An Oral History of Scrat Tales: The Death and Legacy of Blue Sky StudiosMovies Features Blue Sky Studios
When you think of the founding studios of modern CG animation, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation immediately come to mind. But for 34 years, Blue Sky Studios was also part of that vanguard of technology and creativity, operating as both a pioneer and an outlier in the computer animation world. But its entire history came to an unexpected, grinding halt on April 10, 2021, when the studio’s new owner, The Walt Disney Company, closed Blue Sky forever. Ironically, the last endeavor produced with its creatives under its own roof, Ice Age: Scrat Tales, premieres April 13, almost exactly a year later, on Disney+.
The six-short series is a bittersweet swan song for Blue Sky Studios, as it features Scrat, the tunnel-visioned, saber-toothed squirrel who opened their very first film, Ice Age, and now brings the creative entity to its close. Since the close of Blue Sky Studios happened so quickly, Paste reached out to the creative team behind Ice Age: Scrat Tales—including Chris Wedge, Anthony Nisi and Michael Knapp—to get the full story of how this Scrat-focused entry, which was supposed to signify a new chapter for the company, became its coda.
A Brief History of Blue Sky Studios
Co-founded in 1987 by a collective of tech orphans after the shut down of MAGI, an early computer visual effects company that worked on Tron, Blue Sky Studios was conceived to be a turnkey operation that would produce creative visuals for their clients in-house, using their proprietary software CGI Studio.
After making a name for itself creating computer animation for clients like M&Ms and MTV, Blue Sky saw 20th Century Fox’s VFX company, VIFX, acquire a majority interest in 1997. They retained the creative team and had them build complex VFX shots for a host of Fox movies. However, the trajectory of the company changed when Bunny, by co-founder Chris Wedge, won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
The company reoriented towards making CG features: From 2000 to 2019, Blue Sky Studios released 13 theatrical CG animated films (taking in more than $5B at the box office and earning a pair of Oscar noms for Best Animated Feature) and a myriad of shorts and television specials, all produced inside the unassuming walls of a bland corporate park building in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ice Age, which had five theatrical installments, originated Scrat—the character who eventually became their studio mascot and corporate logo.
Chris Wedge, Blue Sky Studios co-founder and director: The very first day of Scrat was me, [character designer] Peter de Sève and [storyboard artist] Bill Frake. It was a meeting that took on a life of its own and took over the afternoon, as I remember. It came from my wanting to start Ice Age differently. In the script, there was a migration happening. It was fall and Manny’s going north, against the grain, and we weren’t gonna see any snow until act two. I wanted to start the film comedically, and I thought maybe to get some ice on the screen at the beginning we should make the environment itself into a character.
What about the ice age would be a character that we could use? We thought a glacier could be chasing somebody. Well, who should it be chasing? It should obviously be the smallest character we can come up with. Peter went through a stack of drawings that he’d been working with characters we hadn’t used yet, and he pulled out this sketch of a squirrel that he had made at the Museum of Natural History. Let’s put some saber teeth on that guy, and the story is obviously that he’s trying to store his nuts for the winter and the glacier won’t let him do it.
Frake took the afternoon to storyboard the opening sequence, which had Scrat ultimately getting squashed by a huge mammoth foot. The darkly comedic sequence implied “that’s life in the Ice Age,” which primed the audience for what was to come. The Fox marketing team decided to use the sequence as the film’s first teaser trailer, which Wedge hated.
Wedge: I fought so hard against it! But obviously it was their decision to make and it wasn’t mine. And so they used it and it turned out very well for us. But it also cemented Scrat’s extended role, and extended Scrat’s life.
Blue Sky Studios’ fate started to change on March 20, 2019, the day Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox was completed. In the immediate aftermath of the transition, the studio operated per usual. By August, there was a new co-president of Blue Sky—Andrew Millstein, formerly of Walt Disney Animation—but ongoing development and current projects such as Spies in Disguise and the planned adaptation of the comic Nimona continued. Internal morale was wary but positive.
