and secondly, it sounds as though, when you’re choosing what film to make, that it’s a love at first site approach for you?

Yes, exactly.

Ad – content continues below

[At this stage, co-director Kirk DeMicco, who was with the project at Aardman, walked in]

Kirk, can I ask you then, what changed when it moved from an Aardman stop motion film to a DreamWorks CG film?

Kirk: The earlier one went pretty far, we were well into it. I worked in Bristol on it for quite a while. It was less about the film and more about the relationships at that point. It was a different type of film because the way we were writing it was built for stop motion. It didn’t have the scope that we have now. That was one of the biggest changes, because once it became CG, we had to rewrite it. It was a different field.

The one piece of DNA that’s never changed is that strong fear of change. In the beginning, it was more about the angle of how technology ruins the world, and it didn’t have anything to do with the changes in family that we have in the film now. And the whole world, the idea of building a whole new world, came about when making the transition to CG. And also, from the whole film we were trying to tell, about literal-minded cavemen seeing the world for the first time. 

You talk about how you rewrote the film for CG, which opened up the sensational action sequences you’ve got in The Croods. But also, I loved that you opened with hand drawing. Was that there from the start too? Or were you deliberately contrasting with the computerised visuals?

Kirk: We had to figure out a lot of ways to tell the story. We thought we could get across the vaguely Pythonic view of death there, and also separate out the Grug story.

Ad – content continues below

There’s no shortage of humour in the film. But I want to talk about the action too. Chris, the last third of How To Train Your Dragon was exhilarating. What you get it action you can follow. Presumably, that’s easier in animation, because you can go back and redo it?

Chris: Yeah, you’re right. We can go back and redo it. And because boarding is the start of everything for us, if we can track it and make it very clear that we want to be able to follow that action… The choreography of that opening egg chase sequence, that egg is what we’re tracking. I feel like that’s something animation is really suited for. In a live action movie, they would have storyboarded it too, and then shot the board.

There’s a bit in the film where Krugg is falling down, and I swear that Nicolas Cage is channelling Captain Caveman with his yell as he falls. Was that the direction he was given?

Kirk: [Laughs] I don’t know, we never said that to him! But as you know, he’s pretty astute comic collector, and a big fan of animation, and that vibe! It could have totally come from there! 

Chris, you Tweeted pictures of the scoring process that went on, and you said that scoring is something that you enjoy immensely. Plus, you had Alan Silvestri doing your score this time. Can you capture for us what it is about the scoring that really lifts if for you?

Chris: I always believe that you work this hard on these films to get it about 50 per cent of the way there, and then the music is the other 50 per cent. It really is for us the realm of magic and witchcraft. Because it’s not just putting this pretty frosting on everything. It really is the most powerful storytelling tool that we have.

Ad – content continues below

There are moments in The Croods, and in a lot of different films, and the biggest things that are happening are the times when the characters aren’t talking. And these are the moment where a character is changing their heart, and that definitely happens in The Croods [we’ve cut out the specific example that Chris mentioned, due to spoilers].

Sometimes, you can’t put dialogue on things that would ever be the right scale. It would be so cardboard and flat and disappointing. Sometimes, you keep the characters quiet, and let the music do the talking. It’s one of the things that Kirk and I can do as writers and directors. We can engineer moments into a film where characters won’t talk, and you know from the beginning that it’s going to be down to the music.

Also, for us after finishing the film, being at the scoring stage at Abbey Road Studios in London is indescribably amazing. I was in the high school band, and it took my ages to learn one piece of music. These musicians will open their music folder and look at a piece for the very first time, then look up at Alan, and what happens next is what you hear on screen! I still don’t understand how they do that!

Did you not get Alan Silvestri to get the orchestra playing a bit of Back To The Future while you had him there?

Kirk: [Laughs] That would have been neat!

Your theme throughout a lot of The Croods then is about tomorrow. So I’m inevitably curious where the two of you are heading next. Will you work together? Chris, will you go off to make another Dragon film? Or maybe more Croods?

Ad – content continues below

Chris: Good question. I think that’s why Kirk and I are working out right now. Depending on how Croods performs, there’s always a possibility that we’ll be doing more Croods, which we would love. But these films take a long time to make, so you inevitably come up with a lot of other ideas. So we have a little file of other things that we might want to do as well!

Chris and Kirk, thank you very much. And Chris, congratulations on your twins!

The Croods is out in cinemas now. You can read our review here.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.