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Where Great Minds Meet
The AnimationTrip Interview Series

Chris Wedge discusses Robots with Tron director, Steven Lisberger

Steven Lisberger and Chris Wedge

I got together with Chris Wedge and Steven Lisberger recently. Chris was in town to screen Robots to the voice cast and it was still a couple of weeks before the film opened in theatres. At the screening, when Robin Williams learned that Chris worked on Tron, Robin immediately went into one of his maniac comical states and dropped to his knees in praise and then started quoting lines from the film. It's been over 20 years since Chris and Steven worked on Tron, so it was good to see the two of them catch up after all this time and talk about the CG industry, stop-motion, anime and filmmaking. 

                 - Chris Padilla, Editor

Steven Lisberger: How long have you been working on this puppy?

Chris Wedge: From thinking about it, I’d say about seven or eight years.

SL: Wow.

CW: It was about ’96 or so when we started.

SL: Do you have a scrapbook of stuff that you keep… like, do you discover little snippets of stuff?

CW: Yeah, you know, it keeps collecting. It’s one of those things that you think about and just keeps cooking…

SL: Like a rubber band ball.

CW: (Laughs) Yeah, kind of. At Blue Sky, we’re always trying to cook something up and figure out what the next project will be. And it’s just exactly like that – somebody picks the rubber band ball up and passes you a few things…

SL: That’s the way! I think there’s a difference between developing projects that way and, “We got a script! Let’s go with the script!” There’s something alchemical that happens with these things when you have a bunch of creative people and there’s no deadline yet.

CW: It’s the time that you get most excited about it. That’s the best time for me. There are two fun parts for me. One is just daydreaming about what it will be someday, and the other is watching it when it’s done.

SL: I was telling Chris [Padilla], and I mean this in the best sense – my wife really loved Ice Age, but she doesn’t like a lot of movies, so it’s weird. She was looking at Titanic last night for the umpteenth time. I think it reminds her of us when we were young, you know, the artist type… but I haven’t died yet! I missed my chance to die young. And we were talking about how bad the effects look already. And we were talking about in ten years, I have this feeling that in 10 years, people are going to look back and say, “What were those people thinking? This stuff doesn’t work at all!”

CW: Yeah, I know. I think Titanic was one of those movies that really hooks you. I remember sitting and just enjoying being in the theater. I didn’t have to pee, so I was good that way, but I didn’t care that it was so long…

SL: Even with all the water? (laughs)

CW: (laughs) Right. I just really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t go back and watch it again.

SL: My wife saw it like five times

CW: I think it was one of those episodic things.

Chris Padilla: Just before you joined us, Chris, Steven was raising a good point about the aesthetic appeal of CG features and he was likening it to Rankin/Bass.

SL: Yeah, I think that whole thing is an offshoot. I was really amazed at Rankin and Bass’s success in the 70s. And, actually, when I did Animalympics it was supposed to be done in that business model. You know, half an hour TV special. And the fact that we cobbled it together into a feature is beside the point. But they were so successful, and that stuff still runs! I never quite got why it was so successful, but, to me, if you did this thing as a family tree… all 3D animation kind of comes down from that puppet wing. And I don’t understand to this day what the audience finds so compelling about the fact that the stuff is 3D. If 3D was that amazing, then 3D movies would have been bigger!

CW: But to me, back in the Tron days… I think I only met you once before…

SL: But I must have had a huge influence on you, right! (Laughing)

CW: I worked with Richard Taylor and Bill Kroyer and those guys.

SL: You know how many people that worked… I don’t know if it’s like this for other people, but the number of people that have directed that worked with me at Lisberger Studios or on Tron is getting insane! Is it like that for everyone?

CW: It probably is as the generations move.

SL: Man, if I had known that it was like every person that was working at Lisberger Studios and on Tron is now a director!

CW: Was Jerry Reeves there?

SL: Jerry Reeves, Bill Kroyer, Brad Bird…

CW: Brad Bird was there?

SL: Yeah, he was in Animalympics

CW: He was?

SL: Yeah, Roger Allers, Darrell Rooney, who did Lion King II, and there’s like two or three guys that I don’t even remember their names who people tell me, “You know he’s directing now?” (Laughter) And I think, “Man, maybe it was like, they looked at me and said, ‘I can do this!’” (Laughing)

CW: I’ve finally discovered that people just expect you to be the director no matter what you think you have to be. They expect you to be the guy. They expect you to be their boss. So you just act like the boss and tell them what to do!

