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Working With Sloths Can Be Time-Consuming

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where can a screenwriter get the chance to work with an antisocial woolly mammoth, a nerdy sloth, a tough saber-toothed cat and a gaggle of survivalist dodo birds? Only in the realm of animation--and only if the screenwriters are willing to immerse themselves in a wildly collaborative, maddeningly nonlinear creative process that is unlike any other kind of screenwriting job.

For writers Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg and Peter Ackerman, 20th Century Fox’s new computer-animated comedy “Ice Age” represented their first experience working in the medium of animation. And for each of them, the film would prove to be a challenge.

“It was like being a staff writer on a job,” said Ackerman, an off-Broadway playwright who worked on the project on and off for more than a year. “It was a little bit like television in that there was a lot of collaboration and things changed constantly.”

The tale of three wildly disparate prehistoric creatures--Manfred the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego (Denis Leary), a tiger that harbors a sinister secret--who team up to return a human baby to its father, “Ice Age” is the first feature to come from Fox Animation’s digital partner, Blue Sky Studios.

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While this is perhaps the best time in history for a studio to be poised and ready to release a major computer-animated feature, given the commercial successes of “Shrek,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” using computer-generated imagery was not part of the original plan.

“At the beginning it wasn’t a CG film, it was just an animated film,” said producer Lori Forte, who pitched the “‘Three-Godfathers'-on-a-Glacier” concept to Fox in 1997. “Chris Meledandri [president of Fox Animation Studios] and Kevin Bannerman, who was our production and development executive at the time, came to me and said, ‘What would you think about doing ‘Ice Age’ as a CG movie?’”

Initially surprised, because the project was one of several being considered for Fox’s traditional animation studio headed by Don Bluth (which has long since closed), Forte quickly realized it was “basically a no-brainer.”

Michael Wilson, who previously had come no closer to animation than working on 1994’s live-action version of “The Flintstones,” was the first writer brought in on the project, when “Ice Age” was still in the treatment stage.

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“In research, I found out that the major source of revenue for Neanderthals was the woolly mammoth,” Wilson said. “But there was a big emotional moment that I don’t think we were expecting to find, when [the human] realizes that the thing he’s making his living from [by killing] saved, took care of and brought back his son. That evolved when we were doing the treatments.”

Based on the treatments and outlines he devised with Forte, Wilson wrote the first draft script in 1998. But that was only the beginning of a long process.

“The script gives us a starting off point,” said Chris Wedge, the director of “Ice Age” and co-founder of the White Plains, N.J.-based Blue Sky. “It helps discover and define the characters and the tone of the dialogue. But there’s a lot of invention between the script and the screen.”

In the old days, cartoons, even animated features, never relied on a script at all. They were created through storyboard drawings, which contained the action and even the dialogue of the film. Story teams, separate from the screenwriters, remain an integral part of the animation process, although scripts are now more common in starting animation, not only for their value as a blueprint, but also as budgetary guides. “If the studio is making an investment, they want to know what they’re buying in advance,” Forte explains.

Fox, whose commercial track record with animation has run the gamut from the respectable (1997’s “Anastasia”) to the disappointing (2000’s “Titan A.E.”) to the disastrous (2001’s live action-animation combo “Monkeybone”) invested about $58 million in “Ice Age.” That’s about twice the cost of “Jimmy Neutron” and roughly half the going rate for a Disney Feature Animation project.

While the earliest versions of the “Ice Age” script had been conceived more as an action adventure-drama with comic relief, Fox began to seek a more comedic treatment of the story with a contemporary edge. Even before Wedge came onto the project at the end of 1998, Michael Berg, whose credits included 1996’s “New Jersey Turnpikes,” was brought in to further develop the comedy.

“When I came in I said, ‘I can’t write for kids,’” said Berg, “and they said, ‘Great! Just write a good story.’”

Berg stayed with the project on and off for three years, which covered most of the production period. He said the experience was, in part, a lesson in patience.

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“You have the storyboard artists draw [the scripted scenes] and you get a version you like, and you put it on story reels with the pictures and the temporary voice track, and then the directors and artists have a lot of ideas they want to explore,” he said.

“We had 30 options of some scenes and, as a writer, you try to pull them back toward story and characters. In live action, the actor or director might say, ‘Can we take [the scene] this way?’ But they usually don’t say that 30 times.”

Needless to say, all of this constant flux of story, action and dialogue, and the back-and-forth process of going from script page to storyboard to story reel tended to blur the concept of authorship.

“There is an interesting sort of tension of who is the story writer in an animated movie,” said Ackerman. “Who really knows how to make an animated movie, the writers or the storyboard artists?”

Ackerman joined the project in 2000, an experience he likens to jumping onto a moving train. “I thought I was going to be the only writer there,” he said, “but when I showed up, Michael Berg, whom I did not know at the time, was there, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m supposed to rewrite lines that this guy already wrote? Isn’t that going to get a little uncomfortable?’”

Fortunately, it turned out to be more comfortable than anyone anticipated, and for a while, Berg and Ackerman operated as a writing team. “I was not threatened when they brought in [Ackerman],” Berg said. “I was happy, because somebody comes in with a good idea and you can get a little fresher.”

In the course of what Ackerman calls “interminable tinkering” by the production team, the writers occasionally found themselves reworking material that had previously been accepted and approved.

“You might go back and rewrite a scene you had written three months ago and think, ‘I thought you guys said this was funny three months ago!’” he said.

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However, both he and Berg say they are grateful for the chance to be involved in so many different steps of the filmmaking process, from being at the recording sessions with the actors to sitting with the director in the editing room--opportunities that rarely come to writers on live-action films.

Even after Berg and Ackerman had left the project, though, the script remained in flux. Writers Jon Vitti and Mike Reiss, both veterans of Fox television’s “The Simpsons,” were brought in to further punch up the lines, while the work of the story team--which was headed by Yvette Kaplan--continued, even through the animation phase. “We were working on story until the last week of animation,” said Wedge.

The gag-driven sequences involving Scrat, an aggressively cartoony prehistoric rodent that is the karmic victim of the ice age, were largely the province of Wedge, lead layout artist William Frake III, and the story team.

While a four-year development and production schedule might sound downright glacial, Meledandri said the film actually progressed on a timely basis. “The evolution of the script [for “Ice Age”] happened much more organically than in prior films,” said Meledandri.

“There was always a sense of us pushing and forcing the development of the other films for various reasons, not the least of which were production deadlines that imposed on the creative process. With ‘Ice Age,’ none of those [contractual restraints] existed.”

Whatever traumas the writers may have experienced during the development and production of “Ice Age” have largely faded. Wilson, who has yet to see the finished film--he prefers to see movies in theaters with regular audiences--is philosophical about the process. “Sometimes art is the elimination of the unnecessary, and how do you know what’s necessary or unnecessary until you go through the process?”

Berg, who is happy that some of his favorite lines survived and remained unchanged from his first draft to the finished film, admits to having experienced a good deal of angst over the constant rewrites and changes during production. Eventually those feelings subsided as soon as final decisions were made because, “I just appreciate what works,” he said.

Trying to pinpoint the credit for certain ideas ultimately became moot, according to Ackerman, since the nonstop collaboration made it sometimes difficult to remember who contributed what. “I felt like whatever I came up with was public property,” he said.


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