Wedge: In my own optimistic naivete, I thought Disney was buying everything else in Hollywood, so this was just gonna happen. There’s no shortage of need for content, and that’s what we do. My naïve assumption was that they would just own 20th Century Fox and profit off of that brand. And for animation, it can be animation that isn’t the Disney brand. It can be Blue Sky and we can experiment more creatively. We can push into boundaries where there are little landmines here and there, but we’ll find our way through them.
Mike Knapp, Scrat Tales production designer: I think some people were more concerned than others. I tend to be an optimist. There was a hope that being under an umbrella of a company that understood animation as a medium would be great for us. For a little while, it felt like it was easier to leave us alone and to let us do our thing. I was in the middle of Spies in Disguise and we were all able to embrace what felt like creative autonomy, to some degree. We were making the best version of the movie that we could and got a lot less resistance on certain creative fronts and that was a nice taste.
Anthony Nisi, Scrat Tales producer: I was more of that mind that Disney is an animation company. It was founded and built upon animation. Obviously, Blue Sky was not part of the plan when they purchased Fox, but I was always hopeful that they would see the value. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Scrat Tales and the Beginning of the End
With the start of the new year, Blue Sky Studios leadership was looking for creative opportunities to show their value to Disney, especially Disney+ which needed ongoing content. Blue Sky was also developing in-house programs to foster internal talent. The pitch for Ice Age: Scrat Tales served both needs and originated with longtime Blue Sky animator, Michael Berardini.
Wedge: The idea behind Scrat Tales was that we were going to put an open call out for ideas. We were going to organize a development effort, but it was also an open call for ideas. When we got the notion for the limited series together, we cast directing talent who we hadn’t used before. We just looked inside the company for the best people. Most of them were in animation or story, but it was an opportunity for people that didn’t expect to have it.
Knapp: Michael Berardini is the director of the first episode. But originally, he and his wife, Mindy, had recently had their son, Charlie. They were both over the moon, but Mike was such a giddy father. And from that he was like, “What if Scrat had to take care of a baby?” And if Scrat’s adopting this kid, and he’s got the nut, then he’s got these different things tugging in his mind. And then he discovers that the baby wants the acorn too, so now what do you do? It opened up a whole other facet of his conflicted self. And it’s fun to watch him struggle and suffer and be tormented by rational thought.
It was [production managers] Rob Baird and Bruce Anderson who reached out to me and said, “Hey, we’ve got this thing that we’re trying to pull together as a pitch.” We pulled in Jason Sadler to do some character designs and then we pitched it. The last short I worked on was “No Time for Nuts” in 2005/2006, so this was really fun to get back to Scrat, which is a super simple focus. With Scrat, it’s fun to get back to that childlike purity of zaniness and anything goes. Disney was super receptive and they were like “full steam ahead.”
The pandemic’s impact in early 2020 sent everyone at Blue Sky Studios to their home offices by March. Ongoing projects had to suddenly adapt to employee home production and Zoom meetings. Scrat Tales had been greenlit, so the creative teams for all six individual stories were assembled remotely by producer Anthony Nisi.
Nisi: Everyone was confused about the whole world of Zoom meetings, and understanding how work can even get done. But we got this project, and we wanted to show that we could put something out into the marketplace and get it in front of an audience while we were all still working from home. I was the sole producer for all six shorts. Donnie Long was a co-director common to each of the six pieces. And then each of the six have a different co-director. And there were three different editing teams. I was wrangling quite a large number of moving parts and people because we had all six in production at the same time.
But it was a testament to everybody willing it into existence, and wanting to do it passionately. They all worked very collaboratively, which was really great. And that’s why each of the six stand alone, but they also play as a series with an arc to them. Everyone worked together to brainstorm the entire series among polishing and working out their individual episodes. You can watch each one in any order, but if you watch them in order, you’ll feel the progression of the relationship between the characters.
Wedge: I always said I was in a company for 34 years that was a different company every year. And that kind of difference was escalating exponentially. It was changing faster and faster. The budgets were getting bigger. The crews were getting bigger. The expectations were bigger. The creative challenges were getting bigger. It was a critical mass, it seemed. But at the moment, we were all kind of reassembling on Zoom—500 of us at a time. We were asking ourselves what’s Blue Sky’s image? We were going to come up with a new logo. We were really trying to redefine ourselves as all this stuff was happening.
