Bringing The Croods: A New Age To Life – The Art Of Collaboration

The Croods have survived their fair share of dangers and disasters, from fanged prehistoric beasts to being forced to come out into the light and leave their cave forever. But now that the pack has managed to navigate the end of the world, they will face their biggest challenge of all: another family in the epic comedy-adventure The Croods: A New Age.

In spring 2013, audiences worldwide welcomed The Croods, the world’s first family—complete with their heart-on-sleeve emotions and ability to confront simultaneously deadly and ridiculous situations—onto the big screen. A critical and commercial hit for DreamWorks Animation, the film won over fans who saw themselves and their own familial units reflected in the journey of Eep’s pack as The Croods left their home for an unexplored world. Set in the fictitious “Croodaceous Age”—as wildly colorful as it is insanely dangerous—the film boasted animation that provided equal parts stunning imagery, breakneck action, lively comedy and sincere emotion.

Margie Cohn, president of DreamWorks Animation

Discussing The Croods as a family, and why moviegoers found themselves intrigued by the characters first brought to the big screen by directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, Margie Cohn, president of DreamWorks Animation, says: “What resonates about The Croods’ world is that, primitive or not, it reflects our own. The family’s dynamic is very relatable, but I like how the Croods play against the usual expectations. For example, Grug looks like a beast but is so hilariously emotional and sensitive.”

Cohn offers that the challenges the Croods face in their world often mirror our own, particularly now. The global COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us about the importance of family and the value of sticking together, especially when the world feels uncertain. “All families evolve as they confront new challenges,” Cohn says, “and as the needs of the kids change as they mature. The idea that the pack is stronger together resonates globally, especially today.”

Kristin Lowe, chief creative officer of DreamWorks Animation, agrees. “What’s so appealing about the Croods is that they’re truly universal,” Lowe says. “This is a family that is just trying to survive what life throws at them and is trying to stick together—even if they squabble along the way. Everything the Croods do is motivated by their love for one another. Even the mistakes they make are motivated by how much they love each other.”

When it came to crafting the sequel, the filmmakers embraced collaboration and encouraged ingenuity from every corner of the studio

“When you bring other people into your decisions and get them to contribute, people are happier,” Cohn says. “No one wants to just do work they’re assigned; they want to feel like they’re part of a team and adding their creative imprimatur.”

When development began on the sequel, Cohn’s team turned to DreamWorks Animation stalwart producer Mark Swift, who had captained the crew of DreamWorks’ smash hits Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, as well as up-and-coming director Joel Crawford, whose key contributions on the Trolls, Shrek and the Kung Fu Panda franchises made him a natural fit to step up and helm his first feature.

Mark Swift and Joel Crawford

Over the course of the second chapter’s creation, Swift and Crawford consistently leaned into a joyful tone, making this outing even more of a comedic one. “Joel is such a positive, thoughtful person, and he gets both emotion and so much heart from comedy,” Cohn says. “Joel and Mark created an atmosphere of collaboration and fun that’s reflected back in the movie. It is filled with joy because it was made with joy.”

Joel Crawford and Mark Swift Team Up

Swift and Crawford had both been working at DreamWorks Animation for years, but their paths did not cross until they were paired up on The Croods: A New Age. “Luckily, Mark and I hit it off,” Crawford—who served as head of story on Trolls, directed commercials for that film, as well as directed the NBC special Trolls Holiday—says. “Mark’s so genuine, down to Earth and very smart. It’s not just the British accent…he’s a legitimately smart dude. We laughed a lot together.”

Each man is the father of three. Swift has three sons—ages 11, 15 and 16—and Crawford has two daughters, ages 7 and 10, and a son, age 12. That also helped the two filmmakers form an immediate bond. “It was like a blind date, effectively,” Swift says.  “I had such a good time working with Joel. Any relationship is down to: ‘Do your personalities gel, and do you complement each other?’ In both cases, the answer was ‘yes.’”

DreamWorks Animation takes great pride in collaborative filmmaking, and it was up to Swift and Crawford to combine a number of elements from the developing storylines and then determine how they would continue the story from the first film.

“Writers Kevin and Dan Hageman, Mark and I sat in a room with the elements,” Crawford says. “We had a father-daughter story, Guy and Eep’s continuation, as well as elements we liked from past versions. We made a recipe for one thing that all went together. Kevin and Dan had to depart for a Guillermo del Toro project, but when Paul Fisher and Bob Logan came aboard, all these creative forces just worked effortlessly.”

