The old saw that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan goes double for the movies. Everyone wants to share the glory of a hit while the misses are curiously only ever the responsibility of someone else.
That’s borne out in the case of Scrat, the breakout star of the Ice Age series. Had audiences not responded so ardently to the hapless critter’s appearance in the first film’s trailer, the tale of his creation would likely have been consigned to Blue Sky Studios’ memory dump. As Scrat turned out to be a huge, franchise-building success, the sabre-toothed squirrel seems to have more origin stories going around than Spider-Man.
One such says Scrat (or, in a “the Batman” sort of deal, “the Scrat” to some) was inspired by a real-life encounter Ice Age storyboard artist Bill Frake had with “a crazy, peanut-obsessed squirrel” who wouldn’t stop banging on his sliding door while he worked on the film. Frake reportedly “turned this troublemaker into the heroic, acorn-hunting, saber-toothed squirrel we love today.” Reportedly according to this official blog post by Blue Sky Studios, that is.
Frake’s backyard nuisance didn’t figure in the account Blue Sky co-founder and Ice Age director Chris Wedge gave us of Scrat’s genesis at the press launch for this summer’s exhibition of Blue Sky Studios artwork at Paris’ Musée Ludique:
“I wanted to start the movie out with a fun ride and I thought, ‘Well, that’s make the Ice Age itself a character. Let’s have a glacier chasing one of the characters’. I sat down with Peter [de Seve, character designer] and we went through pages of which character it should be and I said ‘If it’s a glacier, it should be the smallest character we can find’ and Peter pulled out a drawing of a squirrel that he’d done and we put some sabre teeth on it and the Scrat was born.”
Ice Age producer Lori Forte, who brought Fox’s original concept for the film to Blue Sky in 1999, recalled a similar genesis for Scrat at the March museum launch:
“Peter de Seve created a whole array of our characters. His whole wall in his office when we were doing the first Ice Age was all these different characters and Chris Wedge would go in saying ‘I want that one, I want that one…’ We all walked into Peter’s office and we saw this Scrat, just the way he’s posed, and we said ‘oh my gosh, he has to be in this movie, I mean a pre-historic squirrel, a sabre-tooth squirrel, he just had to be a part of our movie.’
That’s not quite the way Ice Age co-writer Michael J. Wilson tells it in this this 2009 blog post recalling Fox’s ‘bake-off’ pitching process for writers on the first movie. According to Wilson, Scrat was conceived by his then-three-year-old daughter:
“[She] helped me with the pitch. She came up with a character in Ice Age that is a combination of a squirrel and a rat. She called him Scrat. ‘What does Scrat want?’ I asked Flora. ‘Dad. Hello? Scrat wants the acorn.’”
Add to that the well-publicized lawsuit brought against Fox by Ivy ‘Supersonic’ for alleged copyright infringement relating to her creation of an animated squirrel/rat hybrid character christened “Sqrat” and you’re left with one of Hollywood’s many-fathered successes.
Whether all or none of those stories have it quite straight, who can tell? Like many such creations, the process that arrived at Blue Sky’s Scrat is likely to have been a collaborative one. An idea here, a tweak there, a suggestion made in passing…
What is clear is how significant a role Scrat has played in the success of the Ice Age franchise, and to Blue Sky Studios in turn.
“He’s pretty important!” laughed Chris Wedge when asked this March. “Scrat’s pretty important. The Scrat was born of necessity.” The necessity, we assume, of winning over the public with your studio’s first animated feature when you’re up against Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney.
Scrat didn’t start out as important, character designer Peter de Seve, who designed the creatures for each film in the Ice Age series, told us at the exhibition launch:
“That was one of those characters I just wasn’t worried about. He was going to be a minor character, he was going to be in one sequence, nobody had any plans for him to be the studio mascot or the break-out, he was going to get crushed at the end of it and that was it. I think you see him on a foot as the giant mammals are marching away, he’s stuck to the bottom of somebody’s foot.”
