Writ­ing on the Edge

Ro­bot Chicken lead an­i­ma­tors find suc­cess in the book world with The Foundry’s Edge, the first part of a new young-adult novel tril­ogy. By Tom McLean.

Animation Magazine - - Frame- By- Frame -

Writ­ing has long been a pur­suit many must un­der­take in their time away from the day job that pays the bills. But in the case of Cam Baity and Benny Zelkow­icz, that day job was work­ing as lead an­i­ma­tors on the hit Adult Swim se­ries Ro­bot Chicken.

Like that show, the re­sult is as re­mark­able and un­ex­pected as you can get. The pair have writ­ten a novel called The Foundry’s Edge: The First Book of Ore, the lead-off in a tril­ogy of young-adult fan­tasy nov­els pub­lished this spring by Dis­ney-Hype­r­ion.

The se­ries is set on a world where all tech­nol­ogy is cre­ated by a mo­nop­o­lis­tic cor­po­ra­tion called The Foundry, whose chief sur­veyor is ab­ducted, forc­ing his daugh­ter to face the truth about the com­pany’s plun­der­ing of a world of liv­ing metal for its riches. The book has so far gar­nered strong re­views from the likes of Pub­lisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Book­list, which said it be­longs “in the same stack as Harry Pot­ter and Percy Jack­son.”

But Baity and Zelkow­icz are not quit­ting their day jobs on Ro­bot Chicken — they plan to write dur­ing the show’s hia­tus — and they are work­ing now on the sec­ond novel.

Baity says much of the in­spi­ra­tion for the idea, which be­gan as a movie pitch back in 2006, came from both their ex­pe­ri­ence as stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tors and their love of such epic book se­ries as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Pot­ter and Phillip Pull­man’s His Dark Ma­te­ri­als tril­ogy.

“Be­ing stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tors, we spend so much time with es­sen­tially pieces of junk, like foam and wire and just ob­jects. And part of our job is to give it life, so it kind of came nat­u­rally from that,” he says. “And then it just got re­ally dark and we found our­selves go­ing down into this world and just build­ing it out.”

Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts to turn the idea into a movie pitch and still find­ing it diffi- cult to in­clude all their ideas, they started just writ­ing it out and ended up at­tract­ing the in­ter­est of edi­tor Kevin Lewis at Dis­ney-Hype­r­ion, who asked for a tril­ogy.

Writ­ing the book was lib­er­at­ing, Zelkow­icz says. “We sat down to write that first thing, and there were no lim­i­ta­tions on the con­tent — it was just write it the way you see it, write what feels right, and makes you laugh and makes you scared and ex­cited.”

It also pro­vides a com­pletely dif­fer­ent cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ence from stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion.

“Writ­ing is such an iso­lat­ing process,” says Baity. “So when we get to an­i­mate, we’re around other people who are happy; we get to burn our­selves on hot glue and get splin­ters. We get those back pains that are so great. But it’s so nice to have a bal­ance of that, be­cause once you’re tired of that and tired of burn­ing yourself, you can go sit down in front of the com­puter and put the head­phones on and just iso­late yourself. So I think we so far have struck a pretty good bal­ance be­tween the two.” Zelkow­icz says the warm wel­come they’ve re­ceived from the book-pub­lish­ing world is a wel­come sim­i­lar­ity to their ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in an­i­ma­tion.

“People are re­ally sup­port­ive that you’ve got a book com­ing out, what can I do to get the word out, and just it’s re­ally nice to be plugged into that,” he says. “So now that we have two nice com­mu­ni­ties to go be­tween is re­ally, it’s a joy.”

24If you need a break from all the sum­mer fes­ti­vals, crank up the AC and crash out with The Boon­docks: The Com­plete Fourth Sea­son, Dragon Ball Z: Sea­son 5 on Blu-ray or Ap­ple­seed: Al­pha in stores now.

DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion’s How to Train Your Dragon was an un­ex­pected hit when it was re­leased in 2010. Co-di­rec­tors Dean DeBlois and Chris San­ders had taken over the film just a lit­tle more than a year out from re­lease and re­vamped the story from the ground up. Earn­ing pos­i­tive re­views from crit­ics and au­di­ences, the film earned nearly a half-bil­lion dol­lars at the box of­fice and put the ques­tion of a se­quel front and cen­ter.

When DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion CEO Jef­frey Katzen­berg asked DeBlois if he had ideas for a se­quel, DeBlois came back with a big­ger idea. “If the first movie was the first act, this sec­ond film could be the mid­dle act, but we would need a third to bring it to con­clu­sion,” DeBlois says.

The tril­ogy pro­posal in­trigued Katzen­berg and, with San­ders hav­ing moved on full-time to The Croods, it was a chance for DeBlois to step up and write and di­rect on his own the se­quel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, out June 13. “It was a healthy bit of growth for me to be hon­est,” he says. “It’s one thing to be a team and back­ing each other up, and it’s a dif­fer­ent mat­ter en­tirely when you have to trust your con­vic­tions.”

DeBlois says as a viewer he has an aver­sion to sequels be­cause most of them are dis­ap­point­ing in that they don’t live up to the orig­i­nal or are too much of a re­tread. He looked at the few sequels he thought re­ally worked and was most in­spired by one of the most-uni­ver­sally ad­mired and suc­cess­ful sequels of all time: The Em­pire Strikes Back. “It took ev­ery­thing I loved about Star Wars and ex­panded it in all the best ways,” he says. “The fun be­came that much more pow­er­ful, there were new gad­gets and new char­ac­ters and the peril and the scope were big­ger with­out los­ing sight of what it’s all about.”

Know­ing that DreamWorks was com­mit­ted to a tril­ogy was use­ful in com­ing up with the story for Dragon 2. “I looked back at the first movie, and it’s a com­plete ex­pe­ri­ence unto it­self,” he says. “If we were go­ing to tell a grander story, there were el­e­ments that had been slightly glazed over, like [what hap­pened to Hic­cup’s] mother. That was a story thread we could draw out.”

An­other key de­ci­sion was mov­ing the story and the char­ac­ters ahead five years. “Fif­teen-yearold Hic­cup is quite happy — he earned his fa­ther’s ad­mi­ra­tion, was ac­cepted by the vil­lage, got the girl and got a su­per cool dragon. By the end of the first movie, it’s all re­solved,” he says. “Now, five years later, he’s the town hero and there’s the ex­pec­ta­tion for him to step into his fa­ther’s shoes. He’s got that rest­less­ness, stand­ing on the cusp of adult­hood. It’s Hic­cup defin­ing him­self.”

The re­sult is an epic tale that ex­pands the story of Hic­cup, played again by Jay Baruchel, his trusty dragon Tooth­less and the Vik­ing land of Berk. Hav­ing fully in­cor­po­rated drag­ons into their lives fol­low­ing the events of the first movie, ex­plor­ing new fron­tiers tempts Hic­cup more than fol­low­ing his fa­ther Sto­ick’s path of leading the tribe. What he finds is both per­sonal and epic, as he en­coun­ters the threat of dragon hunters in the ser­vice of Drago Blud­vist, played by Dji­mon Houn­sou, and a kin­dred spirit in his long-lost mother, Valka, played by Cate Blanchett. The movie also in­tro­duces Eret, voiced by Game of Thrones’ Kit Har­ing­ton, and fea­tures the re­turn of the orig­i­nal voice cast: Amer­ica Fer­rera as Astrid, Ger­ard But­ler as Sto­ick, Craig Fer­gu­son as Gob­ber, Jonah Hill as Snout­lout, T.J. Miller as Tuffnut, Kristin Wiig as Ruffnut and Christo­pher Mintz-Plasse as Fish­legs.