Kevin Hageman, left, and Dan Hageman

Direct, honest communication was key to their collaboration. “If Mark doesn’t like something, he’ll say it,” Crawford says. “If I don’t, I’ll say it. Same with the writers. It was a very constructive and collaborative environment. As the crew got bigger and more departments were added, that continued.” 

The atmosphere encouraged creativity from every person on the production. “When we were in animation dailies, people were pitching ideas to Joel, and he was laughing and encouraging them to run with their idea,” Swift says. “As an animator, you can help direct your own performance. Joel is very much in the mind of ‘If you’ve got a better idea that will make this shot play better, let’s go for it!’”

The director and producer’s shared sensibility permeated the production.

“There’s something to seeing another person’s expression, and if they were not digging a moment—or it was bothering them—we would talk it through,” Crawford says.

“Every time we had a screening, we’d bring the 200-person crew into the theater. Afterward, the whole crew would sit and give feedback. It can be scary to get that level of notes, but Mark and I appreciate that honesty—as well as that collaborative aspect of speaking up. That’s the through line of our relationship.”

Emotional Stakes, Relatable Comedy

When we met The Croods seven years ago, the family had to deal with a changing world. Now they have to deal with changes to their pack. “In the first film, we were introduced to a girl, Eep, who was growing up and wanted freedom,” Mark Swift says. “Grug was a father who’d fought his whole life to keep his family safe. Suddenly he had things added that were out of his control—like a boy, Guy, who had come in and was interested in his daughter—and Grug was forced to adapt. All of that was playing out amid a life-or-death situation. Every moment of the first film, the Croods were in danger of losing their lives, so there was more of a dramatic undertone in the first film. The family had to keep moving or they were going to die.”

The stakes aren’t quite that dire this time around, thankfully. While the Croods’ lives are still uncomfortable, and they are struggling to feed themselves, they’re not in imminent danger 24-7. “That allowed us to take a lighter, slightly more comedic tone,” Swift says. “Having said that, there are still big emotional issues happening within the family this time that could lead the Croods to split up.”

We rejoin the family just as they realize that nothing has tried to kill them in the past 10 minutes. Guy and Eep are now deeply in love, and, privately, they’re starting to daydream about starting their own pack. They realize that it is time for them to think about their tomorrow. Unfortunately, Grug overhears them and is determined not to let that happen.

After the Croods happen upon the Bettermans, it’s a clash between one family that leads with their heads and one that leads with their hearts. Initially, the Bettermans write off the Croods as relics of the past. Yet, they come to find that it isn’t the Croods’ physical strength that helps them survive, but the strength of their bonds. The Croods’ family motto—“the pack stays together, no matter what”—comes to encompass the Bettermans, too. The opposing families ultimately come to realize that it’s not “them or us,” it’s “them and us.”        

Although the film was made before the global pandemic, it’s themes couldn’t be more relevant to our current world. The Croods: A New Age embraces how humans both need our immediate packs and must learn to expand our circle to include new members. During this crisis, we’ve been forced to be close to our family and neighbors in ways we never had been before. The Croods remind us, with both humor and heart, that you can be exhausted by the people you love, but you can’t live without them.

“One of the things that has resonated about this series is that it’s a multigenerational story,” Swift says. “All the dynamics we experience within our own family, we’re experiencing on screen. This film shows that family isn’t just immediate, but it is who you rely on that you love and trust, those who you need. Our family is what we have around us, and we love them, but it is also everyone we’re connected to.”

The journey for Grug, especially, and the Bettermans, is learning that family is more than just blood. “One of the things that I’m learning, and I feel others are, is that we have too often taken community for granted,” Swift says. “We’re learning right now that everyone relies upon one another. For the Bettermans and the Croods, they discover that feeling of needing others around them.”

When the Croods come into the Bettermans’ life, the Bettermans want nothing to do with them. They look down on them, don’t think they are that smart, and feel that the Croods have nothing to teach them. Their only value to the Bettermans, at first, is that Guy might be a great spouse for their daughter, Dawn. “The Bettermans’ attitude is, ‘Let’s take Guy and set the Croods on their pretty way,’” Swift says. “They see the Croods as cavemen who are going to die off anyway. They’re not part of the future. They learn that’s not the case. Phil craves having a buddy, and he finds one in Grug. The Croods save them by opening up the Bettermans’ lives to another way to coexist with nature. At the end of the film, they’re all so much better off than they were at the beginning.”

