The new DreamWorks feature animation co-president talks about her role as producer on the studio’s Oscar-nominated hit.
The critical and box office success of DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, which has led to numerous awards including the top prize at the Annies and a nod from the Academy, has been overshadowed of late by last month’s studio restructuring and massive layoffs. The film was the sole bright spot in an otherwise rough 2014 for the studio, which culminated in the major downsizing, closing of Northern California’s PDI/DreamWorks studio and slim-down of the upcoming slate of feature films. Part of that reorg involved chief creative officer Bill Damaschke stepping down and the appointment of new feature film co-presidents Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria.
Arnold, a veteran producer known for her work on the first How to Train Your Dragon film as well as Over the Hedge, Tarzan and Toy Story, was part of the production team tasked with the first of at least two planned Dragon sequels. I had a chance to speak with Arnold this past June at the Annecy Animation Festival, fresh from the film’s completion and quite some time before the recent studio moves. She talked about her role as a producer and the constant challenges she faced balancing the needs of the film as well as the needs of the studio.
Dan Sarto: As a producer, in essence you’re running the “company” of a film production as well as managing the relationship with Jeffrey [Katzenberg, DreamWorks CEO] and Bill [Damaschke, former DreamWorks chief creative officer]. What are your main responsibilities on the film?
Bonnie Arnold: Those are my secrets! [laughs]. I’m really the first person on the film. Dean [DeBlois, the film’s director] is the second. Part of my job is doing everything I can to help Dean get his version of the movie onto the screen, but at the same time, doing it with someone else’s money, quite frankly. There is no one in this world more supportive of Dean and his vision than Jeffrey Katzenberg. I’ve worked with Bill and Jeffrey for a long time and they trusted us with this film. But, there are checks and balances and you have to let them know this is what you’re doing and this is how you’re spending their money.
There isn’t always a list to what I do. Part of it comes from instinct, having done this for a long time. It’s important to keep the studio heads informed. That’s not to say I tell them everything. There’s always a balance. It’s important for Dean to understand and trust me, to let me manage the executives. For example, I’ll see something and will say to Dean, “I like this decision, but the studio needs to be on board.” It might have a creative ramification. It might have a financial ramification. For me, it’s always about maintaining that balance.
For example, I don’t sit in dailies every single day. I love to sit in dailies. I especially love watching the animation dailies. Dean and Simon [Otto, the film’s head of character animation] are in there going over every single frame, every day. Someone needs to have a different perspective. I’m the first one they’ll call down if something goes awry. From the beginning, when we had discussions about the film they wanted to make, they entrusted me to keep my eye on that goal from a bit of a distance. Because early on in the production, POV [Pierre-Olivier Vincent, the film’s production designer], Dean, Simon, they’re completely in the micro. So I have to provide the macro.
Sometimes, even I’m too close and I need to ask Bill and Jeffrey to come in and look at something. Jeffrey is amazing at that. I’ve worked for Jeffrey for 20 years now. He’s a great audience member. He will come in and look at something and say, “There’s a problem kind of right in here.” He picks it up immediately. The great thing is he is so trusting. He leaves it up to us to solve those problems.
I manage the creative and financial balance and think about that balance every day. I try to make the studio feel I’m protecting both areas. That can be tricky, like when Dean wants more time on something.
We can make the best movie ever. But if no one comes to see it…We need Bill and Jeffrey to be invested in the film because they’re the ones who put the people in the seats. So maintaining that balance is probably the trickiest role of the producer.
But, with all that said, my number one priority is the movie. I’m always for the movie. It’s got to be the movie first. Someone asked me today about the beach towels, and fast food toys and those are all crucial, and I’m involved with all of those. But sometimes, I have to say, “We’re not dealing with that today. Today is about the movie.” It’s so easy to get distracted, especially on a big tent-pole film like this.
DS: Was there more pressure on this film than on other films at the studio? This is one of your prime franchises. This is one of your babies.
