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Walt Dohrn Talks ‘Trolls World Tour’

With his sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s 2016 hit, ‘Trolls,’ releasing straight to digital home viewing this Friday, the director shares his thoughts on the joyful experience of creating six new musically-themed ‘lands’ of fuzzily immersive charm.

Friday, April 10 marks the video on demand debut of DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour, the long-awaited sequel to their 2016 hit animated musical, Trolls. The film’s long-planned theatrical release, like so many others of late, was upended by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic; what was at one point a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release ended up fully digital as theatres completely shut down a few weeks ago. But with a large portion of the world anxiously quarantined at home, families looking for a group activity that doesn’t involve yet another Internet search for pet videos will soon find themselves with the option to stream a maniacal, feel good romp; Trolls World Tour puts the pedal to the metal in a musical extravaganza featuring six different Troll “tribes” filled with colorful characters, great songs, and the important notion that what might divide us ultimately brings us all together.

Directed by Trolls co-director Walt Dohrn, with David P. Smith co-directing and Gina Shay producing, Trolls World Tour features an all-star cast led by Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, returning as Poppy and Branch, alongside one of the largest, and most acclaimed, groups of musical talent ever assembled for an animated film. From the land of Funk are Mary J. Blige, George Clinton and Anderson .Paak; representing Country is Kelly Clarkson as Delta Dawn, with Sam Rockwell as Hickory and Flula Borg as Dickory; J Balvin brings Reggaeton, while Ester Dean adds to the Pop tribe; Anthony Ramos brings the beat in Techno and Jamie Dornan covers smooth jazz; world-renowned conductor and violinist Gustavo Dudamel appears as Trollzart and Charlyne Yi as Pennywhistle from the land of Classical; and Kenan Thompson raps as a newborn Troll named Tiny Diamond. And… there’s Ozzy Osbourne in all his leathered mumbling glory!

We recently spoke with Dohrn about the beautifully fuzzy world of Trolls World Tour. He shared his thoughts on the film’s last-minute release plan change, the challenges of integrating music and animation, and the inherent difficulty in multiplying the vibrant, almost psychedelic beauty of one Trolls world by six.

Dan Sarto: I imagine when you started work on this film, of all the wild thoughts you may have had about the eventual release, the last thing you probably would have considered was that the entire world would shut down because of a viral pandemic.

Walt Dohrn: I know. Even thinking about your wildest box office scenarios… you figure, just make the best movie you can. And we truly believe we did. So, it's kind of like, shoulder shrug, let's see what happens at the box office. We’d always say, “Well, you never know what's going to be going on at that time,” but never in our wildest dreams did we think this would be going on.

We definitely believe that people will see the film. We're just going to be patient right now. We want everybody to share in all the beautiful work our team spent so many years creating. Ultimately, this movie will make you feel good. It's a movie made with joy that will make you feel joyful and take you on a trip for sure.

DS: Early in development, was there a point when you said to yourself, “With a sequel, make sure you don't do…?” Were there traps you wanted to avoid? What makes a good sequel? What should you avoid?

WD: The big one, which early on, I felt was happening, is just repeating ourselves. Maybe structurally, or the gags that really worked, doing them again. For example, the first film, everyone liked when Guy Diamond farted glitter. How can we top it? Would it be another farting glitter gag? This is in high cinema we're talking here. And I built my career on fart jokes.

But that was one of those cases where, let's not repeat ourselves. I think that's the danger. Not only in similar gags, but even the shape of the movie itself. “Oh, here's the part where...” So, that's the challenge. We want to deliver on those tonal aspects that the audience enjoyed, but at the same time, we've got to push it in a surprising way. And when you’re watching the new film, we definitely feel there's a surprise for you around each corner.

DS: How did you arrive at the new story? What creative path took you to Trolls World Tour?

WD: We've found the foundation for the new film pretty early on. We started talking while we were making the first film. “Well, if we get to make another one, we should start with… What should it be?” At first, we thought, in a second part of the series, we need new worlds and new characters. In Trolls we really had a great time with the music. So, let's have more music. Out of that became, let's make a movie about music. What if the new worlds and new characters were based on music? That kind of slowly and organically lent itself to the narrative we came up with. We got there pretty early. Then, we had three years to refine the story.

DS: How did you choose the film’s six different “types” of music?  

WD: It was tough, as there are obviously more than just the six genres. We try to represent as many diverse genres as we can in an 80-minute movie. There had to be some limits. Working with a musicologist and sociologist, we arrived at six main genres that are recognized around the world. We have variations on these six genres where they can be broken down. And it felt like even sub-genres came out of these genres one way or another.

DS: Most audiences would be surprised by how many animators are also musicians, how timing is so critical to both, and links the two together. Making a film where music is so central to the story, not just the soundtrack, must be quite challenging. How do you write and animate a film where the songs don’t yet exist and might not be produced for years? At what point do you start working with musicians to create new songs? And how late in the process are the final songs fit in?

WD: Yeah, you're right. And, it’s a logistical challenge just scheduling-wise; it’s tough getting all this stuff to line up on a schedule, let alone creatively, with how decisions get made using music to keep the narrative momentum going. Even though we have six original songs, we also have a lot of familiar songs. So, how we get these to work together to drive the narrative is incredibly challenging. Luckily, because the animation involved a three-year production process, we had time to try things in a very loose way. We worked really closely with two musicians, our executive music producer, Ludwig Göransson, and Joseph Shirley. We would pitch them ideas and they would make rough demos that we'd take to our editor, Nick Fletcher. He’s a hobbyist musician, kind of like my co-director [David P. Smith] Dave and I are. We know a little bit about music. So, we were able to either A, get a really rough demo from our producers and see how that would work in editorial with storyboards, or B, have our editor rough in a familiar song. In either case, we’d draw to that, or adjust to it, with a thought to how we would change it down the line.

