The producer of both ‘Trolls’ films helps DreamWorks Animation create a masterful celebration of how art and music can bring people together.
The fiber-filled and fabulous musical world of Trolls graces audiences once again, with more worlds, more music, and more hugs; directed by Walt Dohrn, Trolls World Tour bypassed theatres last month with an incredibly successful VOD release on numerous platforms including Amazon, filling Trolls fans’ lives of quarantined isolation with glam and glitter, not to mention classic hits like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “Crazy Train” and “U Can’t Touch This.”
Following 2016’s first successful Trolls installment, Trolls World Tour revisits preppy pink troll Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and her right-hand-man Branch (Justin Timberlake), who have recently discovered that their forest is only one of six musically-inspired and fiber-based Troll worlds. The Troll tribes are each devoted to a different musical genre - funk, country, techno, classical, pop, and rock - and Poppy finds out that the Rock Trolls’ Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) wants to demolish all other forms of music by stealing musical strings from each of the other tribes. From the underwater universe of the Troll-maids to the quilted deserts of the western country Trolls, Poppy and Branch must tour each Troll world to stop Barb’s devious musical conquest.
It’s no small feat to tackle six Troll worlds in the same space of time it took to create just one, but Dohrn, producer Gina Shay, and their team of talented DreamWorks Animation artists have put together a masterful musical celebration of both art and diversity. A few days before the film’s digital release, we spoke with Shay - also the producer of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Shrek Forever After - about how the team tackled the immense challenge of building half a dozen Troll worlds, their collaborations to enhance the message of diversity, and the difficulties faced in creating an incredibly complex all-inclusive third act dance party worthy of the biggest Ibiza raves ever held.
Dan Sarto: This is just a wild, crazy, kick in the pants kind of film. It's beautifully designed, beautifully animated and it's got a story that integrates nicely with the visuals. Unfortunately, it's getting to most people in their homes instead of through the theatres, but I know the folks that watch it are going to love it.
Gina Shay: I take some solace in knowing that, first of all, all your compliments are so wonderful, but also that maybe even more people will see it now. Who knows? Everybody is longing for some entertainment and joy, and a dance party that they can tune into with Trolls…we can all have our own virtual dance parties and sing along.
DS: I'm assuming you jumped on this project from day one, so to speak, maybe even day minus five, coming off the first film. That was 3-4 years ago. How did your work on the film change over the course of production, moving from the earlier stages of design and story development to the guts of the production?
GS: In the beginning, we worked really hard to create an amazing story, but it's super open and very fluid. It's like workshopping a play. We then incorporate our artists collective to have agency in the storytelling as well. It's really exciting, because going from the early stages of development and casting, [production designer] Kendall [Cronkhite Shaindlin] and Tim Lamb bringing the production design, and going all the way through each department, it all comes together as this big collaborative, joyful experience.
Every day, each time you go into a new part and you ignite a new department, it's like getting a gift. The dailies that we go into every day are just like, "Oh my goodness, what presents are you going to give us today, Matt Baer?" I just feel so honored that so many amazingly talented artists would involve themselves in our movie.
DS: Trolls World Tour seems risky in many ways, but it shows that there can be a reward in producing a film with such a vibrant visual language paired with a meaningful story underneath.
GS: When we start out working on these movies, we know we'll be on them from three to four years. Now, I've been on this franchise for more than seven. We want to make sure that it also has a meaningful takeaway because it's really hard to delve into a project for that long and it's not easy to make one of these. And you really want to make sure that you're coming out with a redeemable awesome message. I think it's really important.
DS: With your producer's hat on, where do you uniquely fit into the production with regards to where your skills, experience, and expertise have the biggest impact? Not necessarily the biggest things you do, but the things where your touch really brings an important outcome?
GS: I feel we are a very collaborative team. Walt and I and Dave Smith, we definitely were a unit. But it's possible that one of my strengths is being able to create an environment that's open to all voices, which is kind of reflected in the movie. But our team and our artists always feel free to say what's on their mind from an art perspective, a story perspective, pretty much anything. We're open to having this collaborative environment.
