A Fairly Technical Interview with THE CROODS Directors Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders

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The people at Ain’t It Cool News got to talk with the directors of The Croods, Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders about the some of the technical aspects of the animated movie including having Roger Deakins, a live-action cinematographer, on hand to help out with some of the visual effects of the film, the evolution of the characters along with the actors behind the characters, and just bringing the movie to life.

Capone: So before we start talking about the movie, I noticed a couple of names in the credits that I think are worth asking about. Is Roger Deakins just on retention at DreamWorks Animation for doing visual consulting?

Chris Sanders: That’s a good question. You know, he sort of is. Hopefully they will do that.

Capone: He did RISE OF THE GAURDIANS and DRAGON and RANGO…

Kirk De Micco: Now he’s doing DRAGON 2. He was much more involved in DRAGON than he was, for example, on WALL-E. He was on WALL-E I think for a few days, and for DRAGON he was there pretty much the entire time.

Capone: What about this film?

CS: Well the great thing about Roger was him helping us and the studio be happy with taking away lights in the cave and going with some really dark interiors, which was necessary for the storytelling and also I think that opening stuff, that whole first act, which is that hard light and that blown out look. We wanted to give it that arid, rough, harsh, but yet still appealing quality. That was a big part of where I think he helped us get everybody comfortable with, and then with the fire light sequence, you know when she sees fire for the first time? Because it’s not “comedy lighting,” you know?

Capone: Is that standard-issue stuff for animation, to have a live-action cinematographer come in and advise like that?

CS: No, I think it’s pretty unusual. I think our situation is very unusual. One of the things that Roger has done for us, what Kirk is talking about and I guess I’ll just second it, he’s all about removing light. It’s very easy to overlight an animated film. Lights are easy to place, relatively speaking, in a scene.

KDM: Because you don’t have to rent them.

CS: One of the things Roger was amused by was that he could put a light in the shot and you don’t see the light, you only see the light hitting. The light strikes the objects, but you don’t see the actual fixture sitting there, because the fixture is invisible. I think he was pretty amused by that and was pretty cool for him. But yeah he’s all about removing light.

If you’ve seen his films–which is everybody I think–everyone is so enamored with the way his films look. It’s an incredible sense of reality, while retaining a great mastery of the art of lighting. It’s artistic, but it also feels real. Roger is all about removing lights, and in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON that was one of the things, he was taking lights out of a shot. For instance, we have this moment [in THE CROODS] where Eep finds this torch; she’s seeing fire for the very first time, and really the main light source is just that torch. It would be very simple and very easy and very tempting to come in and go “Let’s put a little light on this rock over here. Let’s get a little more light on her nose. Let’s get a little more light on her hair.” Pretty soon, you’ve over lit the shot, and Roger helps us not do that.

Capone: I can’t remember if I read this somewhere or if it was actually in the credits that John Cleese was involved in the story. What’s the history there? There is actually a credit in the film, right?

KDM: There is credit. He shares story credit with us. Yeah, John and I first started writing together at Disney on THE TWITS by Roald Dahl; we adapted that book, which sadly has not been made. We both love Roald Dahl and we came together on that project and started working on that; and Dreamworks had read the script, thought it was funny, and I went over and looked at all of their projects that they had at the time. This was in 2004 or very late 2003.

One of the projects was a kernel of an idea about these two cavemen. At that time, it was like a luddite and a mad inventor on the run, and the big thing that was there was this theme, this fear of change. Really it was the fear of technology at that point, because John has a deathly fear of technology, and he believes it’s going to ruin the world, and it has already ruined personal relationships and most conversation.

Capone: If it wasn’t technology, it would have been something else.

KDM: [laughs] It would have been something else. So that was part of what it was, and over the time that we were doing it for Aardman and we were working with Peter [Lord, co-founder of Aardman], and it was going to be a stop-motion film. It was a much more sort of domestic kind of story with a journey aspect. But it was really two villages, one was called “Crood.” It was much more satirical, and over time Aardman went to Sony, and at DreamWorks Jeffrey [Katzenberg] always believed in this concept.

Then in 2007, Chris came over from Disney we started refining it. The one thing I kept in was this fear of change, and that transitioned over time. The fear of technology, fire, shoes, that’s the fun part of cavemen; they have beginners’ minds and they see things for the first time, and it’s fun working with those characters, but the real relatable, emotionally resonant fear of change is that which happens within your family, especially for a father with his daughter. So that’s where that grew from.

Capone: So you’re talking about maybe 2004 start with just the ideas. That’s a long time ago, almost like ten years. Talk about that DreamWorks creative pipeline and about how the film evolved, so to speak.

CS: I was witness to probably the biggest jump in the story. When I came on the the movie in 2007, it was about a village and it was a caveman village, and Grug was the chief of that village. It still had a lot of the same elements. It had a relationship, a bit of a triangle between Grug, his daughter, and this new guy, Guy. It really centered around those three relationships, and the stresses and changes that occur when Guy comes into that mix. There were also elements of a journey, but you were inevitably anchored to this town, and that was the thing that Kirk and I struggled with for a year. We did as much as we could with that story, but it never really lifted off of the ground.

I was asked to go over to DRAGONS. They wanted to change directions with that story, so I began writing and directing on DRAGONS, and I left Kirk with this problem. [laughs] Kirk called me one day and he said, “I want to pitch something to you,” and I came down and Kirk said, “No more village. One family loses their cave, and they go on the world’s first family road trip to find another one.” It was like somebody finally turned on the lights, and I said “You’ve done it. That’s it. That’s the story.” That’s the movie we made. So Kirk jettisoning that town was pretty much the same effect as pulling up anchor and allowing this story to finally sail.

