Launched by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen as DreamWorks in 1994, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its silver anniversary, marking 25 years since embarking on its first voyage with the Academy Award-nominated biblical epic “The Prince of Egypt.”
Since then, DreamWorks Animation has released 38 feature films, including the blockbuster “Shrek,” “Madagascar,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Trolls” franchises and its newest release, “Abominable.” Earning more than $15 billion at the global box office, DreamWorks has received a multitude of accolades over its history, including three Oscars and three Academy Sci-Tech Awards.
Women have long been in the spotlight at DreamWorks Animation, well known for promoting female talent within their ranks to leadership roles. Here, six female directors share their memories of working at the studio during its first quarter century: Lorna Cook, Vicky Jenson, Elaine Bogan, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Brenda Chapman, and Jill Culton.
For Cook, joining a nascent studio such as DreamWorks Animation from her position as a story artist at Disney was “a big leap,” but she had enormous confidence in the founders’ vision. “We were a new studio and we were really small,” she says. “I think there were about 80 people in the beginning. I remember seeing our first group shot — it was just tiny in terms of the people involved, but it was also exciting, because we were doing a really big kind of film. We dove in, and there was an energy.”
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After serving as co-head of story on “The Prince of Egypt,” alongside Kelly Asbury, Cook was tapped to direct “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” which nabbed an animated feature Oscar nom and four Annie Awards.
“We wanted to make movies that you’re not going to forget, like the movies I grew up with,” she says. “You get the best people together with incredible imaginations, and you’re going to get great stories. That’s why the company is still going and making movies. The hope is to keep upping the bar creatively in terms of storytelling and making movies that really move people.”
Looking back, Cook finds it “extraordinary” that the studio had five female directors on its talent roster. “I think Jeffrey was actually quite proud of that,” she chuckles. “He worked very closely with women, and we just took that for granted, but it’s really quite incredible. We’re in a shift in consciousness on so many levels right now, but I wish more studios would follow suit.”
When Jenson took the helm of DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek,” alongside Andrew Adamson, she readily admits the project seemed to be on shaky ground. Lead voice talent Chris Farley had recently died, and the technology powering the visuals had yet to be fully developed. But “Shrek” went on to win in 2002 the first-ever Academy Award for animated feature, establishing the studio as a prime competitor to CG animation rival Pixar and spawning a beloved franchise spanning four movies, a spinoff and series, and a stage musical.
“I had never worked in CG before, and it was exciting,” says Jenson, who came from a traditional animation background and had previously served as production designer on the studio’s hybrid 2D/3D-animated feature, “The Road to El Dorado.” “I was getting to do stuff that absorbed my energy and my creativity, and my voice was valued, and I took advantage of that. I really felt like we were all part of the team, where the best idea wins. And it ended up being a place where women could flourish as well as men.”
Jenson went on to direct the Oscar-nominated “Shark Tale” in 2004, the first CG-animated feature to be produced at the studio’s Glendale campus. “We had more women, certainly as producers, than anybody else,” she says. “There was never any sense that you couldn’t do something just because you were a woman. I’ve worked at places where it does feel like that, so this was just a rare environment, even if that was a little lost on me at the time, because I was in the middle of it.”
Bogan joins an illustrious group of female directors, becoming the sixth woman to helm a feature film at DreamWorks Animation with the newly announced untitled project inspired by the Netflix original series “Spirit Riding Free.” The series, which debuted in 2017, reimagines the beloved 2002 Oscar-nominated feature directed by Lorna Cook, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”
Bogan started out in DreamWorks Animation’s storyboard artist training program in 2005, and was hired full-time at the studio later that year. As a story artist, she worked on designs for “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” before transitioning to the television division, where she directed numerous episodes for Guillermo del Toro’s “Tales of Arcadia” trilogy and the “DreamWorks Dragons” series.