SL: Yeah, right up to the bitter end. (laughing) When the Titanic goes down. So what were you about to say when we were talking about the 3D thing?

CW: Well, I started as a stop-motion guy. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I watched Rankin/Bass specials. That was a big thing for me.

SL: See? I nailed it!

CW: Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy… I just loved that stuff and I made puppets and made little movies with my dad’s Super-8 camera.

SL: But have you thought about why you loved it so much?

CW: As a kid, and I think that this is true for a lot of young kids, because when you talk to them, they are mostly interested in how to do things. They’re not interested in the storytelling or the roots of stuff. They want to figure out how to do stuff so they can do it themselves.

SL: Like, how to make their toys come alive.

CW: Yeah, for me, it was easier than drawing over and over, but I think that when I saw the computer stuff, and I worked at Magi with Phil Mittleman and all those guys… I saw this insane potential, but it was really freaking impossible to use. But I thought that someday, this will be the thing. Actually, after that, I went to grad school and learned how to program because I thought that all of the animators would be programmers.

SL: Where’d you learn that?

CW: Ohio State. And (I am getting to your point) I thought that if you could make 3D animation move as fluidly and with as much control as they do 2D animation, it’s gonna be incredible. If we can make characters that look as good as the characters in some good 2D movie, it’ll be insane! I just think there is something really incredibly compelling, like it’s in our genes, about seeing stuff that looks real even though it isn’t. That’s the trick with CG. Can you imagine seeing Snow White as like a 20-year-old for the first time? Like back then? Can you imagine? It’s like hallucinogenic drugs…it’s a whole separate reality! And it’s compelling.

SL: It’s a whole new world, as we said in the 60’s. Did you know the early stages of Pixar with Alvy Ray Smith and those guys? Did you know about their Long Island place with Dr. Shure?

CW: Yeah, we were on the East Coast. In fact, the very first computer-generated image I ever saw… I don’t know who made it at NYT, probably in about ’78… it was a picture of a piece of toast with an egg on it in 3D.

SL: I probably saw the same image. Yeah, a vinyl egg!

CW: But it was in 3D and it blew my mind!

SL: Phil Mittleman came to MIT and did a symposium, a little thing, a demonstration, and it must have been like ’77 or something and I went and saw that.

CW: I tell you, I could have done that forever. Being in a research environment like that where your job was to come up with two minutes of animation every year, some mind blowing idea where you don’t have to develop any characters or stories or arcs or anything… just develop some cool-looking thing. There was a bunch of that going on for ten years or so. NYT was one of the places.

SL: Yeah, I know, experimental filmmaking, there isn’t enough of it.

CP: I got together with Steven Churchill last night, from AnimationTrip.com …

CW: Yeah, Steve, he’s a great guy.

CP: He showed me one of your first films, Balloon Guy.

CW: Yeah, that was actually going to be a seven minute movie, and then I left OSU [Ohio State University] and didn’t end up finishing it. So I just whipped something together.

CP: Chris, are you familiar with Fantastic Animation Festival?

CW: Yeah, I remember that.

CP: It featured Steven’s student film, Cosmic Cartoon.

SL: It’s really flipped out.

CP: If there was any film that I could designate as psychedelic, that was the one.

CW: Oh, great!

SL: No cuts. One continuous shot, cell animation.

CW: Was that in the mid-70’s?

CP: Yeah, nation-wide release in ‘77.

SL: You know what I miss? I miss the whole artist studio vibe. The shop with the sink and the paint brushes in it with the paper and the cat. I get freaked when I go visit Richard Taylor at EA and walk in there.

CW: Well, it’s tough, man. This is the thing that… and you had a hand in creating all of it…

SL: And I get blamed for it! (Laughter)

CW: There were two or three of us animating at Magi on Tron and we pulled off, I don’t know how much footage in a year or so. At Blue Sky there are about 250 right now doing stuff in the computers.

SL: Larry… what was his name?

CW: Larry Elin.

SL: Yeah, he was a great guy.

