Director, The Croods Key moment of inspiration: A key moment for The Croods would be the day [fellow director] Kirk [De Micco] and I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We were in the city on a mission to find voices for the film, and had a little time to kill, so we dropped by the Early Man section of the museum. We were passing through an exhibit of meteorites when we heard a great commotion ahead of us. Rounding the bend, we came to the gallery we had been looking for: there was case upon case of skeletons, plaster castings of foot prints and detailed reconstructions of early humans. There was a group of school children on a field trip packed around a model of Lucy: Australopithecus afarensis. The kids were positively glued to that case, and every other case in the hall. Kirk and I ended up staring into those displays for quite a while as well. We were all feeling the same thing—a magnetic draw that those creatures exude. Everyone loves cavemen. Kirk and I vowed at that moment never to underestimate the universal attraction they have. The biggest challenge: It was by far the building of their world. Even the interiors were exteriors—all natural shapes. The amount of surfaces was staggering, and we owe a great debt to the surfacers and matte painters, who are in a lot of ways the unsung heroes of the production. Favorite animated character of all time: It’s a toss-up between Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow and Snoopy in the Peanuts Halloween and Christmas specials. Their performances never fail to make me laugh out loud. Snoopy is far from refined, but is perfect nonetheless. On the state of feature animation: It’s stronger than ever. Seems it’s never been more widely accepted and consumed. And for me, inspiration abounds, from Chris Meledandri to the fellows at Pixar and Disney. Technology has matured and continues to improve, so that the only limits now are time and budget. But I sense something I felt years ago at Disney, that the bulk of features contain an ever-increasing complexity that is, I think, expected and admired within a studio, but I believe is not always necessary. Action and scale can numb you after a while, and detail can tire you out. Not all stories need huge visual engines. With Lilo & Stitch, we paid for a lot of story freedom with a smaller budget and thus lower risk. Career beginnings: I got into animation because of my grandmother. As I was nearing graduation from high school in Colorado I hadn’t thought much as to what I wanted to do with myself afterward, and hadn’t imagined that there was any possible future for me that would include drawing and making movies, which my friends and I did with our Super 8 cameras pretty much non-stop through the winter and summers. My friend even converted one room in his house into a miniature sound stage where he built a reproduction of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I, in turn, persuaded him to do an action sequence in my own movie where he’d release the brake of his Volkswagen and chase it down a hill, where he’d jump in the open door and pull the emergency brake before hitting me and my camera. We did that twice so I could have it from different angles. We then made the mistake of showing that footage to his parents.
Anyway, one night my grandmother read an article in The Denver Post about an animation school in Southern California, CalArts, that was teaching kids to be animators with an eye toward replacing the dwindling population of artists at Disney Studios. She changed everything by cutting out that article and later driving me to California to visit the school. CalArts was the one and only college I applied to. I was accepted, by the way, and spent four very fulfilling years there. Best advice: The best filmmaking advice I ever received was from Alan Silvestri, during the making of Lilo & Stitch. Dean [DeBlois] and I were reviewing the story reels with Alan, which is one of the earliest steps in the scoring of the movie. At this point, we are just discussing the style and placement of music throughout the film. Alan was very complimentary of the story, but had one question—he had somehow missed the moment when Stitch made the change from bad to good. Dean and I confessed that we hadn’t actually placed a shot in the reel for that particular change in character, as we weren’t sure how to accomplish it. We had tried to show a change in Stitch’s nature through dialogue and/or actions, but came up feeling mightily unsatisfied or uncomfortable with the results. It was too profound a moment to satisfyingly capture in the story reels, so we had opted to let it happen off-screen. Alan said, “Put it on screen and I’ll do it.” Turns out, Dean and I had been so engrossed in our storyboards and script, we had completely forgotten the most powerful storytelling tool of all—music. I’ve never forgotten that advice: Music does the heaviest lifting in a story. And it is almost unassailable, accomplishing turns in a story with a power so universal and profound it might as well be magic.