The latest film from Blue Sky, the animation studio behind the Ice Age films, Robots and Rio, is Epic. And, yes, it’s also rather epic. The film was adapted from William Joyce‘s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs but it became an intensely cinematic experience in translation.
I definitely think it’s Blue Sky’s best piece of filmmaking to date, and when I met up with the director, and the studio’s head honcho, Chris Wedge, I had a lot of questions about the many clever and effective tricks employed to pull it off.
If you haven’t seen the film’s trailer, I would recommend you watch it before reading on.
Now, here’s some of Wedge had to tell me. This gets a little technical, but I think it really does underline the consideration that went into making this story come to life for audiences.
In English our film is called Epic. This title was always meant to be used ironically because it’s a big story in a tiny world. When I started thinking about the movie, and this was over a decade ago, the idea was that you’d find this world in the forest, hidden by virtue of scale, and when you get down in there, the forest is transformed into something familiar but alien. I wanted to find all sorts of ways to create the experience of something we’re familiar with becoming fantastic.
There’s a powers of ten transition, a fractal transition into this world where the detail becomes more immersive as we get in deeper. Fern trunks become tree trunks, pebbles are rocks, water works at a different viscosity and speed. When trying to explain the logic of how this world works and why we can’t see it, I was standing at my kitchen sink one day and a bird came up to make nest under the eaves of the house. But it was moving so fast, its wings were moving so fast, I thought “That’s it. They just move too fast to see.” There could have been a man riding on that bird it was just too fast for me to see him. When you watch a hummingbird, sometimes it stops just long enough, but when they fly in a straight line, they’re just gone.
The inverse of this in the film is that when the leaf men look at us, they just see these big, slow giants. When we go down to their scale – and the audience isn’t always aware of this – the whole world is moving slower. That helps with the changing of our world into an alien world. Crickets sound like Loons off in the distance, echoing, and the wind sounds thicker, the ambience sounds fatter, and that’s how we get that sense of scale even though we’re tiny. You can see a character get thrown violently into water and what comes up looks like a chess pawn, a little splash that goes up and down and sounds huge and sloshy.
That’s the kind of macro photography that I wanted the leaf men to live in. There were a lot of decisions to make about lenses and depth of field and the speed of things in the background. I decided that when we’re in with the leaf men we would use normal lenses, normal to them, and shoot it as though the camera was to their scale. The depth of field we used was normal, how audiences are used to seeing it, so in the wide shots, focus is deep and in the close ups, we focus on faces. This gave us much more control over our eye tracing from shot to shot, which we needed, as usual.
But in the transitions is where we had to great creative. There are moments where we transition from big world to little world and the camera actually moves from a human character to one of the leaf men, or vice versa, and that’s where we had fun, changing lenses mid-shot. There are all sorts of zooms hidden in there, zoom dollies, and depth zooms in 3D.
There’s a moment in the movie, a big set piece where the two worlds get together, and the transition is happening not just spatially, between being two inches tall and six feet tall, but also in timespace. There was a lot of sound design in there, helping to accentuate the perspective shifts, and a lot of lens changes. In this sequence I went with wide lenses for the little guys because they’re in a space that we’d experienced before but we now want to see it from their perspective. For the humans’ perspective, I also used what would also be normal lenses for them, but in the transitions, there had to be all sorts of zooming in both a 2D and 3D sense.
There’s one or two little cheats with the time changes, but just for the story. For the most part, though, we were just nerds about that stuff. When the worlds come together and the leaf men look at us, we’re moving slower and talking slower so all of the dialogue for the humans in these moments has been pitched down. But once I’d established how the humans look from their perspective, and here’s how the leaf men look from our perspective, which we do show, then I could switch perspectives, especially during dialogue.
And there’s also that the human looking for us has equipment and I could also cut through his perspective, through his equipment, and stay in the leaf men’s world.
[At this point I said “And this results in what would literally be jump cuts but we tend not to think of them that way, perhaps, because we’re following the consistency of the narrative.”]
Well, there you go, if you want to think that deep into it, yes, they would be jump cuts. There would be time cuts, but I don’t show them in the film because it would stomp on the scene. That’s the one thing where there’s total mindwarp cheating.
For them and us to have a conversation, they’d have to wait a while for us to respond. We do show this in a conversation between a small person and a large person and we do it at the small’s person speed. Every now and then, though, we cut to the large person’s perspective and you get it.
[Here I asked Wedge to express how consistent the change of speed is throughout, how much it’s true that when one thing is speeded up, another is speeded up by the same ratio.]
Well, we did try to do that as much as we could, but you make decisions to service the story. There’s so much going on in some of these scenes that you forget and, sometimes, some of the stuff…
I was glad to have a reason to slow the small world down. The wings of the bird are slowed down, look something more like a dragon. I wanted to get this in there.Animation is a visual medium first and you want to tell as much of the story as you can without words, and you want to create an immersive experience without having to explain it and colour becomes a part of that. The colours come from nature, but we do use them to control the audience’s emotional experience of this world. We created a colour script for the movie, and associated colours that make you feel one way with one scene, colours that make you feel a different way with another. You could say this film should look green, but we use green in many ways.
When we’re down with the leaf men in their world, it’s the most verdant, we’re dealing with thematics to do with growth and the life of the forest in these rich, spring greens. When we’re with the humans the forest is a bit desaturated and a bit cooler, it’s more natural. You’re only going to really feel that when we’re cutting between them but you do get it.
And when we’re with the bad guys, we’re taking the saturation out of everything. We take it out of the sky. It’s as bright in some of their scenes but the sky is white and hazy.
And just like that, we were out of time.
Epic is a technically very complex film, and I hope this article has helped reveal just how much Wedge and his team considered even the smallest of details, most of them completely invisible to the casual viewer, and always in the name of storytelling and giving the audience an emotional, immersive experience.
All credit to them for not only finding their way through such a labyrinthine process but deciding to take it on in the first place.
Epic is in UK cinemas now. See it in 3D in a good cinema.