Scrat Tales went into pre-production, notably as the first Blue Sky Studios production that would not be produced in CGI Studio, which was being phased out for Pixar’s RenderMan. Knapp and Nisi would have to learn new software, and make sure their whole animation team were also trained going into production.
Knapp: RenderMan was a linear workflow to USD, which means there’s a lot more overlap between departments and it’s easier to update things and iterate. Part of this [decision] was that this was a series of shorts that we would be able to stress test what we had working before Nimona kicked into production, so that was part of the appeal. I was really versed in the old pipeline, and was learning as we went with the new one. We were trying to learn on the fly. We were all having to approach all of this problem-solving a little differently. It was boots on the ground, very guerrilla warfare.
Nisi: People needed to be trained on the tools and the software, so there were people running training seminars [via Zoom]. Besides the people that get credit for animating or doing the story on the show, it was really a testament to the community of Blue Sky and everybody pulling together to say we’re gonna have to stitch this thing together and make it work.
Knapp: We also had to rebuild Scrat again from the ground up. I think this was the third time that we had to remodel, re-fur, re-materialize and re-rig Scrat but this time for the new pipeline. We were trying to be as faithful as possible, because he works. The improvements were all made under the hood because we were trying to make sure that, visually, nobody would ever notice.
Nisi: We were trying to get Scrat Tales through story and get it into animation by the holidays of that year. The challenge was the schedule, because these were shorts and they were for Disney+. Blue Sky was formerly making relatively large budget features for worldwide distribution, theatrically. But we understood, even then, that the theatrical windows were gone, so everything was for streaming. We were trying to keep the costs reasonable and trying to do it as quickly as we could. But always striving for quality because it was a returning character. It wasn’t like we were just coming up with these original shorts and that we could take some liberties.
The best part of it was being given the license to take it to places that we had never gone before and be a little bit irreverent. The directors really brought that to it in a big way. I really felt even my own sense of surprise that there was something fresh and unique happening while we were making them. It felt like a reboot and it was a new beginning for the character. We were imagining going on to Volume Two and keeping it going. We had ideas. We were going to try and pitch the next series, or the next season if you will, for Disney+.
Wedge: It was a fantastic experience for all of us to see people that we absolutely knew were creative—and who’d contributed so much on their own level to all the movies that they have been on, some for decades—paired with the mentorship of those that had been through it before. My involvement, to be quite honest, was to be the old guy that would give notes in a big meeting. And I got to have a workout for Scrat voices, that for some reason had never been recorded, for this one. [Laughs.]
In early 2021, it was still status quo in regards to how Blue Sky Studios was operating within the Disney ownership ecosystem. However, there were plenty of worrisome examples of major changes happening with other former Fox theatrical brands like Fox Searchlight and 20th Century Fox, as each saw their release titles and overall scope severely curtailed. It wasn’t until February 9 that everything changed. The Walt Disney Company announced that operating a third animation studio was unfeasible in the economic climate and that Blue Sky Studios would be shuttered for good, with all of their IP going into the Disney library.
Wedge: I felt as though we’re working for a company that understands animation from the bottom to the top. Why wouldn’t they get this? And it felt as though in our reviews and visits, that they understood what we were doing and respected it. But there was no guarantee we were going to be back in the same space again. We didn’t know if we’d all be remote forever. I guess it felt like a re-entry moment for everything. That we were gonna hold this together, the wheels will stay on, and the heat shield will remain intact. But it didn’t. There was a distance hereditarily and there was a distance geographically.
The truth of the matter is suddenly COVID hit and Disney realized—and I assume that they hadn’t thought of this—the only way they make money is when large groups of people gather in one place. Suddenly, they were hemorrhaging money. And suddenly, we were taking salary cuts for the company and sitting at home being as productive as we ever were, because it happened that we could make our movies over the internet. But that’s not the way it worked out.
