how a small band of animation innovators brought movie magic to millions (with a little help from one of the world's most powerful film studios)
To begin the story of Blue Sky - before the lonely bunnies, hungry squirrels, and quirky robots, we have to go back to a time when the idea of a feature film made only with computers wasn't even an idea.
The year was 1982 and intent on making use of rising computer technology, Disney hired a small computer animation company based in Elmsford, NY named MAGI to create the majority of the CGI animation for the groundbreaking film Tron. MAGI is credited with some of the most memorable sequences in the film, including the classic light cycle sequence. It is here that a few employees met and went on to form the diverse and incredibly gifted group that would found Blue Sky Studios.
In February 1986, six of these innovators sat together in a cramped apartment and fueled only by their determined enthusiasm, decided to pool what little money they had to start their own computer animation company. These pioneers were Alison Brown, David Brown, Michael Ferraro, Carl Ludwig, Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy and Chris Wedge.
Each member brought his or her own unique set of skills to the table. Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy had a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Columbia and worked as a nuclear physicist to create computer simulations of nuclear particle behavior. He is credited with helping develop the amazing technique for capturing 3D scenes with remarkable realism called Raytrace rendering.
One of the most important early test renders of Carl and Eugene's code. The colors and light captured in the reflections on the surface below the objects show how accurate the light simulation really is.Carl Ludwig was an electrical engineer who worked for NASA on the tracking systems of the Apollo mission’s lunar module. Alison Brown came from a marketing and special effects background. David Brown (no relation) who would become Blue Sky's first President and CEO had been a marketing executive with CBS/Fox Video. Michael Ferraro was an accomplished programmer with a Masters degree in Fine Arts who worked for the US Navy on early virtual reality simulations. Chris Wedge was a classically trained animator with extensive experience in stop-motion puppet animation as well as a Masters degree in computer graphics from Ohio State University.
While they intended from the beginning to produce high-resolution computer generated character animation for feature films, Blue Sky’s early days lacked software, money and clients. The team worked for months without pay in their tiny one room office equipped with only three computers and a coffeemaker.
More amazing light simulation from the early tests. During this time, Dr. Troubetzkoy, Ferraro and Ludwig developed proprietary software called CGI Studio that would become (and still is) perhaps the most advanced rendering software used in production. Finally, one year in and with all the initial money gone, Blue Sky booked their first client on the strength of a one-frame test image that took two and a half days to render on all three of their computers.
Over the next ten years. Blue Sky became a leader in high quality special effects and computer animation for brands such as Gillette, Bell Atlantic and Braun.
“We did a commercial for Braun. We created a computer-generated razor. There was an award we were up for and we didn’t end up as a finalist. We didn’t understand that, and when we called them up, it turned out they thought we just put some letters in a live-action scene… We explained to them there was no live action in the scene. The razor and everything was computer generated. This was juried by people in computer graphics… They were blown away.” CARL LUDWIG
Their innovative, photo realistic commercial work soon caught Hollywood’s eye and Blue Sky was hired as the effect house for major motion pictures such as Joe’s Apartment (1996), A Simple Wish (1997), Alien Resurrection (1997) and Fight Club (1999).
During this time, despite success in the field of CG effects, creative director Chris Wedge started itching to work on a more creatively fulfilling project, something with a narrative and a character. He and the team spent any free hours they had putting together a passion project that would become Bunny, Blue Sky’s first short film.
“It was a risk, it was the only thing we’ve done purely because we wanted, without any commercial gain in mind, but it paid off bigger than anything else we did.” CHRIS WEDGE
Bunny (1998) is the surreal, offbeat tale of a cranky elderly bunny baking in her kitchen when a pesky moth flies in to disturb her lonely late-night activity.
The short was technically groundbreaking, harnessing Ludwig and Troubetzkoy’s ingenious light-rendering techniques to create its special, naturalistic look that had not been matched by anyone else at that time.
A still from Bunny. The groundbreaking short transformed the studio from a service company to a feature animation studio. Its unique visual style and heartfelt story helped the film win the 1998 Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film. Blue Sky was officially on the map in a major way.
At the time, Twentieth Century Fox had been a major visual effects client for Blue Sky and was in the middle of acquiring the small company as its own in-house effects firm. The critical success of Bunny proved to Fox and the world that beyond making extraordinary visuals, Blue Sky had compelling stories to tell. In 1999, Fox bought Blue Sky and with the resources of a major studio behind it, Blue Sky started production on its first animated feature, Ice Age.
Ice Age (2002) is the prehistoric tale of three unlikely friends: an obnoxious sloth named Sid, a lone mammoth named Manny and Diego, a ferocious saber-toothed tiger with a conscience, who band together across treacherously cold terrain to bring a human baby back to his tribe.
Producer Lori Forte developed the idea with Fox and it was originally planned as a classically animated dramatic family film. But with recent technological advances, the studio decided to take a risk and make a fully 3D animated feature - challenging Chris and the team to transform it into a comedy. The risk paid off. Ice Age grossed $46.3 million in its opening weekend, breaking the record for a March opening.
With the overwhelming success of Ice Age, Blue Sky suddenly found itself a frontrunner in what has blossomed into a powerful, billion dollar marketplace. Together, Fox and Blue Sky Studios have broken records, growing their diversely talented staff and crew, developing their breakthrough renderer CG Studio, and producing hit after hit: Robots (2005), Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (2008), the wildly successful Ice Age sequels: Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), and the vibrant musical comedy, Rio (2011).
We’ve come a long way from the humble beginnings of a one room office with three computers, but the compulsion to tell thrilling stories and delight people is exactly the same. Actually, that one room office is pretty nearby, like maybe a 9 minute drive. Or was. I think it's residential now. Either way, the best chapters of our story are yet to come and we can’t wait to animate them.
(Of course, we can't start actually animating until we figure out the basic beats of the story and spend a year writing and storyboarding, editing - getting the temp voiceover "scratch" laid into the cut with the temp score and everything. The design team will need to have done painting after painting to find a "visual language" and character style, since every movie we make has a different look to it, of course. Then, still, we can't animate anything until we interpret the paintings and drawings into renderable CG characters and sets and... It's super complicated. To learn more, go to MAKING MOVIES.)