Physical Distance and Family Cohesion

How close is too close? Can you be apart and still feel emotionally connected? The filmmakers chose to explore the impact of physical distance on the Croods to both comedic and dramatic effect in The Croods: A New Age.

To survive in the dangerous world, the Croods do everything as a pack. They hunt together, eat together…they even sleep in a giant pile together. As a result, they share a strong family bond. The Bettermans, by contrast, enjoy safety and comfort living in a luxurious tree house surrounded by a giant wall. But the Bettermans have built walls between themselves and sleep in separate bedrooms. Initially, both find the other’s way of living unthinkable. “Surrounded by modern comforts and excessive personal space, the Bettermans have lost their family connection with one another,” Crawford says. “The power of family bonds is a big lesson the Bettermans learn from the Croods.”

 Crawford and Mark Swift both drew on their own childhoods and family dynamics to explore this idea on screen. “Mark comes from a big family of five brothers and one sister, and they grew up in a small, compact place,” Crawford says. “I am one of four siblings and grew up in an apartment. At one point, my cousin was living with us, and I was sleeping in the walk-in closet. I’m very familiar with how it feels for a big family to squeeze into a small place.”

When Crawford was 18, his family bought a house, and it was the first time he didn’t have to share a room. “It was so weird to go from always being together, and dealing with the friction that comes from that, to asking, ‘Where is everybody?’” Crawford says. “At the end of the day, we’d gravitate toward the loft ‘bonus’ room. When you’re used to bumping into each other and having friction—which is not always positive—but you have a connection. You miss that family connection when you have too much of your own personal space.”

This is true of the human family, too. We gravitate toward one another and seek out connection to each other. Like it or not, we need each other, even when we drive each other crazy. That idea is threaded throughout the film, but subtly. “We’ve stayed away from hitting the audience over the head with the theme, because you feel it,” Crawford says. “At its heart, this movie is about friendship. These two very different families learn that their future is brightest together”.

Early audiences for the film confirmed to the filmmakers that they’d tapped into something universal. “This movie makes you feel closer to your family and good about the world,” DreamWorks Animation President Margie Cohn says. “That’s needed right now.” 

The Writing Team

The epic comedy-adventure is directed by Joel Crawford, who has worked on multiple DreamWorks Animation films, including Trolls, Shrek and the Kung Fu Panda franchises, and is produced by Mark Swift (Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted). The film is written by Kevin Hageman & Dan Hageman (The Lego Movie) and Paul Fisher & Bob Logan (The Lego Ninjago Movie), from a story by returning The Croods writer-directors Kirk Demicco and Chris Sanders.

Kevin Hageman & Dan Hageman (Written by) are brothers and sworn blood enemies who have momentarily brokered peace to write and produce some of the most beloved animated franchises in film and television.

Currently, they’re executive producers and showrunners to the upcoming Star Trek: Prodigy animated TV series for CBS and Nickelodeon. On the feature side, the brothers are writing the sequel to their 2019 Guillermo del Toro horror hit Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and a live-action feature adaptation to the arcade classic Dragon’s Lair for Netflix starring Ryan Reynolds.

Most recently, they were co-executive producers and showrunners of the multiple Emmy award-winning animated Netflix series Trollhunters for acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro and DreamWorks Animation. In its second season, the Hagemanswon an Emmy for Best Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program and are now writing and executive producing the film finale Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans.

Prior to that, the Hagemans co-created the critically acclaimed The LEGO Movie with producer Dan Lin, director/writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and Warner Brothers Animation. The film has won numerous awards and spawned movie spin offs, sequels, TV shows and theme park attractions.

Off the success of The LEGO Movie, the brothers worked closely with the Danish toy company to write and executive produce LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu for the Cartoon Network based on the LEGO toy line. It quickly grabbed the imagination of children across the world and grew into a global phenomenon. The hit animated series just aired its 13th season and helped launch The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which they helped develop for the big screen.

