Chris Wedge Talks About Robots

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After working on the groundbreaking Disney animation Tron, Chris Wedge branched out on his own. With like minded colleagues he established Blue Sky Studios, a New York based company that quickly earned a reputation for the high quality of computer animated character animation they produced. This much was evident in the short film Bunny, which earned Wedge and his team an Academy Award. 

At the time Blue Sky worked extensively in the commercials field, as well as providing visual effects for such live action films as Joe’s Apartment, Alien: Resurrection and Star Trek: Insurrection

After scoring an international hit with his debut feature Ice Age three years ago, Wedge and his team have followed it up with the comedy adventure Robots. This is the tale of an idealistic young robot who dreams of meeting his idol, only to find be surprised by grim reality. The film features the voice talents of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams,  Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks and Jim Broadbent.

A special two disc set of Ice Age Extreme Cool Edition is released on DVD on March 7.  Robots is released nationwide on March 18.

Where did the idea for Robots come from?

“Bill Joyce and I had been trying to develop one of his books into a movie at 20th Century Fox around 1996, but that fell through. That’s when we thought about Robots. We started fleshing out this world of mechanical people, examining what it would it be like to be made out of metal. How would we interact? What would we need? What would we dream about and what would we be afraid of. So the world was in our heads first and then we started looking for places to get themes and stories and characters out of it. it evolved for seven years.”
Did you take inspiration from any particular source along the way?
“For every character of situation we went to the industrial age or the mechanical world equivalents of those things. For instance we have the world of Gasket, which is fiery and hellish, where rusty beams and steel is melted down and poured out of cauldrons. And at the other extreme things are delicate and look more modern. We just looked around for what we felt would evoke the feeling that we wanted in the audience.”
Computer animation is massively popular right now, do you share a particular bond with your peers in the film?
“It’s funny, but it’s like different cultures growing up in different parts of the world. It all boils down to the same thing but with different approaches. Our technology is radically different than what they use at other companies. And I think it helps give our movies a different look, Robots especially.”
Is this a golden age of animation we’re in right now?
“I think so. But I think that we’re being limited to a degree by the types of films that we’re making. For better or for worse. I’m looking forward to a point where we can break into genres that aren’t as expected as fast talking comedies that are coming out now.  If we are in fact in a golden age of animation I think it’s only going to get better.”
Is it hard to resist flashy animation techniques that are only there for the sake of being flashy?
“We do tend to get excited about things like rendering, simulating the way that light works, and the photographic quality that things have. But you find out very quickly that you may be more interested in that than the audience is. So often that’s the stuff that hits the cutting room floor first. I don’t know if there’s any gratuitous showboating in Robots. I think that the concept, when you’re thinking about a world to explore or a place to go to tell a story, happens to play into a way of influencing the imagery.  Some of our technical directors were looking to emulate things like chipped paint on metal, and they came up with some unbelievable solutions. I don’t think that was muscle flexing but it did enable us with our characters, putting more richness on the screen.”
Is casting a voice like Robin Williams always going to be a trade off, because he brings so much to the movie but at the same time it is recognisably Robin Williams?
“I hope it works for the movie. Most movies in Hollywood are sold based on the stars in them. People say they like this or that actor and want to see them again, and on a very basic level Robin is serving the movie in that regard. He knows that. He hadn’t done any animation since Aladdin, and that was a challenge because I wanted to stay as far away from that character as I possibly could. In the first session with Robin we talked about it and played around with voices. But it became clear that he should just be himself and do what he wanted to do.  Robin was always at his most effective when his energy was high.”
What made you choose Ewan McGregor for the lead role of Rodney?
“We didn’t want someone too young or too old, we wanted someone right there in the middle. He was very excited about doing it and his voice was perfect. At the time he was shooting Big Fish in Alabama, and when we met him he had a little bit of an American drawl that we had to get out of him when we were recording. We actually recorded him in a sound technician’s living room down in Montgomery, Alabama.”
Is there ever pressure from above on getting an A-list voice cast?
“I can understand the issue. Movies are sold based on personalities that people are familiar with, most blockbusters don’t have new actors in them. A lot of great independent films and smaller films introduce people to the audience. As long as these films are made as event films, and are made as event films and are meant to appeal to a broad audience and marketed audience they’d probably have to be. But I’ll tell you one thing, Pixar did us a great service with The Incredibles because they marketed the concept and the characters. Animation shouldn’t have to be sold that way in my opinion. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got big names but they’re very appropriate for the roles. We didn’t go to anybody because of their name value.”
What is the background of your company, Blue Sky?
“Blue Sky started as a very small company, six of us with a fascination of what we could do with computers pooled our pocket change about 18 years ago. We had no business acumen at all and  we starved for a long time, but we built it up making tv commercials and got some effects jobs on movies. Then we made a tv film that got some attention.  Then we got into business with 20th Century Fox. We came from very humble means, and we’re still a relatively small studio of about 230 people. And we’re also on the east coast, in New York, a part of the country where we’re the only people who do this.”
Did you submit Robots to any test screenings?
“Actually we got a little ambitious on Robots and we ended up with more movie than we could make on our hands. We had our first test screening early, just to see what they thought. Almost half the film was drawn at that point. That gave us a quick gauge of what they were responding to and where we were getting lost in our own details. We lost a couple of sequences and a couple of characters there. Then as we went along it was more a matter of reorganising some of the material story-wise than removing anything. And then it was just a case of polishing it. The movie is supposed to be a ride and when you’re in there working on big chunks of ideas, and working out separate sequences, you don’t realise how much of the movie is about how well a sound effect drifts over the cut or how the music influences it. Little details and transitions that really make the movie, in the last two or three months of production, twice as good as it was before.”
There is always a choice in terms of making things look realistic and taking a degree of licence with them isn’t there?
“That was the challenge we faced on Ice Age. We went into it hoping that we could make it as accurate as possible. Then again we were making a story where the animals talked, so we were assuming that audiences would understand that we’re taking a great deal of creative licence. We used as much reference as we could to help design the characters, and help us choose which creatures to use.  It’s just a very interesting period in history, because it’s so close to what we have in the world today but at the same time very different. We wanted to make something that looked natural but was very stylised. Part of that was born of necessity - we only had so much time and money to make the movie - but part of it was an instinct that I’ve always had. That if you’re making an animated film there should be something about it that’s stylised or exaggerated. We didn’t really challenge ourselves to make it photo realistic, we challenged ourselves to make it look natural.”
How big an impact did your Oscar winning success with Bunny have?
Bunny made us legitimate in many peoples’ eyes. For a very long time we felt that all we needed at Blue Sky was a studio partner to make a film. We felt that we could do it, we had the technology and a creative core of people. Fox brought the Ice Age script to us, at a point when it was more of a straight dramatic story. And over the course of its life at Blue Sky we made it into something that was more appropriate for animation.”
The Ice Age cometh. All Rights Reserved.
The sweet heart of Ice Age was a big factor in its success, wasn’t it?
“Our three leading men were all fathers. For some actors there’s a stigma for some actors, that this is lighter fare and is for families.  Many of the people we spoke to were only interested because they had children, unfortunately. These three did it I think because they were interested in the project. I think you have to have kids to understand some of the sensibilities that we were going after. Not that the story is limited to children, just to make it accessible for kids. You have to sat in a theatre with one of your children to know how to trust the movie. I have two kids.  My teenage daughter will tell me when something’s not working, and if her younger brother squeals with delight at a scene then I leave it in.”

 
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