Before 2002, the Connecticut-based Blue Sky Studios was best known for its commercials and visual effects. Started by animator and Tron veteran Chris Wedge and a tiny group of co-founders in 1987, the studio created simple animated logos and everyday objects (such as a time-release pill for a pharmaceutical ad) before creating more complex, character-based work for clients such as M&Ms and Nickelodeon.
Really finding its stride in the late 90s when it became a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, Blue Sky was responsible for such memorable CGI sequences as the swimming xenomorphs in Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the talking penguin in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999).
The studio’s major breakthrough, however, was its short film Rabbit, a touching and exquisitely animated tale about a widowed bunny which won the studio an Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1998. This led to Blue Sky’s first feature: 2002‘s Ice Age, a project originally envisioned as a hand-drawn movie headed up by Don Bluth, before that earlier incarnation fell apart and the project wound up in Blue Sky’s offices.
Introducing the world to a hapless, acorn-obsessed rodent named Scrat, Ice Age was a huge hit, paving the way for a string of sequels and establishing Blue Sky as a major creative force in animated filmmaking.
The Art Of Blue Sky Studios covers the company’s output to date, with writer Jake S Friedman leading us, film by film, through such films as Robots, Horton Hears A Who, Rio and Epic, as well as the Ice Age series, with contributions from the artists involved in bringing them to the screen.
Given that Blue Sky is now well-known for its glossy, family-friendly CG output, you might assume that the book’s pages are largely decorated with polished Maya renders of movie stills and familiar characters. Instead, this Art Of focuses almost exclusively on the concept art and character sketches created by such artists as Kyle Macnaughton, Greg Couch and Peter de Seve – much of it produced either with traditional pencils, pens and paints or with a graphics tablet. What this means is that, as you turn each page, you’re confronted by wildly different textures and techniques, from early, abandoned character designs for Ice Age, quickly etched out with bold pencil strokes, to bold and often quite beautiful landscapes picked out in fresh, shimmering colours.
If the slick production and digital sheen of a CG film suggests that there’s some kind of automated process behind animating a film like Rio, The Art Of Blue Sky is a reminder of the thought, manual effort and skill that’s really involved. You get a real sense of the thought and research that went into the carnival scene in Rio, for example, or the level of detail put into the armour worn by the tiny characters in 2013’s Epic.
Admittedly, the book’s prose doesn’t go into the kind of geeky levels of detail an animation student might like; a few more in-depth pages devoted to the process of turning these 2D images into polygons would have been a welcome addition, as would a more extensive look at the wonderful clay sculptures made for each character. Really, though, the artwork speaks for itself. Some of the concept illustrations, such as a painting of Nim’s Apothecary from Epic, or a monochrome rendering of Nim’s tree, are breathtakingly beautiful – perhaps even more so than the imagery we saw in the finished film.
So while some readers might be a little disappointed in the lack of technical detail that accompanies the imagery, it’s the latter that really makes The Art Of Blue Sky Studios worthy of a purchase. Flick through its 300-or-so pages and stop at random, and you’re sure to find something quirky, captivating, are just plain gorgeous to behold. Pages 214-215 are devoted to a concept painting by Macnaughton, depicting Manny the mammoth and Diego sabre-toothed tiger climbing a chilly mountain. It’s full of movement and drama, its soaring cliffs, crumbling in the great thaw, recalling the famous painting Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.
This is but one example of the thousands of lovingly-crafted images that go into each of Blue Sky’s films, and it’s those images that make this book a worthy addition to any animation geek’s shelf.
The Art Of Blue Sky Studios is out on the 3rd October, published by Titan Books.
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