Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: The Art of The Croods

Skip the Mattel toys and the Happy Meal prizes. Noela Hueso's The Art of the Croods (Titan Books) is the one MUST-HAVE tie-in for anyone with any interest in the film.


I have four long bookshelves lined with nothing but animation books. The lion's share of these are 'Art Of' and 'Making Of' books, but until now, only three of them focused on CG films. Why? Cuz I'm old. Cuz I was raised on hand-drawn animation. And given the choice, I'd much rather look at paintings, sketches and pastels than the multicolored spaghetti that makes up a CG animator's toolbox.

Or so I'd thought.

After reading Noela Hueso's The Art of the Croods, I can feel a seismic shift about to occur in my library. If the other recently released CG 'Art Of' books are even half as good as this one, I'm about buy a LOT of new books. I may even have to build some new bookshelves!


With The Art of the Croods, Noela Hueso has put together the PERFECT behind-the-scenes book. It contains hundreds of large, beautifully reproduced illustrations, as well as a wealth of informative, unobtrusively placed text. Someone who has never read anything about animation could pick it up and gain a pretty good understanding of what goes into making a feature length CG film. Animation know-it-alls will also find plenty to pore over, from the concept art to the uncensored anecdotes to the detailed descriptions of the film's technical trickery.


The Introduction

The Art of the Croods starts off with a brief introduction to the film's production. Most readers of this blog already know that the film began way back in 2004, originally conceived of as a stop-motion film from Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit), and co-written by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and John Cleese (Monty Python). When Aardman's first DreamWorks release, Flushed Away, tanked, the two studios parted ways. John Cleese departed soon thereafter. This left Kirk De Micco all alone on the film. Around this same time, Chris Sanders left Disney for DreamWorks. Sanders took an immediate liking to The Croods, and was soon teamed-up with De Micco as the film's co-writer and co-director. The pairing seemed like a match made in heaven, until...

ANOTHER INTERRUPTION!

In 2009, DreamWorks asked Chris Sanders to temporarily leave The Croods. How To Train Your Dragon was scheduled for release in 2010, and they needed a replacement director, STAT. (In retrospect, GOOD CALL, DREAMWORKS!) Once again, Kirk De Micco was writing The Croods solo, only now -- and this is where it really gets good -- he had production designer Christophe Lautrette and the DW art department assisting him on the project. Lautrette and the art department went NUTS. In less than a year, they created THOUSANDS of drawings, paintings and CG mock-ups of potential characters, environments and critters.

What did this mean for The Croods? I'll let Hueso tell it:

By the time Sanders came back and preproduction officially resumed, a library of assets had been built from which he and De Micco could choose to populate the film. In many instances, they tailored the story to fit the art. [...] In other words, the traditional filmmaking workflow was turned on its head.


Sounds exciting. And frightening! Would this topsy-turvy, stop-and-start production produce a mess or a masterpiece? Who could say? But with "a library of assets" at Noela Hueso's disposal, the filmmakers were guaranteed one hell of an art book!

Part 1: Finding The Croods

"We had very strong ideas about what we wanted and didn't want them to be as cavemen. We didn't want them to be modern, but we didn't want them to be the stereotypical slow cavemen either. We wanted them to go out there and be superpowered. The directors wanted them to be human and fallible, but they needed to be special in their strength. They needed to not be us."
-- The Croods producer Jane Hartwell

The second section of The Art of the Croods is an eclectic collection of preproduction artwork covering the creation of the caveman cast. This is the section that every animation fan will want to flip to first. It's a cartoon nerd's nirvana. We're talking page after page of GORGEOUS ARTWORK chronicling the lead characters' false starts, dead ends and moments of revelation. Through text and illustration, Hueso charts the gradual evolution of their personalities and appearances. Ugga, for instance, looks NOTHING like she did when she began. And poor, furry, adorable Belt -- he almost wasn't animated at all!


