Annecy: DreamWorks’ Kendal Cronkhite Unveils ‘Trolls’’ Art and Craft

Movie’s production designer showcases 17-minutes of finished footage and 'Trolls'' production process to a warm reception

Trolls Anna Kendrick Justin Timberlake
Copyright: DreamWorks Animation

ANNECY — Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrik stole the show at the Cannes Festival’s presentation of DreamWorks Animation’s musical comedy ‘Trolls,’ dueting its finale song “True Colors” in the Palais des Festivals, with Timberlake on acoustic guitar.

At the Annecy Animation Festival on June 14, the central stage belonged to DreamWorks’ trolls themselves, six-inch-high forest folk with pudgy faces and an obelisk of straight-up hair the color of tropical dyes.

In an 80-minute presentation, featuring a continuous 17 minutes of fully-lit final footage, Kendal Cronkhite, “Trolls’” production designer, talked at length about how through film’s interplay of theme and craft contributed towards embodying its directors’ vision. Made up of mostly young animators, many from French animation schools, the sometimes dazzling show of artistry played to an appreciative audience.

An original story directed by Mike Mitchell (“Shrek Forever After”) and Walt Dohrn,  a story artist on “Shrek 2” and “Madagascar,” “Trolls” turns on “finding one’s true self and true happiness, which is all inside,” Cronkhite commented at Annecy. The trolls themselves seem to have mastered that life art. Poppy (Anna Kendrick), “Trolls” heroine, has a slightly hippy air with her straight-up red hair topped off in a pony tail and a blue headband bedecked in green flowers. She scrapbooks, has sleepover parties, and wears a wrist watch which blossoms and lights up every half hour, reminding her to hug all her fellow trolls.

From the extended sequence shown at Annecy, it’s clear that those who could do with more happiness training, are the Bergens – monster urban human-scale trolls who, in a ‘70s retro touch, wear polyester, consume fast food and are pale, poor and miserable. They are only content one day a year, at Trollstice, when they feast on the mini troll folk. Doing so, they experience fleeting joy.

Also in need of a crash course in happiness is Branch (Justin Timberlake), who’s about as downbeat as mini-Trolls get, a near curmudgeonly loner who lives in a bunker, fearing imminent Bergen attack. When the Bergens capture her 12 best friends, Poppy sets out to rescue them. Plucked from “Trolls’” late second act, the 17-minute sequence at Annecy took in Poppy trying to persuade Branch to accompany her to Bergen Town. He refuses. On the way, Poppy sings an anthem, “Get Back Up Again,” as her environment, designed by Cronkhite, goes through 27  fantasy locations.

“Poppy” is a super-positive, happy loving personality,” Cronkhite said, though the near psychedelic environments she encounters on her way to Bergen Town really kick her butt, whether gummy sugar candy geysers or a knit macrame snake that chases her through the jungle of its body, or a hill creature whose mouth she falls into, or popping balloon eyeballs. But Poppy doesn’t lose one ounce of optimism. Branch, a Bergen expert, reluctantly catches up with her to take her into Bergen Town.

Cronkite also showcased the various stages of production. Using a sequence where Poppy sings Simon and Garfunkel classic “The Sounds of Silence” to Branch, Cronkhite broke down the film into a progression reel – a four-panel split-screen – of b/w storyboard drawings with soundtrack; lay-out of sets and characters’; animation, with the characters acting in the scene; and the final surface-light pass. All parts played simultaneously. The demonstration was a testament to the skill of the story artists whose tight work matched pretty closely the end result.

Designing the look of a film, the characters and environments, a production designer boards early on and works in tandem with the head of story, writers and directors and editors, Cronkhite said.

A DreamWorks veteran – she art designed “Antz,” DreamWorks Animation’s first CGI movie – Cronkhite’s challenge was to transfuse “Trolls” informing themes into the look of the movie. Her aim was to create “a very fuzzy, fibre-art inspired world” in CG, she explained.

Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam carved the first troll doll in 1959. The first part of “Trolls’” process was to take the character and break it down, according to Cronkhite. DreamWorks kept the trolls’ hair and the “stubby, fat, rounded fat language of the troll,” she added.

Cronkite had a “lightbulb moment,” she said, when she wondered  “if the whole Troll world could be wool. Because of their positive nature, diversity and their communal lifestyle, it made sense that their environment should reflect them,” she added.

“Since we were going with a fiber-felted world, we decided to do the same with the characters.”

For Cronkhite, the ‘70s was an important inspiration. “That’s when the doll became very popular. We decided that the trolls would be our hippies of the ‘70s. They live in nature. They macrame. They’re probably vegetarians.”

DreamWorks hired Portland-based Sayuri Sasaki Hemann, a fabric, fibre and encaustic paintings artist, to take early development drawings from the film’s stylist, Amelie Flechais, a French comic and children’s book illustrator, and build a fibre, six-feet model world.

The Trolls always have a song on their lips. Indeed, the comedy highlight of the 17-minute continuous footage shown at Annecy was Poppy singing “The Sounds of Silence” to Branch, backed up by a forest creature chorus. In one of the film’s latest talent announcements, Crondhike’s Annecy preview comes as DreamWorks Animation has officially confirmed that Christophe Beck (“Frozen,” “The Hangover”) will serve as “Trolls’” composer. Justin Timberlake is executive producing “Trolls’” entire soundtrack, and has written four original songs for the film, including “Can’t Stop the Feeling” which, released on May 6, has topped charts in the U.S. and U.K. As “Frozen” suggested, Beck is adept at working in such a structure.

“We are delighted to be working with Chris; he is masterfully unifying our patchwork tapestry of song cues from many eras and giving our film an emotional and harmonious sophistication,” said “Trolls’” producer Gina Shay.

From a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who co-penned “King Fu Panda 3,” “Trolls” is slated for a Nov. 4 release from Fox becoming DWA’s second-half 2016 title, before DreamWorks’ “Boss Baby,” another Annecy sneak-peek, bows in the U.S. on March 10, 2017.