Sunday, June 30, 2013

I Call It, 'The End'

My advice to anyone considering devoting a year and a half of their life to doing an unofficial blog (and Tumblr!) for a movie made by their heroes?


This has been an AMAZING experience! I got to visit DreamWorks. I got to sit and chat with two of my animation idols -- Chris Sanders and James Baxter. I met a number of other folks involved with The Croods who generously gave of their time and talents to help me with my blog. To name just a few: Kirk DeMicco, Margaret Wuller, Shane Prigmore, Steven MacLeod, Carter Goodrich, Daniel C. and Kris0ten. I also got to meet a TON of great people here on Tumblr and over on the blog, folks I NEVER would have met any other way.

An extra-special thanks to all of the regulars for reading this. You were a constant source of encouragement, links and inspiration. See you in the next blog!

Monday, June 24, 2013

More Amazing Art From The Fantastic Mr. Fong

DreamWorks visual development artist, Arthur Fong, is steadily dropping loads of gorgeous, Croods-related artwork on his blog, Artistic Fong. If you dig the three shots shown above, you'll LOVE the rest of the art Fong has on his blog.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy 11th Birthday, Lilo & Stitch!

NOTE: This post originally appeared on 6/21/12. Back then, it was titled 'Happy 10th Birthday, Lilo & Stitch.' You see what I did there? CLEVER.

It was on this day, eleven years ago, that Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois' animated masterpiece, Lilo & Stitch, landed in movie theaters. Although it was easily one of the, unorthodox animated films that Disney had released, it was an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike. Adorable and unforgettable, Stitch quickly joined the stable of go-to characters for Disney's many marketing and merchandising needs. Hell, they even hastily re-themed a Tomorrowland ride in order to make his presence stronger in the parks!

In the ensuing decade, Lilo & Stitch has lost none of its magic. The sarcastic yet sentimental script still packs a wallop. The character designs look as fresh now as they first did. The voice work never fails to feel both hilarious and heartfelt. The energy and artistry of the animation (care of Andreas Deja and Alex Kupershmidt, among many, many others) is still a wonder to watch, and the gorgeous watercolor backgrounds have yet to be topped via CGI. While rumor has it that John Lasseter hates L&S, methinks Walt would've loved it. After all, with the lion's share of Disney's modern animated flicks taking their cues from Snow White and Cinderella, this is the only one to blend the tenderness of Dumbo with the irascible insanity of the original Mickey Mouse shorts.

On a more navel-gazing note, Lilo & Stitch helped me immeasurably in a time of tragedy. When my pops killed himself, leaving my kid sister and I as late-in-life orphans, L&S's repeated mantra of 'ohana' ("Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind...or forgotten.") and its focus on keeping a fractured family together (as well as being open to adding new members to it), hit me like an uncut speed-ball of spiritual strength and emotional stamina. While it would be hyperbolic to say that I wouldn't have survived the experience without Lilo & Stitch, it would be equally untrue to say that it did not help. A lot.

NEWS FLASH: If it was not already achingly apparent, Lilo & Stitch was the film that inspired the Chris Sanders fandom which wrought this blog. (That's a plus or a minus depending entirely upon your perspective.) Through this blog, I've been lucky enough to meet other folks with similar stories to mine. Some first saw the film ten years ago, upon its initial release. Others didn't find it 'til a year or two ago. Still, we all have one thing in common: Lilo & Stitch changed our lives forever and for the better. And honestly, isn't that the ultimate testament to any piece of art's continued relevance?

Happy 11th birthday, Lilo & Stitch! And thanks a million, Chris and Dean!

Five more L&S retrospectives:

1. Alex Sferrazza's look back at Lilo & Stitch
2. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois' 2009 interview re: L&S
3. Lilo & Stitch producer Clark Spencer remembers the film
4. The Entertainment Nut's super-smart, irrefutably informative remembrance.
5. Some shameless, aimless blogger rambles on for waaay too long about their undying love of L&S and how it's inspired them to unofficially hype some other film that's not even going to be released for at least another year. Seriously, you can probably skip this one.

A few choice quotes:

Lilo (pulling a doll out of her backpack): This is Scrump. I made her. But her head is too big, so I pretended that a bug laid eggs in her ear, and she's upset because she has only a few more days to...

Lilo: We're a broken family, aren't we?
Nani: No. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. I shouldn't have yelled at you.
Lilo: We're sisters. It's our job.
Nani: Yeah, well, from now on...
Lilo: I like you better as a sister than a mom.

Lilo (while creating voodoo dolls of her playmates): My friends need to be punished.

Pleakley: Look! A mosquito has chosen me as her perch. She's so beautiful. Look, another one! And another one! Why, it's a whole flock! They like me! They're nuzzling my flesh with their noses! Now they're... they're... Aaaaaaaah!

Lilo: You came back.
Stitch: Nobody gets left behind.

Stitch: This is my family. I found it all on my own. It's little, and broken, but still good. Yeah - still good.

Some of my favorite scenes from the film:

The beautiful opening credits sequence:

The Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride scene:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some Might Call This Filler, But I Call It A Photo-Heavy Tribute To My Favorite Chris Sanders Film

Friday is Lilo & Stitch’s 11th birthday! As a li’l treat, here’s a bunch of Disney-themed 'Easter eggs' from that wonderful film.

First up, a teensy-tiny photograph of Mickey Mouse!

This next Easter egg was the most visually obvious, but is probably the least well-known: A loving nod to Disney's 1939 adaptation of The Ugly Duckling. (Watch it here!)

With Lilo & Stitch directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois both having worked on Mulan, is it any surprise that there are not one, but TWO references to the film?

Speaking of Chris and Dean...

A Walt Disney World postcard being sold in Hawaii? Okay, I'm confused.

According to Wikipedia, "A113 (sometimes A-113 or A1-13) is an inside joke present as an Easter egg in animated films created by alumni of California Institute of the Arts, referring to the classroom number used by graphic design and character animation students at the school."

Yes, that's Dumbo! Not only does the lovable little elephant have ears to rival Stitch's, but Dumbo's watercolor backgrounds were the inspiration for Lilo & Stitch's.

Great character design never goes out of style. Just look at these modestly modified versions of the classic Pooh characters.

Last up, the Pixar ball! If Chris Sanders could've foreseen his future troubles with John Lasseter, this small reference may not have made it into the final film. :(

All right, that's all I've got. If you know of any others, please drop me a note in the comments section!

To order Lilo & Stitch, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 6
(Two More Goodbyes & A Long List Of Thank Yous)

Missed Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5? Then why mess up a perfect record by reading this one? Oh, you're the type who likes to read the last chapter of a book first. In that case, WELCOME. Here's a spoiler-free re-cap of everything you're going to eventually read:

My sister, Caroline, and I went for a tour of DreamWorks. Our hosts were Daniel (assistant to Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco) and Kristen (DW's online marketing wiz). Near the end of our tour, they surprised us with three clips from The Croods and a brief sit down with Sanders and De Micco. I was so nervous that I completely wasted this opportunity. How so, you ask? Well, my two goals -- no, make that MY TWO DREAMS -- for this visit were to (1.) tell Chris Sanders how much his films meant to me, and (2.) to ask him for a signed sketch of Stitch. I did neither. That said, it was WONDERFUL to meet them. And then, as if things hadn't been amazing enough, James Baxter (the pencil behind Belle!) invited me and my sister up to his studio to see a character that got cut from the film! WHAT. A. DAY. Now the tour had ended, and Kristen, Daniel, Caroline and I were headed to the parking garage, saying our goodbyes.

Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Poor Kristen and Daniel. I had just unloaded a lengthy, long-winded and embarrassingly sincere set of thanks upon them, yet there I was, clearing my throat for round two. They were probably counting the single digit steps to our car, wondering why I was insisting on dragging this farewell out any further, but I simply could not stop. What they had done for me (and yeah, sure, for my sister Caroline) was INCREDIBLE. How could I not hammer them over the head with their own awesomeness?

"Thank you for the lunch, " I gushed. "Thank you for the tour of the studio. Thank you TONS for introducing us to Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco and James Baxter. Thank you for showing us the three film clips, and thank you for setting aside an entire afternoon to make an unofficial Croods blogger feel like a part of something bigger."

"Kristen," I continued, "you know how much I've wanted to meet Chris Sanders. Heck, I would've been on cloud nine with nothing more than a quick handshake and a head nod. But you and Daniel whipped up a MINOR MIRACLE for me today! How long did we get to spend talking to him about animation and The Croods and A Charlie Brown Christmas? It had to have been at least a half hour!"

"And you're both so nice," I said, unable to stop even if I'd wanted to. "You noticed how nervous I was, right? Well, that had nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. Plus, it was being around you guys for a while that finally relaxed me. Cuz you're both NICE!"

Here's where I forced them both to pose for a picture. After all they had done for me, you'd think that I'd have spared them an unexpected photo op. But I had a plan. A plan to make them the co-stars of this trip report!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Poor Kristen and Daniel.

I don't think that they had any idea just how often they were going to get mentioned in this minutia-mining re-telling of my trip to DreamWorks. I'm not sure they even believed I was really going to post the photo that I had taken of them, much less use my meager MS Paint skills to publicly reveal their secret identities as Santa and My Fairy Godmother. But seriously, HOW COULD I NOT? They'd given me an afternoon of behind-the-scenes bliss. The LEAST that I could do was see that they were properly credited at every available opportunity.

As soon as the photo was taken, Daniel touched his nose and flew up the chimney, while Kristen shrunk down to a tiny ball of incandescent light that floated off into the sky. I'll have to call Caroline to confirm this, but I think they might have used one of those classic, "Look! The Goodyear Blimp!" lines to distract me long enough to make their magical getaways. I can't blame them, though. Had they stayed around any longer, I probably would've launched into another round of unbridled gratitude...or started crying...or singing...or insisted on an uncomfortably long group hug.


My emotions were running unusually high that day. After all, they had made this fella very, VERY happy.

So let's see. Caroline and I got into our car, put on our seat belts, started the engine, and THE FIRST THING she says to me is, "I thought you were going to ask Chris Sanders for a sketch of Stitch?"

I screamed. I admit it. Not an angry scream. Not a crazy, psycho scream. Just the scream of a man who has had a dream for, like, EVER, then gets the chance to make it come true, and then COMPLETELY FORGETS to do so! Not only that, but I hadn't even remembered to tell Chris Sanders how goddamned much I loved Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon. That should've been the first thing out of my mouth, right? I mean, I only had TWO GOALS. And I forgot them both! How does such a thing even occur? I dunno exactly. The terms 'star-struck' and 'giddy as a school girl' immediately spring to mind, but my mind is clearly not to be trusted with anything other than remembering to breathe. And even then...

Caroline and I drove back to her place, and for the whole drive (and the rest of that day) (oh, and a little into the next) I kept begging her to tell me not only her take on the tour, but also everyone else's.

"Was I cool around Kirk De Micco?"

"Did I say ANYTHING intelligent in front of Chris Sanders?"

"Did James Baxter really think I was going to rip his pencil tests"

"Did Daniel and Kristen see that I was silent because I was nervous, and NOT because I was bored or rude or an anti-evolutionist who finds the Croods' animalistic characteristics to be a slap in the face of God and The Creation Museum?"

Reassure me, Caroline! REASSURE ME!

It took a li'l over a week for me to finally put the whole tour into perspective. It was only after I'd flown home and began typing these trip reports that I was actually able to let go of all of my residual nervousness and second-guessing and simply BASK IN THE EXPERIENCE. And it was quite a magnificent experience.

I know I've put a lot of importance on the signed sketch of Stitch. (Full disclosure: This hasn't changed. I'd still really, REALLY love one!) But if there's one thing that writing these trip reports has impressed upon me, it's THE EXPERIENCE that was truly important, truly invaluable and truly irreplaceable. Getting invited to DreamWorks, getting a personal tour from Kristen and Daniel, watching James Baxter animate his artwork in front of me, chatting one on one with Chris f**cking Sanders as we speed-walked though the halls, then having him and Kirk De Micco personally introduce and explain three separate sequences from their film -- this was literally A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY. Even if a moment or two could be re-created at a future press junket or tour of the studio, this day, THIS PERFECT DAY, could never be topped or repeated.

Needless To Say, I've Got A Lot Of Folks To Thank

Caroline: I am SO glad you came. You are friendly and personable where I am inexplicably mute and unintentionally angry-looking. While I will never forgive our parents for giving you the good genes, I really do appreciate you letting me benefit from them once in a while.

James Baxter: Thank you so much for taking me and Caroline up to your studio to show us that cute little horse/dog hybrid that got cut from the film. Even more than that, thank-you for flipping that stack of pencil tests for us. Seeing an ANIMATION MASTER bring his artwork to life right in front of my eyes was a genuine thrill for me, and not something I'll ever forget.

Kirk De Micco: I know that the clock is ticking and the release date is nearing and that THE LAST THING you needed to worry about was making sure some unofficial blogger's visit to DreamWorks was a memorable one, YET YOU DID. Thanks a million for showing me and my sister the three scenes from The Croods. Hearing your intros and off-the-cuff commentary was actually more exciting for me than the scenes themselves -- and I LOVED the scenes!

Chris Sanders: You are the reason this blog exists. Your first two films, Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon, mean the world to me. Lilo and Stitch, in particular, helped me and my family through a very tragic, very trying time. I meant to say all of this to you back in Glendale, but I foolishly froze up upon meeting you. Oh, well. I guess it made for a funnier -- and far less predictable -- trip report this way. Anyway, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for fitting us into your day, for showing us the clips from The Croods, and for suggesting that we all take a group photo. Now I have proof that this wasn't some fever dream brought on by jet lag and food truck food!