Her time at DWA has been marked by a number of changes. “Technically, I’ve worked under four different presidents, which is pretty amazing. I saw this place go through a lot, and I think every management had its positive sides,” Bogan says. Margie Cohn, who was named DreamWorks Animation president in January, has remained a constant presence during much of her tenure, first in the TV division, which Cohn then headed, and now overseeing the entire studio.
“For me, and a lot of other young artists, Margie played a really critical role, finding what our strengths were and how to rise to opportunities that pushed us beyond those strengths,” Bogan says.
JENNIFER YUH NELSON
The director of Oscar-nominated “Kung Fu Panda 2” and its follow-up, “Kung Fu Panda 3,” Nelson is the first woman to solely direct an animated feature from a major Hollywood studio, and the second woman nominated for an Academy Award for animated feature. She guided both “Kung Fu Panda” features to a collective $1.18 billion worldwide gross. But for Nelson, it was never about making history: “I wanted to continue working with the people I was already working with, and make sure the characters continued on in a faithful way.”
Nelson recalls the intimacy she shared with the “Kung Fu Panda” production crew, including franchise producer Melissa Cobb, now VP of kids and family at Netflix. “For about 12 years, we worked as a really tight team, traveling from one film to the next, doing three films together,” she says. “The tightness and the trust in that group was always something that I’ve really treasured.”
According to Nelson, one of the studio’s biggest legacies is the number of DreamWorks Animation alumni currently working at other studios around town. “Over the course of the years we’ve seen DreamWorks go from being a tiny startup to this mega-powerhouse, and you see the influence it has today with all these amazing people — directors, producers, artists, designers — who have spread out across the entire industry. And I think that is ultimately the studio’s legacy — how that diversity that they created inside the studio has now spread out across the animation industry as a whole.”
Oscar-winning director Chapman (Pixar’s “Brave”) became the first woman to direct a toon feature from a major studio with DreamWorks Animation’s 1998 release “The Prince of Egypt.” But at the time, she was more focused on making the film than making history.
“That’s what people were saying, and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] was very much interested in pushing that forward, but it wasn’t really on my radar,” she says of the talk surrounding her new status. “I was more interested in making a film; I was just enjoying what I did. The reality was, I loved what I did at Disney. I’d been the first woman in story at Disney for decades. I came with Jeffrey to DreamWorks to build the story department because that was my expertise.”
She says Katzenberg’s “vision was to have a safe haven for artists to be creative in what they brought to the screen and what they brought to DreamWorks.”
She also notes that the studio’s history of promoting women to leadership positions has continued to resonate throughout her career. “Looking back, the appreciation I have for Jeffrey being so open to having so many women in leadership roles on the film is immense. We had two producers, Sandra Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox. We had me, and I had Lorna Cook as one of my heads of story. He continued down that path in encouraging women to be in leadership roles. I’ve since been places where that hasn’t been the case, and I’ve realized what a bubble I had worked in under Jeffrey.”
Culton has had a lot of firsts in her career. In 2006, she made her directorial debut on Sony’s first animated film, “Open Season.” Now, with DWA’s “Abominable,” she has become the first female solo writer and director of an original major studio animated feature.
“Since the time of ‘Open Season,’ I’ve definitely seen more women going into feature animation,” she says, adding that the industry nonetheless has a long way to go. “The percentage of women working in areas like animation, storyboarding and lighting is not even near 50%, so we can still do better on the creative side. On the production side, though — producers, production managers, production coordinators — it’s mostly women, which is great to see.”
Culton hopes she and her directorial cohorts will help inspire the next generation. “Because in this industry, you have to be bold, you have to be a bold storyteller, and sometimes you have to risk failure in order to achieve something great. I’m hoping we can encourage each other to be bold with our storytelling and bold with our films.
“One of the things that makes me proud of DreamWorks is that it’s so rare to have someone like a Jeffrey Katzenberg with a vision to create a studio like this that can continue to make movies year after year. And I know that [president] Margie Cohn and [chief creative officer, features] Kristin Lowe are also committed to continue the studio’s legacy of producing quality features.”