Knapp: We were aware of the The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild movie. That was happening completely independent of Blue Sky and that should have been the first warning. I don’t watch enough corporate dramas, but I’ve been binging Succession and now I’m like, “Oh, that’s how it works.” [Laughs.] I think a couple people caught wind of something the night before. And then a meeting popped up on our schedule the next day.
[On Scrat Tales], lighting and animation was wrapping up, except for like a few little extra things. We were very close to the end when the announcement was made. We took a beat. I think it was a solid week where they said, “Everybody step away, and talk to your families and do whatever you need to do.” It was pretty shortly thereafter that we were like, “Do we still want to do this?” Nimona was “pencils down” and everybody that was on production there was done. We put it to the crew that if you want to focus on life priorities, then we completely understand. And if you guys want to finish [Scrat Tales], we are 1000% behind you and want to do it too. All the leadership was completely on board, so then it was just a question of if anybody else wanted to do it or not. And there really was no pressure.
Nisi: For some at the leadership level, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we were going to finish. But for me, it was never a doubt. It’s because of that Blue Sky spirit. Everyone I went to, I didn’t have to convince anyone or twist their arm. Most people were of the mind, “Of course we’re going to finish it and we’re going to knock it out of the park.” The motivation was stronger in a sense. Obviously, it was more challenging. The people that were left to finish was a small subset of the studio population.
Knapp: Being able to finish it, in a way we were all happy with and felt proud about, was even more personal than when we started.
Wedge: The tragedy in seeing the company close under COVID and the transition of ownership was that we knew that the potential was limitless. The years we spent cultivating the crew and the relationships that had been through many movies, the fine tuning we had done to get creative going the way we wanted—all that potential evaporated in a day when they announced that it was going to close. When you kill a person, you kill a world, and that was the feeling. It was like, “Are you kidding me? This is over?” Did we accomplish everything we thought we could? Yes. Were we finished? Not by a long shot.
Nisi: The studio closed on April 9. We delivered the last shots the week of and we were still dropping in stuff into post-production and color correction. From there, as the producer, I worked with post-production after Blue Sky was closed to make sure that the masters were married to sound and that they got delivered to Disney+ intact for broadcast. But the main picture was completed inside of the closing of Blue Sky. All the artistry and all the shot deliveries and the final lighting and rendering, everything was done just up to the wire. It was probably in those early days of April that I still had people working overtime and trying to get fixes and last changes in. Mike Knapp was working on it to the bitter end. We had titles, and last details that aren’t necessarily part of the picture that needed to be tightened up and fixed. I took my last phone call for it on May 15.
The shorts were done last year. Blue Sky closed a year ago this week. It’s a strange coincidence that it’s the anniversary of them releasing the shorts because they held them for a year. They have marketing reasons why they hold these things. But we’ve been holding our breath this whole year wondering, “Are they ever gonna put them out? What’s going to happen to these shorts that we made, and will they ever see the light of day?” Thankfully, they are and there’s so much greatness there. I can’t wait for everyone to see them and enjoy them. We’re so proud of them. It was an honor to be able to take that character to places that Scrat had never been before.
Wedge: We had so much fun on those Scrat shorts. Some of the funniest stuff we ever did on the Scrats is in there. Some of the best animation that we ever did on Scrat is in there. But am I satisfied that we’ve made those Scrat shorts and those are our last things? No, absolutely not. No, it’s the furthest thing from satisfaction. It didn’t diminish what we did, but it was a moment where we really felt we had a lot further to go.
The Legacy of Blue Sky Studios
A year after the doors to Blue Sky Studios closed forever, the leadership, employees and collaborators have all embarked upon their personal “What’s next?” journeys, flowing into the greater animation slipstream on a variety of creative projects. Of course, because animation requires extended creation times, none of the participants in this piece can share what they’re working on until the official announcements come. But they’re all working in their field and still processing their many years under the creative banner of Blue Sky Studios.
Nisi: I’m super grateful for that opportunity to have been a part of Blue Sky. I do view it, in our own humble way, as a piece in the chapter of animation history. Especially the advent of CG. We were around when the first ones were coming out. Ice Age was among that first half a dozen CG movies that anybody ever saw.
