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Producing Animation with Alex Schwartz and Kristine Belson of DreamWorks Animation

Posted By James Fino, Tuesday, February 5, 2013

While 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).

Alex and Kristine were gracious enough to share details of their professional backgrounds and producing styles in the epic world of feature animation.

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.)

KRISTINE 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.

Would 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!

When 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 develop?

AS: 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.

KB: For 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 live action.

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!

What 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 make.

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 producer!

What are some myths about developing or producing animation you’d like to see people let go of?

AS: 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.

What are some new breakthroughs, either technological, or creative, you feel have made a significant impact on the way modern animation is being developed and produced?

AS: Animation 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.

On 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?

AS: 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 artists.

KB: I 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.

What would you say is the most valuable benefit you’ve experienced as a PGA member?

AS: 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!

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