Fans of James Baxter (the pencil behind Belle!) will be DELIGHTED to know that there are a bunch of his sketches in this section. We're talking CARTOONING AT ITS BEST, folks! Baxter does a series of facial expression studies for Sandy, Grug and Gran that will make your eyeballs feel drunk. Good drunk, giddy drunk, ready to make out with a stranger drunk. I've been a fan of Baxter's for a looong time, and I'm STILL in awe of the emotion and personality he can deliver in a simple neck-up sketch. Isn't it time we started calling him 'Maestro Baxter'?

Two new names -- at least to me -- who I can see becoming internet idols because of this book are Takao Noguchi and Carter Goodrich. While their art styles couldn't be more different, they're both equally eye-catching and distinct.


Carter Goodrich seems to work mostly in pencil. Scribbling layer upon layer of loose, lyrical lines, Goodrich creates gloriously grotesque caricatures teeming with body hair and a Pigpen-like aura of filth. His work is textbook timeless. It wouldn't look out of place in a 1960's underground comic, yet it could also be featured in a 2023 exhibition of experimental animation. Think of the most metal kid in your junior high school. Give him the drawing ability of Da Vinci circa The Vitruvian Man. Now let him scrawl all over your math book for the duration of detention. The end result would look something like Goodrich's deliriously devilish doodles.

Takao Noguchi, on the other hand, specializes in vividly colored, professionally rendered CG. His work has a look that Chris Sanders likened to 'expensive vinyl toys.' In The Art of The Croods, Kirk De Micco says, "Everything that Takao touched suddenly came alive."

Here's my Takao Noguchi sales pitch: The first time you flip through The Art of The Croods, check your watch. You will spend AT LEAST five minutes looking at the two page spread Noguchi did of potential critter combinations. There are DOZENS of them, all laid out and labeled like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. Cute ones, weird ones, wondrous ones, you name it. It's an unfiltered look at an artist unleashing his imagination, and another opportunity for your eyeballs to imbibe. Drink up!

My lone gripe with the 'Finding The Croods' section? No Chris Sanders. Nearly fifty pages of sketches, yet not a one from Sanders. It's only really noticeable because he's so well represented in the rest of the book. Plus, I LOVE HIS SH*T. Oh, well. Beggars can't be editors...


Part 2: An Evolving World

"The best thing about it, even from the artists' standpoint, was that we could do anything we wanted. But the worst thing about it was that we could do anything we wanted."
-- The Croods co-director Kirk De Micco


Crazy critters! Lush landscapes! Exotic environments! If the first two sections of The Art of The Croods served as a 1-2 punch to your visual cortex, this portion is the knockout blow.

Taking up roughly half of the book's 177 pages, 'An Evolving World' should stand as the definitive resource for anyone interested in ANYTHING about the world of The Croods. Every critter that made it into the finished film is on display here, most of them shown in varying stages of design. We're talking 14 different versions of the ramu, a full page of color studies for the liyote, and a half page of watercolor thumbnails detailing the bearowl's broad range of predatory poses.

This section also provides another opportunity for Takao Noguchi to shine. Dude seems to have done the final versions of 99% of the critters! Even his designs that did not make the film -- a Rango-esque crocopup and an anime-influenced punch monkey, for example -- are camera-ready for sequels and spin-offs.

It's not just the critters that get critiqued in this section. The Croodaceous period's plant life gets a similarly exhaustive examination. If you've ever wondered what a field guide for a fantasy world would look like, you now have your answer. Victorian era pencil sketches sit beside photo-realistic CG paintings. Giant, bulbous trees dwarf small, carnivorous flowers. Underwater plants carpet rainforest floors. Everything looks familiar, but somehow different. It's the landscape of dreams.

Speaking of landscapes, The Art of The Croods is CHOCK FULL O' LANDSCAPES. Much like the original Star Wars trilogy, every scene in The Croods appears to take place in a wholly original environment. But instead of desert planets, snow planets, cloud planets and jungle planets, The Croods takes us to barren canyons, lush forests, fields of coral, and a crystal cave. The stories behind these environments are equally eclectic. Some were inspired by crew members' vacations, others from The Wizard of Oz. A few took their cues from inanimate objects like ceramic vases and paper lanterns.


