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Walt Dohrn Talks ‘Trolls Band Together’

With DreamWorks Animation’s funny and vibrantly beautiful ‘Trolls’ threequel hitting theaters today, the director shares his thoughts on the expansive comedy adventure teeming with great songs and new characters, including the evil pop duo Velvet and Veneer, who take the third act by musical storm. 

For director Walt Dohrn, and DreamWorks Animation, today, November 17, marks the day that Trolls Band Together, their latest animated musical extravaganza, hits theaters. It’s a big day for many obvious reasons, but one, in particular, you may not realize. Dohrn’s previous directorial effort, Trolls World Tour, was released March 12, 2020. Yes, that March 12. Years of work crafting the sequel to the studio’s 2016 hit, Trolls, ultimately found audiences... in their living rooms. The film’s long-planned theatrical release, like so many others, was upended by the pandemic; at one point a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release ended up fully digital as theaters completely shut down. Tens of millions enjoyed the film, just not as originally intended. And yes, we should all have such problems.

But today, Dohrn and his talented production team can enjoy the fruits of their latest labor… on big screens across the globe. And Trolls Band Together sure stuffs every inch of those big screens with an incredible display of glitz, glitter, fuzzy things, shiny things, zany things, psychedelic things, and a crazy ensemble of dancing and singing characters only the fever-dreamed minds of sleep-deprived artists could conjure up.

In the film, Poppy (Kendrick) and Branch (Timberlake) are now officially a couple. As they grow closer, Poppy discovers that Branch has a secret past. He was once part of her favorite boyband phenomenon, BroZone, with his four brothers: Floyd (Golden Globe-nominated electropop sensation Troye Sivan), John Dory (Eric André; Sing 2), Spruce (Grammy winner Daveed Diggs; Hamilton) and Clay (Grammy winner Kid Cudi; Don’t Look Up). BroZone disbanded when Branch was still a baby, as did the family, and Branch hasn’t seen his brothers since.

But when Branch’s bro Floyd is kidnapped for his musical talents by a pair of nefarious pop-star villains - Velvet (Emmy winner Amy Schumer; Trainwreck) and Veneer (Grammy winner and Tony nominee Andrew Rannells; The Book of Mormon) - Branch and Poppy embark on a harrowing and emotional journey to reunite the other brothers and rescue Floyd from a fate even worse than pop-culture obscurity.

The all-star cast includes Kendrick; Timberlake; Zooey Deschanel as Bridget; Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Gristle; the Icona Pop duo Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt as Satin and Chenille; Grammy winner Anderson .Paak as Prince D; comedian Ron Funches as Cooper; SAG nominee Kunal Nayyar as Guy Diamond; and Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live legend Kenan Thompson as Tiny Diamond.

I recently spoke with Dohrn about his brand-new, beautifully animated threequel funfest, an expansive musical romp with a number of amusing characters, including the BroZone bros, villains Velvet and Veneer, and scene-stealing King Gristle and his bride Bridget. He shared his thoughts on how sequels must be much more than a greatest hits rehash, the difficulty in pairing animation with song, and why a honeymoon spent blowing up a waterpark didn’t make it into the final film.  

Dan Sarto: So, a third Trolls film… you gave your character Cloud Guy even more colorful barf. You're moving up in the world.

Walt Dohrn: I know. Can you believe it?

DS: Your new film is a really, really big film! Sometimes we say it's a big film, meaning it's too much film, but I think that you have expanded the storytelling universe and introduced new characters and arcs that are very strong. And the animation is just spectacular. I really enjoyed the film.

WD: Thank you, Dan. It was a very careful hat trick with such a huge cast of characters to get them to land, to have the right amount of screen time, and to feel their arcs.

DS: When I interviewed you back in April 2020, right after the pandemic shutdown hit and your wonderful film couldn't get into theaters, I asked you if early in development, there was a point when you said to yourself, ‘With a sequel, make sure you don't do...’ So, I ask you again, with a threequel, were there traps you wanted to avoid? In the production notes, it says you didn't want to do a Trolls greatest hits. Describe the dynamic of charting new territory alongside the familiar territory of a sequel.

WD: That's a great question. We had a lot of conversations when we started this film, like we do with other sequels. What makes a great sequel? First, it's an opportunity to expand and grow the characters. How do we get to watch these characters evolve over time? That's something unique with a sequel we can do. The characters’ emotional and psychological arcs get richer with each passing of each film. So that's good. But then we also say we want to see the characters grow, you want to go to new places… and you want to meet new characters. So, the challenge with this film compared to the last one is we wanted a whole new cast of main characters.

Each one of these new characters provided us with an opportunity for a fully formed dimensional character, not just a one-off you meet, get to know, then you're off to the next land. We have a rich tapestry of new main characters, which was a big challenge like you said, but that really provided something new for the film.

DS: It’s one thing to introduce a new character within the established world. It’s another thing to also establish their backstory and their world. You establish each brother’s journey since their band broke apart. And you’ve got big new villains. That’s a lot of narrative that must make sense.

