Chu Blue Sky Studios Animator Extraordinaire
an emily blunt
The animated hit Ice Age has hit like a
on of bergs at the local theaters...ever wonder how the wonderfully
human animals get to be that way? I did and rang Blue Sky Studios,
the fun folks who brought us Ice Age, and asked some questions
of one of their top animators, Galen Chu.
So grab a
hot toddy and give a read. It's quite interesting stuff!
Hello! So you were involved in the animation
of "Ice Age," correct?
Yes, that's right.
All right. And why don't you tell us, if you'll be so kind, a
little bit about the animating process.
Sure! Well, there are several steps in the animating process.
We start with a script. Then there's storyboarding, modeling,
rigging, animation and then lighting. The director will make sure
that everyone is on the same page throughout all these departments.
When you say that the director obviously there's not actors there.
Are you talking about the models?
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Let's pretend that you have no idea how this starts, you're bringing
your child to work and they're seeing the process for the first
time. How it's done from the storyboard on...does it go from storyboard
Actually what happens is while the storyboard artists are storyboarding,
we have modelers and designers already designing the characters.
Sort of visualizing the character in the computer 3-D. Three dimensionally.
Excellent! I noticed on the site for "Ice Age" they
have some behind the scenes peeks.
Uh huh. Yep.
So then, then you take those models and...
We have these things called a rig, sort of like a skeleton. It
is an equivalent of our skeleton. This is the point in the process
where riggers put bones in so that the animator is able to articulate
the 3D model. A little bit like a puppet. Like a 3-D puppet.
And then it has all the different points and you...you make them
move by the computer?
We have these, these 3D objects called movers and so it?s like
as if you were gonna grab the wrist on the puppet and position
Is that done with a keystroke, or is that done with some sort
of programmed sequence?
You can use the mouse, you know, as if you would drag something
from your window to the trash bin on a Mac.
Fascinating. And how did you, how did you learn how to do this?
I actually went to school for this. Pratt Institute in New York.
I also had a really good mentor early on named Chris Gilligan
who taught me a good deal about animation.
Very nice. And you've been working on "Ice Age" for
how long? How long since the beginning of conception?
I?ve been on it for about 2-½ years. I worked briefly on
storyboarding, about 8 months, and then moved into character animation.
Yeah. It?s a pretty long process. It's a long cycle.
How long does it take for, say, Scrat.when he's getting the nut,
how long would something- that we see that say is two minutes
long- how long would that sequence take from beginning to end
to actually bring to the screen?
Uh...well, if you include story, you know, the conception of the
and the gags plus the animation it would take about a two-three
that particular sequence.
And then the lighting is another probably two weeks and then the
special effects with the snow and all the glaciers tearing apart...
....that's probably another week, so it's a pretty long process.
I mean each department's contributing about maybe two weeks into...into
that two minute sequence. And what happens is we actually get
shots in that sequence, so in that sequence I was responsible
for one shot.
Its the shot where the Scrat has found the spot for his acorn
and is trying to pound the acorn in twisting and jumping on it.
And finally hears a thundering crack. The chaos begins.
Do you draw it?Or how much of the traditional ways of animation
is used and how much of it, I believe the term is CGI?
GC: I think there's still a lot of traditional animation in there
because the process is the same. We make poses for the character.
We create these poses that convey the action or the story of the
motion of the scene and then from there the computer can help
us a little bit with the in betweening, but still there's a lot
of work that you really need to get in there and figure out where
the in betweens need to go, so it's still a pretty laborious process.
It's not a...you know, click of a button, and it just goes. It's
a lot of work.
Right. A lot of people seem to assume that because it's done with
computersit's easier! When you'e dealing with anybody's voice,
any of the voiceovers, which do you get first? The voiceovers
or do they follow the animation?
Actually most often we get the voices first because it's helpful
and really inspiring to work from the performance of the actors.
They're so great at adding to the character and ad-libbing to
what's already on the script. For example, John Leguizamo was
able to really get into character and read the lines the way he
though Sid should say it. He came up with this lisp that could
only have been natural for Sid being that he had these two large
teeth in his design. And that's inspiring for us to hear and take
his performance and we plus it again in animation.
Yeah, because I did notice that the characters very much so match
the voices I figured it had to be like that, but again, you know,
I don't know everything as most people think!
Well, sometimes it might work the other way, just depending on
the schedule of the actor, but most often than not it...it would
happen the way you had first mentioned it.