The reason Scrat was peeled off that foot and resurrected all came down to his appearance in the first Ice Age movie trailer. Featuring no dialogue or music until the appearance of the Ray Romano-voiced mammoth Manny and a snatch of Vanilla Ice right at the end, the two-minute teaser had the feel of a Looney Tunes Wile E. Coyote toon. It opened with a bouncing dot against a snowy horizon that was revealed by a zoom to be an anxious-looking rodent carrying a fat acorn. This creature, sniffing the air with a twitching nose and scrabbling in the snow for somewhere to bury his prize, unwittingly brings about a geological disaster and suffers extreme physical punishment in the process (feat. screaming noises provided by Chris Wedge). It was short, distinctive and very funny.
And it made audiences fall in love with Scrat. “They used that sequence as a trailer,” remembers de Seve “and it was wildly successful. Everybody wanted to see that movie, but they wanted to see that character. And they thought ‘Oh, we’d better keep him alive.’”
“I think they stumbled onto something when they animated him,” he continues. “The fact that it’s all physical comedy, that there’s nothing that can be lost in translation, I think that has an enormous amount to do with his global success.”
That physical comedy got down to the root of what attracted Chris Wedge to animation in the first place:
“My main interest in making stories with animation is to tell stories visually and in Ice Age I got a chance. I wanted less dialogue, more action, more pantomime, less comedy based on dialogue, more comedy based on visual situations.”
There’s also an emotional element to Scrat’s popularity, his creators suggest. “I think it’s also because he’s frustrated and we’re all frustrated” says de Seve. “We’re all chasing after something and I think we relate to that. We’re never going to get everything we want and he’s never going to get that acorn.”
A great deal has been written since about how Scrat’s ongoing struggle for his always-just-out-of-reach acorn symbolises human desire and frustration. In the introduction to the Musée Ludique’s handsome tie-in book of Blue Sky artwork (featuring what else but an early Scrat painting on the cover), French philosophy professor perhaps surprisingly draws on Epicurus, Spinoza and the myth of Sisyphus in his discussion of the character.
So there’s a Scrat in all of us? “That I absolutely agree with” says Peter de Seve.
Chris Wedge identifies the symbolism of Scrat’s acorn-obsession in his experience of making the first Ice Age film:
“He was born of the angst of making the movie, he was born of that struggle, born of trying to achieve something and not quite achieving it and then thinking you’d achieved it and not thinking you’d achieved it… it’s a universal struggle we all have.”
De Seve admits “I wish I could say we intended to do that! I wish I could say that was my thinking but I just wanted to do a prehistoric squirrel that would be fun to watch.”
“His perseverance is what’s so special about him,” suggests Lori Forte. “It’s ‘I didn’t get it today, I got hit by lightning, I got pummelled, I have no fur left but tomorrow’s another day and maybe I’ll get it tomorrow’. It’s Charlie Brown and the football. It’s such a very core, relatable character. Audiences loved it. We do test our movies towards the end and they just went wild.”
So wild that the one-sequence character was expanded elsewhere in the film, and the tradition of Scrat ushering in ecological disasters for each subsequent film began. “We put him in little moments throughout the film and it just sort of grew,” explains Forte.
Originally though, says Chris Wedge “[Scrat] never existed in any movie script. Well, now he does.” As well as spin-off shorts, the character came very close to having a solo theatrical outing, Wedge confirms. “Lori and I had a Scrat movie up on reels about ten years ago. We have been cannibalising that movie for Ice Age movie ideas.”
And a Scrat feature still isn’t out of the question, according to Wedge. “If someone gave me the challenge to do a Scrat movie, I’d do it gladly. We’ve done a handful of Scrat shorts but I think it would be fun to do a big one. I think it would be absolutely hilarious to do a Scrat movie.”
It could be a fitting tribute to the scraggy squirrel-rat without which the Ice Age franchise and the studio might not be where they are now. Where that is precisely is on the cusp of releasing the fifth theatrical Ice Age film (a record among animated franchises, though one Chris Wedge shrugs at when reminded of the fact) and looking ahead next year to the studio’s thirtieth anniversary.
To mark that, will Scrat’s persistence finally be rewarded? Is there a chance that the studio will grant their unofficial mascot a single celebratory acorn?
Chris Wedge laughs. “Never going to happen! He gets nothing!”
Ice Age: Collision Course opens on July 22nd.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.