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How Jeffrey Katzenberg Became Leader of the Animation Revolution

DreamWorks Animation Transformed the Art and Science of Cartoon Films

How Jeffrey Katzenberg Revolutionized Animation
Courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

When Jeffrey Katzenberg partnered with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks in 1994, everyone expected he would oversee the company’s animated films. After all, during the prior decade at Disney, Katzenberg had shepherded a resurgence of hand-drawn animation with hits including “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

But Katzenberg surprised by how quickly he became a pioneering figure in the rise of computer-animated films. DreamWorks did release such hand-drawn features as “The Prince of Egypt” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” but when Katzenberg saw audiences embracing Pixar’s “Toy Story” in 1995, he sensed the tide was turning. So he partnered with the seminal CG shop PDI and in 1998 released “Antz,” the industry’s second computer-animated feature.

“Jeffrey saw the future in ‘Toy Story,’” says Tim Johnson, the PDI vet who directed “Antz” and is working on his fifth DreamWorks Animation film. “He greenlit that movie during his Disney days. He saw a vision most people feared.”

Bonnie Arnold, co-president of DreamWorks Animation, remembers those days. Arnold met Katzenberg when she was hired to produce “Toy Story.” “He’s always embraced innovation,” says Arnold, an Oscar-nominated producer of DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise. She feels Katzenberg’s drive to push animation forward has never diminished, citing his leadership in recent years to make 3D stereoscopic animation popular. “Jeffrey was one of the first to see that 3D would help draw people into theaters.”

DreamWorks/PDI may have begun as a CG upstart with “Antz,” but 2001’s “Shrek” was a game-changer. “Shrek” won the first Oscar for animated feature, prompting multiple spin-offs and merchandising. Johnson believes that PDI’s R&D had given the “Shrek” films a leg up when it came to depicting complex images such as fire, flowing fabrics, and hair. “PDI allowed DreamWorks to skip several years of development in CG capabilities.”

By 2004, when “Shrek 2” became a worldwide smash and Katzenberg took DWA public, the studio was prepping another comedic franchise. “Madagascar” (2005) and its sequels advanced the studio’s rep for wisecracking animals, with the voice of Chris Rock continuing the pop culture hipness that Eddie Murphy had brought to “Shrek.”

But Katzenberg had broader ambitions for a global audience. Arnold recalls, “He was putting his toe into making something work in China.” That ‘something’ was “Kung Fu Panda,” the 2008 international hit that spawned a lucrative trilogy. “Kung Fu Panda 2” launched the directing career of DreamWorks artist Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

She says Katzenberg challenged her to take the tale to unexpected places. “When we were bouncing ideas, Jeffrey said, ‘Don’t follow my suggestions. You figure out how to fix any problems; just don’t ignore my notes when I think there’s a problem.’ ”

The screenwriters behind the Panda franchise, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, have 10 years’ experience with Katzenberg. “Jeffrey wanted ‘Panda’ to be more than a wisecracking movie,” Berger says. “To get everyone aiming higher, he’d say, ‘If we do this right, it should be an epic story.’” The creative team did research in China to get the details right.

Yuh Nelson thinks Katzenberg’s influence is especially evident in the A-list actors voicing DreamWorks films. “When we were casting ‘Panda,’ we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had an actor like Dustin Hoffman?’ Jeffrey called Dustin on the spot. That’s the power of Jeffrey making a phone call.”

This tradition actually goes back to “Toy Story,” notes Arnold. “Jeffrey asked John Lasseter who’d be his first choice to play Woody the Cowboy. John said Tom Hanks, so Jeffrey called Tom. When it comes to talent, he never hesitates.”

Aibel and Berger, who’ve also written DreamWorks’ newest release, “Trolls,” report Jeffrey got Justin Timberlake to voice a character as well as write, produce and perform the songs. “At many studios, decision-making can take a long time,” Aibel says. “With Jeffrey, a decision gets made, and if it doesn’t work you have time to undo it.”
Katzenberg isn’t afraid to make changes, says Arnold. “When we screened ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ in storyboard form, Jeffrey thought the ending felt a bit conventional. He challenged us to find a twist that audiences wouldn’t expect.”

The result: a life-changing injury to the hero in “Dragon,” followed by the death of a parent in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

Dean DeBlois, “Dragon’s” writer-director, embraced the risk-taking. “We were talking about it with Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey said — in reference to me — ‘I have the courage of his convictions.’ He had great fiscal responsibility to the shareholders of the company, but he was emboldened by my belief in where the story needed to go.”

The “Dragon” franchise has been a showcase for leaps in technology as well. Depicting skies full of flying dragons, the films were made possible by a suite of computer tools called Apollo. But DeBlois points to more than their dramatic visual choreography. “Our tools also let us show the subtleties of human acting up close.”

“When Jeffrey founded DreamWorks, he knew he’d need world-class engineering,” says tech exec Kate Swanborg, who’s risen through the studio’s ranks since 1999. Over the years, she says 21 DreamWorks technologists have earned Sci-Tech honors from the Motion Picture Academy, reflecting an ongoing investment in research.

But Katzenberg’s changes went beyond the merely technical. They extended to animation culture itself. “The great achievements during Jeffrey’s tenure at DreamWorks were not just in technology,” she says. “He produced a change in artists’ mindsets: If I need it, it’s achievable.”