- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

I've been looking forward to this day for about 20 years," says movie director Chris Wedge, whose computer-animated adventure farce "Ice Age" opens this weekend. This is Mr. Wedge's first feature he co-directed it with Carlos Saldanha and it is the best new movie of the weekend.

"Ice Age" celebrates a trio of valiant, outcast critters a woolly mammoth named Manny, a sloth named Sid and a saber-toothed tiger named Diego who protect an orphaned infant while lagging somewhat behind a mass migration of North American animals. The creatures are on the move because of glaciation, about 20,000 playful and whimsical years in the past.

The movie, distributed by 20th Century Fox, was made by the computer-animation company Blue Sky. Formed in 1987 and located a bit eccentrically in Westchester County, N.Y., Blue Sky was active in television commercials and computer-generated special effects for features before it was acquired by Fox and commissioned to forge ahead with a theatrical attraction.

"Our game plan at the moment is 'Ice Age.' We want it to win," Mr. Wedge, one of the company's founders, says by telephone. "Everything is pretty much rolled up into this one basket. Fox owns the company out-

right. We work very closely, although we're 3,000 miles apart. Nothing happens too quickly in animation. It's all labored over."

Mr. Wedge, 44, says he would be more than satisfied to look back a decade from now on an inventory of features as strong as that produced by the Pixar animation studio. "I'd say that would suit us fine," he comments. "In fact, I'll be happy as long as we can get paid for doing what we love to do."

The director became fascinated with animation while growing up in a small town in upstate New York. "I made little stop-motion films with my Dad's 8 mm camera. Puppet films," he says. "I studied animation in college, first as an undergradate at the State University of New York in Purchase, then as a graduate at Ohio State. Soon after leaving SUNY, I got one of the first jobs in computer animation that ever existed. At a company called MAGI, which was near here. The first project I worked on was 'Tron.'"

Mr. Wedge says the Disney studio had authorized the science-fiction thriller "Tron," eventually released in 1982, without having computer-animation resources of its own to realize sequences ascribed to an invisible realm of electronic circuits and impulses.

"There were very few people at Disney who were interested in computer animation," he says. "They lacked the capability for the scenes that take place inside a computer, including the thrill-ride business with a high-speed video game. So they turned to these little companies that had more engineers than visual artists. We did all the game footage at MAGI. All the stuff with light cycles. All the robots called Recognizers; the toy tanks. Every time you see somebody playing the computer game, that was us. All in all, about 15 minutes of footage, and it was terribly exciting at the time."

Mr. Wedge declined overtures to work at Disney in order to "follow my curiosity about what computers would be capable of doing." Animation that approached a three-dimensional effect was his abiding goal. He enrolled in graduate school after completing the "Tron" assignment.

"Although I'd been doing some of the most visible work in the field, I felt that the most valuable work in the future would require an understanding of programming. So I went to Ohio State to learn graphics programming," he says. "It was one of the only places in the world to study the subject. A man named Charles Csuri had put together an interdisciplinary lab where grad-level artists could collaborate with grad-level computer scientists, developing new tools and techniques. I made some short films there, and they did pretty well in festival competitions. After graduation, I started Blue Sky with a handful of colleagues."

Mr. Wedge also had collaborated on a short test film under Disney auspices in which John Lasseter, then a Disney animator

and eventually the founder of Pixar, was permitted to blend computer-animated and cel-animated footage.

"John had been watching the 'Tron' footage as it came to the studio, and it encouraged him to nag his superiors for the test," Mr. Wedge says. "He got Glen Keane to animate the characters, and I agreed to animate the backgrounds. The results were really promising, but the studio was still moving too slowly for John at that point. So he seized some other opportunities that led to the start of Pixar. I've been lurking in the background all this time."

Mr. Wedge won a 1998 Academy Award for best animated short with a Blue Sky production titled "Bunny."

He is the father of two children, including a 17-year-old daughter whom he regards as a very talented illustrator.

About six months ago, a brilliant trailer for "Ice Age" began turning up at theaters. What that trailer and the movie's prologue depict is the plight of an overwhelmed squirrel, nicknamed Scrat by the Blue Sky family. Having secured a precious acorn, he foolishly attempts to embed it safely within an icebound surface. His pounding creates a crack that seems to lead directly to an avalanche and other natural calamities, obliging Scrat to high-tail it away from peril, desperately clutching his treasure.

"The inspiration for doing it was to get audiences into the Ice Age concept as quickly as possible," Mr. Wedge says. "The story itself takes a little while to get into snow and ice, and Scrat comes and goes as a character. He's never part of the main plot. We did think a funny prologue of some kind was essential. We wanted the setting to have a personality of its own. One way to do that is represent it as a speeding glacier that's chasing one of the characters across a lot of landscape. And if something is getting chased, it should be the most helpless, hapless little guy we can find."

The director says two factors "came together to make 'Ice Age' look the way it does."

"We have, over the years, implemented a technique called 'ray tracing.' It's a simulation of the way light actually works in the world. There are theoretical physicists on our staff who understand the properties of light. They model it as programs in our computer. That gives lighting directors an ability to act more like photographers or cinematographers than graphic artists when they're preparing scenes. We can simulate absolute photo-realism. In the case of 'Ice Age,' we can also make a stylized, imaginary

environment look exceptionally tactile."

Mr. Wedge believes budgetary

constraints also may have contributed to a certain resourcefulness and soundness of judgment. "We got our movie up on the screen for a fraction of what our friends at the other companies are spending," he says. "When I say a fraction, I mean about two-thirds of the typical costs. In hindsight, it was very smart to apply a simpler design to the environment in order to keep from busting the budget. The emphasis shifts to characters and performances, and that turns out to be better for the movie as a whole."

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