As I approach a nondescript office building, nestled neatly amongst the trees just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, I begin to wonder if the driver is lost, or if perhaps, he is in fact taking me to be cross-examined by the CIA for a crime I didn’t know I’d committed.
For aren’t all movie studios in LA? Now that Disney have taken over Fox and all it’s properties, why would there be a Disney-owned studio on the other side of the country to their famous Burbank offices?
The building has dark windows. There’s nobody around. I walk into a lobby that’s vast and empty, save for one security guard who may or may not enjoy being this serious.
I’m escorted to the second floor via a lift. What have I done, I briefly ponder. How did I get myself into this situation? Which of my my many indiscretions did I mistakenly think was minor?
As the lift doors open my relief is palpable. Ahead of me in this new lobby is a series of display cases, featuring models from across the range of Blue Sky Studio animations. A Scrat here, a Snoopy there, a Robot that looks like an incredible work of modern art, the company logo emblazoned on a long wall.
And while I am safe from interrogation, the secret agent stuff has only just begun.
I’m here to talk to the people behind Spies In Disguise, Blue Sky’s latest animated adventure. Unlike much of their previous entries into the CGI animation pantheon, this is a movie about human beings. Well, human beings and pigeons.
Based on the short film, Pigeon: Impossible (a title they would reveal wasn’t even worth approaching Paramount about), Spies in Disguise centres on Lance Sterling, a dashing, unflappable secret agent in a tux, and his agency’s gadget guy, Walter, an unkempt genius who manages to get himself fired when his technical trickery rubs Lance and co. up the wrong way.
When Lance is framed for a crime he didn’t commit (we assume), Walter becomes the only man he can turn to. Fortunately, Walter has just invented a new serum that can render the taker invisible. At least, invisible in so far as pigeons are hardly noticeable…
Landing the vocal talents of Will Smith and Tom Holland as Lance and Walter respectively is an impressive feat, particularly considering the former’s aversion to animated movies since his ill-fated turn in the abysmal Shark Tale, a film so lazily conceived, so poorly animated and so irritating to watch that it’s said nobody has viewed it since 2003.
Even Ben Mendelsohn, so hot right now as the villain in pretty much anything he wants to be in, has thrown his voice into the mix.
“They (the producers) were like ‘ who are you thinking of casting for this movie?’” explains co-director Nick Bruno, who, along with his directing buddy Troy Quane, is talking to me in a long, cavernous boardroom, a place at odds with the rest of the studio and its playful interiors.
“And we said ‘you’re probably not gonna get him but Will Smith,’ and they said ‘okay, let’s see if we can get him,’ and we were like, wait, really?’
There’s a boyish charm to the pair. As if they still can’t believe they were given the reins of such a big budget animation. It’s not hard to see why they work as a partnership. Both have a dry sense of humour, seek the playful rather than the serious answers. And both believe whole-heartedly in the movie they’re putting the finishing touches on.
And seeking three of Hollywood’s most popular names seemed ludicrous to them.
“Will Smith took the call and we met him, and every step of the way we were like ‘ we can’t believe this is happening,’ continues Quane.
“But I think what drew him to the project is it wasn’t just a silly spy movie. We had a message about bringing people together and trying to find a non violent solution to resolving conflict and that was important. The first spy movie for young people but with a message. A point.”
Bruno adds, “It’s one of those rare occasion where our first choice for every role said yes that’s a very rare occasion. It was really encouraging, we were going, what is happening?’”
The pair are in sync. They’re on message. but it isn’t forced. It’s a natural partnership, and at the centre of what’s clearly a film built on solid foundations at a studio that consistently achieves more than the sum of its parts might suggest.
Quane is clearly a huge fan of his cast, still brimming with excitement at working with such talent, even if recording took places many months earlier. “You’re seeing just the beginning of Tom Holland. He’s so talented, so charming. And you don’t have a career as long, as with as much breath as Will without some talent and without being a really great guy.
“They say don’t meet your heroes but he’s definitely one of those people that breaks that mould. He was, sincerely, a really fabulous partner on this.”
The more I talk to the Blue Sky staff, the more I realise this is a team working with belief. With passion for the script. On the tour I’m taken to meet animators of all levels. The offices not too far removed from any business with rows of desks and break out areas.
Only here, the employees are encouraged to decorate their work spaces. One animator has turned his desk into a shrine to Epic, an earlier Blue Sky production, while another has every Ninja Turtle toy you can imagine (plus the classic 80s arcade machine) crowded around his desktop computer. Elsewhere, two employees have turned their work area into the world’s smallest (yet most amazing) cinema.
Soon enough I’m given my first glimpse at the production process – the concept artists making sense of the script, devising ways to turn the words into images. Then there are the models, printed in-house to help figure out the size on shape of the characters that will later be rendered on screen.
Each team working towards the final film is passionate about the story. The strength of the script is obvious, and it seeps into their imaginations.
Some of the most impressive stuff occurs in the final animations, an astonishing amount of layers rendered to create an action sequence with enough pigeons to drown Nelson’s Column. The film is beautifully shot. Action scenes with cameras frantically keeping up with the subjects, frames so specific that Kubrick would have spent 100 takes getting it right.
“We work very closely with the story department, just as you would in live action,” explains Director of Photography, James Williams. He’s a studious looking fellow with a clipped, nondescript English accent hiding his Welsh roots.
“Like everything in animation, it’s always very collaborative. We’d work to figure out what kind of cameras we were going put into the shots…. And that would give the studio a sense of what the action is going to be, so we’d look at those panels and sit down with the directors, the production designer, and start to talk about it.”
It’s hard to believe that an animated movie requires the same camera trickery as a live-action shoot, but that’s what Williams has come to explain.
“Beforehand we might have had a long conversation about the theory of the film – what type of camera lenses are we going to use? What type of rigs are we going to simulate? What’s the purpose behind the shots? One of the big things that people forget is that every aspect of the film, including cinematography, is part of the storytelling process.
“One sequence that actually takes place in a boardroom, so in that instance I’d be scouting the set with the directors and we’d go, you know what, in one instance there were two doors, but we want this to feel trapped, so we let’s make sure there’s one door.”
With the tour over and the filmmakers heading back to their (amazing) desks, I’m led back down to the vast lobby, back to the bus and out of the tree-lined, peaceful campus. Back to the hubbub of Manhattan, which is almost inconceivably close by.
Unlike their new owners, Disney, Blue Sky are one of the few studios not based in California. They do their work well away from the La-La life, 5,000 miles from Pixar and co. – and it’s not hard to see why.
I was assured that their new paymasters have been supportive, that there’s been no interference from anyone at Mouse HQ. Quite how long that remains the case will be interesting to see.
As the house of mouse continues its drive to movie-world domination, Blue Sky continue to offer one of the few credible alternatives. One of the only studios capable of going toe-to-toe with Disney in Oscar races.
They’re Disney guys in disguise now, but if their new owners see precisely how high this studio is punching, they’d do well to leave them be.