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Journey Inside the Colorful World of DreamWorks Animation’s ‘Trolls’

Producer Gina Shay talks hugs, fuzz and the pressures of producing DWA’s peppy new animated musical comedy, now available on Digital HD and coming on Blu-ray and DVD.

Into a world desperately in need of smiles comes Fox Home Entertainment’s release of DreamWorks Animation’s peppy and colorful hugfest, Trolls. Based on Thomas Dam’s famous roly-poly bug-eyed doll, the film, a musical comedy directed by Shrek franchise veterans Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, pits chronically optimistic Trolls against the comically pessimistic Bergens in a tale of friendship, tolerance and determination. With lots of singing, fuzz, scrapbooking and grins.

Produced by DreamWork’s veteran Gina Shay, Trolls is now available on Digital HD, with Blu-ray and DVD release set for February 7th. Included in the release are a host of special features, including deleted scenes and intros by the directors, a sing and dance-along Party Mode and a behind the scenes featurette and stop-motion tutorial on the creation of lead character Poppy’s scrapbook.

I recently spoke with Shay about her work on the film and the upcoming DVD release. She shared her insights on the process of developing a feature film starting with a round bellied, day-glo hair colored doll created in Denmark over 50 years ago, as well as the challenges faced bringing design and story together in a way that both kids and parents around the world will enjoy.

Dan Sarto: When did you get involved with the show and what were your main duties over the course of the production?

Gina Shay: I was at DreamWorks when they decided to make a Troll movie. That was around five years ago. I knew that was going to be a great challenge but also had the potential to be incredibly fun and creatively rewarding. I felt like the tall order would be to differentiate ourselves from any other tiny creature movies that had been made already. I thought, “Wow, this is a great opportunity to make our signature in unexpected worlds.” So, it was really important that I had Kendal Cronkhite [the film’s production designer], who is brilliant, Mike Mitchell [the film’s director], who is brilliant with comedy and character and Walt Dohrn [the film’s co-director], who brings so much heart and comedy and inventiveness. I thought, let’s get together and make a crazy, psychedelic, irreverent musical comedy.

We started with nothing except the doll. We knew that it had Danish origins, that Thomas Dam had designed it. But, it was a homogenous character. The features we really loved were its outstretched arms, like ready for a hug, its very sympathetic eyes, the crazy whirl of hair and the round features on the body. We just kind of fanned out from there.

We felt it was important to make a movie about happiness and the power of positivity. So, I thought a great song we could start building around was “True Colors” by Cindy Lauper. We felt that could be a very emotional, pivotal point in the movie -- one character loses all their positivity and color and the other one helps them to bring it back. We kind of set that stake in the ground and built around it. Mike and Walt brought in the ingenious Bridget character as an adversary -- that was another stake we put in the ground. We really wanted to make a film about two characters, a positive and negative, and the dynamics and contentious chemistry that they could bring to the screen. It was also very, very important to me that we had a strong female protagonist at the center.

DS: Kendal spoke at Annecy last summer about how the effort to explore the film’s character and look development, colors, textures and other elements of visual design, was so critical to the uniqueness of the film. Her work on the film was amazing.

GS: The film definitely would not have had the unique angle of the fuzziness or the felted environment unless Kendal had come up with those ideas. Those were things she could really build her design language around. It all organically came from the doll. Also, we have the common memory, from the 70s, of playing with our dolls in the shag carpet in our basements. There is something just fuzzy about them. Their hair, everything. We needed to make a fuzzy and colorful movie. We felt that they deserved a signature environment. It wouldn't have been unique or fun to have them in our world.

DS: Right. It’s a wonderfully designed world that is quite palpable, which is part of the beauty of the design. The characters all feel so natural in that world.

GS: Thank you. Yeah. It's amazing. Even down to their skin. Tim Lamb [the film’s art director] used close-up micro-photography of this succulent that had a gummy bear kind of inside and outside that was kind of flocked in velvet. And their multitudes of skin color, all the colors of the rainbow, all the unique shapes and sizes, we felt like we honored the doll but contemporized the look.

DS: What were the main challenges you faced in getting this film made?

GS: First of all, the character design was challenging. Everybody felt that we weren't completely re-imagining what they loved about Trolls, but were making it new and exciting for a new generation of Troll lovers, kids who want to play with them in their carpets or grassy backyards or take them to the roller skating rink like we did in the 70s. We had to find the right balance of making sure that the body stayed round, that we weren't creating a new shape for the dolls. I think kids can connect with these characters and mothers can feel good about bringing this movie into their home…girls not feeling inadequate about body image.