When I look back on it, Blue Sky always kept our own definitive style with production design. It was always a very unique statement from movie to movie, or franchise to franchise, and that was difficult to sustain. When you look at some of the other [CG] movies, they always had their look because they would literally reuse characters. Even Disney, from Tangled to Frozen, had the DNA of the characters. But Blue Sky would reinvent from the ground up. Every show was a complete reinvention of the style and approach to the production design. And I think that’s one of the things that will make it stand out. Like The Peanuts Movie—executing that property and that style—we were the first and only ones to take Snoopy and Charlie Brown and Woodstock and do them in CG. The movie was not commercially successful, but everyone that saw it agreed that we took the care to do it right.
Knapp: It’s been really meaningful and really humbling talking to people who I admire and that have done lots of things that I think are great. They’ve been very supportive and effusive in their love for what Blue Sky brought to the table. There aren’t many studios like that left, and none on the East Coast. Blue Sky was one of only a handful of places where everything was done under one roof. And because it was on the East Coast, I think it had a very unique culture and a very unique feel. It was very far away from a lot of the West Coast politics and studio internal craziness. It was a little bit of an oasis in that sense. I always really appreciated that.
Now everything’s changing. Will the other studios that are still under one roof continue the way they’re going for much longer? I don’t know. Maybe Pixar and Disney have enough of a deep well to pull from that they can keep going for a long time as is, but who’s left? DreamWorks had to downsize. LAIKA works film to film but I don’t think there’s the same security as we all assumed we had.
Nisi: The industry itself has shifted so much, with us or without us. We’re a by-product of that whole change. The top three are still going to make the big-budget movies because they’re building brands and merchandising lines. But now that there really aren’t theatrical windows and the advent of everything going to streaming, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s great in one respect, because…there’s a huge demand for content. There is so much going on and there’s so much animation, so it’s a great time, it seems, to be in animation.
It is challenging because the budgets are smaller, and the smaller studios are trying to work with less and still preserve their quality, and everything is competitive. As long as we’re not cannibalizing ourselves in the process of trying to stay afloat. When you look at some of the smaller shops, it’ll be interesting to see how they can sustain in the long run. Unless you’re making Encanto where you’re building a brand, it’s hard to imagine how some of these shows will be profitable to just drop onto streaming. We at Blue Sky always found a way to do more with less. At the end, we did enjoy some pretty large budgets, but it wasn’t always that way in the beginning. I feel like Blue Sky was a good training ground for those experiences, to say “Work scrappy and do more!”
Wedge: The silver lining of COVID is that the industry has been transformed. A lot of the work is remote and a lot of the jobs that our crew is taking with other companies are not insisting that they move. Some people are insisting that they don’t move; they’re only looking for jobs that are remote. The benefit for those of us that, hopefully, will have movies on their feet at some point soon will be that we know who to go to. We know who to collect and know who to talk to. We’ve had all sorts of conversations about how to do it. I said the world was a certain way when we started Blue Sky and it’s a certain way now. There never would be a Blue Sky if we had started today. There’s no reason to develop technology. There’s no reason to have brick and mortar, you don’t need that overhead. It’s more of a live-action model.
It’s been a year since we all had to walk away. There was this horrible couple of months where we were in there taking our stuff out. It took me three solid weeks to move my stuff out of the building. It’s like I had two lives. I never thought I’d ever have to move that stuff. But when you’ve been around long enough, you know that everything comes and goes, nothing stays forever.
In a welcome post-script to this story, Nimona creator ND Stevenson announced that the unfinished movie had been rescued and was being finished by Annapurna and Netflix for a 2023 release. Chris Wedge confirmed to Paste that the core Blue Sky creative team on Nimona have traveled with it to see its completion. Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who directed Spies in Disguise, are leading the charge, along with former Blue Sky co-presidents Andrew Millstein and Rob Baird.
[Editor’s Note: In a post-post-script, an anonymous group of Blue Sky animators created and posted a final farewell to Scrat. In the below video, the mascot finally gets what he’s chased for so long.]
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.