Anybody who’s seen the trailer for ”Ice Age” (opening March 15) featuring a desperate little Scrat (part squirrel, part rat) accidentally cracking open a massive glacier knows that ”Ice Age” has, at least in part, an edge of its own — a brassy, Tex Avery air more reminiscent of classic Warner Bros. ‘toons than of Disney. The Scrat’s wordless mishaps weave through the story’s more conventional, talking-animal main arc, which was first pitched in early 1997 by a producer at Twentieth Century Fox’s animation division as a sort of ”Three Mammals and a Baby.” As with most animated films, it’s all about the embellishments, but the basic story line teams an acerbic woolly mammoth (voiced by ”Everybody Loves Raymond”’s Ray Romano) named Manfred with a dopey sloth named Sid (voiced by John Leguizamo) and a double-dealing saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) as they try to return an orphaned human infant to its tribe.
Fox originally conceived the movie as a 2-D, hand-drawn project. But by late ’98, Disney and Pixar had released ”A Bug’s Life” around the same time DreamWorks and PDI opened ”Antz,” both of which did great business in a crowded family-friendly season that also included ”The Rugrats Movie” and DreamWorks’ ”The Prince of Egypt.” With the audience expanding, Fox thought, why not try to set a bigger table? Fox already owned a small CG studio called Blue Sky, headquartered in sleepy Harrison, N.Y., which handled TV ads and special effects for such movies as ”Alien Resurrection.” When director Chris Wedge, Blue Sky’s leading artistic light, won an Oscar in 1999 for the short ”Bunny” — notable for its strikingly realistic fur and lighting, looking more like puppet animation than CG — Fox anted up with the major cash infusion needed to expand Blue Sky’s capabilities. (Fox’s total investment so far: roughly $60 million, twice what it cost to make Paramount’s $80 million grosser ”Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” but only about two-thirds the budget of ”Toy Story 2.”)
”In some ways, it felt like making a deal with the devil,” says Wedge, who helped found Blue Sky back in 1987 with a handful of cronies who had worked on the trailblazing CG scenes in 1982’s ”Tron.” ”But it was inevitable. We didn’t want to go on being a [TV-commercial] boutique. We wanted something bigger.” And like the Scrat scrambling to avoid that crushing glacier, Blue Sky has had to skate a rough terrain fast and furiously to get ”Ice Age” made. Among the trickier obstacles:
The Phoenix Fiasco As Fox prepared to fund ”Ice Age,” it was also pouring a reported $80 million-plus into a conventionally animated space epic, ”Titan A.E.” That movie imploded on liftoff in June 2000, grossing less than $25 million. Its failure hastened studio chief Bill Mechanic’s departure and forced Fox to shutter its six-year-old cartoon studio in Phoenix. Full-tilt production began on ”Ice Age” the following month. In the aftermath, says Fox animation president Christopher Meledandri, ”I made sure the core group…at Blue Sky had a great deal more experience than what we had when we started Phoenix.”
Relocation Blues Blue Sky had to jump from comfy digs in Harrison to a bigger, blander office-park space in White Plains, N.Y., during production. As the staff expanded from roughly 70 to 170, some positions couldn’t be filled with East Coast talent. Two key veterans from Disney’s 1991 feature ”Beauty and the Beast,” editor John Carnochan and art director Brian McEntee, agreed to relocate from California, as did producer Lori Forte, who says, ”It made me focus on the movie, because there’s not much else to do in Westchester.”