I also come from an art background, where I used to make puppets, and I was really into, from a very young age, Sesame Street and all of that, so I bring kind of a silly aspect to the tone. But I also feel my strengths lie in trusting the artists we bring together to bring their best work.
DS: When considering a Trolls sequel, what were some of the pitfalls or things that you consciously wanted to avoid? Conversely, what are some of the things that, creatively, you felt you needed to include because it was a sequel?
GS: Coming from the movies that I've worked on before I went to DreamWorks, I was very entrenched in comedy and learned from people such as Steve Hillenburg and the South Park team, and strong studio leaders like Sherry Lansing. Everything I saw those guys do, was to push and to push for the unexpected. With a sequel, all that experience and pushing for something that is not what people are going to expect, it's going to open up the gates and become somewhat of an event film.
It was also really important to expand this world for the sequel because it felt like it was a world worth expanding, especially through music. I feel that, in this movie, to make this a spectacular film, we wanted it to feel like a concert, so we really pushed to do half of our songs as originals, to honor those different genres of music. Justin Timberlake and Ludwig Goransson were incredibly inspired to take on that task and that challenge. It's really hard to service all those tribes of music, all those characters, properly. Especially in 81 minutes. But I feel like we were able to balance all of that.
DS: 30 seconds into the movie, you realize this is a complicated film in every way. Animation and music have always gone hand in hand, but this, as you say, animated musical, also integrates the music and extremely complex action. The visuals must have been a tremendous challenge, especially the third act dance party.
GS: When you get to that “Just Sing” moment in act three, that song was so hard. That song has about 40 vocal tracks on it. Not only is it the “We are the World of Trolls” world, but it was basically recorded all over the world too. I flew to Korea for one night to get Red Velvet on it. It just kept getting bigger and bigger as Ludwig and Justin distinguished between all the genres in the song itself. It was such an evolving amorphous project that started with a song by Sarah Aarons and Max Martin, Justin and Ludwig, all working together and then it just kind of blew out from there.
Visually, it also took the longest. It's a huge stadium crowd of Trolls. There are rainbows and glitter everywhere. It was crazy. But it was absolutely worth it. We really were joyfully ambitious on this movie. There wasn't a moment in time where we were all like, "Oh, God, why did we do this?" It was always like, "Okay, we're doing it. Let's just do it."
DS: When you dig beneath all the glitter and felt, this film is about embracing diversity…how the world benefits collectively from diverse voices. As a female executive, a producer on a big film, do you feel that the industry is making needed strides to increase gender and other types of creative workplace diversity? How do you feel with regards to where you are at in your career now, and where you would like to see things move in the future?
GS: I feel like I've seen things change quite rapidly around me in the past three years. What's great is that we set out to make a film about finding harmony and diversity four years ago and the entire time we've been working on it with consultants we carefully chose to help us to tell this story. We needed help in telling certain parts of the story and made sure we surrounded ourselves with the smartest people to help us do that.
Having George Clinton represent funk, and having Dr. Darnell Hunt, professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA, help us to figure out how to most effectively tell this story and be really socially responsible about it, has been quite a ride. It's been an educational experience for all of us on this movie. We knew from the start that if we're going to tell this story, we better tell it right.
DS: Especially since you touch on so many things that could have been potential landmines if done in an insensitive or trivializing way.
GS: We look at this as it's the collective that told this story. We listened to so many people's voices on this film. People would come and talk to us and say, "You know what? There's something about this character design that makes me feel a little uncomfortable," and then we would change it. And so, it felt right. Everybody felt like we were all holding hands together and going forward with telling the story in the most responsible way.
DS: From that standpoint, the film did a commendable job of capturing that diversity in an interesting, enjoyable, and respectful way. And I realize that could have very easily not been the case. So, I think you guys hit it.
GS: Thanks a lot. I'm just so happy that it's going to go out in the world, even though people won't be able to see it in the movie theater, which is obviously the best place to see it because it's been mixed like a concert. It's a fuzzy immersion with the 3D. But everybody will have that fuzzy immersive experience in the comfort of their own home, with their children. You can get up and dance and sing at the same time. I hope that just brings a bit of joy to people's lives right now.
Trolls World Tour is now available to rent on multiple VOD platforms including Amazon.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.