Kristen and Daniel: Thank you. For everything. You read all of the stuff I said up top? Now read it again. And again. And again, ad infinitum. I mean it, you ever need an unofficial blogger for anything else in the future, I'm your man. I don't care if it's some creepy, cult-y religion you're starting or a rapidly ticking doomsday clock you need updated every hour on the hour, look no further than this long-haired layabout with a penchant for sudden and sustained silences. I owe you both. BIG TIME. Thank you!

Fast-forward three months and a trip to New York City...

Turns out, dreams really DO come true!

This post originally appeared on December 21, 2012

Monday, June 17, 2013

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 5
(James Baxter -- The Pencil Behind Belle!)

Missed Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4? Then get out. Seriously, go. Everyone else had to start with Part 1. What makes you so special? Oh, don't give me those puppy dog eyes. You know I can't resist those. Ooh, alright. Here's a quick re-cap:

Me and my sister, Caroline, recently visited DreamWorks. We were given a guided tour by Kristen (DreamWorks' online marketing wunderkind) and Daniel (Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco's assistant). I was inexplicably nervous for most of this, and barely talked. Then, just as I was finally beginning to master the 3 Cs (calm, cool and conversational), we met Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. Back to the nervousness! Sanders and De Micco showed us three clips from The Croods while my brain repeatedly exploded. We all took a group photo, then bid the directors adieu. That's when Croods' supervising animator, James Baxter, asked us if we'd like to go to his studio to see a character that got cut from the film. Of course we did! Dude's the pencil behind Belle!

An Irrefutable Introduction To James Baxter's Genius

Driving onto the DreamWorks lot that day, I sorta suspected that I'd be meeting Chris Sanders. Nothing was ever said (or even hinted at) by Kristen or Daniel, but I'm a dreamer, and dreamers dream. If I'm being totally honest here, I also kinda figured that I'd be meeting Kirk De Micco. I mean, if I was going to go ahead and unreasonably assume that I'd be meeting Chris Sanders, it was only reasonable that I'd double-down on that unreasonable assumption and include his Croods co-director, too. That said, I never -- NEVER -- not in my wildest, most elaborate imaginings of the day's events, thought that I would be meeting animation legend James Baxter.

Baxter, for those animation fans out there who somehow missed the Disney renaissance of the 1990s, is a master of the art form. This is not hyperbole, or even one fan's opinion. This is a fact that you can fact-check simply by going to YouTube and searching the words 'Beauty' and 'the Beast.' The proof is right there in the film's infectious opening number, Belle. In fact, the proof IS Belle. It's her singing, spinning, smiling and borrowing books from an unusually generous bookseller. It's Belle crossing the bridge into town, rebuffing Gaston's advances, and ducking a gutter full of water with a swinging shop sign. The proof is there when Belle swings out her arm, propelling herself across the bookstore on the rolling ladder, and again when she sits on the edge of fountain, contentedly flipping though the pages of her favorite book. From the film's first minute, clear to the closing credits, the proof is there virtually every time Belle appears onscreen. Remember that gorgeous dance sequence in the castle ballroom? A computer may have spun the chandelier, but it was James Baxter who drew Belle and the Beast waltzing around the room, eyes widening as they realized their love was mutual. Add to this Baxter's work on the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Rafiki in The Lion King and the animated intro to Enchanted, and the evidence is irrefutable. James Baxter is an animation maestro.

If a technical and critical appreciation were all that I had for James Baxter, it would STILL have been a thrill to follow him up to his studio that afternoon. But my admiration for the man goes much, MUCH deeper. Beauty and the Beast holds a special place in my heart, and Baxter's work as lead animator on Belle is one of the chief reasons why.

A Little Back-Story

Longtime readers of this blog have no doubt heard me mention my gal, Mishka, in previous posts. We've been together for almost twenty years, and I don't see an end in sight. The secret to our long-standing love? We're opposites in as many ways as we're the same. We're the same in our atypical approach to acting like an 'adult,' and the opposite in our view of swearing in front of kids. Quebec City during carnival? We're there. A trip to Prince Edward Isle to visit the Anne of Green Gables locales? She's taking her sister. I'm a comic book fiend. Mishka's in multiple book clubs. If I was more of an alpha male, I'd say that this delicate in-sync/out-of-sync dynamic made us a bit Beauty and the Beast. Alas, I am gentle jester and not a brooding prince.

Mishka, though? Mishka IS Belle. She's a dark-haired, strong-willed, book-loving beauty. She craves adventure, yet seeks it through fiction. She's selfless, sincere, romantic and loyal. Occasionally, she talks to tea cups. You know that line in Belle, 'With a dreamy far off look, and her nose stuck in a book'? That's Mishka. To a T.

The Mishka/Belle comparison has been floating around since I first met her. See that photo of the Belle statue being hugged by the Roger Rabbit doll? We posed 'em like that when we first moved in together -- a looong time ago. (Need proof? Look at all that dust. Yikes!) Wanna know another weird, pseudo-connection between me 'n' Mishka and James Baxter 'n' his career? Baxter first started working for Disney on...drum-roll, please...Roger Rabbit! Amazing, eh? Me and Mishka's animated alter-ego's are BOTH credits on James Baxter's resume!

And Now, Back To Our Story

James Baxter's studio looked just like I'd hoped it would. Posters, sketches and character model sheets were pinned to every available surface. There was a bookcase stuffed with art books and a well-worn couch that looked like it had hosted it fair share of overnights. There was not one, but TWO animation desks, one on either side of the room. The grey, metal desk was for CG, and looked to be pushing its recommended weight limit with the multiple monitors stacked on top of it. The other desk was a classic, wooden animation desk, complete with peg bar, light box and a plethora of pens and pencils.

Baxter invited us to sit down on the couch, and then fired up his computers. "I wanted to show you something special," he said. "It's a character that got cut from The Croods."

As if on cue, the little horse/dog hybrid from the second teaser poster appeared on the monitor closest to us. There was no background in place, just the fully rendered horse/dog sniffing around the screen, occasionally stopping to scratch himself or stretch his hind legs.

My sister, Caroline, loved it. "He looks like my puppy!" she cooed.

Baxter smiled. "This little fellow was originally intended to be Guy's pet. But as the sloth became more and more popular with everyone making the film, he was slowly cut out."

Five minutes had passed since my last stupid question, so I figured I was past due. "How many hours of animation went into that character before the decision was made to cut it?" I asked.

Baxter's smile faded. "You don't want to know." Dragging his mouse to the left, he brought up a screen full of multicolored wave patterns on one monitor, and a large, black silhouette of Grug on another.

"These are the different controls for Grug's facial features," Baxter said, pointing to the crayola-colored spaghetti. "Each one of these controls a small part of the character's face." He clicked his mouse a few times, but nothing happened. "The computer seems to have frozen," he said. He tried a few more things (don't ask -- when it comes to computers, I'm one step above the Amish and one step below your grandparents), then turned his chair to face us. "Have you ever tried animation?" he asked me.

"Some hand-drawn," I said, hoping he wouldn't ask me to demonstrate. "Flip-book level stuff."

"Computer animation is different," Baxter said. "It's a lot like puppetry. By moving these lines, we move the character." He turned back to his computer and tried to un-freeze it one last time, but it refused to cooperate.

