INTERVIEW: James Baxter Talks The Croods

The Croods PosterAhead of his latest film’s December 9th home entertainment release, British head of character animation James Baxter was kind enough to discuss with me the work he did on DreamWorks Animation’s caveman comedy The Croods.

For the uninitiated, the film centres on Eep (Emma Stone) and her family of troglodytes as they are forced to leave the safety of their cave and venture out into the weird and wonderful world around them. While father Grug (Nicolas Cage) errs on the side of caution, Eep yearns for adventure, befriending a self-proclaimed modern man (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) as she endeavours to evolve — or die trying.

Though the character designs and behavioural observations suggest relatively more than just a basic understanding of human evolution, at least when compared to other children’s movies (I’m looking at you, Ice Age), Baxter admits that his team only researched the film up to a point.

“I’m a big fan of evolutionary biology and I always have been, it’s one of the things I’m interested in, but all of that just kind of gets thrown out of the window when you’re doing a movie like this. It’s such a fantasy that if you actually had to defend it on scientific grounds you’d be in trouble.”

Although not as hands on as he’d perhaps like to have been, instead working with a team of up to thirty animators on the busiest days, Baxter did manage to animate Douglas the ‘crocodog’ on a number of occasions. While the human characters bear at least some resemblance to the historical records, however, the flora and fauna that they encounter are often a little more difficult to identify.

“It was fun to play with the idea that some of these creatures are these evolutionary dead-ends. We had certain things that we ended up not doing because they were really kind of contrary to presenting a world which felt like planet earth. We had to do this sort of slight rationalisation, just so that we could figure out how these animals would move or how they would behave.”

Although a sequel has since been announced, Baxter and his team never took the possibility of another film for granted. The animators would often joke that characters or environments could be put in The Croods 2, but as he points out, to count on it would have been presumptuous. “But I’m glad they’re making one”, he adds, “I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory”.

Unlike DreamWorks Animation’s previous film, Rise of the Guardians, The Croods has evidently proven lucrative enough to warrant another adventure. The film didn’t just follow a box office disappointment (though Rise of the Guardians is now in the green), however, it was also the first film to be distributed by 20th Century Fox rather than Paramount, yet he assures me that there was almost no additional pressure behind the scenes to get it right.

“I’m sure there was [pressure], amongst the financial people [laughs]. Strangely enough, we were already deep into doing Croods by the time Guardians came out, and you have so much momentum by that  point on a movie that it doesn’t really change what you’re doing so much. I guess you just have to keep your fingers crossed for it, every time you do this, just to see if people are going to respond to it.”

It seems that, for Baxter at least, people have been responding to his work for years. He started out at Disney around the time of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and one of his first jobs — at just 23 years of age — was to animate Belle for a little film called Beauty and the Beast. At the time, however, there was little indication that it would go on to become such a classic, widely considered to be one of Disney’s finest features.

“I just remember being scared, trying to live up to things like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, you know — and as an animator knowing how good that work is.  I do remember making some conscious decisions about the brown hair and brown eyes; we’d never really done a brunette since Snow White, really. It was a really amazing experience for me, as young as I was, and it’s one of those moments that I almost wish I could revisit, because I know now that I’m a little better at spotting what’s going to work and what’s going to become something big. I think that if I’d known [how well it would be received] at the time I probably would have done some things differently.”

Although Baxter has been at DreamWorks since The Prince Of Egypt, he took a few years out to set up his own studio, called James Baxter Animation. It was at a time when next to no traditional hand-drawn animation was being produced, at least in Hollywood, and it was this more than anything else that motivated him to become his own boss. Oddly, it was while working independently that he was asked to develop the opening and closing credits sequences for Kung Fu Panda. And then something lured him back.

“I enjoy working for DreamWorks, they’ve always been a nice company to work for. I had a good time at Disney too; I learnt a lot. You know, my time at Disney, it was a great place to be to learn how to be an animator, to do feature film animation. They have so many resources, and they have this rich legacy. And you can go and explore their libraries. That’s a great place to go to learn to be a character animator. But I enjoy the culture here at DreamWorks very much; I think they’re an interesting company.”

It’s certainly true that in recent years DreamWorks Animation has emerged as one of the leading animation houses in America. Though much of their output has succeeded financially, it wasn’t until Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon (“I think it’s my favourite film that I’ve ever worked on”) that the critical consensus matched the commercial one. Over the last few years, the studio has brought in the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins as consultants, though Baxter is quick to reveal that they aren’t the whole story behind DreamWorks’ growing success.

“I’ve met Roger a few times. I don’t think I would credit…as fantastic and brilliant as those two men are, I think there was a larger thing going on at DreamWorks over the last ten years. I think the success of Dragon [in particular] really comes down to [the film’s director] Dean DeBlois more than anyone else, and I think DreamWorks’ efforts to cultivate directors like that is starting to pay off.”

As for the future, James Baxter sees much to be excited about in the current state of animation. With the likes of Laika, Aardman Animations and Studio Ghibli bringing some much needed diversity to a genre that had become somewhat lost in a homogeneous sea of pixels — and even DreamWorks planning a blend of styles in the form of upcoming film Me and my Shadow — it seems that the stage is set for something special. Even more so when you look beyond the multiplex.

“Animation, ever since really I got into it, has been a pretty exciting place to be. I’m really enjoying working on the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon — I’m finishing that up in January/February. So there’s that sort of animation where you’re really pushing what you can do in terms of performance and subtlety — dramatic animation — but I also really enjoy a lot of the things that are going on in television right now: Adventure Time, The Regular Show and Gravity Falls on Disney.”

Failing that, of course, you need only watch The Croods to feel excited. As I said in my review, early scenes of Eep scaling a cliff face induce actual vertigo, while the environments and creatures are among the most creative to grace the screen in years, and all this is yours to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday. Eep indeed.

Many thanks to James Baxter for speaking with me, and to Premier for making it all possible.

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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