Creatives behind Spies in Disguise opened the doors of Blue Sky Studios to give us an exclusive look on how the animated film starring Will Smith and Tom Holland was conceived.
In the Spies in Disguise, a beaker full of shape-shifting chemistry sparks an unlikely friendship between quirky engineer Walter Beckett (Holland) who makes nonviolent gadgets, and hotshot agent Lance Sterling (Smith) who prefers to work alone. By way of chug, Sterling’s accidental metamorphosis from man to pigeon is respective of his spy senses and true to avian anatomy. Together, he must team up with Bennett to clear his name and bring the evil to justice. Oh, and there’s glitter bombs!
Spies in Disguise is the latest release out of Blue Sky Studios. The Connecticut facility acts as a hub for innovative minds in animation. Over decades, it has been inhabited by independent professionals, 20th Century Fox, and Walt Disney Studios. Here, filmmakers developed the Ice Age series and shorts, Robots, Ferdinand, The Peanuts Movie, the Rio series, Epic, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, and more.
Before hitting theaters, Spies in Disguise was a concept floating around the Greenwich space abundant in zany artwork, nostalgic decor, and ceiling-high cereal dispensers. Across a conference table full of media and influencers, directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane detailed what exactly happened in Blue Sky Studios during production.
Getting the Story Straight.
To make a script, directors sat in a room with writers to come up with jokes, ideas, and feelings. “The biggest thing for us is that we always had, you know, that teamwork message and the nonviolent philosophy. So you sort of hold those up as your North Star—like that’s your theme and everything has to be based around it,” said Bruno. The script changed as time progressed, actors improved, and artists reimagined scenes. “But it’s really hard cause you have to service so many things. You have to service entertainment. You have to service the story— making sure that everything that you’re doing is revolving around that theme, making sure it’s funny, making sure it’s sad and scared.”
Setting the Mood.
The self-proclaimed “Bert and Ernie of animation” took a look at the script and began by thinking about scenes musically. “We just found songs that we liked that felt like the movie, that had the right energy, or the right sound to it and that right rhythm that would help inspire certain sequences or just moods that we liked,” said Quane, “So that became a real guiding principle for everybody down the line from design to especially animation because they use that to start animation tests.” Bruno added that animators even animate characters to the beat of music—even though that music does not appear in the film—which added to the swagger of Lance and the awkwardness of Walter. From there, they teamed up with composer Theodore Shapiro and musicians like Mark Ronson and Anderson .Paak.
With the gist of a character’s personality, illustrators played around with what Lance and Walter would look like. They balanced caricature with reality. For example, Lance’s body type resembles a martini class, favored by fellow spy James Bond. Illustrators also had to draw Lance’s Audi.
Tone and Sculpt.
Character illustrations went to head of sculpting Vicki Saulls. In the sculpting room, she tested the practicality and proportionality of character features. She started with a metal wire before working her hands into grey clay. During the weeks it took to create Lance Sterling’s clay model, Saulls used athlete Dwight Howard as a visual example. Once finished, she scanned models of main characters into the computer to continue with digital sculpting. Digitally, sculptors like Saulls can imitate facial and body expressions driven by muscle movement.
Finding A Voice.
Spies in Disguise features a diverse and multi-faceted cast: Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, and Masi Oka as well as Smith and Holland. Plus, fun fact, young Walter is voiced by Bruno’s son.
According to directors, they initially prioritized casting Lance Sterling, who needed to be cool and overconfident. “Both of us kept coming back to Will Smith,” said Quane. “I mean, back to the Fresh Prince. I mean, he was cool, he had a musicality, he had a lot of swagger, but he was kinda—you know, as cool as he was—he was kinda dorky at times…he was approachable, he had a charisma.”Next, Walter needed to be “geeky but sweet, naive but optimistic.” Directors noticed those traits in English actor Holland, who put on an American accent to play Walter.
A draft of the script made its way to the story department to create storyboards. We caught up with head of story Adam Cootes and story artist Jeff Call on what that process was like. “It’s really our job to take the story from words on a page to pictures on a screen. We’re the first people that start to think about the movie visually,” said Cootes. Cootes, Call, and their team drew a version of the entire movie over the course of about a year by breaking down the script into individual scenes and sequences.
Artists paid no mine to chronological order as they prepped drawings and accompanying sound effects to pitch to directors. The first scene artists started on was Lance’s metamorphosis because of its importance to the rest of the film. “It’s a really good illustration, this scene, of how much physicality board artists like Jeff bring to these scenes because none of that physical humor was written on the page. That all comes from Jeff’s imagination,” said Cootes. “You know, Lance falling on his face. Then his legs make you walk backwards, and then popping up in front of the screen and going, ‘My eyes!’ Like none of that was in the script.”
Chopped and Screwed.
After the story department, directors met with animators to describe the shots in need of animation. Senior animator Jackie Tarascio and animator Eric Prah broke down for us this process they call the “chop shop.” While directors addressed them, animators noted who’s in each shot, what is the character’s background and personality, the setting, the time of day, where the characters were before this and where they are headed, what’s happening, and what is the intention of the scene for the audience.
From there, animators like Tarascio and Prah construct scenes, sometimes without the actors having recorded their voice overs yet. Tarascio liked to record video of herself acting out the scenes, as a guide to animating. Her son also helped as a stand-in when she animated young Walter. This method of “scratch acting” also gathered people around the studio to sub in different voices so that everyone could continue working without needing the actors for extended periods. Plus, it allowed for artists to develop characters, discover emotion, move elements around, and record with actors later.
It is important to note that Tarascio’s department focused on the mesh of characters and movement. What we saw in theaters were elements later embellished by other departments with textures, effects, and lighting. But animators still got to show their creativity. Prah compared some of his tasks to stop-animation and digital puppeteering. For example, building Fanboy during the sequence in Mexico involved taking inspiration from how a water balloon moves.
Acting and Reacting.
Despite other departments doing stand-in acting, the final animation needed actors only. And if lines did change towards the end of production, actors redubbed rather than scenes being reanimated.
Actors recorded scenes in sessions, never exceeding four hours at a time. Because of individual schedules and production, one session would occasionally be months apart from next.
Main actors required more recording sessions. Holland recorded in 11 total, and Smith recorded in 13. The two never recorded together. So directors would sometimes do scene work with each actor in place of their co-star. Any improvisation from Smith or Holland would have to be incorporated into the other’s script and involve re-recording.
Affected by Effects.
Once the bases for animations and set designs were completed, special effects and lighting artists decorated scenes. Special effects supervisor Elvira Pinkhas and her team were responsible for weather, water, fire, sparks, oil spills, and gadget effects. They studied physics and natural elements. Pinkhas pointed making sure the raindrops hit the curved helicopter just right, the different layers and colors that go into making fire, and working with slo-motion. Further work involved collaboration with the animation department.
Lighting supervisor Jeeyun Sung and her team finalized the project by adjusting colors, creating skies, fixing sunlight, and controlling light sources from headlights to street lamps. Lighting production took six to eight months, including catering lighting to each eye for the 3D version of the film.
And there you have it—how to make an animated film from the mouths of Blue Sky Studios! Check out Spies in Disguise is available on Digital, 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD. Hydrogen Bond out!