"Hold on," Baxter said, getting up and crossing the room. Rifling around his 'classic' animation desk for a moment, he picked up a thick pile of papers held together with a black, metal, binder clip. "It's a scene I did of the [Kung-Fu] panda fighting. Sometimes we'll sketch out a scene first to see how we want to do on the computer."

No exaggeration: I literally got chills when Baxter handed me the telephone book-sized stack of his clean-lined, hand-drawn, pencil test. He motioned for me to flip the pages, but I couldn't.

"I can't do the fancy flip," I said, my voice cracking for the first time in 30 years. "My hands are shaking and I'm afraid I'll rip it."

I wasn't kidding, but Baxter still laughed. "Here, I'll do it," he said, taking the stack back. And then, like something out of darned near every animation nerd's ultimate fantasy, James Baxter began to flip the pages, bringing to life an entire sequence that he himself had drawn.

It was, to put it mildly, a moment that I will never forget.

What happened immediately thereafter, though, is a complete blur. I do not remember getting up from the couch. I do not remember shaking hands and saying goodbye to Maestro Baxter. I'm guessing that this happened. Heck, I'm PRAYING that it did. Because the other possibilities -- me running out of the room screaming in delight and/or me fainting and being carried away -- are a li'l too embarrassing to even consider. All I know is that to this day, I do NOT remember what occurred between James Baxter flipping that last page and Kristen, Daniel, Caroline and I walking out into the sun, preparing to part ways.

(Psst, Caroline. Call me. Tell me I didn't faint!)

"So what did you think?" Kristen asked as we headed towards the parking garage. "Did you guys have fun?"

Caroline started to answer, but I cut her off. "Today was the BEST!" I said. "Thank you so much, both of you. When I started this blog, I had a secret suspicion that something like this might happen, but I never thought that it would be this good. I thought -- at best -- that I might be part of some large, impersonal press junket that was shepherded en masse around DreamWorks for ten or fifteen minutes before being handed a small bag of old Shrek swag as security rushed us off the lot. But what you guys did for's A MILLION TIMES BETTER than anything I ever could've imagined! Meeting Chris Sanders? Getting to see the three Croods scenes while he and Kirk narrated? Watching James Baxter animate his own pages? I owe you guys! I owe you guys FOREVER!"

"What he said," my sister said, laughing at my utter lack of calm or coolness.

In my defense, at least I'd finally mastered 'conversational.'

Well, sort of.

In The Next -- And Final -- Installment:
One Last Set of Goodbyes! One Looong List of Thank-Yous!

See you Wednesday!

Bonus: James Baxter's pencil tests from Beauty and the Beast

Yet Another Bonus: James Baxter's 'James Baxter'

This post originally appeared on December 19, 2012

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fan Art Friday

Via wisdomspearl:

It’s going to take a little more practice for me to get Belt just right. But, as of now, have a Belt from The Croods! I loved this little guy. He made the movie lol

Via scbones1996:

Eep and me as a Crood! I love this movie so much. If I get the time, I’ll make more fan art!

Via pawprintsandsnowflakes:

Don’t have much time for drawing lately, but I felt like brightening my day a bit with a little Geep sketchiness.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 4
(Three Scenes Screened & One Group Photo)

Missed Parts 1, 2 and 3? Then why are you bothering to read Part 4? Ah, what the heck. It's your life. But just to make things a little less confusing, here's a brief re-cap of Parts 1-3, written in Croods-appropriate caveman-speak:

Me Ju-osh. Me do unofficial Croods blog. Me get invited to DreamWorks. Me go with sister Caroline. Us take tour with Kristen and Daniel. Me nervous whole time. Me meet Chris Sanders. Me get more nervous. Me speak stupid things -- or no speak at all. Me walk with Chris Sanders down long hall. Large group of people gather behind us. Croods co-director Kirk De Micco is one of them. Kirk De Micco open door to strange room, invite Caroline and me inside. Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco say, "Want see film clips?" Me say, "Me do! Me do!"

I probably should've fact-checked this, but I believe the room that Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco had led us into was an editing bay. Then again, it could have been a Starfleet Academy dorm room. The classic elements were in place for both: The well-worn couches. The movie posters on the walls. The thirsty potted plants. Oh, and two of the largest computer monitors seen outside of the Starship Enterprise.

Once we were all inside, Caroline and I were introduced to The Croods' producers, Kristine Belson (How To Train Your Dragon) and Jane Hartwell (Shrek), as well as animation supervisor James Baxter (a.k.a. the pencil behind Belle). Was I able to grunt anything but an inaudible hello? Of course not! But I had finally begun to understand why.

Chris Sanders is my Kryptonite.

Yes, you read that right. Chris Sanders -- my all-time favorite animation director and the creator of Lilo & Stitch -- is also the ultimate natural neutralizer to my superpower of speech.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like I hold it against him or anything. Dude made the movie that helped save my family from complete disintegration (Lilo & Stitch), as well as the film that became a holiday staple for my gal Mishka's family (How To Train Your Dragon). If all I have to sacrifice in return is the sound of my voice,'s still a better deal than Ariel's.

Lips zipped, I sat down on a cushy, grey couch beside Caroline. Sanders and De Micco quietly conferred for a moment, then asked the gal at the helm -- er, the editing bay -- to cue up a couple of scenes for us. If my PTSD (post tour-matic stress disorder) is in any way obscuring my excitement over this moment, allow me to spell it out for you in all-caps: CHRIS SANDERS AND KIRK DE MICCO WERE GOING TO PERSONALLY SCREEN THREE SCENES FROM THEIR FILM FOR ME. Not only that, they were going to introduce each scene separately, providing occasional on-the-spot directors' commentary!

This was one of those times where I wished I could magically mash-up words like Mary Poppins, creating my very own 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' out of the phrases 'effing awesome,' 'totally surreal' and 'wholly unbelievable,' along with the comic book-style sound effects of my jaw hitting the floor, my heart beating double-time, and my two Inner-mes slapping one another across the face to make sure they weren't dreaming.

According to Chris and Kirk (listen to me with my first name basis!), the three scenes we were going to see were the opening scene, the Croods-meet-Guy scene, and "the maze" scene. As you could probably guess, no one needed to tell this mute to stop talking as the large monitors lit up.

WARNING: Thar be spoilers ahead! If you want to experience The Croods completely spoiler-free, stop reading now. Skip down to the bold print announcing 'Group Photos & Fond Farewells' and wait for me there. The rest of you? The excited and the impatient and the delirious for any new details no matter how minor? Read on...

The Three Scenes Screened

Chris Sanders introduced the opening scene by saying, "We wanted to make sure that The Croods delivered on what we called 'the universal caveman expectations.' There are certain things that people want to see in a caveman film. They want to see guys that are fast and that are strong, but have beginner's minds. They want to see lava and tar pits and giant bugs."

