Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

Caveman movies are favorites for Chris Sanders, co-writer and co-director of DreamWorks AwardsLine.LogoBWAnimation’s The Croods. But even his familiarity with the genre didn’t prepare him for just how deep the movie about a caveman family tempted away from the absolute safety of their cave to risk finding a more rewarding life in the larger world could get.

The-Croods_1“It is purely about family and relationships, and really about life in general,” says Sanders, who previously co-wrote and co-directed Lilo & Stitch for Disney and DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon. “That was the big surprise for me, was that within a few weeks we realized that we weren’t just dealing with a family, we were dealing with very large questions — questions about life and existence, and that’s something with a caveman film that I didn’t expect.”

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That universality of the movie proved to be a major part of its success, as did the iconic nature of the individual characters, adds co-writer and co-director Kirk DeMicco. “A dysfunctional family is universal,” he says.

Released March 22, The CroodsA scene from The Croods stomped its way to an impressive $600 million worldwide tally. A strong critical reception praising the story and the inventive visuals in the computer-generated 3D movie have made The Croods the strongest Oscar contender to come from the studio that Shrek built since 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon.

The Croods’ journey to the screen was far from straight forward. It began as a story DeMicco and Monty Python alumnus John Cleese (who gets a story-by credit on the movie) had devised for Aardman to produce as a stop-motion feature during the days when DreamWorks and the British animation darlings had a now long-defunct co-production deal. DeMicco says that original idea was vastly different from the version that got made.

“It was really a buddy movie about two guys going off and going on an adventure and coming back with their knowledge,” he says. The cavemen returning and trying to explain what they’d seen to their families were the funniest scenes in that version, so when Sanders came over to DreamWorks from Disney in 2007 and joined the project, he and DeMicco ditched the buddy and took the family along in the best Little Miss Sunshine tradition.

The-Croods-eep-climbing-wallThe limited cast included Nicolas Cage as Grug, the father; Catherine Keener as his wife, Ugga; Emma Stone and Clark Duke as their teenage kids Eep and Thunk; Cloris Leachman as Gran; and Ryan Reynolds as Guy, the young outsider who shows them the way and wins Eep’s heart. Designed before actors were attached to the roles, DeMicco and Sanders gave each an animalistic quality hinted at by the type of skins or furs each wore.

As is the norm on animated features, the actors rarely were able to be in the same room together for recording their lines. Recording Cage proved especially challenging, as the production had to follow the busy actor’s mobile schedule and record him in places as far-flung as New Orleans, the Bahamas, New York City and Las Vegas. “I don’t think we ever recorded him in the same place twice,” says Sanders.

The story kept the filmmakers constantly on their toes. With no villain or other characters to cut to, the movie stays with the same small group of characters throughout. Every shot is an exterior in a strange world. They have internal conflicts, but all must remain likable. And everyone always needs something to do, something Sanders says they would check by acting out scenes in mo-cap for reference.

What helped immensely is knowing from the start what the ending of the movie was going to be. “Grug is the key, because his fearful and protective view of the world is essentially the correct one to ensure survival,” says DeMicco. “But in the end, to achieve the others’ goal of finding a better way, it required his strength as much as their desire.”

In the middle of production, Sanders moved over to co-direct Dragon with his Lilo & Stitch The-Croods-the-croods-34956637-1920-1080collaborator Dean DeBlois. Having never worked on a CG-animated feature, Sanders faced a steep learning curve. “I got a crash course in CG,” he says. “When I came back to The Croods, I had been educated in what this studio was capable of, visually.”

Among the technical advances were a new creature assembly system used to quickly design prehistoric animals early enough in the process that their attributes could be incorporated into the story. Making each creature different and new made each an unexpected threat to the family and bolstered Grug’s position against taking risks.

As he had on Dragon, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on the look of The Croods and was an essential resource, says Sanders. Deakins helped the movie take advantage of advances in real-world lighting techniques for CG animation and suggested the hand-held camera look to give the film a more human feel.

“He would help us bring the audience into that moment,” says Sanders. “It’s a combination of the way it’s lit, the camera, the framing – all of these things hopefully bring the audience into the movie.”

Often the final element added to any feature, sound and music were incorporated into The Croods early on. The directors says that allowed composer Alan Silvestri and sound designer Randy Thom to maximize the harmony between sound, music and the animation.

The success of The Croods means DiMicco and Sanders are already back on board for a sequel, tentatively scheduled for release in 2019, which surely will pose a new set of challenges. For now, though, the duo is pleased The Croods came together the way they wanted.

“For me, working on this film must be what it feels like to build either a 747 or build a cathedral, because it’s just that many pieces all put together,” says Sanders.