It's clear from this portrait that Dave has spent his 17+ years at Blue Sky Studios being really, really, serious. (Photo courtesy of Antelmo)
So Dave, how did you get started in this whirlwind business?
Well, I always wanted to be in film. I had a subscription to Cinefex and those other FX magazines when I was young, and was blown away when I first saw Star Wars in high school. Going into college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into art or engineering. I had read that a lot of the early pioneers of special FX were industrial designers, so I decided to go to art school and learn industrial design.
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied furniture design and product design, but also took a ton of classes in film. There were no computers when I went to school. Everything was done by hand. In fact, when I graduated, I remember seeing the trucks roll in with the first computers for the next year. I thought, “oh my god, I'm a fresh grad and totally screwed...”
What were some of your first jobs like?
I worked as an industrial designer and a draftman for a few years right out of college. I drew boats, designed caskets, medical equipment, stuff like that. Then a friend got me the name of an animation studio in the city called Peter Wallach Enterprises. They did Peter Gabriel's Big Time video, which is really cool, and some work on Little Shop of Horrors. They liked that I had an industrial design background, so they decided to try me out as a model maker freelance. A lot of different types of animation were being done at that studio: stop motion, 2D, 3D puppets. It was very exciting.
My first job there was a Hardee’s commercial, Hardee’s Big Twist. We shot these two kids dancing in stop-motion, while the floor and background moved and changed all around them and under them. It was all done on this giant set with, like, twenty people, moving props and set underneath them. I built a miniature restaurant with miniature light-up sign a big ice cream cone coming out of it. It very fun and exciting, I had never worked in such a creative environment before. And it was a pretty cool commercial, too.
I had only done a couple of jobs for them when Peter got the contract to do the model photography for Star Trek V. I got hired as Model Wrangler. We converted an old factory in Hoboken into a movie studio to shoot everything in. That was really where I learned the special effects business. Not a lot of us had really done feature films, being east coasters, and sometimes we were just making stuff up as we went along. I learned how to use a lot of tools and model building techniques that I hadn’t before, plus learned about motion control cameras, blue screen and all of that. We worked crazy hours, too. By the time we were done, I was Model Shop Supervisor and had a full crew!
Plus, it was the Enterprise!
Yeah, it was really freaking cool. You know, the Enterprise was actually still "damaged" from Star Trek II. You remember, when Khan shot at it? There was only one model used in all of the movies, so It still had battle damage. So we had to repaint the entire side of the ship. There were all kinds of electrical repairs to do as well. It’s a really fascinating and complex piece of equipment. We literally handled it with white gloves!
When did the transition to working with computers happen?
Well, now it's the early nineties, and I had been working freelance at all these different animation studios in NYC on tons of commercials. One of my main clients was Broadcast Arts, they later became Curious Pictures. Some projects would last two or three weeks, some a couple of months. Like the first two Bud Bowls (those are the ones that only aired during the Super Bowl) Those jobs were nice and long. Occasionally you'd hear that a job you were about to start on was going to be done CG instead. I started to notice this happening more and more and started to worry. This is right around the time Jurassic Park came out. A bunch of us started realizing that we needed to adapt and learn CG if we want to keep working.
So we signed up for continuing ed classes at Pratt, learning 3D studio release 4, the early, DOS version. I took these classes with three colleagues, and shortly after that we were all hired by Blue Sky. My first project was on a movie called A Simple Wish. building a stage coach and a pumpkin. I also did a little bit of work on Alien Resurrection, painting texture maps for the alien. Back then, it was such an early industry, Blue Sky was so awesome to take a chance on someone green like me and allow me to learn.
What was Blue Sky like when you started?
It was relatively small. I was probably the 50th or 60th employee when I started working here. When that first freelance gig came to an end, I didn't want to leave! I begged for any kind of work to stay around and learn, and they found more work for me to do, since it was my first CG job, I came really cheap. This was the greatest environment I’d ever worked in. The space was cool, the people were incredible. Like, on my first day, they introduced me to the whole company and everyone clapped and made me feel really welcome. It was this great environment. We were on the cutting edge and having the best time doing it. I felt like I was home. I felt like I had found my family.
What was the atmosphere like during the release of Bunny and then when it won the Oscar?