So you'llbe listening to a tape of let's say John, then you'll
go in and take Sid the Sloth, and you might move his shoulder
a different way because of an accented word?
Ahhhh! Very interesting.
I'm assuming you'll have a big toy tie-in with this if you don't
already. [ I am ready to beg for toys...I move in slowly--like
a sloth, yet ferociuos like a sabertooth...]
We do have some toy tie-ins, but it's not done in our studio.
I think we hired another studio...a toy company to produce the
Oh, I see. Okay. [BBBUUUMMMMMEEEEERRRRR okay back to him] And
do you have another project coming upwith Blur Sky Sudios?
Uh...yeah. We're working on another project.
You can't tell me about it?
Nope. I can't really talk about.
Top secret!! Oh no!!!
It's definitely something good.
Wonderful. Now...um...how many animators did work on "Ice
Age?" Everybody in the company and how many would that be?
Yeah, somewhere in the range of maybe 25 to 30 animators.
So there's a good amount of people. We also have some specialized
animators called lip-sync animators. They help us out with general
syncing to the voice performance. You know, the vowels and the
Yeah. So if John Leguziumo was talking, the lip-sync animator
would bring the sound in they would make sure the "o?s,"
the "a?s", the "b?s" match the audio performance.
Oh how fascinating!
And that helps us a lot - the animators - because then we just
grab what they've done import it into our scene and add some expression
to the basic phonemes.
EB: So I?m taking this is as not done congruently. You do bits
Is that difficult to maintain the structure of the character?
I mean do you start to forget who, you know, Manford is because
you've been working on the other character so long?
That's the trick with CG animation because traditionally if it
was 2-D the way they do that is they have animation leads for
each character and so you're responsible for that character throughout
the whole movie. In CG it's a little different because we handle
all the characters in the scene. So if you have four different
characters, you know, the trio Sid, Manny and Diego... Plus Roshan,
you have to handle all four characters and you have to keep the
character consistent throughout the movie while handling all the
So you are like directors?
Wow. What a high pressure job.
Yeah, it can be sometimes. Its alot of crazy fun most of the times
Honestly, because I mean if you...you know usually nobody has
to deal with the entire cast and keep it...
That...that must be...um...how...how do you keep it in focus?
Is there a trick to it?
Um...I think inherently the way the character?s are designed you
can see how it can move. In many ways the design dictates the
way a certain character moves. And also the directors keep us
all on the same page. We have an animation director, Carlos Saldanha
and we have Chris Wedge, the overall director who keeps consistency
throughout the film....and we also sort of feed off of each other,
you know, when we see somebody do something great over here we?ll
sort of learn from and incorporate that into our shots. And even
timing notes, you know...two frames here, four frames there.
And is any of the animation, especially with Scrat, improv'd,
or has that all been scripted out beforehand. In other words,
if you come up with a cute little idea in the middle do you add
it, do you have the freedom to add it?
Oh yeah. It's totally open for that. I mean, you know, a lot of
times we'll open up a shot. You know, a lot of times a shot comes
to us with an assigned length of say four seconds long because
the sequence director has already timed out the sequence and it's
supposed to play this way. But many times we have the freedom
to open it up and make it an eight second shot because we added
some business here and there, making it an even better shot.
And you said you went to school. How long did you study and did
you come out of school knowing how to do this, or was a lot of
it still on-the-job training?
I was in school for four years initially studying illustration
and then transferring to computer graphics. I graduated, and I
knew some things about animation, so I was able to get a job.
[laughter] But I think the learning almost never stops. I mean
I?ve been here for 2-½ years and I'm still learning. I
don't think it ever really stops. And animation is definitely
very collaborative. There's a lot of people involved and you sort
of have to put your ego aside and work as a team because there's
so many people involved in making this one movie...
...and we really have to stand behind Chris and follow his vision
instead of trying to go off on our own and create something different.
That's pretty difficult, but...
You're artistical and...
...and everybody's opinionated.
It also lends itself to a lot of learning, though. : And he's
been in this business for 15-20 years. I mean, he's got that much
more on the rest of us.
Sure. Well, Ice Age is great! A fantastic movie! I'll let you
get back to creating wonderful whimsical worlds for us!
[laughter] Thanks! Well, bye now...we'll talk at the next film!
What a great job huh? Yeah, but apparently it's not so easy--
even with the computer's aide. Figures! Galen was sweet to stop
and chat about the hottest animation film so far this year...hmm,
with animation being a new category for the Oscar...maybe he'll
be getting one come spring 2003????