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Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn Talk ‘Trolls’

For the directors of DreamWorks Animation’s latest hit animated feature, it’s all about the power of positive…and keeping it ugly cute.

With its stellar cast, catchy tunes and uniquely textured world, DreamWorks Animation’s new animated hit feature, Trolls, transports us into the vividly hairy, glittery and overly optimistic world of the hippy-dippy Troll dolls of our youth with a deft comedic touch and tremendous eye for every aspect of visual design. Psychedelia gets a major face life here—the film’s crazy visual palette, color scheme and character designs set Trolls apart from every other CG animated feature film in recent memory, a refreshing divergence from other movies beautifully designed and animated that, unfortunately, have begun to look and feel so much the same.

A few short weeks ago, at the VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, I had a chance to sit with the film’s directors, DreamWorks veterans Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, to discuss at length their three-year decent into Troll-ness. That following Saturday, we also enjoyed a five-hour, white truffle-infused lunch together at Gemma Osteria in Alba, but that’s a tasty story for another day.

Mitchell and Dohrn shared their insights on this unique opportunity to create a film together starting from nothing more than a hairy doll, their own optimist/pessimist directing dynamic and how the studio’s tremendous pool of talent ultimately made their job relatively worry-free.

Dan Sarto: When did you guys come onto the film and what did you have to work with at that point? What was the state of the project?

Mike Mitchell: I'd say, roughly, we came on at the same time three years ago, and the state of the film was nothing. It just had a doll. All we inherited was this little troll character with a puff of hair, and that was kind of exciting, right?

Walt Dohrn: Yes. We got to come on and really create the characters. We got to come up with, "Here are the characters. Here's what the film is going to be about."

MM: Here's the world. We got to create an entire world.

WD: Yes. It was a rare opportunity to have this blank slate in front of us for all the artists.

DS: That's like a dream come true from a creative standpoint, but that also means you're probably going to iterate 10,000 times, and eventually, somewhere in there, you'll come up with final versions of things. I know every time I tour DreamWorks, an art director or character designer will show iterative sequences of characters. “Here's the first iteration of the characters," and I’d say, "Those are fantastic," and then they’d reply, "Here's the next set." I’d say, “Yes, those are even better," but think to myself, after viewing each iteration, if they had stopped at that point, those designs would have been fantastic.

With all that initial work to flesh out the characters, all the design decisions, environments, color schemes, textures, hair, all of that, how long did it take you to decide, "Okay, here's how this film is going to look from a design standpoint, from a texture and color standpoint. Here’s what we’re going to use?”

MM: Well, in CGI, anything is possible, and within that lies madness. It's crazy. You can do anything.

WD: Endless variations…

MM: …endless variations, so I don't know, Walt and I had a vision with this film. I really have to credit Kendal Cronkhite for taking it as far as she did. We had an initial rough sketch, which was great, of Poppy, and she spent a year tweaking it as we carried on with boarding, working with the actors and story...

WD: It took a year to get Poppy exactly how she is when you see her onscreen.

MM: There was a lot of discussion.

WD: That was the most extreme example, I think, because since she was our lead character and we had to be really careful to bring out the most broad appeal with her as possible. But we wanted to retain the quirkiness and the non-traditionalness.

MM: Yes. We wanted her to still stay ugly cute, because we thought that was interesting. We also kind of wanted to break the mold of your typical animated princess. We wanted to keep her ears big and her head big. Her teeth did change. Her teeth used to explode from her head, and I think we gave her some dental work. That was the one thing that changed, but we kept those stumpy little legs. We liked her barefoot.

WD: Story-wise, it took us about six months to put up our first rough, rough screening, and that first screening really had all of the bones to the story.

MM: …and the design, as well, at least with character designs, without being specific. What really helps, too, is working with the amazing Tim Lamb, who designed most of our creatures.

WD: Yes. He's our art director.

MM: That was tough, because for just a simple butterfly that we needed, he'd present maybe 30, each one as good as the last. It was really hard to work with that guy, because I'm such a fan.

 WD: That first six months, we found our story and we found the shape. Then we spent the next two and a half years trying to retain that invention, that lightning in a bottle we found in that first six months.

MM: Yes. We got some compliments that our storytelling seemed, what's the word for it?

WD: They said, "It feels like a bunch of people made this in their garage." To us, that was a compliment.

MM: I thought that was a great compliment. It seems like a group of friends - which is true - were just riffing and coming up with stuff and making this film. Then Walt and I were like, "How do we retain that feeling for the next two and a half years? How do we hold onto that fresh spontaneity?" I think that was reflected in the design, as well. Kendal came up with this handmade quality for everything.

DS: Many wonderful designs break down when moving from 2D to 3D CG models. How much of your designs really didn't hit until you brought them into the 3D world? Did most successfully transfer from the 2D side into CG?

MM: In my opinion, these were successful transformations from page to screen.

WD: Where we had a challenge with these characters in the design was when we started animating them.

MM: The animation was more of the challenge.

WD: Yes. That was a challenge, because here we have this group of characters that hug every hour on the hour. Well, lo and behold, because of their large heads and their short arms….

MM: …Their arms can't even reach each other…

WD: …it wasn't so easy. It was a particular challenge for the animators design-wise. But what was great, because again, we didn't have any pre-existing style of animation, was we really got to invent.

MM: We came up with our own style of animation that would help with the design.

WD: And fit the characters.

MM: It was more of a challenge for the animators to inherit the design. Not to mention with the Bergens, their teeth are gigantic, and you have to have these characters talking. Really, with some of the Bergens, Bridget has to convey some real emotion. Hard to do with those giant teeth.

WD: Again, it looks great in a drawing. A 2D drawing, you do these funny teeth on it, and, "Wow, that's really funny and it's fun and appealing." Then you start to move it around, it's like, "Oh my gosh, they're in the way." They had to come up with a way of dialing the teeth up and down.

MM: That was the big thing from the very beginning. Walt and I created an atmosphere where there shouldn't be any rules, so if you need to tuck those teeth up for a few syllables, tuck the teeth up. Who cares? We were really into cheating.

WD: Well, we were also into breaking the artists' preconceived notions about how you do something. Because we're not technically minded, we were able to go, "Look, you can do this. Let's do it. It will free you up." I think that helped.

MM: Another thing, too, is with the style of animation we came up with, we decided sometimes we wanted to be snappy and funny with a 2D feeling in a 3D world, and then when the story dictated it, we could be very realistic. That was something else that blew their [the animators’] minds, and we're like, "Well, no one's done anything about trolls before. We're inventing a style of animation, so let's invent this thing that can be very realistic when we want, and very snappy when we want." I think it works. I feel there's a consistency there.

DS: Describe the co-directing dynamic between you guys. Do you divide and conquer? Do you both handle the same types of things, but you go here and you go there? How do you guys divvy it up?

MM: I think there was very little divide and conquer, wasn't there?

WD: We pretty much did it all together. We got to share one brain at one point. Mike and I went to school together at CalArts, and so we have this long bond.

MM: Yes.

WD: We share similar sensibilities.

MM: Long bonds…

WD: …long bonds.

MM: We do. Just one example where it was super handy to have Walt around. He's an amazing performer. He plays Cloud Guy in Trolls. We would go into the booth with the actors. We're the type of directors that barge into the booth with them, and Walt acts back and forth, and there's always one guy listening. I guess we would divide sometimes in there, but we're both in the room, and it just created a great energy, which is rare. Both the actors in the scene are in the recording booth. That was really neat.

WD: We talked a lot about your live-action career, so I learned a lot from how you work with actors. All your experience in live-action really helped this film.

DS: Tell me about the process of getting notes after internal screenings.

MM: We love notes, honestly.

WD: There used to be a line in the movie, "We love notes!"

MM: There was. Poppy used to go, "We love notes!" Our LEGO friends came in. Phil Lord came in and gave us some notes, and Steven Spielberg gave us notes many times.

WD: Not too shabby. A lot of times, even from Jeffrey Katzenberg, he would give us a note as far as he would say, "Here's a problem area," but wouldn't give us the solution. It was always up to us.

MM: It really empowers the group when a good producer, like Jeffrey, who doesn't tell you how to fix it, would just go in and say, "I am confused at this part," and then leave the room. For me, that's super empowering because it's like, "All right, let's see if we can solve this."

WD: We love making movies for the audience. We talked a lot about how Hitchcock does that, and Jeffrey has the mind of the audience, so he helped us a lot with clarity.

MM: He does. When he watches a movie, it's like he represents a test audience. I'm a guy that likes to test films and hear where the laughs are or aren't. But inside Jeffrey's strong, small body lives a whole family from the Midwest, a mom and three kids, so if he's laughing at a joke, when we take it out into the audience, that mom and her three kids are going to be laughing at the same joke. It's so strange to me. I don't know how he has that skill. It disturbs me.

WD: Notes help us tighten our story, and so we appreciate them.

MM: I like them. You won't hear any complaints from me.

DS: There are hundreds of people that touch a film, and ultimately, they all look to you as the directors. When they're freaking out, when they're having a bad day, when they're wondering why the hell they're even there, they need to draw their inspiration from you, the confidence that you’re going to get them through this.

Everyone I've ever talked to who's sat in your seats has told me, "Oh my goodness, there's so many times where we sit down at the end of the day and say, 'Our film is just absolute shit. We  have a completely terrible film.’” But, ultimately, they tell themselves they know what they’re doing and they’re going to push through. They trust the process, trust their great team and they’re going to get it done.

From that perspective, how did you handle the big challenges, leading the charge and keeping everyone focused, giving you their best while all pulling in the same direction?

MM: Well, the answer I have also answers your co-directing question as well. This guy [pointing at Dohrn] is Poppy, and I'm Branch. I don't know if you know the film, but Poppy is a super optimistic character, and Branch is a pessimist. Before the crew could even say that this film is a piece of shit, I would be saying it to Walt, and he would be putting me at ease. Everything you described is like how you [looking at Walt] directed with me.

WD: I do want to say, obviously, in making a film over three years with all these technical challenges and deadlines, it is a challenge and there are conflicts. But what was really strange about this film is that everyone…

MM: …Everyone was so positive. Exhaustingly positive.

WD: …had such a great time. It was so unusual. I had people coming up to me as the weeks were winding down and we were finishing up, who said, "This is the best production I've ever been on."

MM: It was like the end of camp. Everyone was crying and hugging.

WD: They didn't want it to end. It was the first time they were like, "I don't want it to be over." I think with the film itself, you can feel the joy from the crew when you watch it.

MM: That does come up on the screen. Our crew was the most positive crew, as well as our cast, that I've ever worked with, making it kind of effortless. It was hard to worry about anything. By the way, it's one of the reasons I love to work at DreamWorks. One of the big reasons I came back to work at DreamWorks was they have the best artists and the best technicians. Kendal Cronkhite is the most champion production designer of all-time. Joel Crawford is amazing. This was his first head of story. Amazing storyboard artist.

WD: It's a community. It's a culture. We feel like a family together.

MM: We also like to empower our artists, too. We don't dictate much. We know the story we want to tell and the look it needs, but all of our artists really get to bring themselves…

WD: …We really empower them, and encourage them to bring themselves to the project, so I think that's what made them happy.

MM: I don't know what made them happy. I don't know what they were drinking.

WD: We could end on that. It made them happy. It's a nice thing, a positive thing. Optimism is powerful. It's a real powerful tool. We really believe it.

MM: It's underrated, too. That's another reason we made this film.

WD: Well, people think it's kind of naïve or they dismiss it.

MM: It's not. I learned that, too, because I'm a very pessimistic person. At the end of this film, I always like to learn something. Spending three years on something, optimism is a powerful tool, and it's really underrated.

DS: Very, very true. Many people think it's naïve, that somehow you're…

MM: …Silly. You're not being realistic. Same thing with making a film about happiness. There's so much in the news and the media that is awful, not just for kids, but for me. I think it's so dark. The internet is a judgmental and dark place, and we wanted to make something bright and colorful and funny. Sometimes that's dismissed as, "Oh, well, that's not really a real film." I hope the trends change. I hope we can move that dial a little bit where things can be joyful and happy. Why not?

Dan Sarto's picture

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