That was an incredible period of time. When we were working on Bunny, it was such a slow process, because people had to work on it during down time and it took something like 8 years to complete. When we started to see it come together, it got a real schedule and some momentum behind it, so we pushed to get it completed for Oscar season that year. I did the "Bunny" logo treatment for it. The hand writing came from a letter about the Easter bunny that one of the employees had that was written by his grandmother. We scanned the word 'bunny' in the letter and used it as the logo.
Then it was nominated and it won and it was just really unbelievable. When Chris came back with the Oscar, it was just like holy crap!
Then Fox wanted us to make animated movies for them and everything changed. They gave us Ice Age to make as our first film. We went from 60 to 160 people and ran out of room. We had makeshift cubes and desks in every nook and cranny. We had a stage that was filled with artists, and somebody worked in a closet. The environment changed a little bit because it wasn't as intimate, but the new people were just as interesting and talented and knew they were going to be part of something special. I mean, now you're working for an Oscar winning studio and you're making a full-length animated feature on the east coast. Who else is doing that?
What was the paint work like on Ice Age?
Every shot needs a little something. You’re either fixing something or adding something, fixing small mistakes that would be too costly to charge back to an earlier phase of the pipeline, or adding 2D effects, a glint, a lens flare. There was a lot of work to do and we had a very small crew and very little time, so it was definitely stressful. None of us had every done a project of this magnitude, you never knew what lay ahead.
That was also an "interesting" period in my life because I had become sick. I had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma right during the middle of production on Ice Age so that was a double stressful time for me. But I worked through it. In between chemo treatments, there were maybe two week periods where I was full of energy, then two weeks where I just couldn't do anything. I tried as hard as I could to be here when I could. I needed to feel normal, like still being able to do what I wanted to do while going through all that. And Blue Sky really stood by me every step of the way. I have a lot of deep feelings for this company because they took care of me like they were family and gave me whatever I needed and still let me work.
How did you get into your current role?
It was sometime towards the middle of Ice Age 2 and I was still in Digital Paint, but, and I was actually working in the Fur Department for a short period of time, because there wasn't a lot to do for IA2 yet. Back then, some of us with multiple skills were able to move around different departments when they needed us too. They approached me with the role of Modeling Supervisor, which I thought was kinda weird because I hadn’t modeled since Robots and there were much better modelers here than me. But at the time, they felt I had really strong leadership skills, and had a lot of faith that I would be a good fit, so I accepted the challenge.
The modelers in this department really kick ass. They are awesome, just amazing artists, everywhere you turn. They impress me every single day. I do still get to model stuff every once in a while, in between all of these meetings.
Is there one moment you would call your proudest at Blue Sky?
There’s too many to count. I guess one thing I always remember feeling very proud to be a part of was the cave painting sequence we did on the first Ice Age. I worked with a small team of artists to create that look; a designer, a lighter, a sequence director. Again, it was something that no one had done before. We really didn’t know what it was gonna look like. We had this reference of actual ancient cave paintings as "the look," so we're like, ok, how are we going to pull this off and make it move? We knew what the director wanted to say, the story he wanted to tell, so we had to figure out how to put that on the screen. I think that was one of the most fun things I’ve done here. It was so collaborative, so raw, and there was a lot of back and forth figuring it out and coming up with the timing and the look and the textures and the fading in and out, and all that fun stuff. It was really rewarding.
What do you think makes Blue Sky special?
I think it’s the history, the pride of being a part of something really special and cool. There is such a dedication to perfection here, the artists never give up and always want to make it better.
When someone gets frustrated or when things don't go as planned, I always say that no one has ever made this movie before. We're the first. There's no manual. It's ok to stumble along the way. It's how we learn and get better. Making cartoons is hard! But it's rewarding as hell, and we learn something new every single day. What drives us is knowing that we won't let it to be less than awesome every single time.
Dave in his office, giving someone the straight dope while tolerating our interview.There’s also a real honesty here at Blue Sky that I’m not so sure you’re gonna find at other places. That New Yawkah, tell-it-like-it-is, give-you-the-straight-dope-all-the-time attitude. People are here because they want to be here. It's a choice. There’s isn’t another company across the street that’s doing the same stuff. There’s that dedication to come out here and contribute to make an awesome movie. There are so many interesting and incredible people here, and they are so talented. It’s frightening. It really is.