Other theatrical credits for the Hagemans include creating the story for the animated hit film Hotel Transylvania for Adam Sandler and Sony Animation, which has grown into a franchise that includes three sequels and a television series.

Paul Fisher (Written by) is a screenwriter, director and feature animation artist. A California native, Fisher is an alumnus of the Cal Arts School of Film. He has worked on projects produced by Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Brothers and Aardman Animation, among others. His credits include How to Train Your Dragon, Puss in Boots and Shrek Forever After. Most recently, Fisher was a director and screenwriter on the Lego Ninjago Movie.

Bob Logan (Written by) is currently writing and directing a feature animated film, produced by and starring Jamie Foxx. He recently wrote on and directed an episode of the upcoming Netflix original series City of Ghosts. Prior to this, Logan was a was a writer and a director on The Lego Ninjago Movie, for Warner Brothers Studios.

Logan is a veteran story artist and designer who’s worked on many feature films, adult-animated sitcoms and children’s television shows for DreamWorks, Netflix, Fox, Sony Pictures Animation and Disney Television. Some of Logan’s credits include Puss in Boots (2011 Oscar®-nominated film), Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, Megamind, Madagascar, Open Season, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, Astro Boy and The Simpsons. He was also an assistant director on Fox’s prime-time animated series The Critic.

On the publishing side, Logan has authored and illustrated children’s books with Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, two of which have sold worldwide in many countries and languages.

Logan has been nominated twice for an Annie Award for Storyboarding in a Feature Production for Puss in Boots (2012) and Storyboarding in a TV Production for Timon & Pumbaa (1997).

Other Key Departments in the Art Of Collaboration

  • The Editorial Team – Captained by lead editor Jim Ryan (The Boss Baby) helms the team that is one of the first departments to start, and the last to finish. Unique to animation, they begin cutting each scene in storyboard, and continually revise the scenes as the crew moves into previz and finally animation. They also build the temporary soundtrack and sound effects passes that become an early blueprint for the composer and sound designers.
  • The Story Department – Januel Mercado (Trolls Holiday) has known and worked with Crawford for years, and that allowed them to have a shorthand with each other in working out story ideas. As the Story department is the first stage in which the film is brought into a visual medium, the Story artists storyboard from the script (draw) or from scratch (write and draw), when there currently is no script. Many storyboard artists view the script as subject to interpretation, and Crawford and Swift encouraged that freedom. As most iteration happens in storyboarding, further down the pipeline, elements become more difficult to alter.
  • Production Design – In addition to overseeing the film’s visual look and style, production designer Nate Wragg, with whom Swift had worked closely on Captain Underpants—and who had worked on The Croods’ visual development team—also served as the team’s lead character designer. Whether in its character design or art direction, Nate is the main voice. Every step of the way, Nate took on the role of guiding the look of the characters. Nate and our VFX supervisor, Betsy Nofsinger (Kung Fu Panda), were in charge of how this movie looks across all departments, and what the final look became. From what the team wanted, to what it could truly achieve, Wragg and Nofsinger were in charge of the balance of what was possible and what could be rendered.
  • Art Direction – Art director Peter Zaslav (Puss in Boots) is not only known for his fantastic color sense, according to Swift, “he’s an amazing painter.” “Peter was inspired by heavy-metal-album covers from rockers like Iron Maiden and Slayer,” Mark Swift says. “They have this big, bold lettering that was inspired by Frank Frazetta’s Conan the Barbarian-type drawings.
  • Music – When it came time to complement The Croods’ composer Alan Silvestri’s inimitable score for the sequel, the filmmakers knew there was only one musician who could carry the torch: Mark Mothersbaugh, who is behind the sounds of films from Thor: Ragnarok and The Lego Movie to The Royal Tenenbaums. But it was one of his first jobs as a composer—the iconic Saturday-morning staple Pee-wee’s Playhouse—that sparked the longtime love of composing for animation that Mothersbaugh brought to this production. Mothersbaugh believes that composing for animation is “the most complicated scoring project outside of musicals,” he says. “You must bring characters that aren’t real to life. In a live-action movie, if you look at a field of grass or trees, there are millions of things happening that you can’t see with your eye, but you know are going on. With animation—despite how technologically advanced we’ve become—you resort to fantastic colors and shapes to compensate. Music does a big part of that job, and I feel that orchestras are essential for animation.