Award-Winning Studio Was Best Known for “Ice Age” Movies
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Hollywood hard, upending carefully planned release schedules and even forcing studios to shift from the big screen to the home screen. But now it looks like the coronavirus has claimed an entire studio. On February 9th, Disney announced that it was shutting down Blue Sky Studios.
Once the dominant animation studio for 20th Century Fox, it became Disney’s third animation house after it acquired Fox in March of 2019. The Greenwich, Connecticut-based studio was best known for its Ice Age series of films, the first of which was released in 2002, and which spawned four sequels through 2016. Collectively, the five films grossed $3.2 billion at the box office. In addition to that computer-animated comedy franchise, its standalone Rio achieved great financial success while it achieved critical success with Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and Charles Schulz’ The Peanuts Movie. The studio’s last film was 2019’s Spies in Disguise, featuring the voices of Will Smith and Tom Holland, and which was a moderate success financially and while it did better with both critics and audiences, it did not set the stage for a new franchise as had been hoped.
Computer Animation Pioneers
Blue Sky Studios launched in 1987 in the very early years of computer animation. One of its founders, Chris Wedge, was involved in the animation for Disney’s Tron. From 1989 through 2002, the studio focused on making commercials for Chrysler, GM, Texaco and the United States Marine Corps. They produced the first computer-animated M&M’s – characters which are now very familiar spokes-candies. The collaborated with Nickelodeon and MTV for visual effects, and won a CLIO Award for their advertising work. In 1997, they were acquired by 20th Century Fox through its visual effects subsidiary VIFX. They produced CGI animation for Alien Resurrection, A Simple Wish, Mouse Hunt, Star Trek: Insurrection and Fight Club. In 1998, the studio won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film with its Bunny, a film which was a breakthrough in animation with its rendering of fur, glass and metal using multiple light sources.
In 1999, Fox sold off VIFX to the ill-fated Rhythm & Hues, the visual effects studio most recently in the news for its 2013 Oscar winner Life of Pi and its sudden bankruptcy that same year. Fox contemplated putting Blue Sky up for sale the next year, but instead greenlit Ice Age. Immediately before its 2002 release Fox management panicked and tried to sell both the studio and film, while firing half the staff but the movie was a huge success and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. The success of Ice Age made Blue Sky Studios only the third animation studio behind Disney’s Pixar and DreamWorks Animation to launch a successful CGI animated movie franchise.
Losses and Legacy
Blue Sky survived longer under Disney than a number of its former-Fox sibling studios – but in its statement to various Hollywood media outlets, it cited the continuing financial pressures imposed by the pandemic.
“Given the current economic realities, after much consideration and evaluation, we have made the difficult decision to close filmmaking operations at Blue Sky Studios.”Disney Studio spokesperson
With Walt Disney Studios and Pixar being the top two animation studios in the industry, Blue Sky was always the step child in the corporate family. The 450 employees of its studio will be let go, although Disney has said that it will work to help them explore positions with other studios within the corporation. Another loss is 2022’s Nimona, which had 10 months left of production. The movie, based on the Medieval/Modern fantasy webcomic of the same name by Noelle Stevenson, had been expected to do well given its source material’s multiple awards including a pair of Eisner nominations with one win.
While the studio is no more, its IP and library of 13 feature films, two television specials and 10 short movies will remain on Disney+. Additionally, a series based on its franchise, Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is scheduled for a 2022 release on the streaming service. During the Disney Investor Day livestream in December 2020, the voice of the swashbuckling weasel Buck, will be provided by Simon Pegg. It is not known where the production will shift, nor is it clear whether any of the current production staff will wind up working on it at its new location. There was earlier speculation that a series based on Rio could also be happening, but no official statements were ever made in that regard.