To which Kirk De Micco added, "We always wanted a real strong slapstick, Looney Tunes vibe. We wanted to bring that in because we've all seen cavemen in live action films. They're usually just actors walking around slumped over. They can't run at fifty miles per hour like a caveman could. So that was what we wanted to have fun with."

Well, the opening scene is not only fun, it's NUTS. At its most basic level, it's a crazy and kinetic peek at the Croods' daily struggle for food. But it also serves a secondary purpose, as an introduction to the individual characters' personalities. Starting with Thunk and continuing through the family one by one, we watch as the Croods race virtually every colorful creature from the first two trailers (except the big, green saber-tooth) for a large, blue egg.

Sound exciting? Just wait. With this scene, Sanders and De Micco have staged an action-packed set piece that's equal parts Rube Goldberg and Chuck Jones. Gags build on one another at an ever-increasing pace, propelling the scene forward with bigger and bigger laughs and greater and greater momentum. Sure, we're getting a highly detailed, carefully orchestrated overview of the Croods and the world that they inhabit, but the whole time you're watching, all you're really thinking is: LOOK OUT! GO LEFT! DID I JUST SEE A GIANT, FEATHERED WOLVERINE?!

The second scene we were shown was the Croods' introduction to Guy. Providing a brief bit of background, Sanders said that this scene takes place a little while after Eep first meets Guy. She's obviously intrigued by him, but has yet to tell her family about the mysterious stranger. After this sequence, the secret's out.

Action junkies, rejoice! This scene is another hit of high-octane, high-stakes hilarity, only this time the threat comes from those little, red, piranha-looking parrots. The scene begins with the Croods watching in horror as the piranha/parrots descend like a swarm of bees upon on a large elephant-y creature. In less than a second, they've stripped it to the bone. With that mammoth-sized meal out of the way, the parrots swirl back up into the sky, regrouping above the Croods.

I won't ruin the breathtakingly beautiful moment of last second salvation that happens next. Instead, I'll just say that this scene is not only the Croods' introduction to Guy, it's their introduction to fire, as well. Remember the final scene in the second trailer? The one where Thunk is running around with his back on fire while Grug hollers for him to "try hiding from it in the tall, dry grass"? That's just one of the many great gags that come out of this unforgettable first encounter.

The third and final scene that we were shown was referred to by both directors simply as "the maze." Sanders introduced it by describing the storytelling hurdle that first led to its inception.

"The Croods actually has the fewest characters of any movie I've done, but it had the most characters in each scene. Seven or eight at one time! So we needed to find a way to split them up so that they would have a chance to grow as individuals as well as a family."

Success! This scene was by far the quietest and gentlest of the three shown. It's almost entirely dialogue-free, so as an audience member, you're forced to project your own thoughts and feelings onto the characters, which really draws you in. It's kinda like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke has to crawl into that small cave on Dagobah to confront his greatest fears. Only, in this scene, the Croods are forced to travel separately through the cavernous, white labyrinth glimpsed in the second trailer. There's a real sense of wonder and discovery at play here, one that's reminiscent of some of the early scenes between Hiccup and Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. In fact, of the three scenes shown, this is the one that still resonates with me the most.

(A quick aside to the folks at DreamWorks: My birthday is March 19. If you're having trouble figuring out what to get me, why not bump up the release date by three days? Cuz I CANNOT WAIT to see these scenes in context!)

Group Photos & Fond Farewells

With the three clips over, it was time to say goodbye to Chris and Kirk. They're highly successful motion picture directors, after all. And although I'm sure that they'd have LOVED to spend the entire afternoon with a star-struck blogger and his much more presentable sister, they DID have a big budget animated feature film to attend to. So instead, they offered to walk us outside for a group photo.

Speed-walking down the DreamWorks corridors, heading towards the front doors, I was once again side-by-side with Chris Sanders. (If you missed how awkward and enamored I was during our first walk and talk, click here.) But this time, I was also being book-ended by Kirk De Micco. After admitting to them that I was a li'l overwhelmed by the whole experience, I managed to express the one thought that I'd been carrying with me since The Croods was first announced. I told Chris Sanders how happy I was that he was once again exploring the theme of family.

"You really have to thank Kirk for that," Sanders said. "He was working on The Croods the whole time I was making How To Train Your Dragon. When we first started The Croods, it was about a whole village. It was a much larger story. Then, at one point near the end of Dragons, he took me aside and said, 'I've got this really crazy idea. Let me know what you think of it.' And his idea was to make it about just this one family. I thought it was amazing. He really broke the story wide open."

I turned to Kirk, and he just shrugged and smiled. I said, "Well, honestly, that was the real hook for me. And for my gal, Mishka. And for pretty much everyone else that I've talked to about the film, in person and online. So, thank you!"

"Thank you for doing your blog," Kirk said, and flashed another one of those winning smiles.

It was a little after two as we returned to the piazza at the center of the DreamWorks campus. After battling some unflattering shadows, we settled in for our group photo. I counted three quick clicks, and then we all shook hands (full disclosure: my hands were shaking the entire time) and said our goodbyes.

Watching Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco walk off into the sunset was an unforgettable image. (Okay, so it was only 2:15, but at that time of day, the sun is setting -- technically . C'mon, just give me this one, okay? I need it for the dramatic sense of closure it creates.) To think that they had actually set aside some time in their hectic schedules to show me some footage and regale me with production anecdotes was both humbling and an ego boost. If you could overlook my horrible lack of speaking, my incessant 'angry eyes,' and the fact that I HAD COMPLETELY NEGLECTED TO FULFILL EITHER ONE OF MY TWO SECRET WISHES, this had turned out to be a most wonderful day!

As my all-time favorite animation director (and my vocal cords' Kryptonite) disappeared back into the studio, I could feel the adrenaline drain from my body. I was just about to drop to my knees to thank Kristen and Daniel profusely when who should suddenly speak up but The Croods' animation supervisor (and the pencil behind Belle!), James Baxter.

"If you'd like, I could take you up to my office and show you a character that got cut from the film?"

If I'd like?

If I'd LIKE?!

No, James Baxter. I'd LOVE.

And just like that, I was completely re-adrenalined and wholly incapable of articulating anything.

James Baxter, Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders, Me & Caroline

In The Next Exciting (and the next-to-the-last) Installment:
James Baxter! James Baxter! James Baxter!

See you Monday!

This post originally appeared on December 17, 2012

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 3
(An Unorthodox Attempt At Expressing My Mental State While Meeting Chris Sanders)

Missed Parts 1 and 2? Here's a rambling recap:

I've been doing this unofficial Croods blog since last February. Why? Cuz I love Chris Sanders' first two films and am eagerly awaiting his third. Sometime last September, two DreamWorks employees -- Kristen and Daniel -- happened upon my blog, and we began emailing one another. The interesting and informative emails were theirs. The unanswerable questions and hyperbolic huzzahs were all mine. Fast-forward to November. That's when Kristen emailed me, asking if I'd like to come visit the studio. I did! So I hopped on a plane in New England (where I live), got off a plane in CA (where my sister, Caroline, lives), and drove to DreamWorks.

