Home Arts & Leisure Blue Sky Studios at 30: Moving beyond ‘Ice Age’

Blue Sky Studios at 30: Moving beyond ‘Ice Age’

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If Disney is known as The House the Mouse Built, then Blue Sky Studios could be called The House That Scrat Built.

The saber-toothed squirrel, whose eternal quest to secure an elusive acorn has spanned galaxies in the animation studio’s signature “Ice Age” films, is a regular presence at its 106,000-square-foot headquarters that sits on 150 acres in a particularly bucolic area of Greenwich. Various iterations of the bug-eyed rodent can be found on the walls, on desktops, hanging from ceilings and even on employees’ business cards.

And that’s not even counting the two TV specials, five short films and five features  — so far — that have carried the “Ice Age” brand. Considering that the features have collectively grossed over $3.2 billion globally, it seems a safe bet that the world hasn’t seen the last of Scrat.

“As with all of our projects, if we can find a good story we’ll probably do another one,” said Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Brian Keane in his spacious office at Blue Sky’s 1 American Lane base.

The company, which was founded in 1987, was acquired by 20th Century Fox in 1997 on the strength of its Academy Award-winning short “Bunny” and its work on commercials and character animation for features like “Mousehunt,” “Star Trek: Insurrection” and Fox’s own “Alien: Resurrection” and “Fight Club.”

Since moving into features with the inaugural “Ice Age” in 2002, Blue Sky has delivered such original titles as the “Rio” series and “Epic” as well as adaptations of licensed properties like “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” and “The Peanuts Movie.” Another adaptation, “Ferdinand” — based on the 1936 children’s book about a bull who would rather smell flowers than participate in bullfights — will be released on Dec. 15, followed by “Pigeon Impossible,” scheduled for Jan. 18, 2019.

Keane said work is beginning on another film following “Pigeon Impossible,” though he declined to give details. The studio has held the rights for an adaptation of the fantasy novel “The Anubis Tapestry: Between Twilights” since 2008.

“I’m sort of like the school principal here,” Keane said. A former manager at Dun & Bradstreet, Keane joined News Corp in 1996 before being named vice president, finance and chief financial officer at Blue Sky in 1999. “My job is to keep everything moving, keeping us on schedule and on budget, which can be a herculean task sometimes.”

Dressed in jeans and a sports coat, Keane does exude a principal-like authority among Blue Sky’s 500 employees, a youthful group who tend toward the “casual” end of business casual in their Alien and Star Wars T-shirts. The creativity implicit in being an animator, designer and so on extends to their workspaces: In addition to expected debris like action figures, posters, and affectionate caricatures of co-workers, many have poured hours into designing and constructing at their own expense to turn their areas into movie theaters, pirate ships, railroad stations and other eye-popping simulacra.

Keane said that all of Blue Sky’s operations are on a single floor, with employees sometimes jetting around on Razor scooters on their way to meetings, a large rec room featuring pinball machines and a pool and pingpong tables, and its two theaters, where they can view dailies or attend screenings and discussions with other filmmakers.

The open space — “with room to grow,” Keane said — was one of the key reasons behind Blue Sky’s relocation to Greenwich from its cramped presence scattered among three floors at 44 S. Broadway in White Plains in 2009. Also playing a role was Connecticut’s 30 percent tax credit against all production costs up to a $15 million annual ceiling.

In April, the company announced it had extended its Greenwich lease through 2025. “There really wasn’t much talk of going somewhere else,” he said. “Everything we need we have right here. It’s a more serene setting than you’d find in Los Angeles or Marin County, and the surrounding area is affordable and provides the quality of life that our employees appreciate.”

The company’s huge computer room offers over four petabytes (4 million gigabytes) of storage. “Our computers are built to suit,” Keane said. “It’s not a matter of running over to Apple and saying we need 100 laptops.”

Backup generators are on hand in case of a power outage so that work can go on uninterrupted. The only real hiccup in Blue Sky’s power plan came when Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, not because of a cut in power, but because employees couldn’t get to work for a few days due to the unavailability of gasoline.

“We were fortunate in that we weren’t up against a short deadline then,” Keane said. “We had to ramp up for a while to catch up” on the then-in-production “Epic,” “but we made it through.”

In addition to its full-time employees, Blue Sky will occasionally hire temporary personnel at crunch time to augment its workforce, which includes artists, engineers and scientists from a variety of educational backgrounds and some 23 countries. Those workers are sometimes hired full time, Keane said.

The science involved goes back to Blue Sky’s founders. While Chris Wedge was a classically trained animator with extensive experience in stop-motion puppet animation, Michael Ferraro worked for the U.S. Navy on early virtual reality simulations, and Carl Ludwig was an electrical engineer who worked for NASA on the tracking systems of the Apollo mission’s lunar module.

Along with Eugene Troubetzkoy, Alison Brown and David Brown, they worked at MAGI/Synthavision in Elmsford, devising the then-groundbreaking effects for Disney’s original “Tron.” When that company shuttered, the group decided to forge ahead as Blue Sky.

“I went for a year and half without a paycheck,” said Ludwig, who with Troubetzkoy and R&D Manager Maurice van Swaaij received a Scientific and Technical Academy Award in February. “But we all kept at it, through the commercials and ‘Alien: Resurrection,’ to the point where we were able to perfectly render the animated alien with live action.”

“Technology has served us really well,” Ludwig said. “And we’re always improving while maintaining a culture that values people. We learn from our failures just as much as we do our successes.”

Now in its 30th year, Blue Sky is content with its production schedule, which usually involves working on three features at a time, with one release per year. Animators typically produce two to three seconds of completed work per week, Keane said.

“It works for us,” he said. “We have a new audience coming in every five years or so. Our key demographic keeps coming up and aging into our product. We’re not going anywhere.”

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