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Behind-the-Scenes of DreamWorks’ THE CROODS

*This is one in a series of posts going behind the scenes of DreamWorks’ new animated film, THE CROODS. I’ve also written a straightforward movie review of THE CROODS, now out in theaters.

When DreamWorks’ THE CROODS opens on March 22, you’ll be able to see all the things I believe make this a visually spectacular film. But there are a number of things you won’t see that are crucial parts of the behind-the-scenes magic, too.

On a recent trip to the DreamWorks Animation Campus, I learned more about the contributions of animators and effects teams that may be less obvious on screen, but help make THE CROODS the wonderful movie it is.
Making of DreamWorks THE CROODS

Behind-the-Scenes of DreamWorks’ THE CROODS

Storyboards

Once writers are done with the script for an animated movie, the script – along with several notes from writers and directors – moves to the storyboard department. There, storyboard artists begin to visualize the movie and draw scene-by-scene how characters will look and how scenes will flow. This helps provide an outline for filmmakers to adjust characters or storyline where needed.

Story boards from DreamWorks' THE CROODS

{Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.}

Storyboard artist Steven MacLeod, who worked heavily on THE CROODS, gave us this insight into the process:

“I’ll get the script, I’ll read through it, and then we’ll do what they call a launch, and that’s where the directors will tell me all the little specifics or details that they want to include in the script, anything they don’t want to take out, what things are flexible. We’ll start storyboarding, and then we’ll do an even rougher drawing, if you can imagine.

And then, after that, I’ll pitch a rough, they’ll give me notes, we’ll see how close we are, and we’ll do it a couple more times. It’s a vicious cycle until finally we feel like it’s really close, we’ll send it to editorial who starts putting all the dialogue and some temp music and scratch dialogue.”

Steven MacLeod Storyboard Artist DreamWorks THE CROODS

{Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.}

Writer/director Kirk DeMicco emphasized the importance of storyboard artists to the making of animated films:

“We’ll have about, ideally, at least five story artists, and they’re really the keepers of the story. That group is gonna be harder on the story than any group because they live and breathe it and sleep with it and eat breakfast with it in their heads all day long and all week long and all year long. They’re the ones who’ll come in the morning and go, I’ll have an idea, and they’ll tell the other people in the group. A lot of times, they’re going to make changes and they’ll just come and pitch it to us.”

Rigging

Though characters are drawn in 2D for story boarding, in order to make it to the big screen, they need to gain 3D bodies and movement. This happens by translating the drawn work onto the computer, and then “rigging” several points of a character to behave in specific ways. It’s similar to the process of threading puppet strings through a puppet in order to make it move.

CG Animation Rigging DreamWorks

An example of computer-animated “rigging,” with a character from DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon.

{photo credit}

DreamWorks’ Head of Character Animation James Baxter explained:

“Animation can be done in loads of different styles. You can draw your animation frame by frame on paper, which is what you’d do in Pinocchio or Little Mermaid.

You can do stop motion puppets, which is what you would see with something like Wallace and Grommit or ParaNorman.

Or, you can do CG animation, which is basically digital puppets. They are puppets, but they exist inside the computer. We go in and manipulate them in the computer – it’s a little bit like doing stop motion animation but digitally.

Once we get our models built in the computer, we start playing with them and doing performance tests.”

DreamWorks' James Baxter Head of Character Animation THE CROODS

{Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.}

We were able to see performance tests for each member of the CROOD family – basically, very rough cuts of animation, without all the finer details, and sometimes voiced by the filmmakers themselves. The main idea is just to take the computer programming for each character on a test run.

And when those programming test runs still aren’t quite enough, the animators do something a little unexpected: they film themselves acting out the scenes. Animators will take a section of script and act it out while videotaping themselves, then watch it on playback, paying attention to joints and muscles and expressions. It’s safe to say they really get into their work!

Visual Effects & Lighting

I had never thought of the principle lighting in animation, but it is such an important component. Filmmakers want the audience’s eyes drawn to just the right places, and visual effects and lighting have everything to do with making a movie’s environment live and breath.

DreamWorks VFX Supervisor Markus Manninen walked us through it:

“We have to translate these images & ideas, this inspiration from the art department – we have to start informing production of actually how to accomplish this world because we’re not painting our movie. We’re creating it on a computer in 3D computer graphics.

So, our art department helps us describe the materials that this world is made out of, the color schemes, the palette and everything. All these assets are actually created based off of exploration … [here he showed us photos of locations in and around the DreamWorks Campus that they used for lighting inspiration]

… We will look for a lot of references such as action films or photographs and so forth … We spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how to visually tell the story with lighting, as well.”

VFX Supervisor Markus Manninen DreamWorks THE CROODS

{Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.}

Manninen made sure to point out, though:

“There’s a perception that the computers make the movie. It really is the artists making the movie, and the computer is the tool, it’s the pen that we use. All these pieces come together, and artists from every department sort of help drive it towards the final goal.”

See For Yourself

The following trailer will give you just a sneak peek at the hard work all filmmakers put into making THE CROODS. Then see the whole film for yourself on March 22!

To learn more about THE CROODS:

*Disclosure: The trip was provided by 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation. All opinions expressed are honest and my own.

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