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.
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