BA: This is my first sequel. First off, there was excitement this could become a franchise. More than any film I’ve been a part of, people continued to talk about the first film [long after it was released]. They’d see it again, they got the DVD, they talked about it on social media. The studio got excited about that, the audience had expectations and Dean himself said, “I want to make something [a sequel] as good as The Empire Strikes Back.” No pressure there [laughs].
That moment when we saw the first test of our new, older Hiccup, which also included the first test of our new animation software and what it could do with our characters, it was a huge milestone for us as well as the studio. That first time we saw the result of everyone on the film working together – Gil Zimmerman in layout, Dave Walvoord in visual effects, Simon Otto in animation, Fabio Lignini, a key supervising animator…that was the moment when everyone saw how this movie was coming together. It was a pretty seminal moment.
But I have to tell you, there was amazing communication between departments on this film, unlike other films I’ve done, and I’ve done a few of them now. We got clear direction from Dean, on the production and well as creative sides. We had a special relationship among the creative team. There was a lot of crossover and communication between the departments. That impacted tremendously how all the pieces of this huge puzzle came together so well, so seamlessly. Unusually so. But we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else put on us with this film.
DS: As a producer, you’re the one everyone looks to as the voice of reason when they’re running around with their hair on fire. What keeps you up at night on a production like this?
BA: I try not to run around with my hair on fire [laughs]. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done this a number of times. In pre-production, before we start animating, if you have some experience and know what you’re doing, that’s when you try to solve all those problems you know are going to happen. That’s really important. You know from having done it before. What really throws you are the problems you don’t anticipate. You try at least to plan for the ones you know are going to happen. Then, the ones that hit you when you have 400 people working, although they can throw you, if you have a good team, you can recover. In terms of what keeps me up at night, on this film I was lucky to have a great co-production team. They were fantastic. I worried about the finances, but knew they were managing it well.
But honestly, sometimes what kept me up at nights was there were times when I felt we had some issues with the story and I wasn’t sure how they were going to get resolved. Sometimes I agreed with Dean, sometimes I disagreed. Sometimes the studio disagreed. Sometimes we were previewing the movie and we had a bump and were trying to figure out how to solve a problem. How can we solve that in a good way? It might not be as good as I wanted it to be, but what is the best way? Is that to my taste? But no matter what, you go with your instinct. And from there, you negotiate. But usually the things that really worried me were all things involving making the best story we could. Making decisions about the best story. When something bothered me, I’d have to ask myself, “Should I say something to Dean, or should I just sit on this for a moment?”
Production-wise, I really didn’t worry too much. I knew we were going to solve any problems that came up. But with story, it was just an issue of getting it right. We did make some adjustments. When you start seeing more of the movie, and doing test screenings, you start looking at the notes you get. You get a note from the audience and you ask yourself, “Is that a valid note?” We want to make a movie we’re happy with, but we also have the challenge of pleasing the audience. Dealing with that balance was probably the most stressful part of the production for me.
But then, going back to our core team, we’d sit in our little room in editorial with Dean, me and Simon and we’d talk about these issues. How valid is that note? Is there an adjustment that can be made to accommodate it and still keep this Dean’s movie?
DS: What part of your job do you enjoy the most? What gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction?
BA: I was at the Seattle Film Festival where we screened the movie. I did a little Q&A. We came out of the theatre and were greeting people. There were a few little kids -- one little kid was in an Astrid costume, one had a Toothless hoodie her mother had made. But the audience was primarily kids 17-21. They followed me out of the screening and wanted to take my picture. It wasn’t that they were taking pictures of “Bonnie.” They just wanted to take a picture of someone associated with this film. They wanted me to sign their tickets. To me, I get a great sense of personal satisfaction when I see the affect a movie you’ve made has on a member of the audience. Especially with children. I love to watch little kids watching the movie. They’re on the edge of their seats. But with the teenagers, I think they identify with Hiccup and his bond with Toothless and it affects them. This one kid told me seeing this movie and meeting you made my life. I remember how movies can affect you. I remember watching Cinderella when I was a little kid. It’s very rewarding seeing the effect our movies have on our audiences. That gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
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