CW: Yeah, he is a great guy. I think he’s in Syracuse now. I don’t know, it’s a balance because you got to have talented people around you and keep them interested, so everybody’s got to have enough to do. Different studios are going to be different. We try to keep Blue Sky small so everyone feels some ownership. And you got to rely on them because there’s too much in the movie. Too much.

CP: Have you guys ever visited PDI or Pixar, and if you have, are there any different things about the atmosphere?

CW: I’ve been to Pixar a few times. I think it’s a similar attitude. Everybody’s excited about coming up with new stuff. We just try to make every project new.

CP: Do you have an in-house short film program going, like some studios have?

CW: A fledgling one. It’s been enough work just to get these feature films done. Ice Age was our first. We had no idea we could do it in the first place. And as soon as we got it done, the studio said, “Okay, now make another one. And by the way, we’re paying all of these guys, so, uh, let’s get them busy fast. ”

SL: The studio bought your studio?

CW: Yeah, we sold Blue Sky to Fox about seven years ago.

SL: Was that a good deal?

CW: I suppose. I don’t know if we’d be doing what we’re doing now if we’d kept the company. It just comes with a price. But I don’t think we had to pay much of a price. I miss the days where it was all our thing, it’s a smaller shop, everyone’s really invested in it, but I don’t miss waking up with a start at 3:00 in the morning wondering if we’ll be in business the next week.

SL: It’s so hard. Unless you’ve done it, no one knows. It grinds away at you.

CW: You have victories, and you have a lot of low moments in between. (Laughs).

CP: So this is a whole different mode when you’re an artist…you’re running a studio and you’re a businessman. Are your hours of creativity reduced to minutes?

SL: The problem that I always have with that mix is that in some of the major studios, the attitude is that when you put enough people in a room and you get them working on something, and the one that’s left standing at the end – you go with him. And it’s sort of a “survival of the fittest” business acumen. My feeling is that too often they apply that in the creative realm. It’s like, “Ten people have a creative direction on this. You ten people go at it. And the one that wins – we’ll use his idea.” I find that the problem with that is that very often, the person who has the best creative idea is not that good at politicking, is not good at making the right friends, is not good at the phone calls, is not good at the connections. So if you base it on that other formula, you end up with bad studio movies. That’s a specific that I’ve seen come out of the mixture of business and art.

CP: What would be a counter scenario to that?

SL: The way to counter that is to have a team of people that really know each other. I think the difference when listening to Chris when he’s talking about that group of people… I always compare these things to the “big band” sound. Sure, you have a leader of a band. He knows the team and they’ve sort of moved beyond the initial ego thing. And he knows that every once in a while the drummer comes up with something out of left field and it’s incredible, but then it’s time for a sax solo and they move past egos because they’re friends, but the studio environment tends to be more like, “Well, we don’t really feel like playing the creative game” because there’s a big lie about that. What we really are good at is business.” It’s like what Dawn Steele said to me when she greenlit Hot Pursuit at Paramount. We had lunch, she’s gone now, bless her heart, and she said to me, “What do I know about which movie to make? I’ve spent my whole career fighting my way up to the head of this studio. I don’t know anything about picking movies!” (Laughter)

CW: Oh man!

SL: So the thing is, they really don’t feel as comfortable on the creative footing as they do on the business footing. So they want to, even if it’s subconscious, keep it on a business footing. So by constantly changing people, and never really becoming friends, they never get past the superficial ego trip. And that’s where they want it to stay! That’s what they’re good at – playing that kind of poker game. But once everybody really gets to know everybody, it really has to be about creativity. You have to be comfortable enough as the guy running the studio to say, “Wow! This guy came up with a much better idea than mine, and he’s getting much less pay around here than I am.”

CW: Richard Taylor said something to me that I’m sure he doesn’t remember, and maybe he’s said it to a lot of people, but it always stuck with me. It was that, “good ideas can come from anybody. Don’t worry about what kind of idiot you think this person is. If it’s a good idea, put it in!”

SL: Yeah.

CW: I don’t try to be that cynical about where the ideas come from, but you have to be open to being the person who doesn’t have to come up with everything, just be the person who decides what is worth putting in.

CP: The filter.

CW: The big band analogy is a good one because I’m sure that those guys get together and they do this, but then they find a sound, and if they’re lucky, they’re able to refine it and really follow it and find new stuff. I think that’s the trick. You’re talking about a pretty dysfunctional sounding model. You can’t create competition among people because their egos are too fragile! If they’re creative, all they want to do is work! You have to help focus their energy and let them own the stuff. It’s incredible, from my perspective anyway, just from the two movies we’ve done at Blue Sky, that on Ice Age, we were able to discover who had strengths where and to set them in and then on Robots, and let them go with stuff. So I don’t really have to think about… I just know that it’ll look amazing. And when it comes back I get to be kind of an armchair quarterback every once in a while. “I helped make that happen!” But it’s a lot easier for everybody and everybody’s happier… it’s a lot easier for me, that’s for sure.

SL: Now that’s the best, when you get a group of people that you can trust and everybody feels comfortable with everyone, and it’s based on creativity and not based on egos. Rare.

CP: So how do you feel after Robots compared to how you felt after Ice Age?

SL: Older. (laughter)

CW: Really tired. Robots was ten times as much work.

SL: What would you make different about the whole process if you could update…when you look at CG features, is there one aspect like, “Lighting kills live action filmmaking. It’s just a drag, it takes so long.

CW: Just the process?

SL: Yeah.

CW: You start with animation, so you know it will just be…

SL: Pyramid-building. (Laughing)

CW: It’s going to be awful. (laughing) There’s just nothing spontaneous about it at all.

SL: I like that part though, that it’s not spontaneous.

CW: Well I do, too, because I think I’m just a slow thinker. It takes a while. The best thing to have with animation is a plan. So in the perfect world for me - and I’ve never been there, and I’d probably complained about it even if I had - would be, get the whole movie up on reels and watch it, and then go in and add to it. It could be that the thing feels a little stiffer because of that because the animation isn’t feeding back into story or back to the page. The way we’ve been doing it, everything’s been happening at once. You write some script pages, put them to story, they ignore all of the dialogue and do all their own stuff, and they add a new character and say, “Oh, s*** that’s funny” and then put it back in the script and start writing it, and then it goes into character design, and that adds something back to story…

SL: It’s all chain reacting.

CW: After a while, the movie starts to take a personality of its own, just like kids. They talk like you for three or four years, but then at seven or eight they start meeting their friends and say, “Who the hell are you?” They turn into their own things. That’s what I feel like right now. You’re putting your kid on the train to college.

SL: I just did that.

CW: I did that a while ago! (laughs) It’s like, there they go! That’s it! I did what I could!

SL: I always think of my kids as one of those Martian Lunar Probes. You know, you work on them for years and years and then you send them off and you just hope that a little bit of data comes back now and then. (laughing) And then he doesn’t crash! And you know you’re getting the data in a huge delay. “Now did this happen recently, son, or was this like six months ago?” (more laughing) Right about now the chute’s supposed to be opening and I hope it opens! (more laughter)

CW: That’s pretty accurate. Yeah, I hope Robots sends some good news back. That’s all. (laughter)

CP: So, ten times harder this time, huh?

CW: Oh, I don’t know. The studio got all excited about Ice Age and they gave us pretty much carte blanche to come up with the next one. And then we get to where we thought we always wanted to be and it’s just making a gigantic cake and shoving it in our mouths… it just took forever to chew it.

SL: Be careful what you wish for! You might get it! (Laughter)

CW: That’s exactly it. You have to deal with what you ask for. It was complicated, but I’m just passing through this phase where I watched the movie on Tuesday, the first answer print, and here you sit in the theater without a notebook in your lap…

SL: Because you can’t change anything anyways!

CW: Nothing I can do about it now! Maybe you want to go back and fiddle with the print master a little but, but you’re not going to… there’s no picture changes. It’s done, it’s done.

SL: Yeah, and anything that you change now, even a minor thing that seems important, wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

CW: Yeah, once you’re good with that – that no one but you is going to care about this – then I think that you can let go.

SL: I like that line that they asked Jerry Seinfeld when he got done with his TV show. They asked him, “Are you going to do movies now, Jerry? Comedies?” And he said, “Why would I want to do that? Listen to the same joke 128 times for two years?” It’s really true. Your movie becomes a mantra. A chant.

