Working on “Ferdinand”

Blue Sky Studios’ latest film, Ferdinand, based on the 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand came out December 15th of last year. And today, we learned that it was nominated for an Academy Award! It’s not Blue Sky Studio’s first nomination, but it’s the first in a while. Ferd is Blue Sky’s twelfth film, and the third one that I’ve worked on. This is the film at Blue Sky that I am most proud of having contributed to, mainly because it’s the one that I definitely contributed the most to, and because of who specifically on the film I was able to support. On Ferdinand, I worked in two departments as a production assistant (PA) where I helped manage those departments day-to-days. This won’t be a full post-mortem, or cover all of my feelings and thoughts, as I am 1) not allowed to discuss certain things 2) don’t feel that it’s my place to discuss certain things, but this is just my own little celebratory post.

We Put the Fur in FerDinand

My first year being hired was in the Fur department, on the three films that were in-production: The Peanuts MovieIce Age: Collision Course, and Ferdinand. I joined pretty late in the game on Peanuts and managed to log just enough time on the project to sneak onto the credits (my first feature credit!). On that show, I mostly assisted the Fur TDs (technical directors) with marketing needs, and some last minute things the show needed. On Ice Age, the bulk of Fur’s work was on the Geotopia characters–all of them, but especially the Shangri-Llama, Brooke, and Teddy, as well as Peaches’ fiancé, Julian. At the time, Ferdinand was just getting started, so I was there for the grooms on all of the main characters, plants, grass development, and more. I transferred departments in the middle of giving hairdos to all of the background human characters, and moved over to the Story department.

While in Fur, it was interesting to see the characters of Ferdinand be fleshed out beyond their models. I remember the conversations we had about the hedgehogs’ quills (a surprisingly technical challenge), the shape of Lupe’s mutton chops, and just meeting after meeting about some of the characters with longer hair/fur, like Angus, the Scottish Highland and the dog, Paco. It was cool to learn about how the Materials department developed techniques to create the short fur on the bull characters, and made textures looks like what we did in Fur. Other surprising challenges on this film were the grass and trampling effects, and getting that iconic cork tree Ferdinand loves to sit under just right. It was an amazing aspect of the film to work through–and Fur is such an amazing department filled with incredible artistic and technical artists, but nothing compared to the roller coaster experience I had in the Ferdinand story room.

Working in the Story Department

Initially, I was on a different project–a new project, much to my relief–but things shuffled around and I found myself smack in the middle of Ferdinand‘s four-year production. At that point, the story was still being heavily worked on–heavily–to the point that the film from when I first started to the one in theaters are totally different beasts…which I now fully embrace as the nature of the filmmaking beast. That’s not to say that those first two years of production, and all of the pre-production and development that came before that were for naught–everything informs the next thing, whether it’s ruling out ideas that don’t work, or deciding that something can be done different or better. But those long hours tearing our work down and starting over, seeing what we could salvage, looking to old versions for fresh ideas, trying new combinations, bringing in new voices…it was truly a crash course for me.

It’s a very different part of the pipeline than where I was when I was in Fur, and by nature, it’s a lot more informed about the constant evolution of the plot and characters. Another difference is that in Fur, I worked on all the films all at once. But in Story, there are two PAs who tackle the two films in-production. So I was solely on Ferdinand while another PA was wrapping Ice Age 5 and was starting on our recently announced 2019 film, Spies in Disguise. That structure really gives you a sense of ownership over your role in a film, which is a great way to feel about such a collaborative project.

What really made the production such an experience was the team I worked with. In Story, I worked primarily with the head of story, the story artists, the director, Carlos Saldanha, producers, associate producer, editors, writers, script supervisor, and some others at times (art department, marketing, etc.), to help bring this story to life. These were people who have been at this for almost as long as I’ve been alive (lol, well, not all of them), but at the least had enough knowledge and wisdom and generosity to teach me for a lifetime. There were rough times, of course–there never aren’t in production. There are egos, ideas are rejected, feelings get hurt, but it’s all in an effort to make the best film you can make. You don’t take it personally. You take a breather, call it a night, and come back the next day. This Oscar nom is an acknowledgement from our peers of this.