The super-challenging part is when you start dealing with original music. We'd pitch an idea to Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote many of the original songs, telling him the story we wanted to get across. He’d start working with his collaborators and then give us a rough demo. But that sometimes took a while. So really, the balancing act was managing the schedule and animating to the track. There were some desperate times where we’d say, “OK, this is the [beats per minute] BPM of the track, but we still want to make adjustments to the production.” So, we’d start posing the animation to the right track rhythm, but then go back in and refine it once the song was finished. But I'll tell you, even though it was a challenge, working with all these incredible musicians was definitely one of the best aspects of making the film.

The musicians loved seeing their work come to life. I’d bring them down to editorial and show them a rough assemblage with just storyboards; we'd start talking back and forth about a song’s pacing and the story, and that got them very excited. Bringing people into that process created many passionate ideas that got into the film.

DS: One of the most compelling things about Trolls was [Kendal Cronkhite Shaindlin] Kendal’s beautiful production design: those vibrant sets, textures, and colors. Everything felt like a comfy knit sweater, like you could wear the film. So many different styles fit together so nicely, so seamlessly. Trolls World Tour employs production design on steroids. Describe the dynamic working with Kendal again on the new film.

WD: She’s phenomenal. She is one of the most incredible production designers, who is always thinking about story as well. Together we all came up with that look for Trolls, and she really pushed on it. When we first showed the film, the audience just loved this idea, as you're saying, that it feels like you've put on a sweater, this fuzzy immersion, transporting the audience into this space that makes them feel good. They weren't distracted at all.

So, for Trolls World Tour, collectively, everyone was excited about this idea of “let's push it further.” For example, we had a mission on Trolls, where we said, “There's not going to be any water.” Here, we said, “OK, we're going to have water, but it's not going to be like any water you've ever seen. In fact, let's stay with this fiber texture world and use organza as water.” We did a test and I was like, “Man, it still looks like water. Let's go further.” That really got all the artists excited. How do we do that? And it was such a unique look. And ultimately, the look of the film stands out in the marketplace, which can get crowded with this kind of generic computer animated look.

At first, Kendal was a bit concerned that I wanted so many worlds, so many different characters. She felt, “OK, how are we going to keep a cohesive visual signature here because of these disparate genres?” But that conceit of fiber-based materials gave it cohesion.

DS: The first thing I said to myself after watching the new film was, “Damn, they animated the hell out of that movie!” As a director, do you assume your team can pretty much put anything you envision onto the screen? Are there any practical limits to animating anything you can conjure up?

WD: Well, we have the best artists in the world working here at DreamWorks Animation. And on this film, they never said “no.” Early on, we told them the concept of this story involves this vast array of different characters and different worlds. That's the story we're telling. Can we do it? They never batted an eye. Of course, we knew there’d be limitations we’d have to figure out. But they never said “no.” Again, this comes down to the great level of collaboration -- inviting everyone into figuring the film out, making them a part of everything, even giving notes on the story.

DS: How much redesign was needed for the recurring characters?

WD: There is always redesign because the technology is always new. You can't just kind of port over something because the software is different and we're always wanting to refine things. There were changes we wanted to make on Poppy's face. Okay, let's get the eyes a little bit bigger. And so, we wanted a certain level of redesign, pushing the animation a little bit further as far as the CG. Because Dave and I studied at Cal Arts, we still draw with pencil and paper. We're kind of traditional cartoonists and animators. We wanted to bring a lot of the old animation we loved into the computer animation. To do that, technically, we needed to redesign the characters to allow more flexibility.

DS: What were the biggest challenges overall for you and Dave on the film?

WD: Just the scale of the movie. Our drive to provide people that beautiful theatrical experience meant we needed to scale the movie big. With the number of new worlds and new characters, scale was definitely a challenge. Not just technically, can we do this, but from a budget standpoint. Another big challenge was the amount of music in the film. Not just scheduling, getting all the musicians and different departments to work together on schedule, but also the music licensing.

What was so great was that everyone met these challenges with such gusto. Working on this film was the most joyful time I've had in my career. How long has it been? 30 years? It's funny how at the end of this film, everyone felt a little bittersweet. When we finally finished, we all felt the joy of being able to accomplish this difficult task. But then the crew wanted to know when they could get started on the next one! Which just doesn’t happen for sequels. The artists are usually hungry for a new property, a new film, new ideas. But they wanted to go again right away. So that was a good sign of how healthy the challenges were.

DS: Last question. Kudos, you got Ozzy Osbourne. What was it like recording with him?

WD: I'm so glad you brought him up. It was amazing. Growing up, he was a hero of mine, much like George Clinton, who’s in the movie too. Big hero of mine. I grew up in the 70s and 80s man. When Atomic Dog came out, I must've been, I don't know, 10 or 11. It was just perfect for me. I loved it.

At first, we just wanted the idea of Ozzy as a character in the film, without parody or caricature. But because he's such a presence, and such a funny guy, we figured, “Why don't we just ask if he wants to do it? Not only will it give authenticity to the rock trolls, by having the King of Rock actually play the King of Rock, but he's such a funny, amazing character.” So, when he came in here, it was the greatest. I was like, "Oh my gosh, Ozzy Osborne, this is amazing. Thank you for doing this. It's such a pleasure to meet you." He goes, "No, no, no. We've met before." He convinced me that I had met him so we could just forget the small talk and get right down to work. He was so lovely and did such a great job. And at one point, he has this kind of tender performance towards his daughter and he just nailed it. 

Dan Sarto's picture

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