WD: It's tough. It was a real challenge, and I think that's the joy of working in animation. We get to workshop ideas where you put it all up, you watch it, you take it all down. You put it all up, you watch it, you take it down. And we work very loosely, very roughly at the beginning to find those nuances, to be able to build everything properly, as well as not have it be all exposition. Like when we introduce one of brothers, Bruce, who used to be called Spruce, we wanted to say he grew up, had a family, ran a restaurant, has a wife he loves, but there's this history of his kids going, "Were you in a band? What was your life before you were our dad?" We also wanted to establish this Vacay Island. There was a lot in that one sequence. I had an editor who cut that one 20, 30 times trying to find the right balance.

DS: This is a huge film from an animation standpoint. To say the third act is enormous is an understatement. Were you ever concerned it was too expansive? We know production teams love a challenge and if you ask them to create anything, they’ll say, “Sure, we can handle that!” Did you have to dial anything back? Was there ever a thought that you might have to go to a plan B on some scenes? What were the production team’s biggest eye rolls? You certainly don’t want them working on scenes that might ultimately not even be in the final film.

WD: Yeah, that's always scary. I hate doing that, right? Where I can lead someone down a path, and we end up not using that. It's really hard. So much effort, time, energy, and imagination go into each one of these scenes. I think pretty early on we had the majority of our world set. We needed to finesse how it went down in each section, but we knew the worlds we wanted. They just needed to evolve. Like Vacay Island I was talking about, it used to be kind of an island of dog characters. And so, you'll see some early paintings. It looks like Vacay Island, but it's all dogs for some mysterious reason. That's where we started. We evolved that they have a dog-like attitude, but then they became more puppet-like. They became water balloons wrapped in terrycloth towels because that had a kind of vacation feel.

So very slowly, we built up each world. I learned a lot from the last film, which had six new environments, six new kinds of Troll characters. So, I said, “Let's pull back.” Anybody who watches this movie will say you didn’t pull back at all. But there are only three new environments and we got to sit in them a little bit longer. But the biggest challenge was how big these worlds were since we don't just get a little taste of them. Like in Trolls World Tour, we had to build this giant Mount Rageous City, and I think that was the most challenging one, especially because the idea of a concert on wheels didn't come until later in the process.

We had built... It was going to be a concert set inside the Rage Dome. It was a little bit reminiscent of Trolls World Tour, and the studio said, let's try something different. So, I pitched, let's do a concert through the streets of Mount Rageous. The problem was we hadn't built those streets. The city wasn't built, and at that time we were way into production, so it was a question of, “Can we do this?”

The cinematographer put some rough shots together and it looked like something out of Inception. There’s the camera spinning around, and cars are upside down, and characters are singing “Sweet Dreams” on top of a giant bumper car. It was like, how are we going to even do this? I have no idea. No one knew, but they pulled it off, Dan. Everybody was so committed to the idea, so full of passion, they did it.

DS: The film’s animation is so rich, so stylized. There’s even a great 2D psychedelic sequence. Different worlds, rich characters, a huge third act… the whole film is just more expansive. How early on were you satisfied from a testing standpoint, or from people saying, “Don't worry, we got this,” that the production team was going to pull off the looks you wanted?

WD: The crew is so incredible, Dan. As you know, the artists at DreamWorks are unbelievable.  Anybody who hadn't worked with us before, as well as the people we had previously worked with, they knew how collaborative we were and how open we would be to their ideas. So, that really helped us in going further than we've ever gone before. I really put a lot of faith and trust in the artists, in the FX team, and what they’d come up with. I also got a lot of faith and trust from the studio itself. Everyone wanted to do a good job, because it's very personal to them, these choices they're making. So pretty early on, they were very encouraged.

At one point, we had designed a hundred costumes for Velvet and Veneer, and I loved every single one of them. Just for one shot. They were dressed as these dogs, again with the dogs, but they were dressed in these animal costumes, and we were like, “We can't have this many costumes.” But we found ways around it with surfacing and some other little tricks we could do.

DS: As this is your third Trolls film, what's the most important skill you brought to this based on your experience on the other two? As the director, the senior point person on the film, what did you bring when you were walking through the halls, or sitting in meetings, talking to the artists on the production?

WD: I think it's a good question. I think, maybe it’s an open playfulness. There wasn't anything they couldn't... any idea that they couldn't bring to me. Everybody had a voice, and I was there ready to hear it. I would make sure it worked with the narrative, make sure it worked with the characters, that it wasn't too distracting, that it built on the world we had. So, I think it's just this love of collaboration. I mean, that's the art of animation, this openness, this playfulness, this desire to be weird and wonderful. I think maybe that's what I bring to it, most of all.

DS: Music obviously is a huge part of this film. Again, an understatement. How hard is it to write and produce a big, animated film when the songs are not finished, and you don't even know how many you'll use? It’s one thing to have a scratch track for background music. But to animate characters that sing when you don't have finished songs... I know that's difficult. Tell me a little bit about how that went on this film.