CW: That’s the tough thing about CG movies. You think it’s funny when you think of it or you hear it, you put it to storyboard and everybody laughs, and it goes into animation and they add a few things, and after a while, everyone is sick to death of it. You can’t tell how it’s pacing out and you have to rely on an audience to see, “They’re laughing here.”

SL: But at least it’s not like live action, Chris. In live action you have this real insanity going on, which is, “capturing lightning in a bottle.” It’s like, “Any second now, something amazing could happen, and we have to be ready to grab it, and capture it!” And then you have this weird thing, sort of like, “Oh my God, blood came out of the hands of that statue! Did you get it?” Or, “Don’t take a bite of that sandwich! It looks like Christ’s mother in the cheese and now you bit through it!” Everybody’s like, “Did you get that moment?” and you can work yourself into this feeding frenzy that you caught magic, and then you go back and look at the dailies, look at the rough cut, and you say, “What the hell were we excited about? Use a different take! That one’s much better.” So there’s this weird thing of, “Any second! Oh my God, that was a moment.” It’s totally weird. It’s very different than the methodical pyramid building.

CW: I think that’s what an audience is good for. They just don’t have any of your baggage. They’re watching the movie for what it is. I’ll never forget on Ice Age…we were so sick of it. The worst screening we had of Ice Age was the night we all sat and watched our first preview cut. We were going to take it out here and show it to an audience. First time. I was so nervous. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to sit there with an audience watching this with the studio executives breathing down my neck and show this.

SL: How did it go?

CW: We put it up there. It was the first preview I had ever had. My first movie, and… they loved it. They engaged with it. It starts out with a funny scene and they were laughing, and then the characters come up, and to me, the effect was that the characters were coming out into the audience and the audience was coming to them. You could feel that it was working. So after that, it was just fixing.

SL: That’s a good way to put it.

CW: I mean Robots was a different story.

CP: How so?

CW: Well, we had more issues. We tried to make a much more complicated movie. There was just much more stuff in there than we needed. And I learned that in the first preview. In different parts there was just boredom. So we slashed and cut them out, and brought another thing back. I think the audience helped us. We were more under the gun on Robots, I think. The audience helps you put yourself in that objective perspective. They don’t know all that I know about this. They just help you hold your head straight.

CP: So as much as a learning curve as Ice Age was, did Robots have a learning curve?

CW: In Robots, I finally understood what I learned on Ice Age. Stuff worked in Ice Age and then we tried something different in Robots, and we were like, “What are you thinking!” Go back to what you know how to do.

SL: A bridge too far. (Laughter)

CW: At the end of the day, it turns into its own thing, and you just work with it. You can’t…it’s like having two kids. You have one and you say, “That’s what having kids is like” and then you have another one and you go, “Huh?”

CP: So what would you guys like to see feature filmmaking turn out to be?

CW: Completely automatic. (Laughter)

SL: I just wonder how big an influence Asia is going to have. I think that will be interesting over the next 50 years.

CP: You mean the style of filmmaking?

SL: I think that the Japanese with their anime have influenced American film more than we’d like to say. And the Japanese are still so determined to be way “out there.” I think that there will be a weird dynamic if Asia becomes more far-out, which it already is, than America. It’s sort of a commercial art. So I think that’s a strange phenomena.

CP: Chris, I know you have an Ice Age sequel happening, but are you going to do that before you do another original film?

CW: Well, Ice Age is already dealt with at Blue Sky. The crew has been busy at that. We really started in earnest about a year ago on Ice Age 2. There are a couple other projects that we’re developing to go in behind that.

SL: Ice Age was surprising because the subject matter was not…it’s not like robots or cars or toys. You don’t think, “CG! That’ll be perfect for ice age stuff! We can do those mammoths so well!” (Laughing)

CW: That was a funny first reaction. No, I think the Ice Age style came along because we were afraid of it. We were designing characters that wouldn’t require fur. I was looking for a style…

CP: Are you meeting the press this weekend?

CW: Actually, we’re showing it to the cast tonight. I think they’ll like it. I watched it on Tuesday and I got a little bit into audience-land, just relaxing.

SL: Because it’s over.

CW: It’s a good ride. It’s really fun.

 

To view more pictures from Robots, visit our picture page

 

Transcription: Brian Crawford and Mark Barry


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