But the biggest challenge on these movies is always story -- that's the hard part. We wanted to keep the story simple enough for kids to stay engaged and understand but make sure it was sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy and go on the journey. Comedy is always key as well as theme. We had endless conversations about theme and decided that the Trolls movie should be about the quest for happiness and the power of positivity. Working with writers Jon Aibel and Glenn Berger, we probably had the most discussions on how to create an engaging and relatable character who is relentlessly positive…how she reflects the theme.

I’m sure everybody always tells you the hardest thing is story, making sure we create a universal story that everyone can enjoy. But, we have to make it feel like it's different, like it's unique enough to make you want to sit through 80 minutes.

DS: Your job, ultimately, as the Trolls producer, was to help marshal the resources needed to get Mike and Walt’s vision onto the screen. What was your working dynamic like? And how did you keep everybody body focused and moving ahead as productively and effectively as possible?

GS: I've been working with Mike and Walt for a really long time. We made Shrek 4 together. We all have this common sensibility, respect and trust for one another. We're always striving to push each other for the unexpected or surprising angles. We embrace our crew and their ideas -- we ask them all to participate creatively and proactively in the story, not only because we want them to feel invested, but because we want them to understand when we have to make changes for the betterment of the movie. If the filmmakers, artists and production team feel really invested through the process, they understand where our motivations come from.

Often times, crews feel left in the dark or not part of the process. That's when people don't feel like they're making the movie better, but they’re making a change for change sake. We've always been very economical when it comes to changes on a film. As a producer, I always strive to make sure that we're fitting into the box. Holly Edwards [co-producer on the film] is my line producing partner. We aren’t always able to achieve everything the directors want and sometimes we have to make very hard choices. But, I think that we get close enough.

We talk enough about why…the “why's.” We challenge each other by putting on restraints that make us even more creative. I guess the easier thing to do would be to just say, “All right we'll do it.” That starts a ripple effect through the crew, us pushing something that's very difficult and might be time consuming and cause a lot of stress. So we all sit with our department heads and figure out things like, “OK, we actually don't need to move the camera on this.” Easy solves. I mean, we had a lot of hair interplay on the film and it got really complicated at times. But, Mike, Walt and I, we all like cheating. We cheat a lot. Like people do in live-action. I think that for many animation directors and crews, they're not used to doing so many cheats because they've never shot a low budget live-action movie and know how much cheating is involved. I mean, people take stuff so literal. So, if you watch the movie you'll probably never even notice but we took a lot of liberty with cheats and that's how we were able to deliver the movie on budget, on time and still have what we wanted in this fuzzy look and all the hair and animation as well.

In animation, we took liberties in making it more snappy and posing it more like, you know, a Cartoon Network show, which is very unusual in CG as well. We felt like these characters, these puppet-like characters in an almost stop-motion world could be even more unique if we went a little more limited in the style of the animation instead of making everything so detailed and fluid…which, you see in a lot of these extremely realistic CG movies.

DS: There’s always a lot of pressure on a film’s producer. There’s a fair number of women working at the main studios but it still seems like a bit of a boy’s club. Do you feel any additional pressure in your job as a woman?

GS: Well, I think that extreme pressure is a given for anyone making these films -- they have to reach everyone in the world [laughs]. You know, it's just so hard. I work with such strong women in creative roles at the studio and on our crew that I feel like I'm in good company. This is the first time in my career I was able to make a film with a female character in the center. I think that's a testament to how the world is shifting. You know, we need to work harder to get the 50/50 ratio that we're striving for but I think that DreamWorks is getting closer every year and I do think that being a woman actually drives me more to succeed. So, I'm going to take the positive approach and use it to feel more empowered and strive to succeed.

DS: And let’s not forget that the Trolls DV D is coming out. Any favorite special features to share with us?

GS: Something incredibly fun on the DVD is the Party Mode edition. I've never seen this before and I think it's unique to our DVD. Your kids can watch the movie in party mode. It's kind of like the Rocky Horror Picture Show where there are all these interactive moments that they can enjoy. They can sing along to the songs…follow the bouncing ball. The lyrics are on the screen. It just looks like so much fun.

There's also a short film on the DVD about how the scrapbooking artist did the scrapbook animation in the movie. Her name is Priscilla Wong and I find her concept fascinating. It’s really fun for anybody who is interested in the artistry of how we make our movies. It's so different.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.