Finally meeting Kristen and Daniel face to face was wonderful, except I inexplicably became so nervous that I pretty much forgot how to speak. They kindly ignored this, taking me and Caroline to lunch, then for a walk around the grounds, and then inside for a tour of the top-secret, no-cameras-or-recording-devices-allowed animation studio. At some point during all of this I remembered how to talk, and gradually began to relax and be myself.

An hour into the tour, Daniel took off, leaving Kristen to show us the "secret room."  (If you want to know more about that, read Part 2. This recap is already two paragraphs too long!) Anyway, the "secret room" was nice and chill, and by the time Daniel called Kristen and asked us to meet him upstairs, I was just about as cool as a cucumber in an Alaskan Frigidaire. So Kristen, Caroline and I hopped on the elevator, and I'm like one level of zen away from being declared the next Buddha when the doors slide open, and who's standing there beside Daniel but CHRIS SANDERS!

Before we continue, a quick key for reading Part 3:
1. Everything in bold print was actually said. I think. I might've misremembered some of it. In fact, I know I did.
2. Everything that's in the regular, anorexic print is what was happening in my head.
3. All this stuff in italics? That's the me writing this right now, the me with per-spec-tive.

(Don't worry, I promise to return to 'normal' writing in Part 4.)

Daniel: Ju-osh, this is Chris Sanders. Chris, this is Ju-osh.

Inner-me 1: Chris Sanders!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: That's Chris Sanders!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: Stop screaming! We need to say something!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: Okay, we say nothing. But we should at least try and smile. Remember, no one likes the 'angry eyes.'

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: Chris Sanders is saying something to us! What is Chris Sanders saying to us?!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: Now Chris Sanders is walking! Should we follow Chris Sanders? I'm gonna follow Chris Sanders!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: We're walking with Chris Sanders! And talking with Chris Sanders! Wait, what are we saying to Chris Sanders? I hope it's something good!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: STOP SHOUTING AT ME, ME! Seriously, we need to hear this. To experience this. To be fully present and completely in the moment for this. After all, this is MOMENTOUS. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to talk to one of our artistic heroes, to tell him how much his films have meant to us, how much we adore his drawing style, and then casually, SUBTLY, drop in a request for a sketch of Stitch. I'm trusting you to help me do this in such a way that makes us look neither desperate nor greedy nor creepily nervous.

Inner-me 2: Aaa--

Inner-me 1: But first you need to STOP SCREAMING those long strings of As!

Inner-me 2 (panting heavily, swallowing hard): Okay. I got this. I can do this.

Inner-me 1: I know you can. I believe in you. You just have to focus. And breathe. Just focus and breathe and remember to think before you--

Me: Do you ever miss hand drawn animation?

Inner-me 1: Did you REALLY just say that?! While walking through the hallowed halls of the CG-centric DreamWorks?! To a guy who is PROUDLY making CG films and doing a DAMNED FINE job of it?!

Inner-me 2: What? I was curious.

Chris Sanders: Sometimes, but there's a lot of cool stuff that we can do with computers that we couldn't do with hand-drawn. Like zooming in and zooming out. You can zoom in really close now, really smoothly. We couldn't do that before.

Inner-me 1: Reason #626 to love Chris Sanders: Dude not only draws like a dream, he's extremely forgiving of our conversational faux pas.

Chris Sanders (cont.): I guess if there's one thing that I do miss about [hand-drawn animation], it's the emotion we were able to achieve. You look at a film like A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it's the most simply animated film, but it's SO FULL of emotion. It gets you every time you watch it! That's the thing that's so special about seeing someone's drawings up there -- you can FEEL the emotion.

Inner-me 1 and Inner-me 2 (simultaneously): DO YOU SEE WHY WE LOVE THIS GUY?!

Me (getting giddy, stepping on Sanders' last few words): Exactly! It's like with Beauty and the Beast. You watch the director's commentary, and they're constantly apologizing for some little quirk in the animation. But I'm like, 'What are you talking about! This is a perfect f**king film! It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. You made a masterpiece!' And the animation is f**king BEAUTIFUL!

Inner-me 2: Yikes. Where are all these swear-words coming from?

Inner-me 1: Don't look at me!

This is when Chris Sanders motioned to a group of seven or eight people that were walking behind us. How did they get there? When did they get there? Were they there the whole time and I was just so excited to meet Chris Sanders that I somehow hadn't noticed? I DIDN'T KNOW. 

Caroline would later tell me that they had all been waiting there when we got off of the elevator. She said that they wanted to see my reaction when I finally got to meet Chris Sanders. If my battling inner-mes, poorly chosen conversation starters and frighteningly focused tunnel vision are any indication, my reaction was undoubtedly as uncalm and uncool as a reaction can get.

Chris Sanders (pointing to a tall, bearded bloke in the back and whispering): That's James Baxter. Do you know who he is?

Inner-me 1: Listen to this guy! Do we know who James Baxter is? OF COURSE we know who James Baxter is!

Inner-me 2: James Baxter is the guy who animated Belle! And Belle is the animated alter-ego of our bookish beloved, Mishka.

Inner-me 1: Oh, no.

Inner-me 2: Oh, no, what?

Inner-me 1: I hope Chris Sanders didn't think that we were saying that the animation in Beauty and the Beast was flawed. That's one of our favorite films of all time. If we and Mishka had to pick one film that was our combined favorite film of all time, Beauty and the Beast would be that film. And James Baxter's amazing animation in that film is a huge part of the reason why.

Inner-me 2: You're right! We should really say something to clarify how much we love James Baxter. Something poignant. Something profound.

Me: Yep.

At this point, Kirk De Micco steps out in front of us. (He was back there, too? Sorry, Kirk!) He smiles at me (a very warm smile!), and opens the door to the room we've all stopped in front of.

Kirk De Micco: Here we are.

Inner-me 1: Wait! I have a still have a ton of questions for Chris Sanders!

Inner-me 2: Me too!. Oh, no. What were they?

Inner-me 1: Did we tell him how much we loved Lilo & Stitch?

Inner-me 2: YOU were supposed to do that!

Inner-me 1: Well, YOU were supposed to bring up the sketch request!

Inner-me 2: There's still time. But first we ought to say something about Lilo & Stitch.

Chris Sanders: Great. So we wanted to show you guys a few clips from the film. Sorta give you an idea of what's in store. How does that sound?

Inner-me 1: That sounds...that sounds AMAZING!

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Me: Yep.

Inner-me 1: Wait, weren't we supposed to be saying something to Chris Sanders?

Inner-me 2: Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1: You're right! Aaaaaah!

Inner-me 1 & Inner-me 2 (simultaneously): Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

In The Next (normally written) Installment:
More Chris Sanders! More Kirk De Micco! 3 Film Clips! 1 Group Photo!

See you Thursday!

