This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK.
When Blue Sky Studios was tasked with creating swimming CGI Xenomorphs for the fourth film in the Alien franchise, its animators looked to inspiration from the natural world. Aptly for H.R. Giger’s demonic creations, said inspiration was found in a Galapagos Island creature nicknamed by Charles Darwin the “imp of darkness.”
“We patterned [the Xenomorphs’] movements on reference footage of sea iguanas,” Blue Sky’s Digital Effects Supervisor for Alien: Resurrection Mitch Kopelman told American Cinematographer magazine in November 1997. “They have this crazy little swim where they tuck their legs under their bodies and use this really long tail to propel themselves.” After much work, the end result was the CGI swimming aliens that pursued Ellen Ripley and co. through the flooded kitchens of the USM Auriga in the 1997 sequel.
Alien: Resurrection was Blue Sky’s first gig from 20th Century Fox. Then a VFX house, the studio had spent its first decade building up revenue piecemeal from television adverts and idents. “When I started at Blue Sky,” remembers Rio and Ice Age director Carlos Saldanha “it was a handful of people, a lot of TV commercials, a lot of flying Tylenol pills!”
Not just Tylenol pills, but computer-generated M&Ms, talking coffee beans, and a CGI electric razor so photorealistic that it tricked the judges at that year’s CLIO Awards for Advertising into thinking it was the real deal, according to Blue Sky co-founder Carl Ludwig.
Blue Sky was able to pull off such a coup thanks to its proprietary renderer (the software that turns all the polygons, textures, and shaders involved in computer modelling into images). Developed by three of the studio’s six founders—theoretical physicist Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy, NASA electrical engineer Carl Ludwig, and early virtual reality programmer Michael Ferraro—‘CGI Studios’ as it was known, enabled the small setup to compete for and win high-profile commercial work.
“When we started Blue Sky it was with our own money,” co-founder Chris Wedge told us at the press launch of the Musée Ludique’s Art of Blue Sky exhibition in Paris this March. “We didn’t have any investors, we were building on revenue, so we did television commercials. It was the first application that was available to us, and then as we got better and bigger we started doing some visual effects for the studios. That’s how Fox got to know about us. We did some movies for them.”
It was Disney, however, that gave the Blue Sky founders their first experience of producing CGI for the movies, years before the studio even existed. The six founding members, including those named above and marketing specialists Alison Brown and David Brown, worked together at now-defunct New York computer tech company MAGI, which had been hired by Disney to create the Light Cycle animations for 1982’s Tron.
“A number of us that started Blue Sky were there for Tron,” recalls Chris Wedge, a fact commemorated in the Paris exhibition by a photograph of the machine Wedge used to work on the innovative effects for the Disney film. “It’s an historic computer!” laughs Jean-Jacques Launier, founder and president of the Musée Ludique.
After MAGI closed its doors for good in the mid-eighties, six of its former employees united to start their own company. Thus in 1987, Blue Sky Studios (named for the popular phrase “When you think of something without any limits” and not for the 1970s song “Mr. Blue Sky,” according to Chris Wedge, “But I was around when ELO started!” he laughs) was born.
“When we started Blue Sky, the industry was very young. It was mostly about technology, and then to make money we applied that technology to television commercials and special effects,” remembers Wedge, who doesn’t miss the days when Blue Sky was a jobbing VFX house.
“VFX is a very tough business. You do it on margins, you bring in work and bid on the work and do the work, and whatever profit there is you try to pour into the company, and you have to pay your employees and all your overheads, but there’s no win there really, except for your pride in your work.”
For him, that pride came from character animation rather than CG graphics. “Every time we did a project, I would try to put more character animation in it,” he remembers. Whenever it came to cutting together the studio’s latest demo reel, Wedge would only include that side of their work, thus building Blue Sky a reputation as character animators for hire.
That reputation-building paid off when MTV decided to develop its 1992 live-action-stop-motion short Joe’s Apartment into a 1996 feature film. The job of creating CG cockroach characters fell to Blue Sky, which had previously made several animated idents for the channel.
That success was the calling card Blue Sky needed to break into CGI work for Hollywood. Commissions for CGI work on Universal’s A Simple Wish and DreamWorks Pictures’ MouseHunt were quickly followed by the same on Paramount’s Star Trek: Insurrection and three 20th Century Fox pictures, Alien: Resurrection, Fight Club (Blue Sky created the penguin that tells Edward Norton’s character to “slide” in his power animal vision), and Titan: A.E.
The huge financial losses brought about by Titan: A.E. (around $100 million according to producer Chris Meledandri) led to the closure of Fox Animation Studios in 2000. By that point, Blue Sky had grown from a staff of six to over one hundred, “and when it came time to do the movies,” says Wedge, “we were ready.”
Not just ready, but bolstered by having won an Animated Short Film Academy Award for Wedge’s 1998 Bunny, which plays on repeat in a dedicated screening room at the Paris exhibition. Outwardly the story of an elderly female rabbit irked by a bothersome moth while baking, inside Bunny is a perfectly formed reflection on love and grief.
“Bunny came from my desire to tell something that felt very organic, something that felt like the world of stories and fairy tales that I knew as a child,” Wedge tells us. “It was an uncompromised example of what our ideas were, at the beginning.”
Wedge laughs when we ask if compromise has been a watchword in Blue Sky projects since that early freedom. “I don’t know if there’s a delicate way to say this…but the bigger the project gets, the more voices appear, and the more expensive the movies are, the more voices appear, so part of the skill you develop as a filmmaker is to…I don’t know if compromise is the right word but it’s about selecting and defending or championing different aspects of the movie. You’re in the middle of this maelstrom of creative energy and somethings are pushing this way and some are pushing that way and you’re just trying to navigate through it. The word compromise sometimes means ‘that wasn’t my idea but it’s a better idea than mine, I’ll use that.’”
In Bunny, Wedge continues, “hopefully enough of [our ideas] were evident that it got Fox’s interest going in joining us to make feature films.”
In 1999, the year of the Oscar win for Bunny, two years after the two companies first collaborated on those swimming Xenomorphs for Alien: Resurrection, Twentieth Century Fox bought Blue Sky Studios and made it into its movie animation arm.
The studio’s first post-purchase brief? Developing an idea that Fox had knocking around about a ragtag group of animals trying to survive the Ice Age. And the rest, as they say, is (pre)history.
Ice Age: Collision Course, the fifth Ice Age feature, is released on July 22.