Chris Meledandri Mourns The Finish Of Blue Sky Studios — Visitor Column – .
Publisher’s Note: Before Chris Meledandri founded the Universal Family Film Factory Illumination and became its CEO, he was tasked with setting up an animation department at Fox. Early in 1998, the President of Twentieth Century Fox Animation bought Blue Sky Studios for the studio. The Westchester, NY-based animation company may have started as a complement to Fox’s Hollywood animation operations, but that changed when Meledandri gave Blue Sky the room to grow and the result was the multi-billion dollar Ice Age franchise. Meledandri, who would launch Illumination and start another billion dollar franchise in Despicable Me (the world’s tallest animated franchise with Ice Age in third place ever). Here he laments Disney’s decision to shut down Blue Sky and celebrates his origins.
Disney is closing down Blue Sky Studios, Fox ‘once dominant animation house behind the’ Ice Age ‘franchise
To hear the sad news of the closure of the Blue Sky Studios reminds us of our journey together. It was 1996 and I was running the animation department at Fox. We were in production on Don Bluth’s Anastasia when a director named John Payson came to a general meeting. He shared scenes with cockroaches dancing from his upcoming MTV-produced film Joe’s Apartment. I was amazed at those cockroaches performing Busby Berkeley-like dance numbers. In an uncharacteristic move for anyone in Hollywood, John said that while he would like to credit the scenes, the real credit belonged to a small animation studio in Westchester County, NY called Blue Sky Studios.
So I traveled to Harrison, NY and discovered a group of 40 people who had settled in an attic. Among the founders was the young creative visionary Chris Wedge; the 80-year-old nuclear physicist Eugene Troubetzkoy, who wrote the company’s own rendering software; and the electrical engineer Carl Ludwig, who converted a Russian MIG fighter jet in his spare time. I was relatively new to animation and had even less knowledge of computer science, but I liked the images they created. The characters had soul and the team had an uncanny ability to achieve realism with their caricatured designs. The more people I met at Blue Sky Studios, the more I became convinced that I had to find a way to work with them.
I introduced them to a brilliant writer and illustrator named William Joyce. Bill and I had explored ideas and it occurred to me that this might be the right medium for his work. We all agreed to take a section from his book Santa Calls and create a visual role that combines storyboards, colors, and some rendered images. It was a beautiful test, but we never cracked the adaptation of the book’s story. During that time at Fox Animation we had developed a script called Ice Age. It all started when executives Kevin Bannerman and Lori Forte gave me the idea to make a film about the Ice Age. We had a great first draft by Michael J. Wilson that we originally planned in traditional animation. However, we were already deep into our second film, Titan AE, which unfortunately didn’t do that well. I realized that we should be sharing the script with Chris Wedge and the Blue Sky team and considering doing it in CG.
We soon found ourselves at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Fox Animation, working with Blue Sky on Ice Age, directed by Chris Wedge. Months later, when Titan finished production, Bill Mechanic and Peter Chernin gave me permission to make the film. I flew to Harrison and gathered the small group in the studio. When I shared the good news, Chris pulled a chain on an old lamp. He had roughly wrapped some gel around the lightbulb, so … we had the green light. We all applauded. I had made films and they had made computer animation. However, none of us knew the complex challenges we had to face. What I knew was that we had worked with an extraordinarily talented group of people who had dreamed of this moment all their lives.
While making four films with the Blue Sky team, I had the privilege of meeting so many notable artists. There was a Blue Sky culture that emphasized the pursuit of creative excellence. This culture started with the founders and it was clear from day one why so many talented people wanted to work there. As Blue Sky’s doors close, the films they made will live on to remind people that a small group of iconoclasts have come together to create miracles. My thoughts go out to everyone whose lives have been disrupted by the closure. But I know that if you’ve worked at Blue Sky you have talents and skills that are valued by others. I will always cherish this Blue Sky spirit.