21CF Chats: ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’ director Michael Thurmeier on advancements in animation technology

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A lot has changed in the 14 years since the first “Ice Age” movie was released in theaters, and no one knows better than Michael Thurmeier, director of the latest installment in the franchise, “Ice Age: Collision Course,” which is heading to U.S. theaters July 22. Michael, who has been with Blue Sky Studios since 1999 and was the lead animator for the first “Ice Age” film, has plenty of firsthand experience with the advancements in animation technology and capabilities.

After a New York City screening of “Ice Age: Collision Course” on June 20, I sat down with Michael to hear about how making the latest film was different from making the previous films in the franchise, his favorite part of making these movies and his most memorable scene in this film.

(While there are no true spoilers below, our conversation touches on certain elements of “Ice Age: Collision Course.”)

How was the process for creating “Ice Age: Collision Course” different from the process for “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” which came out four years ago?

Creatively, we tried to not hold ourselves back. There’s the rooted emotional story that we always try and put in these movies, but comedically, we thought that we should really let ourselves have fun. There weren’t a lot of things that were off limits. In this one, we just wanted to have a good time, so we said, “Look, let’s just reach for it and see what comes.” Otherwise, the process, in a lot of ways, has been similar to the last movies because I worked with [producer] Lori Forte again, and my co-director, Galen Chu, has also been at the studio a long time, and we know each other really well; we grew up in animation together, basically.

Since you directed the short “No Time for Nuts” 10 years ago, how have animation software and capabilities (which I don’t know much about) changed?

Well, it’s incremental over years, but when you look back you realize how big the leaps have been in terms of what’s available to us. Go back even further to the first “Ice Age” to where we are right now — I mean, the computers are so much faster, the technology to render the imagery is so much better. If you look at, say, the fur on the characters in the first movie, it’s crude. It’s basically like painted cards stuck to a character. Now we can render millions of individual hairs.

Yeah, it’s gorgeous.

Yeah, and the ability to move characters has also gotten better. We call it character rigging — the controls inside the characters that make them move how you see on the screen and give the animators the ability to move them that way. It’s much more advanced now, and we have a really great character rigging department at Blue Sky. Actually, we have to hold ourselves back a little bit on the main characters because it still needs to feel like an “Ice Age” film and true to the style we’ve established. But with new characters like Shangri Llama or Brooke, we’ll stretch them further and give them more advanced controls because we have the technology. Everything across the board has gotten better, especially the visual effects. Stuff like the volcanic eruption, the meteor showers, the electrical storm, Scrat’s tractor beam — anything you see in this movie was probably not possible back when we did the first couple movies. There’s a bigger tool chest for you now to use.

You mentioned Galen, your co-director, earlier. I was wondering what the working relationship with him is like and how you divvy up responsibilities and tackle the film together.

This was my third film and Galen’s first film as a co-director, just like I was co-director under Carlos [Saldanha] on the third “Ice Age” — it’s sort of like a training ground. But we were together on really key decisions. We always try to be together in story meetings and as much as we can in editorial for instance, where the film was cut and we were looking at sequences. But after that, we took a divide and conquer approach, not necessarily by scene or sequence but [for] the meetings of the day. I would say to Galen, “Look, I really want to be in editorial for a little longer working with the editors to shape the cut. Could you handle set modeling for me?” And then we’ll meet up in animation rounds later. It was sort of about wherever there was a need.

Sounds like good teamwork.

Galen’s great. He’s insanely smart and creative, and he knows the franchise really well, so we were a good pairing. We’ve known each other since 1999 and we have a long friendship and working relationship. There was a great shorthand and we have similar tastes in terms of style. It really was easy to work together.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Keke Palmer and Michael Thurmeier answer questions at the press conference following the June 20 screening of “Ice Age: Collision Course” at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City.

Do you have a favorite part of the process for these movies — both in making them and releasing them?

That’s a really good question. Because I was an animator, I feel really close to the animation process and I love being surprised by what animators come up with. The same goes for the story. All along the process, at certain points when we get to another hurdle and move forward, suddenly you’re inspired all over again, because the film isn’t what you thought it was. It’s not just these little sketches that get strung together. Suddenly, it’s being animated and you’re like, “Oh, that’s the movie!” Then you realize, “No, that’s not the movie. Watch it get to lighting.” And then you see all the renders come in. So those moments where it makes it to the next stage are my favorite.

Is there a particular scene in this movie that has a memorable backstory to it or presented a particularly challenging problem?

Yeah, there’s one in particular that I’m really proud of in this movie: It’s Buck’s introduction to the franchise again after being away for a movie. It was one of those great scenarios where in the script it says, “Meet Buck. He’s in the middle of battling some predatory dino-birds.” And one of our writers, Michael Berg, will say something like, “Blue Sky Magic here.”

No pressure.

No, but I love that. That’s the best scenario, because when we get together with a couple of the story guys and just start spit balling ideas, and in this case we had the idea almost right off the bat — and maybe I was inspired by “Birdman” or “Gravity” — I was like, “You know, I want to do a really long shot, like a one-camera shot, no cuts, just because it’d be really fun to do.” Then we came up with the concept of Buck kind of falling along the cliff wall while battling the dinos. And then when we started to board that, it was just a straight-ahead action scene, so we went back and forth and eventually landed on Buck singing his own version of “The Barber of Seville” during the scene. It was one of those great collaborative exercises where it was one idea piled on top of the other. Also, technically it was a big challenge for us and something we’ve never done. To sustain a shot that long in the choreography and animation was just a really fun experience to go through to add a little bit of spice to the movie.

Last question, and it might be slightly embarrassing: I stumbled upon what I think is your personal blog.

OK, probably from a long time ago!

Yeah, exactly. The last update was from July 2009 for “Ice Age 3,” and you said working on a film every day and suddenly unveiling it for the world to see was like “putting your kid on a school bus for the first time, watching it drive away — beyond your control. It’s exciting, nerve-wracking and scary all at the same time.” Is it the same today? Does that ever change?

You know what, I’m glad you found that, because that is what it’s like. It’s scary because you’ve babied this thing and helped shape it and sculpt it, and you’ve had late nights and difficult decisions, and you feel kind of vulnerable because you know it’s going out there into the world. At the end of the day, you really just want people to like it and have a good time. Sending it out into the world — you can’t protect it anymore, and it’s there for everybody. On one hand, you’re really excited that that stage is happening. On the other hand, you’re just terrified of what’s going to happen. I’m feeling that right now. I was just talking to my wife before coming here saying, “I’m so nervous about this press day. I just want the movie to come out.” She said, “Just enjoy the process.” So even though I do still feel that same fear and vulnerability, I think the one change now is that instead of just fearing it, I’m able to enjoy it a little more.