WD: Yeah, that's very complex. We've learned over the last few years how to approach it. But it starts like anything else: incredibly rough. Take the Bergen wedding medley at the beginning of the film. We've got KC and the Sunshine Band, we've got Push It, we've got Lizzo, we've got a taste of Lionel Richie. We've got all these different elements in there. And I'll start with Nick Fletcher, our editor. He’ll just start placing it together. It's kind of ugly. They're different key signatures, different time signatures, and it's just a big mess. But we can see through it. So, if that feels good, we get everybody on board. We'll get one of our executive music producers, Joe Shirley, to make a very rough demo, but he'll blend all the pieces together.

He'll do the vocals, and if that's working, great. We'll get Justin [Timberlake] involved as early as we can. He'll make some choices. He'll put his vocals in, and then we'll go into layout. The room for changes starts to get smaller and smaller. And sometimes we might not have the song all finished, but we'll have a click track so they'll know how to animate it. They block it out. Then they'll go back in once we finish the song. But it's tight. It's an intense but fun process.

DS: King Gristle, the Bergen King, and his wife Bridget, for me, they kind of stole the show. Their characters are just so damn consistently funny. They never overstayed their welcome on screen, and their humor, it was just a tad suggestively nasty… but in a naïve way. How did you develop those characters and find that fun balance within the story?

WD: Oh, it was so much fun. There actually was more of them. We tried different scenes. In fact, our head of story, Colin Jack, he boarded the honeymoon that you don't see on screen. They talk about it. It was at a waterpark. They blew up a giant waterpark. The waterpark was on fire. It was all done to a Barry White tune. It was amazing. It was like the most expensive sequence in the history of animation. It was so complex and so funny, but it just didn't work within the timing of the movie. Like you said, we would try these little things and it just was too much. You had to find the exact right balance with these two. We approached it like they've evolved since the last we saw them, just like Poppy and Branch did. But we saw them as more junior high kids. So, they were maturing past that junior high kind of flirty phase into what they think a husband and wife are supposed to be like. It was so much fun.

And Zoe Dechanel is incredible. She's so funny. She had some of the best reads in the movie. It's great to have Christopher Mintz-Plasse again. We just love those characters. I was so happy they were back.

DS: What about Velvet and Veneer? Where did those characters come from? They're the villains, and what they're doing is a really awful. You must show it as awful, but it can't be too awful. How did their parts in the story come about?

WD: Yeah. That was a complicated one. It’s always so much fun to invent new villains. And I always like villains who are redeemable. Some other people in the studio don't like redeemable villains because like you said, they have to do something pretty nasty things to make them a viable threat, right, so you're invested in the story and the conflict. But we had an opportunity, since they were brother and sister, for one of them to be full-on nasty, not redeemable, while the other one was kind of manipulated. So that was an opportunity to create this rich relationship.

But at first, we didn't know what they were or who they should be. At one point they were catlike creatures. We didn't know what Mount Rageous was. It took us a while to find that.

Then they were Bergens for a while, Bergens who refused control, and somehow, they were part of that story. That didn't work because it took away from Bridget and Gristle's story. Then, they're kind of humanoid, but they're not human. And then we found, “Oh, they’ve got to be toy-like, like bendy dolls,” which made them less human. And then we started blending some Betty Boop 1930s design elements into their eyes and some more contemporary Lady Gaga aesthetic into their costumes and their attitudes. So, by blending all those things together, you got something unique. That was so fun for the animators. They could twist and turn and behave only the way an animated character can behave. And then Amy [Schumer] and Andrew [Rannells] brought them to life.

DS: Last time we spoke, I asked you about recording with Ozzy Osborne, and you said that he was a hero of yours.

WD: He was.

DS: Anyone like that on this film?

WD: Everyone on the film was wonderful. But I am a huge fan of Eric Andre. I just think he's so wild and so dangerous, and his humor is just right on the cutting edge of even what's acceptable. He was just so cool and so funny and surprising. My jaw would drop when I'd watch his show, so I really wanted to work with him. I felt he'd be perfect for Branch's older brother, who's kind of based on my brother, who's really bigger than life, kind of dangerous, doesn't observe the normal social rules of society. That felt like Eric to me. But I was scared. I didn't know if he wanted to be in a movie like ours. We pitched him the movie, and he was excited. He was the most fun to work. I would have to stifle my laughter working with him. On the takes, he would just go. He would not stop. He was just riffing, riffing, riffing on ideas forever. So that was a pleasure, man. I never want to do anything without him. He's going to be in everything I do.

DS: Last question. Where would you take the Trolls franchise next? We've got TV shows, we've got films. You've got new characters that obviously could hold their own and lead in any format. Where might they go next? What would you like to see?

WD: That's a good question. I mean, I love making movies. I'd love to make more Trolls movies if the world wants them. We've got all kinds of fun ideas. We’ve just got to wait and see how it goes.

Dan Sarto's picture

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