This post originally appeared on December 14, 2012

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 2
(An Early Arrival, A Light Lunch & A Bookcase Full Of Booze)

Missed Part 1? Here's a quick recap:

I'm all like, blah, blah, blah. I want, I want, I want. Then I stop talking about myself long enough to introduce you to Kristen (DreamWorks' online marketing wunderkind) and Daniel (the assistant to Croods directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco). Then I immediately go back to talking about myself (surprise!), and then WHAM -- Kristen sends me the following email:

Do you live in the area? I was thinking maybe you could come visit [DreamWorks] sometime if you do! We're looking at lunch + some... fun stuff afterwards :)

We now return to our trip report, already in progress...

The Early Arrival

"Do you live in the area?"

This was the first line in Kristen's email to me, the magical email where she invited me to visit her at DreamWorks.

Do I live in "the area"?

If by "the area" Kristen meant Earth, then yes, I lived in "the area." If by "the area" Kristen meant America, then I do solemnly swear my long-standing citizenship. But if, as I sorta suspected, Kristen meant Glendale, CA, then the answer would have to be no, I do not live in "the area."

The truth is, I live all the way across the country in puritanical New England. But my kid sister, Caroline, lives in sunny CA. More specifically, in smoggy L.A. And even more specifically, a mere fifteen minutes from DreamWorks. Not only that, but I'd already been planning to visit her the first week of December for an early Christmas. Our ONLY Christmas together this year. A trip to DreamWorks would make the perfect present for me!

I emailed Kristen all of this extraneous information, and she not only invited Caroline along, she set a solid date and time: December 3rd at noon.

(Here's where you need to imagine one of those little plastic planes flying across a large map of the United States, leaving a dotted line in its wake. Now zoom in on your imaginary map 'til you see me groggily disembarking a cramped airplane at a crowded LAX. Fast-forward through a quick stop at Pink's Hotdogs and a large slice of strawberry cake at Alcove, past a fitful night's sleep that started three hours later than I'm used to, and to just after I awaken at the ungodly hour of 6 AM PST. Yuck. My mouth tastes terrible. Don't get too close. Better yet, put your thumb back on the fast-forward and zoom ahead another 5 1/2 hours 'til you see me and my sister parked just outside the large, ivy-covered archways of DreamWorks Animation Studio. Can you picture that?)

Wow. You're good.

Okay, so it was 11:30 AM. Caroline and I were a half hour early for our lunch with Kristen. My sister was trying to tell me something about the red paint on the curb beside our car, but I was having trouble paying attention. My mind was racing. My stomach was churning. When I looked down at my hands and saw them trembling like little mice feet, it suddenly dawned on me: I WAS NERVOUS.

Why was I nervous? I had no idea. Thus far, in the limited contact that I had had with Kristen, she'd been nothing but super kind and supportive. Yet there I was, n-n-n-nervous.

I tried to calm myself by concocting an impromptu set of soothing affirmations. They were meant to remind me of the purpose of my visit (to get new info for this blog), my preferred headspace for the visit (cool, calm and conversational), and that this could be my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfill my two secret wishes (tell Chris Sanders how much his films mean to me, then politely ask him for a signed sketch of Stitch). I don't know why, but I said all of this out loud. Repeatedly. By the third go-round, my sister had joined in. By the sixth time through, we were singing it to the tune of My Favorite Things.

There was a reason we hadn't yet driven through the DreamWorks gates. We were trying to be respectful of Kristen's time. "Too early is just as bad as too late," my sister insisted. This, less than an hour after spending waaay too long walking her tiny dog around Los Feliz while I anxiously awaited her return.

"What if we go in early," I suggested, "but ask the guy at the gate to wait a little while before informing Kristen of our arrival? That way we won't seem rude or desperate or like we've got nothing better to do on a Monday morning."

Caroline nodded. I figured that this meant she agreed, but she was actually motioning towards a cop car pulling up behind us. "I told you," she said. "You can't park in a red zone."

That decided it. We were going in.

Driving through the gates, I gave the guard our names and asked him to hold off on calling Kristen for at least another fifteen minutes. He rolled his eyes as I tried to explain the reasoning behind this, but agreed.

(Turns out, it's part of a security guard's job to only PRETEND to agree with such odd-ball requests. We found out later that he'd actually called Kristen immediately, telling her all about our inept attempts to respect her time and to not look too desperate. Thankfully, Kristen was willing to play along, waiting 'til Caroline and I finally did check in -- only five minutes early! -- to come claim us, and thus making us appear -- if only to ourselves! -- that we respected her time and were not too desperate. VICTORY!)

In the meantime, Caroline and I had nearly half an hour to roam the grounds of DreamWorks, snapping pictures of the Mediterranean themed architecture, the 'boy on the moon' topiary, and the lush green landscaping that borders the studio's stone piazza.

Wandering around, I was reminded of something that I'd recently read in Neal Gabler's book, Walt Disney. In a chapter describing the completion of Disney's Burbank studio, a New York Times reporter wrote that a "walk across the lawns at noon was a like a walk though Central Park on Sunday." In the same chapter, Hedda Hopper was quoted as saying that "the whole atmosphere is conducive to the light-heartedness and gayety that you find in Disney’s pictures." Ditto for DreamWorks.

Here's The Part Where I Lose My Ability To Speak -- Just In Time For Formal Introductions!

When we finally entered the studio's main building to 'officially' check in, my sister and I were stopped in our tracks by two GIANT Croods displays. One was the light-up, 3D, movie theater standee that I'd linked to last month. The other was a 2D version of the same standee, only book-ended by a large Rise of the Guardians poster and a snow-capped Christmas tree. Considering that for all intents and purposes this week was our Christmas, we took it as a good omen.

After introducing ourselves to the fellow behind the front desk, we sat back and waited for Kristen. I was ogling the concept art hanging in the lobby (there's a Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron painting that's just GORGEOUS), when who should appear but Kristen! And Daniel! And they had posters!

Introductions were made, and it was immediately apparent that the cheerful and kind email versions of Kristen and Daniel were completely in sync with their cheerful and kind, flesh and blood counterparts. In fact, the only one NOT acting like their internet selves was ME. Gone were the endless streams of words, the mixed metaphors and the annoying inclination towards alliteration. It was like I'd been zapped with a curse that had transformed me from a relentless rambler to a mumbling near-mute. I was seriously considering asking for a pen and paper so that I could try writing instead of talking when Daniel suggested that we head to the studio cafeteria for lunch.

Lunch! Yes! That was the answer! If I could keep my mouth full of food for the duration of the visit, no one would ever have to know that my tongue had died.

A Light Lunch Takes A Dark Turn (KIDDING!)

The DreamWorks cafeteria is a study in controlled chaos. With its multiple food stations, dozens of dining options and hundreds of people moving every which way, it's a little like driving on the 101, only with slightly better signage. But as the four of us carefully navigated our trays, I found myself feeling a slight sense of relief. With all of the hustle and bustle in there, there was no way that Daniel and Kristen would notice I'd been struck dumb!

"I saved us a table outside," Daniel said, pointing to the piazza. "It's quieter out there, so we'll be able to talk."


