Back in 2001, the year the Academy introduced its animated feature category, DreamWorks Animation enjoyed all the glory by winning the inaugural Oscar for “Shrek.” In the ensuing decade, DWA shared the 2005 win with Aardman for “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” but, other than that, spent much of the time in the shadow of Pixar, which won six times.
And then something strange happened. This year, Pixar got shut out. So did high-profile contenders “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Arthur Christmas,” “Happy Feet 2” and “Rio,” leaving DWA with noms for both its 3D blockbusters, “Puss in Boots” and “Kung Fu Panda 2.” So what is DWA doing right?
Both pics’ directors credit DWA’s head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, with taking chances and establishing “a real filmmaker’s environment that allows for a lot of individuality and style,” as “Puss” helmer Chris Miller puts it. Adds “Panda’s” Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “He allows us to fail — and fail repeatedly until we get it right. There’s a lot of leeway.”
That philosophy also informs the company’s overall approach, says Nelson, a 14-year DWA vet who graduated from her behind-the-scenes work on projects including “Madagascar,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the original “Panda” to become the first woman at DWA to direct an animated feature by herself.
“Women directors (in animation) are still rare, but it’s so not gender-driven here,” she says. (“Shrek” and “Shark Tale” were co-directed by Vicky Jenson years earlier.) “The focus is all on the work — not ethnicity, age or any other factor, so that encourages all the different approaches and points of view.”
At one point, auds seemed to tire of the pop-culture jokes, antic pace and tie-in driven ensembles that characterized DWA movies. The studio took note.
Miller, who joined DreamWorks in 1998 and worked on its first animated feature, “Antz,” traces the company’s current success back to 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda.”
“That was a milestone for us,” he says. “It really set the studio apart in terms of the storytelling and stylistic approach. In every film since, there’s been that unique flavor. Look at ‘Puss’ and ‘Panda’ — it’s the same studio, but they’re so different.”
After a decade working on the “Shrek” franchise, the director of “Shrek 3” also took pains to keep “Puss” very different, both in tone and look. “We didn’t want to satirize fairy tales,” Miller says. ” ‘Shrek’ did it really well, and now it’s been done to death.”
Instead, Miller opted for a golden, romanticized version of old Spain that matched Puss’ personality and then used the character’s mythology to drive the narrative, rather than the comedy. “Puss was my favorite ‘Shrek’ character, and while there’s humor, we’re not poking fun at him,” he says.
In developing the project, Miller also pushed the film’s “painterly quality,” noting that while “Shrek’s” look was relatively grounded, “we took Puss’ world and made it more fantastic and surreal.”
Like Miller, Nelson has seen the company evolve. “It took us a while to figure out our identity and then hit our stride.” She also views the first “Panda,” on which she was a story artist, as a watershed moment “because it allowed us to experiment. Before that, successful animated films tended to be a certain type of comedy, but ‘Panda’ didn’t fit into that mold. It was like a breath of fresh air.”
DWA has been criticized in the past for putting less attention into its sequels than, say, Pixar, which waited more than a decade between “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3” to get the story right.
Having learned a lesson from burnout on the “Shrek” and “Madagascar” series, Nelson and her team pursued a different strategy in developing “Panda 2.” “We didn’t want to mess it up, but we also didn’t want to just repeat it, so it was a tricky balance,” she says. The answer? “We consciously went deeper with the characters, but kept all the fun and high energy.”
Rescue efforts get big reward
“A Cat in Paris” | “Chico & Rita” | “Kung Fu Panda 2” | “Puss in Boots” | “Rango”