DeBlois, who wrote the movie based loosely

on the books by Cres­sida Cow­ell, says the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween work­ing on the first and sec­ond film was the sec­ond film had the lux­ury of time. “Chris and I both came into Dragon 1 about 14 to 15 months out from re­lease,” he says. “We took the as­sets that had been built, the char­ac­ters and world and used as much of that as pos­si­ble. How­ever, it didn’t have all the bells and whis­tles we could have af­forded if we had a longer, stan­dard pro­duc­tion time and a full budget to work with.”

With four years be­tween re­lease dates, DeBlois says they were able to rebuild the char­ac­ters from the ground up and in­cor­po­rate a new gen­er­a­tion of soft­ware into the DreamWorks pipe­line called Apollo that vastly im­proved the toolset and in­ter­face for the an­i­ma­tors.

“While we were fin­ish­ing up the first Dragon we had some con­ver­sa­tions with the de­vel­op­ers and they gave us kind of a win­dow into the fu­ture,” says Si­mon Otto, head of char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion on the movie.

The an­i­ma­tors were con­sulted on what they wanted from an­i­ma­tion soft­ware if it were to be re-cre­ated from the ground up. The over­all mes- sage was for an in­tu­itive sys­tem with a user in­ter­face that al­lowed artists to more di­rectly in­ter­act ar­tis­ti­cally with char­ac­ters and see them ren­der and move in real time, and re­duc­ing or elim­i­nat­ing the need to wran­gle data, Otto says.

The re­sult, with artists work­ing via a sty­lus on a touch-screen dis­play, was lib­er­at­ing for the an­i­ma­tors, Otto says. “It feels a lot more like a com­puter game. We spend very lit­tle time do­ing any­thing be­sides push­ing the char­ac­ters around, and we don’t have to man­age data the way we used to.”

That al­lowed an­i­ma­tors to spend more time ex­plor­ing ideas and re­fin­ing their work and hav­ing a toolset that sup­ported those ideas. “You can find your way to the per­for­mance, which was kind of hard be­fore,” Otto says.

The re­sults are eas­ily seen in the fi­nal film, where the char­ac­ter per­for­mances achieve a level of de­tail and subtlety that sets a new stan­dard for DreamWorks. “A lot of it comes from hav­ing the time, hav­ing tal­ented an­i­ma­tors and giv­ing them the time to go back and tweak on the most minute lev­els,” says DeBlois.

Es­pe­cially key is the in­ter­face, which re­moves the need to wran­gle data and re-ren­der and al­lows an­i­ma­tors to use a sty­lus and touch­screen dis­play to work di­rectly with char­ac­ters in real time. “It’s like the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent of a stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tor work­ing with a clay pup­pet,” DeBlois says. “It’s putting a tool back in the hand of the an­i­ma­tor.”

Those changes were key in de­vel­op­ing Valka and Drago. “They were both in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing and it was a jour­ney and an ad­just­ment to find the char­ac­ters,” says Otto. Valka had to be mys­te­ri­ous at first, hav­ing spent so many years liv­ing among drag­ons, but ul­ti­mately like­able when she re­vealed her­self as a Dian Fossey-style pro­tec­tor of the crea­tures.

“We went a lit­tle crazy at first and went too far,” says Otto. “We had to tone her down and bring her back a bit.” He says they found the char­ac­ter through an­i­ma­tion, and only af­ter try­ing out a few ver­sions of her se­quences did they find the right bal­ance.

Drago, mean­while, got a boost from the cast­ing of Houn­sou as his voice, which in­spired sep­a­rate de­sign takes to come up with the dread­locked look the char­ac­ter even­tu­ally de­vel­oped, Otto says. He also had to move in a very spe­cific

Benny Zelkow­icz Cam Baity

New tech­nol­ogy helped an­i­ma­tors cre­ate more sub­tle, de­tailed per­for­mances for both the drag­ons and the hu­mans in How to Train Your Dragon 2.

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