There Will Not Be a Film Review

Obviously, I’m not going to review the film on this website. I’m way too close to it for it to be an un-biased assessment of it. I think it’s great. There are some pacing issues, I wish the car chase was shorter, I wish there was more ~*Spain~* injected into it. I wish the Juanes song played in the film rather than the Nick Jonas one. There are things we cut I wanted in, and vice versa. But it’s sincere and funny, and has some great zingers. The subjects of bullying and toxic masculinity are so, so relevant to today. Hell, so are bull-fighting and factory farming. I get teary eyed at weird moments, remembering how the storyboards in this sequence look exactly like what’s on screen, like a proud parent even though the artist, is like twice my age and has kids in college. I laugh at the bunny’s misfortune because that’s Cindy’s voice-acting. I remember the arguments, the analyzing to went into so many moments and lines. Defending and justifying ideas and motivations. I just have way too much context and baggage behind all of the decisions that went into this film. Late nights and weekends, but Carlos brought pizza and Warren shared his sushi with me. It’s my film. And it’s Carlos’s film, and Warren’s and Bruce’s and Tim’s and Rob’s and Donnie’s and Allie’s and Miko’s and Aamir’s and everyone else’s who worked on it. And now it belongs to the audience. It’s sort of impossible to separate those meetings, those moments from replaying, like a yearbook when watching it. That’s not a complaint, just an admission of total blind love and pride at pulling off what we did.

And then, We danced

The best part about finishing a film–other than finishing the dang thing–is the celebration where you watch it with everyone who made it. Every year, we trek into NYC and watch together on the big screen. For Peanuts we got to see it at the legendary (and now closed) Ziegfield Theater (it’s now a ballroom/event space). As a film nerd, I’m grateful I got to experience a premiere there. For Ferd, we were at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea, which was especially interesting for me having dropped out of SVA to work at Blue Sky. Slight full-circle moment for me there. That’s a whole other post in itself. Following the screening, we went to the wrap party at a beautiful venue on Chelsea Piers. A small detail that I really appreciated that there wasn’t any beef served at the wrap party. There was fish, chicken, seafood, pork, but no cows were harmed in the making of the anti-bullfighting film. 😉 And after food, you DANCE.

From there we had the art book signing, where everyone signs each others Art of Ferdinand books, a bit like you’d sign a yearbook. An event I always look forward to is the friends and family screening at a local cinema where I always take my parents to see the film. And then it’s out in the world, and hope it does well, and ask yourself if we had to release the same day as a Star Wars but you hope it has legs, hope the DVDs sell well for Easter, and you move on. Now you can fully dedicate your time at work to one show again, rather than juggling one winding down and one new one ramping up. For a little bit.

So Then What’s Next?

After three years and two departments, I’m done with Ferd. I’ve been solely working our 2020 release, Nimona, for a few months now, but I’ve been double-teaming Ferd and Nimona for well over a year now. Because of how Story works, I skipped over our 2019 film, Spies in Disguise, only helping out here and there. While it’s a bummer I don’t get to contribute as heavily to that show, I’m so, so happy that I got to roll on to Nimona! I read it back when the graphic novel was an art student’s (Noelle Stevenson’s) webcomic that she updated weekly. While the processes and the general steps are the same on Ferdinand and Nimona, every film presents new challenges and experiences. It’s been really interesting seeing how they differ and overlap. This nomination has definitely injected some hype into our studio on these next films we’re working on.

From one beast to another. 🙂

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One thought on “Working on “Ferdinand”

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences on Ferdinand! I can only imagine how challenging it must be to work on an animated feature — where literally everything is created and crafted from scratch, and not all ideas can make it into the finished film. It really speaks to your strengths in your ability to work in that environment!

    Just curious, would you be able to share any of your favorite ideas that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the finished film?

    I saw it opening weekend and it was everything that I wanted it to be. I remember a young woman in the audience who, as the film ended, stood up and applauded with great enthusiasm. 🙂

    Deeply looking forward to Blue Sky’s Nimona — Noelle Stevenson’s story is magical!

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