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April 2014
Issue: August 1, 2009

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: CARLOS SALDANHA & MICHAEL THIRMEIER - 'ICE AGE 3'

By: By Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — Dinosaurs and the Ice Age? OK, so co-directors Carlos Saldanha, who helmed Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Michael Thurmeier, who was supervising animator on Robots and on Ice Age: The Meltdown, took a little artistic liberty with the latest installment of the blockbuster franchise.
Featuring the voices of Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo and Queen Latifah, and an immense, lush, underground world populated by dinosaurs, the film also showcases the latest technology from Sun Microsystems, which powered the film's visuals, created by Greenwich, CT-based Blue Sky Studios (www.blueskystudios.com).
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Saldanha and Thurmeier talk about making the film, the challenges involved and the CGI tools that made it all possible.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make, and talk about the challenges you faced in producing an animated film of this scale?
CARLOS SALDANHA: "We knew it'd be bigger than the second film in terms of production scale and having to create this whole dinosaur world. When we did the others, all the design was done against ice, and on this we begin in the ice but then go into the dinosaur world where the scale is ginormous, the characters are huge and the color palette is totally different.
"Blue Sky has more experience at building and lighting sets now, so we're able to build more geometry, and we tried to take a smart approach by building sets that were reusable. It was very designed and coordinated so we could build sets that looked vast."

POST: When did you decide to do it in 3D, and how did that affect the whole approach? Don't you animate and then have to re-render?
SALDANHA: "Yes, and we knew early on we'd go 3D. When we started we didn't know for sure but there was speculation, so we had to evaluate technically if we could do it in the timeframe. After the second sequence was animated, we decided to go 3D and put a team together to make it work, and we started to be very aware of camera composition and movement and character placement."

POST: Isn't the 3D stereo like a post production process for you?
SALDANHA: "Exactly. You animate, and render for the regular version, but then you have to re-render with the two eyes. You have two cameras on the set, to make it 3D. But it's not a post process in terms of taking strictly 2D imagery and turning it into 3D. It's post in terms of doing all things for your left eye, and then they go into the scene files and place a second camera. And then the composition needs to be tweaked a bit sometimes, and the camera needs to be adjusted a bit sometimes, too."

POST: Tell us how you got involved with Sun Microsystems on this film?
SALDANHA: "With every project we try to find the best way to get the film done, and we're very proud of our proprietary software and our renderer. It's beautiful software that we developed at Blue Sky and our trademark is the look of the movie. But that comes with a cost attached — while the software is way better today than what we had just a few years ago, it also needs a lot of power to render and process, and every year we're looking to see what's the newest, fastest equipment that's out there that can help us.
"And every film we try a new technology, and so we went from Silicon Graphics to a Linux-based PC, and this time we hooked up with Sun and their new Ultra 24 workstations."
MICHAEL THURMEIER: "There was this gradual roll-out from Sun during production as we had some 300 people working on it, and you don't just drop 300 new computers at one time. But I know the animators who were getting them and they were like, 'Yeah! These are so much faster and better!" And we beat up those machines quite a bit. We were animating so much and we needed so much processing that we had to always look for the very best, and Sun had them. And then we used the new Sun Blade X6250 servers for all of the rendering, which were amazingly fast."
SALDANHA: "This movie was just so much bigger than anything else we'd ever done in terms of rendering power. The lighting model we used for this was definitely far better and really exciting, and we got this great atmosphere. And with the 3D, we had to re-render twice."
THURMEIER: "That's what blows me away, because you usually have trouble rendering one movie. And with 3D you're basically rendering two movies — or really three movies, as you have to render two eyes, and then merge them. So it's a huge amount of work, but we were able to tie it all in with our big move from New York to Connecticut. We used the move to upgrade all the machines and get all our equipment into a more efficient machine room and so on."

POST: All the technology must have progressed so much since you did the first Ice Age?
SALDANHA: "It's a huge leap forward. We began with Maya 3 on the first one, and we still use Maya for all our modeling and animating, but I'm sure if we went back to that original system it would be shocking to see!"

