preparing for our upcoming PGA/Dreamworks Master Storytelling event, I had the
great fortune to spend time with two very accomplished DreamWorks Animation producers
and fellow PGA members, Alex Schwartz (Mr.
Peabody & Sherman) and Kristine Belson (The Croods).
and Kristine were gracious enough to share details of
their professional backgrounds and producing styles in the epic world of
What are some of your favorite animated movies and TV shows that
continue to influence and inspire you?
ALEX SCHWARTZ: Lately
I find myself looking back at many of the classic Disney movies. The stories
were simple and well told and yet elicited such deep emotional reactions. At the same time I am inspired by the
unbridled zaniness of shows like Adventure Time. (And in the spirit of full disclosure I learned most of what I know
about classical music from Bugs Bunny.)
BELSON: Bambi, Totoro, Spirited Away,
Finding Nemo, all three Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, Coraline,
Despicable Me, Spongebob,
Adventure Time, Lilo and
Stitch, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda,
and last but for sure not least, Shrek.
you please share what your producing "path” in animation has been and what drew
you to this very unique type of storytelling?
AS: I worked
as a producer and a studio executive in live-action films for over 15 years before I began working in
animation. One of those jobs was as a studio executive at Walt Disney Pictures
under Jeffrey Katzenberg. Then,
about five years ago, I found myself at a crossroads, leaving a company at
which I had been head of production for some time. Jeffrey offered me the opportunity to become Head of
Development at DWA. It was a leap into something I had never done before, and I
had a fair amount of trepidation. But I have fallen completely in love with
this art form, the way animated movies are made and the people who make them.
KB: Throughout my career I’ve worked both as a
film executive and film producer, but always in live action. I became fascinated with animation when
I was running the film side of the Jim Henson Company, which at that time was
starting to explore various types of animation. My experience there led me to
DreamWorks Animation in 2005.
Although I had been producing films for Henson, I did not come into DWA
in a producing capacity. I
was initially running the development department, primarily working on scripts
like Puss in Boots, Shrek 4, and Rise of the Guardians in their earliest stages. I was also lucky enough to get a little
involved with a few shows that were in production, including Kung Fu Panda and Shrek the Third, which taught me a lot about the animation pipeline. However, while my time on the
development side was invaluable, at heart I am a producer, and I yearned to get
back to that. And fortunately,
Bill Damaschke and Jeffrey Katzenberg were kind enough to give me my first shot
at producing in animation with The Croods, a project I started working on five years ago, which finally hits
screens this March!
you are developing and producing an animated feature, what skillset from
live-action proves most useful and which new skills did you find you needed to
Regardless of whether the film is
live-action or animated, stories and characters have to compel, delight and
surprise people, and it’s one of our jobs to help ensure that’s the case in either
medium. In regards to animation
specifically, one of the most challenging shifts in approach I came to embrace
is the understanding that the story reel (as opposed to the screenplay) is
really the draft form of the movie, and many elements, including the script,
contribute to it. That said, I am probably more "script-driven" than
many traditional animation producers, and I think that approach of committing
to a strong story on the page is something I brought with me from live action.
me, producing boils down to a few simple ingredients: having good taste, being good with people, being
hard-working and organized—and not being afraid. Those skills serve you equally well in animation and
As for new skills I had to
develop, I think people in the live-action world can be more aggressive than
they are in animation, so, I’ve had to learn to be less pushy and more patient
– a virtue that is definitely required when you can spend upwards of four years
making one movie!
are key distinctions between live action and animation developing and
production would you would stress to other producers who are interested in
crossing over to animation from live action?
AS: Animation development and production is a
focused and iterative process. It takes a long time because every element of
the movie is created -- characters, light, dust, shadows. There are no happy
accidents. And while actors bring
a great deal to the characters they play in animated films, you don't get the
built-in gift of their charm, charisma or beauty on the screen, so the
characters have to be invented in a very deep way. The market in animation also
seems to have its own rules. While you can have 5 live-action super-hero movies
out in a single summer or several horror movies at Halloween, that simply
doesn’t seem to be the case in animation.
Animated films are expected to deliver an almost impossibly high degree
of originality – both in the characters they feature as well as the worlds they
live in, which is part of makes them both unbelievably challenging and fun to
KB: I was immediately impressed by how
story-focused DWA is. The studio’s
commitment to storytelling excellence was evident even in the interview
process. It was exciting and
refreshing – I loved it. There’s a
rigor to story development in animation, with greater attention to character,
plot and theme, so I would caution any live-action producers who are looking to
cross over: if you don’t like to talk story, don’t become an animation
are some myths about developing or producing animation you’d like to see people
let go of?
The idea that somehow producing animated
movies is a slow-moving process. They may take a long time to make, but they
are anything but slow. It's a multi-year sprint.
KB: That’s tough. Perhaps that animation
people are more nerdy than live action people? If so, then the people here are the coolest nerds I have
ever met. The truth is that every
film here evolves differently, so any set myths about producing animated movies
must not be true.
are some new breakthroughs, either technological, or creative, you feel have
made a significant impact on the way modern animation is being developed and
is the ultimate intersection of art and technology. At DreamWorks, we have integrated technology into our
business – not only as a way to help filmmakers achieve their vision, but also
as an initiative in its own right, creating open source technology to help
elevate the field as a whole. In
regards to Mr. Peabody & Sherman
specifically, we’re using advancements in lighting technology earlier in the
filmmaking process—in the layout stage—to help us better understand how to
improve the final film. Layout
artists are the cinematographers of animation. It is the first rough stage of
the pipeline. Traditionally, layout looks gray and colorless with no
approximation of lighting or acting; the characters are blocky and move like
robots with very little expression. On Mr. Peabody & Sherman, our layout team has been taking advantage
of improvements in the Maya software to create more sophisticated movement than
was previously possible. And while
lighting typically takes place much later in the process, our layout artists
work very closely with our lighting team so that early on, we have a sense of
how the scene will really look and feel. This also enables us to screen layout
for audiences where previously we might have needed to go back to story boards.
KB: Not being a technical person, I am not going
to address specific technical breakthroughs. I will say that technology and R&D are a very big
priority here, and I am constantly impressed. One of the creative breakthroughs that has been exciting to
me personally is that our philosophical approach to lighting has gotten much
more sophisticated. Roger Deakins
has consulted on several of our films including The Croods.
Also the use of camera continues to become more bold with each new
film. And I continue to be amazed
by how the bar for character animation just gets higher and higher – wow.
Feb. 5th we are very excited to work with you and Dreamworks to host
the second Master Storytelling event focusing on the role of storyboarding in
feature animation development.
What do you intend PGA members and guests to come away with?
I hope PGA members gain a greater
understanding of how visual story telling can be part of the development
process. I also think it’s a great opportunity for members to develop an
appreciation of the amazing versatility and virtuosity of animation board
hope they come away with a deeper appreciation of the artistry of our story
artists, who combine the skills of a writer, visual artist and actor.
would you say is the most valuable benefit you’ve experienced as a PGA member?
I appreciate the sense of community. And I am very excited about the Producers Mark. I
can't wait to use it!
KB: Good timing to be answering this question,
as I just attended the Producers Guild Awards last weekend! It was a fun night. It always feels so
gratifying to hang out with my community of peers. The PGA has come so far since I joined, and I’m excited for
its future. I’m also excited
for The Croods to come out this
March, when my producing partner Jane and I will have the Producers Mark next
to our names.
WE LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING YOU ALL AT OUR EVENT TONIGHT! Please Stay tuned for additional Master Story-telling sessions in the near future! http://www.producersguild.org/events/event_details.asp?id=291107