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On Co-Directing Shrek: Victoria Jenson

DreamWorks' next CG animated feature is soon to hit theaters nationwide. Chris Koseluk sits down with Victoria Jenson and discusses working with superstar comedians and the latest in technology.

The unlikely face of a hero, Shrek. All images courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Expect to see some familiar faces in the new animated feature Shrek. Pinocchio puts in a brief appearance, as do the Seven Dwarfs, the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Blind Mice. Robin Hood and his Merry Men even pop up for a show-stopping musical number. But don't let this proliferation of fairy tale favorites fool you. This computer-generated comedy from DreamWorks Pictures is unlike anything that's come before it.

With a lime-green complexion, surly disposition and ogre-ugly features, Shrek is as far from your typical fairy tale hero as you can get. The circumstances propelling him on his journey to romance and adventure are just as unlikely.

Because of his monstrous appearance, Shrek is an outcast, resigned to a lonely life in a desolate swamp. That is until neighboring town ruler Lord Farquaad, in a quest to make his kingdom perfect, outlaws all mythical creatures. Facing certain imprisonment, hundreds of characters -- everyone from the Three Little Pigs to Snow White -- take refuge in Shrek's humble abode, throwing the ogre's home life into complete chaos.

To regain his peace and quiet, Shrek makes an agreement with Farquaad -- he'll slay a fire-breathing dragon and rescue a beautiful princess for Farquaad and, in return, the Lord will let Shrek have his swamp all to himself. To his dismay, as Shrek sets out on his quest, he's accompanied by a wise-ass donkey who won't stop talking, and, despite all of the ogre's efforts, insists on befriending Shrek to help save the day.

Despite unspeakable tortures, the Gingerbread Man does not crack under Lord Farquaad's interrogation.

Along the way, Shrek satirizes everything from pro wrestling and The Dating Game to martial arts fight sequences and a certain unnamed amusement park fronted by a character with mouse ears. And if all of this sounds a little odd for a big screen cartoon feature, that's exactly what the filmmakers intended.

"We had some fun twisting fairy tales and turning them on their ear," says Victoria Jenson, who shared directing duties with Andrew Adamson. "The tone of our comedy is a bit irreverent and playful. We were able to play with certain expectations that you have about the characters."

This includes a particularly favorite scene of Jenson's in which Farquaad, desperate to know where the fairy tale creatures are hiding, interrogates the Gingerbread Man. "It's familiar in that it looks like a traditional torture sequence," she said. "But it's a cookie! He's on a baking pan! You just have to see it."

Mike Myers brought a new depth to the title role.

Working with Megastars

Generating laughs was priority one for the creative team behind Shrek, so it's no surprise that some of today's biggest comic talents bring the characters to life. Mike Myers voices the title character while Eddie Murphy plays his verbose donkey sidekick. Cameron Diaz, as the beautiful Princess Fiona, and John Lithgow, as the pompous Farquaad, round out the principals.

With this group in the recording booth, laughter filled the sessions. Jenson reveals that Myers in particular couldn't resist an opportunity to clown. "He was just cracking us up all the time. He's got an amazingly intelligent sense of comedy and what makes something entertaining," she says. "When he'd explain a point, he'd go into character as Michael Caine or Christopher Walken, imitating how they would deliver a line. I know he was trying to make a point, but we were just laughing so hard."

No matter how hard Shrek tries, Eddie Murphy's smart-ass donkey just won't shut up!

While the directors were laughing at Myers, they also closely listened to what he was saying. Many of Myers' offhanded comments became key to finding Shrek's character. "They certainly helped the character evolve. Because we were constantly working the sequences, some of his earliest ad-libs helped us find a direction for a particular sequence," explains Jenson. "Even after we layered some sequences, he'd say, 'You know what would be a great line right here?' and we'd go back and put it in."

Murphy, on the other hand, took a much more serious approach to his character. As the sassy, self-effacing sidekick, he gets most of the film's funniest punchlines. The comedian therefore focused the lion's share of his energy on his performance. "He almost had blinkers on until he got behind the microphone and then -- boom -- he was the character," says Jenson. "He would grill us on something if he didn't understand it. But once he got the concept, he would completely own it. Sometimes he'd end up with something we didn't expect, but it was always funnier than we'd expected."

Co-directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson.

On Co-Directing

Jenson describes her partnership with Adamson as being "kind of separate and kind of side-by-side." During the early stages of story development, the duo was virtually inseparable as the action unfolded. As Shrek began to take shape and specific segments were agreed upon, the directors split the film in half -- each working on a specific number of scenes.

"That way we could focus our attentions on all of the tiny details of each sequence; from story to production design through the editorial process where you are constantly with the animators," continues Jenson, who added that each director was also in charge of his or her particular scenes when the actors were in the recording studios.

The partnership also meant a constant dialogue between the two. Neither went very far in the process without input from the other. "I'd work on a sequence with a story artist for a week or so, then after it got to a certain stage we'd present it to Andrew and our producer," says Jenson. This also held true during the animation process where the directors reviewed all of the dailies together. "Even though there'd be a lead director on a particular shot, we would discuss it," she continues. "We would discuss it with the other animators as well -- what was working and what we could make better."

Jenson does admit she had a particular preference to which scenes ended up in her charge. "I tended to gravitate to some of the more goofy sequences," she says. "My background is 3D. I worked with Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi. So I look at comedy just by itself. If it's entertaining -- let's keep it. Let's never lose a laugh."

Pushing the Technology

Jenson and Adamson's main goal was to make Shrek as funny as possible. But the duo, along with a team of roughly 275, also set a mandate to push the art of computer animation to new heights. As amazing as such CG predecessors as Toy Story, Antz and A Bug's Life were, they were still limited when it came to animating certain items in the computer. At a 'work-in-progress' sneak preview last March, DreamWorks' co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg stated that there are three 'Holy Grails' of computer animation -- hair, liquid and fire. Shrek brilliantly tackles each. But this is only a small part of the lavish storybook world the movie brings to life.

This is the first CG cast to include humans as protagonists, and therefore, created a host of new challenges for PDI/DreamWorks.

"This is the first time you really see humans appear in principal roles in a CG film," adds Jenson. "Nobody really knows what an ogre's supposed to look like or how a donkey talks, but everybody knows how humans move and speak. These characters needed more believability. We ended up building models with anatomy and muscles that the animators pulled to make an arm move or to shape a mouth."

The animators discovered the best way to heighten the realism of the princess, and Lord Farquaad, and his subjects, was to concentrate on the subtleties of the human form. "We built translucent layers of skin so they wouldn't look like plastic," Jenson says. "You really see that in Fiona in her close-ups. Light could actually pass through to create a luminosity. We painted freckles or warm tones a couple of layers down and light would pass through the skin to them. It just looked a lot more believable."

Chris Koseluk has written for many entertainment publications such as The Hollywood Reporter and is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist