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Rock Star Animation Directors Talk ‘Breaking Tech’ at SCAD Savannah Film Fest

‘Trolls Band Together’s Walt Dohrn, ‘TMNT: Mutant Mayhem’s Jeff Rowe, ‘Elemental’s Peter Sohn, ‘Nimona’s Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, and ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers discuss how this year’s wild, unique, and weird animated films are wowing audiences using technology not even available only a few years ago. 

Eight rockstars, or “problematic gentlemen,” as named by moderator Clayton Davis, took to the main Lucas Theatre stage for a Pixels and Pencils panel at the recent SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Trolls Band Together’s Walt Dohrn, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’s Jeff Rowe, Elemental’s Peter Sohn, Nimona’s dynamic directing duo of Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, along with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s three musketeers, Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers, filed in with wit and enthusiasm in hand, ready to talk to SCAD students, press, teachers, and aspiring creatives about the top animated films of the year. 

“Audiences are becoming more aware of the artistry that goes into an animated movie, and with that comes a certain amount of respect,” says Dohrn. “Plus, the films are so wild and unique and weird. It’s hard not to catch people’s attention.”

During the panel, the animators talked about the origins and inspirations of their films, creating high-bar artistic experiences for theater audiences, and the animated films that made them fall in love with animation, from Princess Mononoke to Watership Down

“I’m a dark dude,” Powers admits to the audience regarding his love for the gruesome 1978 British animated adventure-drama. 

But during the festival, after navigating through some classic Savannah graveyards, AWN sat down with the filmmakers at the Perry Lane Hotel to chat about the emerging tech in the industry. Oh, and how it feels to have a shot at being the first to win Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. 

“We used to be worried we would distract audiences if the animation was too clever or too interesting,” notes Dohrn, who has worked with DreamWorks since Shrek 2 and directed the first and second Trolls films. “But now, there isn’t a lot stopping us.”

Granted, Dohrn’s work on the first Trolls movie was filled with plenty of color, glitter, and fuzzy fro magic. But the leaps and bounds animation technology has made since 2016 allowed Dohrn and his team to amp up the felt and glam in Trolls Band Together – releasing in theaters Friday, November 17 – that they simply could not have achieved (but still dreamed about) almost a decade ago. 

“In the first film, we struggled a lot with things like the hair and the glitter, but I like to think the computer is learning to loosen up,” says Dohrn, whose latest Trolls installment follows Branch’s relationship with his brothers and former bandmates in BroZone. “Spruce, Branch’s brother on Vacay Island, has this swoop of hair. It’s like a wave. And it’s a massive testament to how far we’ve come in what we can do. The texture of the trolls’ skin has also gotten more soft and tactile and fuzzy. It’s highlighted this feeling of stop motion in the film, which has always been such an inspiration for us. You'll see elements of it in Rhonda, in the band who they travel with, we step out her animation so it feels like replacement 2D animation. We did the same thing with Pennywhistle in Trolls World Tour.

He continues, “We’re getting more and more puppet-like in these films. So, it wouldn’t be too far of a reach to even do some stop-motion in a future project with these characters.”

Though the changing tech has enhanced all the pizazz of Dohrn’s 70s doll-inspired 3DCG characters, Sohn says the computer’s ability to achieve immaculate realism in 3D animation caused a bit of turmoil during production on Pixar’s Elemental, which follows characters Ember and Wade in a city of elements where fire, water, earth, and air residents live together. Elemental is currently available to stream on Disney+. 

“Every time we did anything photoreal with Ember and Wade, we would add these caricature eyes, and it wouldn’t work because their designs demanded more realistic facial features,” Sohn explains. “But, when we made the eyes more realistic, the characters were terrifying. Ember looked like a Balrog coming out of Mordor. Meanwhile, if we went too caricatured, the elements didn’t feel like they could actually burn you, or audiences couldn’t make that sensory connection.”

Sohn has worked at Pixar for over 20 years, serving as a story artist on Finding Nemo and WALL-E, an animator on The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and the director of The Good Dinosaur. He’s seen the evolution of Pixar’s 3DCG animation firsthand and has watched it morph at a studio obsessed with realism that is now comfortable making up its own rules. 

“RenderMan is Pixar’s proprietary software, which has been optimized to make things more photoreal, and it felt like the first 15 or 20 years were just like, ‘How real can we get?’” remembers Sohn. “And the technology grew faster and faster to the point where everyone was making photoreal stuff. But then, with Luca and Turning Red, we started to see more of these caricatures. But the machine’s been so engineered to incline toward photoreal, that you’re then trying to break it. Pixar really loves honoring truth to materials, and we were trying to exaggerate the material so that we could capture feelings. Our rules were all over the place.”

The idea of “breaking the tech” was adopted by Bruno and Quane during their directorial work on Netflix and DNEG’s 2D/3D animated hybrid film Nimona, about a shapeshifting outcast who helps a disgraced knight regain his honor. That production, like Sohn’s, was more of a fight with the computer rather than a celebration of how far production software had come.


“You’re always creating new plug-ins and things like that,” says Quane. “But the really crazy thing, with all these new movies we’re making right now, is it’s not so much about creating new tech. It’s about breaking that tech. Because the computer knows how to build things really well. It’s smart. The challenge for us is finding things that the computer doesn’t want to do. That’s when you know you’re doing something fun and different.”

Sohn notes that for decades, Pixar has been well known for making films about plastic toys, metal cars, and fleshy humans, and, like sonar, the rendering would hit the metal, plastic, or skin and bounce back without issues. It was a massive feat to take technology like that and make it work in a pipeline of fire and water characters. 

“Like Troy said, we were actually breaking the system making this movie,” shares Sohn. “To put it in perspective, Toy Story had around 900 render servers. Elemental had about 150,000. It’s the most we’ve ever done. And it was insane. Some single frames of one sequence took 1,000 hours to render.”

And Wade’s design was one of the most challenging. 

“Wade was a nightmare,” Sohn emphasizes. “I thought fire was going to be the hardest element, and, not to say she was easy at all, but there are no shadows on her. You can't cast shadows on light. So, she was easier to light. But Wade refracts and reflects light so, when he's in the basement, you can't see him. When he's outside, in broad daylight, he blows out the lens. And if you slow his bubbles down a little bit, he turns into Jell-O man. Then there were times when he was too Casper the Ghost. He was this monster we took forever to pin down. We all know what real water looks like, but that’s way too transparent and unstable. There’s no way you could make out a face.”

The creation of Ember required new software entirely. While the team first began working in Houdini, with an Ember that looked like a little tornado with stickers for eyes and a mouth, the team combined various pyro simulations until she had a body shape, a head, a neck, arms, and what looked like legs. To control the physics and speed of the simulation, Sohn and his team developed a new technology on the basis of a paper written by Disney’s research group in Zurich about Neural Style Transfer (NST).

“You would create a painting of a leaf with three panels, teach the machine that shape, and then push that through the simulation,” explains Sohn. “You’re basically teaching the computer how to carve this fire simulation in 3D and control it. You can see the shapes of that leaf design in Ember. She would turn her head, and you’d see that carving happening in real time. When we first developed it, we were told we could get one close-up with this effect. A month later, they told us we could get five shots, and that grew as we optimized it more and more.”

Whether it’s battling with new computer coding or utilizing all it has to offer, new tech has given filmmakers resources and permission, as the Spider-Verse directors put it, to get “wild west” with what visuals are being put on screen. 

“One of the great things about Sony Imageworks is that the studio does not limit itself to one software package, or one way of doing things,” says Thompson. “We had so many creative needs on that film that were so specialized for each world and for each character. There are entire characters that have their own style and are totally different from anything else in the movie. I'd say 65% of the time, Imageworks had to write their own software for films. They have a lot of brilliant coders and programmers. But they’ll also grab off the shelf or go through the archives to make the vision work.”

Dos Santos adds, “They are the ultimate garage kit makers. They’re known for smashing things together. I've been waiting my entire life for animation to reach this level where it's not viewed as any one thing.”

Contrary to popular belief, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, now streaming on Netflix, was not merely a continuation of the first film when it came to the visuals. 

“There's a program called Rebel, that Imageworks used, and then developed even further, to do a lot of the paint dripping that you see in Gwen’s scenes,” says Thompson. “That wasn’t available when we made the first film. Blender didn’t even really exist then either.”

Powers continues, “One of the things that I hope people notice is we created our own visual language. Even Miles’ world in this movie looks different than his world in Into the Spider-Verse. We’ve seen people come up with all these theories about things that were planned out in the first film to impact this one. None of it's true. We didn’t even plan on Miles being the prowler that far back. But I suppose it does make the original team seem like geniuses.”

From Hobie’s deconstructed scrapbook animation and the bare-bones illustration of The Spot to refined watercolor work, there was a plethora of animation styles present in the latest Spider-Verse story, all of which took their own liberties and none of which were going for realism. 

“One of the great things about animation is you can take liberties,” says Thompson. “We never intended for things to look real, even stuff like Pavitr Prabhakar’s hair. We wanted it to be an extension of his personality. One of our character designers created all these great blend shapes in animation so that, when Pav would hit a certain pose, his hair would go into a specific shape. So, as he moves with this pop music, it follows all these targets. Miles was a bit more realistic and dynamic, so seeing those designs play against each other in the same scene is really fun. And creating limitations for Pav became just as important as developing all the tech for the other characters that could do anything.”

Dos Santos believes that what new technology has really done for animated storytelling is give creatives the freedom and the access to craft the stories the way they want.

“I agree with that,” says Bruno. “When I look at all the stuff my kids are doing…they’re able to make movies on their phones, and that’s all we’ve ever wanted, a way to express ourselves that’s so accessible. I’m wasting away hours of my life on Tik Tok, but not really because I’m seeing all this amazing stuff these young people are putting out into the world. We’re seeing more stories, more diversity, and more experiences than we ever have before and that’s beautiful.”

The animation directors all believe that animation’s innovation and subsequent freedom and rebellion is what will give all their films a shot at this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. 

“Animation does tend to get put at the kid's table,” says Quane. “It’s not always as flashy or sexy as these live-action films. And yet, so much work goes into it, and so much joy and connection come out of it. All the passion we’ve seen from the students here, we’re fueled by it. We bottle it up and we take it with us. It’s what helps us get through the next project.”

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at