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With its collection of brown, yellow and cream-colored buildings linked on each floor with walkways or breezeways, the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale could pass for a Marriott resort. Hardly flashy by entertainment standards, it was designed to be quaint, with a koi pond and flower-lined pathways. Yet there is a helipad on the roof of the parking garage.
“That was for commuting to Playa Vista,” Katzenberg chuckles. “Nothing lands on it.”
Producers and animators say that Katzenberg is easily accessible when needed. His office has no desk, just a round table.
Ann Daly, the chief operating officer of DreamWorks who also worked with Katzenberg for 10 years at Disney, says he has “changed his presence in order to make people feel more comfortable.
“He had to change his tone and style to make sure he got the best out of people, because if you are an artist, to be in a room with somebody of his energy and strength and legacy can be really intimidating,” she adds.
“Shrek” producer Aron Warner says Katzenberg is still a perfectionist at heart. “He teaches people that what they believe their limits to be aren’t really their limits. It’s frustrating and scary sometimes, but in the long run, it’s really liberating. It’s basically saying there is always something better. He’ll say, ‘It’s funny, but I bet we can make it funnier,’ and you’ll say, ‘Jeffrey, it’s hilarious.’ ‘No. No. I bet you can make it funnier.’ ”
Work is still an obsession, even on breaks with his wife, Marilyn, with whom Katzenberg has two teenage children. When vacationing on holidays in Hawaii and in the summer at their Malibu beach house, he brings two boxes of geography books, nature documentaries and classic movies, along with his personal bible of animation, “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation,” written by two of the Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.
“I’ve read that book every Christmas for the past 20 years,” he says. “I try to watch two or three movies a day, classic films that are inspiring. I try to do nothing but think about movies.” (Among them are Pixar films, which he admits he watches over and over again.)
Katzenberg had no experience in animation when he moved from Paramount to Disney in 1984. He learned the craft by plowing through Walt Disney’s archives and studying Disney’s personal files on everything from villains and heroes to music. He resuscitated the sagging division with blockbusters such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
From the day of DreamWorks’ founding, Katzenberg’s task was to rekindle the magic touch he brought to Disney animation.
But given all the hype surrounding the new studio’s launch and whether it would dislodge Walt Disney Feature Animation as the leader in the field, DreamWorks’ early results were unimpressive. Its first animated film, “Prince of Egypt,” an ambitious re-telling of the story of Moses, was released in 1998, and while it did bring in $101 million at the domestic box office, it didn’t exactly exude the whimsy audiences expected, nor were there many possibilities for promotional tie-ins at fast-food restaurants. Two years later, “The Road to El Dorado” pulled in less than $60 million, leaving it stained with a trail of red ink.
“We were experimenting,” Katzenberg explains. “That was our R&D period. I don’t think anybody’s really understood that. I didn’t feel like we needed to explain ourselves, and maybe that’s my fault. But when you look at ‘Prince of Egypt,’ it’s the most mainstream animated movie ever made. What was I trying to do there? I was trying to find the boundary of drama. And then on the other side, what’s the boundary of comedy and of satire?”
The changing medium itself worked against them. The success of Pixar’s “Toy Story” in 1995 proved that filmgoers had a thirst for computer-generated animation, and DreamWorks even commissioned its own CG movie, “Antz,” which enjoyed so-so results when released in 1998, before “Egypt.” The $91 million it took in at the domestic box office was not enough to convince the studio to steer away from traditional animation.
Katzenberg admits DreamWorks stuck to hand-drawn animation for too long. When Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 2” broke box-office records in 1999, DreamWorks had three hand-drawn movies on its slate and only one CG movie, the tale of a lonely, swamp-dwelling green ogre named “Shrek.” While “Shrek” went on to collect $268 million domestically, the studio still had the hand-drawn “Sinbad” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” in its pipeline, both too far into production to stop.