The two page spreads depicting these unnatural geographics are EXTRAORDINARY. Nicolas Weis, Huy Nguyen, Dominique Louis, Margaret Wuller...the list of amazing artists represented just goes on and on. Were I to single out just two, though, I'd have to go with Leighton Hickman and Arthur Fong.

Leighton Hickman's CG paintings are what all-caps adjectives were invented for. They are MAJESTIC. ENTHRALLING. UTTERLY IMMERSIVE. There is not a single Hickman painting in this book that did not make my pupils pop. They're like Imax images of Shangri-La, or a Miyazaki world as seen through the lens of David Lean. Gasp-worthy, all of 'em.


As for Arthur Fong, well, his art just hits me in my sweet spot. The way babies smile at symmetry and circles, my inner infant gurgles and drools over Fong's cartoon canvases. They're the perfect blend of widescreen composition, candy colored everything, and the easy-to-read cartoon characters placed therein. If I only walk away from this movie, this blog and this book having learned one thing, it's this: Keep an eye on Arthur Fong. He's poised to mastermind something truly spectacular. I don't know if it's going to be an animated film, a TV show or a 22 page comic book, but whatever it is, I want to be there to witness every step.


Part 3: Anatomy of a Scene

The final portion of The Art of The Croods goes step by step through a single scene's production. Beginning with a vague description from the directors as to what they wanted the scene to accomplish, we're taken through its storyboarding, layout, CG modeling and surfacing, character rigging and animation, and just about every visual effect imaginable -- including the final 3D conversion.


Dreaming of a job in animation? This section will either help you fine-tune your focus or completely overwhelm you. Either way, you're walking away educated. It's gonna be a little less enthralling for those folks NOT enamored with the details of digital rendering or the wonders of filming flames in a parking lot so that you can then spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to recreate them on a computer. Make no mistake, this is the animation equivalent of insider baseball. Reader mileage may vary.

My only complaint with this section? The scene that it dissects is THE CLIMAX OF THE MOVIE! So, um, yeah -- spoiler alert. The book's official release date is March 26, only four days after The Croods hits theaters. I guess the sort of person who buys a book like this is the same sort of person who sees a movie on opening night. Still, this scene is labeled 'Sequence 2975.' Couldn't Hueso and DreamWorks just as easily have picked one the previous 2974 sequences to showcase?

Back to the positives:

This section contains EVEN MORE hand drawn production art! In the chapter 'Character TD and Animation,' there's a full page of pencil sketches of Guy in various action poses and extreme close-ups. I let my nephews (ages 9 and 12) flip through The Art of the Croods while they were visiting recently, and they were RIVETED by this page. When their dad came by to pick them up at the end of the night, they ripped four pages trying to show it to him. They were THAT EXCITED by it! It was the first time I was ever happy to see a couple of punk kids destroying my stuff.


A few pages later, in 'Character Effects,' there's a super-simple CG shot of a low-res Grug holding an unrendered Sandy in a field of unfinished flowers. It's a relatively small picture, one that might be easily overlooked considering its placement next to a full-color photo of the Macawnivore. But when you DO see it, WOW. Immediate engagement. It's a picture-worth-a-thousand-words testament to the amount of emotion, expression and story that a great animator can get out of the minimum amount of detail. I couldn't help but imagine an alternate version of The Croods, a low-fi, bare-bones, intentionally CRUDE looking Croods. A David O'Reilly version!

Then a second, better thought flashed through my mind:

EVERY PICTURE in this book could inspire an alternate version!

And then a third:

This is EXACTLY what everyone involved in the making of The Croods did -- with EVERY piece of production art that was created! How many iterations of the movie must have been imagined? How many versions were sussed, discussed and discarded before settling on what was to become the final film? Hundreds? Thousands? HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS?!

The mental math boggles this blogger.

I'm old. I'll never get over my preference for hand-drawn animation. But getting to see the creation of a CG film laid out in such an ornate and instructive manner has made me love this young buck art form a whole lot more. Not only that, but when I finally do get to see The Croods, you can bet that my understanding of it will be enhanced, my enjoyment of it enriched, and my appreciation for it immeasurably increased.


To order The Art of the Croods CLICK HERE.

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