Ellen Wolff chats with veteran animator Lou Dellarosa on how the filmmakers brought holiday cheer to a grumpy old ogre in ABC-TV's special, Shrek the Halls.
After three blockbuster Shrek movies, the Oscar-winning ogre from PDI/DreamWorks arrives on TV screens in 2007 in the new ABC-TV Christmas special Shrek the Halls. Like its feature film predecessors, this half-hour show stars the voices of Mike Myers as Shrek, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Cameron Diaz as Fiona and Antonio Banderas as Puss 'N Boots. Directed by Gary Trousdale, (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) Shrek the Halls, visits Shrek and Fiona and their brood in the swamp, to watch their Family Christmas unfold.
Considerable feature film experience was brought to bear on Shrek's first foray to the home screen, including the expertise of veteran animator Lou Dellarosa, who with Anthony Hodgson supervised the animators on this show. Dellarosa has worked on the Shrek film franchise, as well as the PDI/DreamWorks features Over The Hedge and Madagascar. He'd previously collaborated with Trousdale on The Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper, and he offers an informed perspective on where Shrek the Halls fits in the canon.
"The biggest challenge in terms of bringing Shrek to the television format is that we had to keep our characters contained within a certain aspect ratio," says Dellarosa. "Sometimes that means physically placing characters in different spaces, and you have to tailor the animation for how broad you can go with the character moving across the screen. You have to be aware of where they are in screen space. That was a challenge, because we're used to seeing the characters in a wider aspect ratio and it's hard to keep that in mind when you're animating for television."
Yet Dellarosa doesn't believe that this limited Shrek the Halls to being a "TV closeup" project. "I think we could pretty much cover on television whatever we covered in widescreen. We didn't want to limit ourselves." While Dellarosa's animation crew of 20 -- which was broken up into four teams of five animators each -- worked three months to create the show's 22 minutes of character animation, he says they treated the project as if it were a feature film. "We saw our dailies on the big screen, so we knew it would hold up. We weren't looking at small monitors."
Shrek the Halls includes characters that Dellarosa calls "the usual suspects," including the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, as well as the offspring of Donkey and Dragon. The princesses of Shrek the Third, which Dellarosa had been responsible for, don't make an appearance in Shrek the Halls, but the show does contain human characters in the form of townspeople. "We've cut back on the amount of character density in this. There are still some, and they kept us pretty busy, but it's not to the degree that there was in Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third. This story is a little more homespun, and that gave us more chances to spend time with the characters that we know."
But given the fact that the children of Shrek and Fiona are a key part of Shrek the Halls, Dellarosa notes, "Characters that were incidental in the features are now main characters in a lot of shots. So the challenge was to push the animation rigs in ways that we'd never had the opportunity to push them before. They now have to act with Shrek and Fiona, who had been designed to take up more screen time. So we had to take characters that were intended to be incidental and bring them up to a level where they could perform."
Fortunately, adds Dellarosa, "These characters were pretty much ready to go. We transitioned from Shrek the Third to Shrek the Halls almost overnight. There wasn't much time to add anything to the rigs or to what we do on the animation side. The 'plus' of that was that many of the animators working on Shrek the Third made easy transitions to Shrek the Halls. We already understood the characters and it was an established world."
Dellarosa was able to retain many of his feature film artists, though he laughs, "There were a few who'd reached the point where they wanted closure from Shrek-world for a little while! But overall, it was a pretty easy transition." He credits animators Bryce McGovern, Melanie Cordan, Katrina Conwright, Mariko Hoshi, Cory Rogers and Dave Rader for making significant contributions, and he singles out "a new, upcoming guy named Guillermo Careaga. He's fresh out of school, yet he hit the ground running on Shrek the Halls."
Of course a key newcomer to Shrek-world was director Gary Trousdale, who, Dellarosa says, "really encouraged the animators to push the characters almost to a point that we haven't seen before. We already had the look for Shrek, but we had to deliver a performance that was probably a little more over the top than we're used to. But these characters move more organically and we had to keep that in mind. It's always fun to do thumbnails of what we want Shrek to do, but we have to translate that into the 3D world."
The area where Shrek's organic style is especially evident is in the area of facial animation, Dellarosa notes. "There are expressions that convey a lot of emotion. We don't rely on a lot of movement in a character when you can get an emotion across with a face. That's really where the importance lies. If you compare Shrek the Third with the original Shrek, we've come a long way in terms of how far we can push the character emotionally, as well as physically. There's been quite a big leap. I think it's more than technical. It's come from working with the Shrek characters, and really knowing what they're about. When I go back and look at my first tests, I cringe. Even in the past four years, I think the quality of my work has gone up. And when I look at other people's work I see the same thing. We've really had a chance to hone our skills."
Along with increasingly subtle character animation, the world of Shrek has become ever more sophisticated in terms of its environments and its simulated effects for water, fire and the fabrics of elaborate costumes. But Shrek the Halls brought additional challenges, since Shrek dons a Santa costume for Christmas. "Shrek's 'fantasy' in this show was kind of new for us," says Dellarosa. "We had little parts of his suit that had to be hand animated. We had controls on his suit that we could move around, but since we'd never worked with Shrek in a Santa costume, it was a matter of going back and hand-animating little things. Shrek wears a hat in this film, and it's a different look for him, but it somehow works. And his Santa beard was also another challenge. It's an obvious fake and was designed to look that way."
Nonetheless, the PDI/DreamWorks simulation people were kept busy during production of Shrek the Halls. The Puss 'N Boots character wears a cape that Dellarosa describes as "kind of a challenge. Before it was fully developed, we had to animate to a cape that wasn't there. A lot of our animation is sort of 'retrofitted' to the extent of what the effects can deliver. If the cape needed to flow a certain way, we'd keep in mind how far Puss can move it around. If there isn't the right 'swoosh,' we may have to go back and change the animation.
It's kind of a back-and-forth tweak with our simulation people. They will sit in our animation dailies and pull the reins in on us sometimes, but we usually find a happy medium. It's amazing how much our effects and simulation can accommodate. So far, we've been pretty free to be expressive with our animation."
As for environmental simulations, Shrek the Halls is a Christmas tale, so Dellarosa reveals that "surprisingly, it does snow in the swamp! It's a world we haven't seem them in, and we had to be aware of how the characters interact with the snow. You get to see snow falling on Puss 'N Boots' and Donkey's fur."
PDI/DreamWorks was able to draw upon its digital backlot for the props in Shrek the Halls, although, given the holiday theme, there were additional things to create to decorate the swamp for Christmas. "There's an incredible amount of detail in the set dressings and textures," says Dellarosa. "When I see a shot in Shrek the Halls that is fully lit with all its effects and glitter, it blends together as well as a scene in any live-action film. Though the environments are not 'real,' they feel like they could pass as real. I think the key word is believability. You really believe that Shrek is in that world. If ogres were real and donkeys could annoy you, this is as real as it would get!"
For Dellarosa, the ultimate goal was to create the right emotional tone for Shrek the Halls. "Donkey, in his annoying fashion, is going to make Shrek understand what Christmas is. Our primary focus was to bring believable performances to the characters and uphold what they stand for. It would be nice if there were at least one character in Shrek the Halls that every person in the audience could relate to. Then we've done our job."
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.