Illumination Founder Chris Meledandri Mourns The End Of Blue Sky Studios And Celebrates Its Origins – Guest Column

Illumination; Everett

Editor’s note: Before he founded and became CEO of the Universal-based animation factory Illumination, Chris Meledandri was tasked with building an animation division at Fox. Early on, the president of Twentieth Century Fox Animation in 1998 acquired Blue Sky Studios for the studio. The Westchester, NY-based animation company might have started as an adjunct to Fox’s Hollywood animation operation, but that changed when Meledandri gave Blue Sky the room to grow, and the result was the multibillion-dollar Ice Age franchise. Meledandri, who would start Illumination and hatch another multibillion-dollar franchise in Despicable Me (the highest-global-grossing animated franchise of all time, with Ice Age in third). Here, he laments the decision by Disney to shutter Blue Sky and celebrates its origins. 

Hearing the sad news of the closing of Blue Sky Studios brings back the memories of our journey together. It was 1996 and I was running the animation division at Fox. We were in production on Don Bluth’s Anastasia when a director named John Payson came in for a general meeting. He shared scenes of dancing cockroaches from his upcoming MTV-produced film Joe’s Apartment. I marveled at these cockroaches performing Busby Berkeley-like dance numbers. In a move highly uncharacteristic for someone in Hollywood, John said that while he would love to take credit for the scenes, the real credit belonged to a small animation studio based in Westchester County, NY named Blue Sky Studios.

So I traveled to Harrison, NY and discovered a group of 40 people hunkered down in a loft space. Among the founders were the boyish creative visionary Chris Wedge; the 80-year-old nuclear physicist Eugene Troubetzkoy, who wrote the company’s proprietary rendering software; and electrical engineer Carl Ludwig, who was rebuilding a Russian MIG fighter jet in his spare time. I was relatively new to animation and had even less knowledge about computer science, but loved the imagery they were creating. The characters had soul and the team had an uncanny ability to achieve realism with their caricatured designs. The more people I met at Blue Sky Studios, the more I was convinced that I had to find a way to collaborate with them.

I introduced them to a brilliant author and illustrator named William Joyce. Bill and I had been exploring ideas and it struck me that this might be the right medium for his work. We all agreed to take a section from his book, Santa Calls, and create a visual reel that combined storyboards, color and some rendered imagery. It was a beautiful test, but we could never crack the adaptation of the book’s story. During this period, we had been developing a script at Fox Animation called Ice Age. It began with executives Kevin Bannerman and Lori Forte pitching me the notion of setting a movie against the backdrop of the Ice Age. We had a terrific first draft by Michael J. Wilson that we had originally planned to make in traditional animation. However, we were already deep into our second film, Titan AE, which unfortunately was not going so well. It dawned on me that we should share the script with Chris Wedge and the team at Blue Sky and consider making it in CG.

We soon found ourselves at the beginning of the second chapter of Fox Animation, working with Blue Sky on Ice Age with Chris Wedge directing. Months later, with Titan completing its production, Bill Mechanic and Peter Chernin gave me the approval to make the film. I flew out to Harrison and gathered the small group in the studio. As I shared the good news, Chris pulled a chain on an old lamp. He had crudely wrapped a gel around the bulb so…we had the green light. We all applauded. I had made movies and they had made computer animation. However, none of us knew the complex challenges we were about to face. What I did know was that we were partnered with an extraordinarily talented group of people who had dreamed of this moment their whole lives.

Over the course of making four movies with the Blue Sky team, I had the privilege of getting to know so many remarkable artists. There was a Blue Sky culture that emphasized the pursuit of creative excellence. This culture started with the founders and it was clear from the first day I walked through their doors why so many gifted people wanted to work there. While the doors at Blue Sky are closing, the movies they made will live on to remind people that a little band of iconoclasts came together to create wonder. My thoughts are with everyone whose lives have been disrupted by the closure. But I know that if you worked at Blue Sky, you have talent and skills that will be cherished by others. I will always cherish that Blue Sky spirit.

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