Capone: One of the things I love talking about with people who have directed animated films is talking about the evolution of the look of the characters and how that changes. What were some of the bigger leaps in terms of how you wanted them to look?

KDM: Yeah, the characters never really went through a change. It was just a very lengthy build. We were very, very careful during the creation and the design of the characters to get characters that weren’t overly glamorous to live in this world. We wanted them to be visually appealing, but we also wanted the characters that could live in that environment to be believable. So I think Eep is the character that you most want to talk about. Grug was relatively straight forward; we just wanted a big powerful guy that could believably protect his family in this world.

Eep was a different case, because we wanted her to be visually appealing. We wanted her to be pretty, but we wanted her to be caveman pretty. So we gave her this body…if you watch the summer Olympics, she’s got the broad shoulders and this amazingly V-shaped back like the swimmers and the gymnasts have. She’s a powerful character, but if you look at her shape, she still has these lyrical shapes and these very graceful shapes. Those big shoulders terminate in very small hands, and her legs terminate in very small feet. So she’s got a lightness and a grace that keep her fast and agile looking. At the same time, she can also have a moment in the film where she grabs Guy and lifts him off the ground with one arm, because the Croods are really a different species than Guy. He is human being 2.0. He’s more like us; he’s all about his brain. He’s really in shape, but compared to a Crood, he’s under powered. So if the Croods want to keep him around, he’s sticking around; he cannot get away.

CS: We wanted this movie to start in a very…“the universal cavemen expectations.” We wanted to satisfy them with mammoth hunting and volcanoes and lava and earthquakes and tar pits, and we wanted them to be super strong and keep it broadly comedic at the beginning and take it to another place. The tone shifts over a period, which is inverse for many of our animated films with start with “dead mom, happy ending.” So we went the opposite direction, I guess, and the fun part was that opening hunt. It had this Looney Tunes energy and believability, I thin, that if cavemen had bones that were this thick, they could survive those kinds of falls; they are not like you and me. It was that believability that we pushed with the tone, but at the same time, you felt they could die, so at the end when the peril became real, you would feel it.

Capone: Did you ever consider like a limited language with the family versus Guy?

KDM: Absolutely. We had had some pretty big discussions at the very beginning. Because in the caveman movie spectrum, you’ve got QUEST FOR FIRE at one end and you’ve got THE FLINSTONES at the other. I think we’re closer to FLINSTONES. We questioned whether they should even speak or if they should have a more limited language, and we pretty quickly dispensed with that, because this story was much more complex and much more subtle. In QUEST FOR FIRE, what they’re doing is looking to find fire and they do go through cultural change, but it takes a great length of time to do that, and The Croods have a lot farther to go storywise and have bigger story arcs. For that, we needed a language.

CS: We actually played with this idea that we would–and it would have just confused the hell out of the children–do like JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG or HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, where he would start out speaking Russian and then we would zoom in, and they would go from “Ugh ugh ugh” to “This is awesome!” We were just like, “People will never get it.”

KDM: Not really necessary. That said, there were words that once in a while came by that just “stuck up” in a sense, and we took those out.

CS: Yeah, the only one that made it through was “sucky.” When Nick Cage said “Sucky,” it was like “You know what? Let it ride.”
Capone: When I watched the film, the thing that really stuck out was just how creative you got with the other creatures, the animals of this place, because they don’t look like things we’ve seen before. They are not just mammoths and sabertooth tigers; they’re blown out. That’s really what I’m curious about, where those ideas come from when you can start form scratch if you wanted to.

KDM: The challenge was always presented to us to invent a time period, which would give us a certain amount of creative freedom with the story and the characters. So part of the anchor for this new time period would be a zoo full of animals that you’ve never really seen before, and there are a couple staples in there. You’ve got your mammoth .

Capone: These days, it’s fairly standard practice to film your actors while they’re recording their voice parts. Do you use that, or do you just have that for the documentary?

KDM: Yes, we will constantly pull reference. While we record, we’ll be making little notes on our script if the actor does something that we think is just fantastic. Nobody got pulled more than Emma Stone. She has the most amazingly animated expressions I’ve ever seen. She’s incredibly appealing, fresh, unusual. At one point, she actually smiles, but her mouth is turning down. It’s a very hard thing to explain.

Capone: Is there a particular technical achievement that you’re especially proud of, like you think maybe “We got this better than anyone before?” I noticed it in the scenes in water that the water looks perfect, and I’m a stickler for bad-looking water animation.

KDM: [laughs] Particularly with this one for us, there was tar. It’s not like “call up the tar department.” No one had ever done tar, and what’s interesting is they didn’t use a liquid sim; it’s actually a cloth sim. So the simulation moves more like they would a big cloak, and they used the simulation to get that, but all of those little bubbles, there were many conversations of “when that bubble would pop” like at the right moment to not distract you. So it’s that kind of control, but I think that was pretty much the coolest, because it gives the total effect of them sinking. We were constantly playing that they weren’t going to get out there, and Grug is really pulling against that tar, and it’s stretching out. We went down to the tar pit in La Brea, and Chris put his finger in tar many times.

CS: Yeah, we do have the benefit of living near the actual tar pits, so we could go down and reference them any time we want.

Capone: Is the hope to do another one, or do you think this will go to TV like DRAGON did?

CS: We would love to do another one. We love the characters, and if you watch the film, it practically ends with a sequel beginning.

KDM: These characters, since they have their hearts in the right place, especially Grug, through every frame of the film. He’s such a lovable guy. That part is what kept us going. A lot of the times with these characters, they have ulterior motives where they want to do this or they want to do that; he just wants to keep everybody alive. There’s a genuine sweetness, and I think that’s what kept us involved and wanting to see more.

To read the full interview, go here.

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