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Fade to Black: Chris Wedge, Director

The day after watching Brad Bird accept his Academy Award for making The Incredibles, Chris Wedge was extremely pleased, even though Bird’s creative home, Pixar, is a competitor. Wedge, who is co-founder and VP of creative development at Fox’s Blue Sky Studios and who won his own Oscar in 1998 for the CG short Bunny, is in favor of anything that helps CG feature films gain critical respect.

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“Brad made a giant step forward with Incredibles,” he says. “It’s definitely good for Blue Sky when Pixar does well. Pixar set a standard where people started looking at Incredibles as a movie of substance. That’s important. We’re hoping to continue that trend with Robots.”

Opening this month — and co-directed with Carlos Saldanha — Robots is Wedge’s follow up to Ice Age and precedes 2006’s Ice Age 2, which Saldanha is directing and Wedge is producing.

“It would be nice to see [animated film directors] get consideration in the best director category,” Wedge says. “Different directors go for different things anyway — different styles, genres, approaches. Coppola and Scorsese stylize like crazy; Woody Allen makes quirky comedies; some guys do musicals. They have specialties. Making computer-animated films is no different. This is our preferred medium for expressing the ideas in our heads. If we do it all right to serve a compelling story that moves an audience, we are accomplishing the same goal as a live-action director. It would be nice to get that kind of consideration, but I’m sure it’s a long way off.”

Wedge points to his directing work on Robots with a degree of pride. He feels the film’s highly stylized look — crafted in close collaboration with acclaimed childrens’ book artist William Joyce — the animation and voice performances, and the story’s emotional resonance should be the basis of judging his directing skills, as with any live-action director.

As the film’s primary creative voice (Saldanha supervised technical details before switching over to prep Ice Age 2), Wedge found himself agonizing for months over such small but difficult details as flaking paint, rust, and other nuances of robot life in a huge metropolis. “We had to build intense visual detail in our synthetic images, meant to trick you into feeling what you are seeing is plausible,” he says. “For instance, we throw in all kinds of extra lighting details into each scene to make them more natural.

“Our most effective software development was the ability to create this wear-and-tear aspect of the metal procedurally,” Wedge says. “We came up with tools to let robots wear paint without having to paint on all those textures by hand. You see chipped paint on their bodies and if you could see it close enough, you will see a top layer of paint, a primer layer, and the original metal layer beneath that. We wanted to show the robots undergoing wear and tear, much like when the sun beats down on a car’s hood, making the paint fade. This added to the notion of believability in the sense that the metal looks naturally distressed. This was a big thing in terms of selling the story.”

If nothing else, Wedge feels all the hard work required for such an endeavor is on par with what his live-action brethren routinely handle.

“It took three years to make this thing,” he says. “From what I read, it took Clint Eastwood only 36 days to shoot [Million Dollar Baby], which won the Oscar. That was an amazing effort, but so was The Incredibles — it had to be one of the top five films of the year. Directing a CG film like this calls on the director to use all sorts of skills, just like a live-action film does. It would be nice to see people recognize this fact.”

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