Most films are labors of love but few more so than animated features. Developing the story and casting the right actors is important for any project, but the visual effects, storyboarding and post-production demands of animation can be trying and involve years-long commitments. Kristine Belson and Jane Hartwell, producers of the soon-to-be-released, much-anticipated The Croods, also found, however, that—despite their enormous challenges—animated features can be incredibly rewarding.
Written and directed by first-time helmer Kirk De Micco and How To Train Your Dragon’s Christopher Sanders and starring Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds, The Croods follows a prehistoric family forced to leave their cave and explore the world during the “Croodaceous Era.” We spoke with DreamWorks’ Belson and Hartwell about the challenges of 3D, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s affinity for caveman movies, and what it took to create the memorable prehistoric characters who inhabit the equally memorable, fully realized world of The Croods.
SSN: The Croods project was announced at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2005. Can you talk about how you came to the project and what the process of getting it made has been like?
Kristine: Back in 2005, the project was called Crood Awakening with Aardman [Animations] because we had a deal with them. The script was written by Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese, and, at a certain point, it was contemplated as a stop-motion project. Then Aardman and DreamWorks parted ways. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] always had an affinity for caveman movies and buddy movies. The story was originally more of a buddy movie about an old-school caveman who was resistant to change. Jeff wanted to keep it on the slate.
Jane: Kristine and I were working for the studio and Kristine was working on it as Head of Development and was interested in becoming a hands-on producer. I started working on this five years ago to the exclusion of any other project. It took a little longer because Chris [Sanders] went to do How to Train Your Dragon. As a result, we did the project with fewer resources and a smaller team of creatives, and, during that time, the tone was well established, so I think it benefited us.
SSN: How does the pre-production and production process work for animated films?
Jane: The story gets refined all throughout the process, from pre-production to designing characters to building them to defining the world.
Kristine: We storyboard the entire movie with six to eight artists, and we use internal people for temp voices, and we use temp sound effects and temp music, and we watch the movie ten to twelve times when it’s drawn but not animated yet. It’s like work-shopping a play. We keep refining, which is why a good animated movie feels so polished.
Jane: It ends up being potentially painful. You’re testing the characters and how they move and who they are. We’re sliding between production and pre-production sequence by sequence. The line between development and production is very fuzzy.
The post-production process is similar to live-action, and every movie is a little bit different.
SSN: What about the character design? Does that rely at all on your casting?
Kristine: We design the characters during the same year that we’re casting. We don’t design the character to look like Nic Cage, but we will listen to that actor and pull audio while we’re looking at character design.
SSN: Jeffrey Katzenberg is a huge proponent of 3D. How does that affect your creative process, if at all?
Jane: We try to make 3D a part of the process and not an afterthought. You want to immerse viewers in a world, so we’re always checking in with the directors. The world of The Croods lends itself very well to 3D.
Kristine: It’s not the old-style, gimmicky 3D where things are flying at your face. Jeff finds the immersive quality of 3D important. You can really bring people into the world and into a set. The 3D pulls you in past the proscenium.
SSN: How does live-action compare to animation? Can you talk about the pros and cons of each?
Kristine: In live-action, you can work on the script, but, even if you do, when you’re on set you better hope you get it. It’s so challenging. As a live-action producer in animation, you can keep looking at your story, and it’s such a golden opportunity. That’s what I love most, and I love that we can create these worlds.
Jane: I like how there’s time to strategize, and when things are delayed you can really plan. I didn’t feel that in live-action you could do that. I love working with all the different departments too. They’re all so diverse.
Kristine: You get to know the people so much better because we have this family for years. You get to understand people’s strengths and weaknesses and get to really know them.
SSN: Is there much room for improv from the actors in animated films, or are they locked into the script?
Kristine: There’s totally room for improv. We don’t animate until after the actors record. It’s an animation tradition to have actors improvise, and the benefits are huge. There’s a tremendous amount of improv, and I give credit to Kirk and Chris for being able to direct that without losing sight of the story. You want to keep the options open as long as possible before the doors shut.
Jane: I try on the production side for improv to happen as well. It’s a judgment call. We always want to honor the best story.
Kristine: Chris and Kirk are writers as well as directors. Chris was on the market, and he gravitated towards The Croods. It was a great partnership. Chris wanted to be Kirk’s partner. It was difficult sometimes from a scheduling standpoint, but the great thing is that they had a singularity of vision between the two of them, and they never disagreed. They will continue to work together, and I expect we will see them collaborating again.
SSN: What was the inspiration for the look of the film?
Jane: We wanted to start the film in a harsh and limited environment. One inspiration was Zion [National Park]. A lot of our key creatives went to Zion. We knew we wanted the world to look as foreign to the Croods as it would to us. There was also the challenge of inventing the Croodaceous Era. We didn’t want it to be too foreign. We wanted it to look like Earth but different than today. It’s crazy what actually exists out there that you can pull from. We looked at a lot of natural phenomenon and made a giant coral field one of our set pieces.
SSN: There’s a Rovio game coming out based on the movie. How early did that happen, and how early does the marketing machine start on a film like this?
Kristine: The Rovio game came up relatively late, about a year ago. That was a neat opportunity. We always do a video game, and we start talking about marketing early on. The campaign gets nailed down closer to release.
SSN: What’s next for the two of you? Do you have any plans to collaborate again?
Kristine: I think we’re better together than apart. I know I’m better partnered with Jane. We have a project tentatively titled Everest, but that’s a temp title. It’s about a little girl and a Yeti, and the writer-director is Jill Culton.
You can check out the final result of Belson and Hartwell’s vision and perseverance this Friday, March 22, when The Croods hits theaters. Based on trailers, it looks to be a visually stunning, comedic blockbuster-in-waiting about an everyday family looking for a home. We’re especially excited to see the Croodaceous Era brought vividly to life.