For the record, it's not like I hadn't said ANYTHING thus far. It's just that I hadn't said anything particularly interesting. Or witty. Or even mildly entertaining. I find that I'm really only able to relax and be the loud and loquacious jabberjaws that you read here when I'm familiar with my surroundings. Some folks can just walk into a bar and immediately become the center of attention. Not me. I'm the sort of fellow who sits off to the side for an hour or so, trying to get a feel for the room, and only then lets his lips off the leash. But I didn't have an hour or so to get comfortable around Kristen and Daniel. I had one lunch. And what if we happened to run into Chris Sanders while returning our trays? What then?! Just the thought of it was starting to make me feel star-struck. Luckily, my sister was there. She'd probably say that she's shyer than me, and she might be right. But there's one HUGE difference. Where her shyness disguises itself with smiles and laughter, mine chooses the far less photogenic furrowed eyebrows ( my 'angry eyes,' as Mrs. Potatohead called 'em) and a taffy tongue. Like I said, I'm lucky my sister was there.

Talk over lunch ranged from teen girls' movie viewing habits (illegal downloads, mostly), to Tumblr's effectiveness as a marketing tool (it's great for reaching teen girls, only they watch most of their movies via illegal downloads so...), to the contents of the upcoming (now released) second trailer for The Croods. I finally figured out how to speak during all of this. I can't be sure, but I think I may have even contributed to the conversation.

At some point near the end of our meal, one of DreamWorks' higher-ups came over and introduced himself, quickly running through a long list of dos and don'ts to adhere to during our visit. Cameras were prohibited in the areas where cameras are prohibited. Information that is given off the record must stay off the record, and so on. I completely understood and agreed with everything that he was saying, but somewhere between his no-nonsense tone and my 'angry eyes,' my sister became convinced that I had somehow screwed over the studio in the past. And she said as much as soon as he'd left the table.

"Oh, my God! I don't know you! What did you do to make them not trust you?"

My sister's complete lack of faith in her favorite older brother came as no surprise to me, but it certainly did seem to entertain Kristen and Daniel. I swear I saw them suppressing laughter as I vainly tried to convince Caroline of my innocence. It took a few minutes, but by the time I'd finally vindicated myself (I did, didn't I?), it was as if the energy around us had changed. The mood had lightened. No longer was it two tour guides and two outsiders. Now it was just four people who had shared an equally awkward moment and come out of it smiling.

Thank you, Caroline.

It's What All Of You Were Waiting For: The Studio Tour!

With our tummies full and my tongue untied, the four of us headed off to tour the studio. As Kristen had already heard about me and Caroline wandering around unattended (damn you, tricky gate guard!), she and Daniel decided to take us to the less obvious areas we might have missed. And we'd missed A LOT. Although the studio doesn't seem especially spacious when you first enter, when you're being shown around by two seasoned veterans, you realize it's actually a miniature walled city. There's a doctor's office. A cafeteria. A studio store. An interconnected series of small fountains and shallow ponds housing some seriously expensive koi. Oh, and should you ever need one, there's a waterfall around back.

When I mentioned that the studio looked like a really nice, really posh, private college, Kristen said that Jeffrey Katzenberg had intended it to feel like a campus. She said that most DW employees even refer to it that way -- as 'the campus.' Daniel took the college comparison one step further, pointing out a small group doing yoga beside a long, rectangular reflection pool. Apparently, after lunch yoga classes -- and sculpture classes, life drawing classes, painting classes, etc. -- are offered free of charge to any and all interested employees of the studio.

It was right about then that I began to wonder: Was DreamWorks a cult? Was the studio their armored compound? Was I in the process of being brainwashed into their ranks?

I sure hoped so. I've always wanted to learn to sculpt.

As we approached a large building at the center of the campus (uh-oh! lingo alert! the brainwashing was already taking effect!), Daniel mentioned that from this point on, cameras were a no-no. Flashing back to my sister's baseless and incendiary accusations, I immediately switched my phone to airplane mode, turned down the volume, and clicked the power off. I would NOT give her the satisfaction of being right!

The building turned out to be a lot like the koi pond -- a complicated combination of smaller, interconnected buildings housing some pretty expensive sh*t. Pretty much every aspect of an animated film's creation was contained therein. We were shown the newly constructed recording studio. The subterranean mo-cap room. The producers' offices. The animators' cubicles. The editing bays and the writers' rooms.

Wall after wall was lined with long, banner-sized printouts of production art from The Croods, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Me and My Shadow. There were so many new characters, creatures and landscapes that I had to quickly give up on trying to remember them all. Eff the Louvre. This was the Museum of Modern Art to me.

We were circling the darkened environs of the DreamWorks animators when Daniel held up his phone and frowned. "I have to leave for a little while," he said to Kristen. "Maybe you could take them to the secret room."

The secret room?

"Can we take them to the secret room?" Kristen asked.

Caroline elbowed me, widening her eyes like, 'Say something!'

"You can't just mention the secret room and then not show us the secret room," I joked. Only, it didn't quite come out like a joke. Remember, I'd only recently regained the power of speech. "I mean..." I stammered, pointing towards an empty cubicle, "...the least you could do is tell us that THIS is the secret room. Then our curiosity would be sated, and your secrets would be safe because we're too dumb to know better."

Daniel and Kristen looked at each other with pained faces. Caroline slowly shook her head. I wished I'd stayed a mute.

"I'll take them to the secret room," Kristen said.

"I'll call as soon as I'm able to meet back up with you guys," Daniel said, and took off down the hall.

Caroline was delighted. "To the secret room!" she shrieked.

"To the secret room," I repeated. "But you'll always be MY secret room," I whispered to the empty cubicle.

That vow of architectural chastity lasted right up until I entered the REAL secret room. It was hidden -- as all of the best secret rooms are -- behind an old bookcase. To get inside, you first had to find the copy of War & Peace hidden amongst a bunch of other boring books. Then you opened the cover to War & Peace, turned the tiny knob located inside, and voilĂ  -- the bookcase slid open, revealing the secret room!

The inside of the secret room is a comfy-cozy blend of prohibition era speakeasy, Twin Peaks hunting lodge, and Indiana Jones' den. There's a roaring plastic fire, a fake bear skin rug, red velvet chairs and a fully stocked bar. Sitting in there with Kristen, listening to her tell us the story of the secret room's creation, was a welcome respite from the otherwise awe-inspiring, nerve-wracking, pulse-pounding, tongue-tying visit. When Daniel finally called Kristen, asking us to meet him upstairs, I felt the most relaxed that I'd been since pulling up in front of the studio gates.

Taking the elevator upstairs, Kristen, Caroline and I chatted. What did we chat about? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The fact that I don't remember is EXACTLY what made it so special at the time. I was as I'd wished to be: cool, calm and conversational.

Then the elevator doors opened, we stepped out into the hallway, and there was Daniel, standing next to CHRIS F**KING SANDERS!

Bye-bye calm, cool me.

In Part 3's Star-Studded Installment:
Chris f**king Sanders! Kirk f**king De Micco! James f**king Baxter! Oh, and lots more awkward silences from yours f**king truly!

See you tomorrow!

This post originally appeared on December 12, 2012