Lori Forte and Mike Thurmeier have been involved with the Ice Age franchise since the very start. As producer, Forte has overseen the production of all five films, including this summer’s Ice Age: Collision Course. Thurmeier began his collaboration on the series as a lead animator for the first Ice Age before being called up to direct the third film in the series, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, in 2009. Thurmeier has since returned as co-director on each subsequent film in the series. Boxoffice caught up with the duo to talk about the upcoming film and how the family atmosphere at Blue Sky Studios has influenced the style and feel of the Ice Age franchise.
You’ve both been involved in this franchise since the beginning. What has it been like to shepherd a series from the first installment into the global blockbuster it’s known as today?
Lori Forte: I was looking through projects to produce, and looking at the landscape at that time, around 1998 or so, I noticed that there weren’t any movies out there that took place during the ice age, particularly animated ones. I felt it was a really good opportunity. I brought in the writer who created the characters, and it was just a wonderful project right from the beginning. We fell in love with the characters, we fell in love with the world, and it offered a lot of opportunities for storytelling. To be involved with the first one and to have it do so well [at the box office] and have audiences embrace it and love the characters is the biggest honor and a big treat. Being involved in every step of the way thereafter, through all five films, brings a protectiveness and love of the franchise. It’s a passion of ours to want to tell the right story for the characters, and we want to watch them grow, evolve, develop, and have a lot of fun doing it. We’re amazed and very proud of where the franchise is today.
Mike Thurmeier: Ice Age was my first animated feature. At the time that this project came in, we had never taken on anything this big at Blue Sky Studios. It was really special to start with that one because everyone was learning at the same time; the characters were designed well and looked different than what had been done before. As an animator, it was a fun project to tackle. Being included in supervising the animation for the second film just continued that growth, and I was really lucky that Lori and Carlos [Saldanha] asked me to co-direct the third one. That was a huge change, but it felt very similar to animating in that it involved creating and sculpting a story instead of just a character’s performance in a particular shot. I can’t say enough good things about it; I think the strength of the series is in the characters.
Does it feel like a big family reunion every time you guys come back for another installment?
MT: It does! Many of the same people have been involved on all the installments from the beginning. There’s always a spirit of coming back and getting reacquainted with these characters, and we obviously keep on coming back to them because we’re in love with them. It really is a family atmosphere, and even though we share some similarities across different projects, like Rio or Peanuts, there is a distinct identity to Ice Age, so when we come back together for another installment it’s like you’re going back to the home base of creativity within the studio.
LF: We always have a couple of years between Ice Age movies where parts of the team leave to work on other films. When Ice Age is ready to go back into pre-production and production, like Mike said, it’s like a homecoming. It’s like seeing old friends again.
Ice Age is a great example of how the international marketplace has grown to embrace certain film franchises. What factors do you think make this particular series so beloved by global audiences?
LF: We never expected to be able to go on to a second, let alone a third, fourth, or fifth movie while making the first one. I think people around the world have embraced it because it has a lot of positives. First of all, it has these very funny, loving, and endearing characters. The theme of family is at the heart of each movie; the idea that you don’t have to be related by blood to be part of a family. It is about loyalty, support, and all the great values in life for kids, adults, and seniors. I don’t see our films as being overly preachy. I think they just embody core family values.
We always have a big idea, a big story, a big pending disaster, or in this movie, a cosmic event. I think that engaging these big ideas is what keeps the series so fresh and exciting. At the same time, we work out the characters’ personal issues throughout the storytelling.
We try to keep our characters growing and changing from film to film, so it’s not the same thing repeated again and again. At the very beginning we had three disparate characters, Manny, Sid, and Diego, coming together as outcasts. They formed this family that should probably never have existed, but they formed it through friendship and loyalty and wound up returning a human baby to its father. The humans and the animals were not really on the same page and shouldn’t have been together either, but that’s a bond that formed. Starting from there and tackling each adventure thereafter was like growing that family: Manny meeting Ellie in the second movie, and in the third movie Ellie and Manny having their baby only to be separated and having to find each other again in the fourth movie. Now, in our latest film, Manny and Ellie’s baby, Peaches, is growing up and they’re looking at an empty-nest situation. The family in these films keeps on growing and changing, and that’s what people seem to be responding to.
MT: The films don’t have a cynicism or North American sense of humor to them. I think it’s succeeded globally because there’s a lot of physical comedy that plays well abroad. The look of the film also contributes since it doesn’t feel it’s taking place in any specific place in the world. It’s a world that has an inclusive feel to it. I think people living in Europe, Asia, or Latin America can feel like it could be part of their world.
What was it about this specific installment that got you guys excited about going back to work on Ice Age again?
MF: For me it was when my co-director, Galen, and I met with Lori to talk about the idea. It was surprising because I don’t think anyone expects a cosmic element in an Ice Age film. That was intriguing because with Ice Age we’ve spent a lot of time on stone and ice, and there’s a dominant color palette. This space element became something to latch on to and think of different moments and colors that we could bring in. That was really appealing. You want something fresh and interesting every time you go to a movie, and each Ice Age has had that.
LF: Some people might think it’s a little extreme to take it to outer space, but if you think about it, we had Manny and Diego walking through this ice museum in the first Ice Age, where they come across a prehistoric fish, a dinosaur encased in ice, and then a space ship that’s also encased in ice. We never came back to that; it was sort of like a little wink—how that would have gotten there? We knew one day that we would come back to this idea and this story, and that’s what piqued my interest for this installment. We had already laid the groundwork for this flying saucer to be there, and we thought it would be fun if Scrat, somehow in pursuit of his nut, accidentally falls into the spaceship and sets it off. So it feels like it’s connected to the first movie in a way. We did a short called “No Time for Nuts.” Mike co-directed it with Chris Renaud, and in the film Scrat finds a time machine and pursues his nut through time and space. So the character has already dabbled with technology, although not successfully. That short had a lot of laughter, a lot of fun, and a lot of potential. We wanted to go back and capture some of those moments and expand it into a bigger canvas. Now Scrat goes up and has this adventure in the cosmos, but his actions have consequences for our characters down on Earth.