POST: The film has so many tour-de-force sequences. What was the most difficult to pull off?
SALDANHA: "The one where Buck has a flashback and talks about his encounter with Rudy, and we wanted a very graphic novel kind of feel to it, with lots of grays and blacks and reds, and that was very tough to do with all the clouds effects."
THURMEIER: "The clouds were a huge deal. That's real cloud computation science,  and to get that big swirling mass interacting with the dinosaurs took a lot of work. It took forever to render and we only had one chance to do it. We animated it, then they rendered it and we had to love it — because there was simply no time to do it over again. Luckily we loved it. And in animation that almost never happens. Usually you can keep tweaking stuff to death, but this was just too complicated to redo."

POST: Obviously, this all required a very complicated digital pipeline. How did that work?
SALDANHA: "We did Horton Hears A Who! between this and the last Ice Age film, and the pipeline changed a bit to serve Horton's needs, so when I inherited the crew for this, it was slightly different from Ice Age 2. So I had to adapt and shift a bit to get the best of both worlds — what we'd learned from both productions, and then come up with a new pipeline, which took a while — maybe six months.
"First off, the modeling department came up with two digital backlots, one for the Ice Age above ground, the other for the dinosaur world below, and we designed and built all the virtual sets in Blue Sky's computers.
"Next, the rigging group works on all the skeletal structures, facial expressions and so on. Then you have the layout department and all the animation, and once they're finished, we go to the studio world, which is code and programs; it's not interactive software. It's more a case of going into the belly of the beast to really get the movie out. Then after that, you go to 3D and the painting department, the compositing and special effects. So you have all these layers that come together, and it's a huge process after the animation is done. And sometimes you find problems that might even have to go back to animation to be fixed."

POST: In a sense, it seems like one big post  production process?
THURMEIER: "It is. After we do the storyboarding, it's like doing a whole movie of just visual effects shots."
SALDANHA: "I never thought of it that way before, but it's true!"

POST: How long did this take from start to finish?
SALDANHA: "About three years, and we had about 350 people on it at the peak of production."

POST: Tell us about the editing process.
SALDANHA: "You're editing every day. At the start, you're editing four hours a day, as all the material from story, animation, lighting and so on, comes to editing. It's always the bottleneck, the heart of production. Everything funnels into that department, and they have to make sure it all cuts together — you have to deal with the lines, cut the voices, and we had two editors working full time -— Harry Hitner and James Palumbo [working on Avids]. And we then split it up, to be able to deal with the sheer volume of material."
THURMEIER: "They have to be like little directors too, and you work closest with them out of everyone in the studio — you spend so much time together, building the movie."
SALDANHA: "And they have their own creative take, too. When they run into a problem, they have to solve it by either taking a shot out or asking for a redraw, and we do that constantly. Then they show us the work, and we have our comments on top of all that."

POST: It seems like the whole process is very fluid.
SALDANHA: "It is. We're very aware that when we create a sequence, it's not set in stone until it's animated."

POST: How important is the music and sound effects?
THURMEIER: "It's more than half the picture."
SALDANHA: "If it's good sound, it enhances the visuals so much. If it's bad, it can ruin it. It's crucial, and we do a lot of temp work at first to get the feel right. We're very lucky to have composer John Powell, who did the last Ice Age with us, as well as Robots and Shrek, and Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom. He worked on Ratatouille, Coraline and Horton Hears a Who, and he came up with all these amazing dinosaur sounds." [Read about Thom's work in our audio feature on page 36]

POST: It seems as if Hollywood has gone 3D-crazy now.
SALDANHA: (Laughs) "There's so many 3D projects now, and I think for the next five, 10 years, it'll be very hot. A lot of cinemas are now turning into digital and becoming 3D, and all of our projects in the future are already planned to be 3D."

POST: What's next? Are you going to do number four?
SALDANHA: (Laughs) "They're talking about it, so we'll see how this one does. But right now I'm starting preproduction on my next project, called Rio, which is set in Rio and is fun animation with tons of colors and great music. I'm very excited about it, especially since I was born there and grew up there before moving to the US."
THURMEIER: "I haven't stopped for five years, so I need a little break."