Alongside Pixar and DreamWorks, Blue Sky is responsible for showcasing the wonders of computer animation. 2002's Ice Age - featuring a sabretooth tiger, sloth, and wooly mammoth - was a cool calling card for Chris Wedge's company. Now they're back with long-planned dream project Robots, set in a parallel universe where machines exist in 'human' form. Wedge visited London to switch on the hype machine for the movie, which stars Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, and - in his first animated feature since Aladdin - Robin Williams.
Where did the idea for Robots come from?
[Children's book illustrator] Bill Joyce and I had been trying to develop one of his story books into a movie at Fox in 1996/97, and ultimately the movie didn't go. So we thought, OK, let's make another one... let's make one about robots. That was really the beginning, and then we just started fleshing out the world. It really came more from us wanting to do something that had characters in it. It's a world of mechanical people - what would it be like to be made out of metal?; how would we interact?; what would we dream about?; what would be afraid of? The world - Bill's whimsical design - was in our heads first.
Themes then started emerging. I hate, for example, that you get a laptop computer and start pouring your life onto it - what you write, your phone stuff, all the pictures you've been taking for the past few years. And then you need more memory, or a faster processor. And then you finally say, "Oh, I'll get a new one." But what does it feel like if you're the poor computer? Machines that are living on the edge of obsolescence is what we're talking about, and I think there are also analogies for people as they get older - it works in a lot of ways.
You've previously said that the novelty of computer-generated movies will wear off in a few years, but don't you think we're currently in something of a Golden Age for animation?
Yeah, I think so. I also think that we're being limited, to a degree, by the types of films we're making. I'm looking forward to a point when we can break into genres that aren't as expected as the fast-talking comedies that are coming out now.
Do you think there's a tendency to do things in your movies just to showcase what computer animation can actually do - for example, the wet hair in Pixar's The Incredibles...
You know, you've got to keep everybody interested. And, when it comes down to it, all of us at Blue Sky are basically a bunch of geeks: we do get excited about that kind of thing. At Blue Sky it's 'rendering' - simulating the way light works and the photographic quality that things have. But you find out very quickly that you may be more interested in that than the audience, and that's the stuff that hits the cutting room floor first. I don't think there's any gratuitous showboating in Robots.
Why did you decide to give Ewan McGregor an American accent?
That was the only thing I was afraid of when we were talking about Ewan, because his voice and his attitude was pretty perfect - he didn't sound too old or too young. But we didn't know if he was going to have his Scottish accent. At the time he was in Alabama shooting Big Fish, and when we met him he actually had a little bit of an American drawl that we had to get out of him when we were recording. I did want to keep it American - we only use British accents for villains!
There's a nice 2001: A Space Odyssey reference in the movie. Are you guys geeks when it comes to those references, or do you try to resist them?
I resist with a stiff arm! Obviously the world has to seem relatable to us, and contemporary to us, but the fun is to turn it round and disguise those references. So you feel the familiarity but you don't feel like we've made too specific a reference that takes you out of the movie. We argue all the time about what does and what doesn't do that, but that to me that was one that felt germane. Any cross-cultural references we have probably happened 30 years ago, not last year.
Do you see a time when you can make a movie without A-list casting - where the cartoon itself is the star?
I'm not the marketing guy, but I can understand what the issue is. Movies are sold based on personalities that people are familiar with - I mean, most blockbuster movies don't have new movies in them. As long as these animation films are made as event films and are meant to appeal to a broad audience and marketed to a broad audience, they probably will have to be. But I'll tell you one thing: Pixar has done us a big service with The Incredibles, because they're marketing the movie on the characters. Most of the voice actors aren't huge stars in America, and that is exactly... animation shouldn't have to be sold on names in my opinion. We're fortunate on this - yeah, they're big names, but they were all very very appropriate for the roles.
How difficult is it for you to create your characters?
It's difficult. The whole film together becomes a very complicated puzzle. You've got the environment in play, you've got themes in play, you've got characters. It happened very easily on Ice Age, we were extremely fortunate. On Robots it occurred to me that audiences really respond to great characters. If there was a film that influenced me while making Robots, it was Pirates Of The Caribbean and Johnny Depp's pirate guy [Captain Jack Sparrow]. I mean, he came up with that thing himself, and I just fell in love with that guy - he's flamboyant and crazy, not perfect. It's tough to come up with characters that original.
What did you learn from Ice Age which helped during the making of Robots?
I'll tell ya, I learned on Robots what I had forgotten I had learned on Ice Age - that sounds like something Donald Rumsfeld would say! On Ice Age I learned that, because the medium is primarily visual and so much of the story communication is visual, you don't need a lot of dialogue, you don't need a lot of story; you inch the story forward and you play in a situation you've created. That's what makes good set-pieces, that's what makes good entertainment. When people stand around talking about their favourite Monty Python quote, it's from a situation that came up in the story that everyone responds to, it's not characters spouting exposition. That's something we had to ween ourselves from on Robots. It was a very, very dense movie.
There's an irony that Robots is a paean to old-fashioned technology, yet you're using the most cutting edge technology to tell that story...
There is an irony there, yeah, but we're really not talking about the kinds of machines we use anyway. I think that since the middle of the last century, machines have become less and less interesting to look at. Nothing moves any more, everything's just kind of a box with lights and buttons on it. Cars, airplanes... nothing looks that interesting. Even sail boats don't look interesting anymore. We're using incredibly advanced technology, but it's a world that may as well be insects or fish.
Robots will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 18th March 2005.