Bringing Trolls to the Modern World: A Conversation with Directors Mike Mitchell + Walt Dohrn
From DreamWorks Animation, TROLLS is a funny and irreverent musical adventure, starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake. Kendrick is the voice of Poppy, the feisty and fearless leader of the Trolls, who are naturally cheerful and optimistic. They love to sing and dance, and they have rainbow-coloured hair. Timberlake voices Branch, a gray and fearful troll. He is convinced that the Trolls’ mortal enemies, the Bergens, will track them down in their forest Utopia and capture them. The Bergens are miserable monsters and they are only happy when they eat Trolls.
The gifted comedian Russell Brand joins the cast as the voice of Creek, a wise, Zen-like, but rather arrogant, yogi Troll, who is captured by the Bergens, along with a group of Poppy’s best friends. They await a terrible fate. Unless Poppy and Branch can save them, they will be devoured.
The upbeat and exciting 3D film, from the creators of the SHREK movies, was directed by Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn. Timberlake is the executive music producer.
In our interview, Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn discuss DreamWorks Trolls and why now was the right time to bring them to life on the big screen…
Troll dolls have been around since the seventies, why did you think now was the right time to bring them to life?
MM: Now was the right time because the media presents sad, scary stories…
WD: There’s a lot of social unrest, a lot of violence today in the world and we’re all witnessing it because of the way we receive information.
MM: Personally, I want my kids to grow up in a world that they’re not fearful of, that they love, that they’re happy in and so we decided to make a film that would make, not only adults, but children, really happy and embrace life. And have a good time. And to leave the theatre as if you’d just attended a rave party!
WD: We wanted to capture that feeling – the way those parties are so intense. We wanted to make something that wasn’t just pleasant, it could cause a discussion from people who go to watch it – how do we make ourselves happy in these uneasy times?
MM: How can we stay happy…
WD: You’ll meet those characters in the film, whereas regardless of what kind of conflict they’re in – you can be happy, you don’t have to let that define you.
MM: And maybe it’s about connecting with other people rather than your phone device. Just sayin! I’m not judging!
WD: We came across in our research about happiness, that emotional connectivity came up a lot. But even more than that, they’re saying it’s all in you – sometimes you just need someone to help you find it but it’s there…
MM: I need Walt to help me find my happiness!
WD: It’s worn me out…
What was the hardest bit about working with all that ‘felt’ as animators? Because that gave everything another texture, didn’t it? Is that a silly question?!
MM: No, not at all. It was a huge challenge and we there was a lot of discussion early on and thankfully we had an amazing production designer called Kendal Cronkhite, and we really wanted to take the technology [further]. CGI has become so sophisticated they can and they have made films that look photo real. And to me, that is fantastic but instead of going photo real let’s use that technology to maybe, instead of making a realistic tree, let’s make it realistically shaped but add these textures, and this felt… and where the ground is carpet or the houses are made of hair…
WD: … they have that whole kind of fuzzy immersion, we call it. It feels like you’re sat down on your comforter, a nice bed – it helps give that feeling of happiness. But it was a challenge because [the animators] had all these extra technical things they had to do to figure it out. Not to mention every time a character steps on the felt and the fur, there was another kind of technical issue.
MM: The dust and everything was made out of a different material – rather than dust it was cloth bits!
WD: So it was a challenge for them but [the animators] were all so in to it and they made this extra effort to create this world.
MM: Years ago I worked at Skellington Studios, it was run by Tim Burton and we made Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and everything was built by hand and really there and photographed and lit. So this was just a great opportunity since everything’s behind a TV screen now – we really got to hire people who would build this stuff and cut felt. And we had materials around so it was really nice… even though it was computers that ultimately put it together…
WD: It was nice to have that tactile appearance…
MM: Yeah, totally, it makes a difference. And I think that also informed the way the characters moved, so the animators made a kind of loose, rough, fun type of movement.
WD: I think it has a more intimate relationship with the audience too because it’s not all plastic and perfect – it has a richness to it, a roughness to it, that invites the audience in a little bit more, that feels like a hand was in there making it.
That moves me on to the trademark big hair, which you made a lot of use of – it’s what Trolls are all about. Were the brainstorming meetings funny when you discussed how you could use the hair? Did you all have to wear wigs to get in to mood?!
MM: [Laughs] Who knew that someone as bald as myself could cope with so much hair? My hair envy definitely came out. Actually, really, we did have a lot of storyboard artists brainstorming sessions about what the hair could do. And we knew early on, we don’t want any constrictions. They can change colours, they can change shape – they can grow it, they can shrink it.
WD: We had to write notes on their computers – HAIR!
MM: They had post-it notes – HAIR – in everyone’s office…
WD: They were always thinking about it how they could use it.
MM: One artist even made Poppy’s hair into stairs that she walks down…
WD: That was one of the stranger moments. But it was strange because we did have limitations – it’s not like an extra hand. It becomes a monkey’s tail and they can do things with it but it’s not like a hand. You can’t make it in to a horse and ride it…
MM: It could have gone really silly..
WD: And it did, by the way… it got that way! We’ll save it for the sequel.
When Justin Timberlake got involved, did he have a very clear vision from the start or was it more of a collaborative and organic thing?
MM: It was very collaborative and organic… He came to town and we had some songs already picked out…
WD: We had a handful of songs…
MM: And that’s why he joined us because he felt such a connection.
What did you already have in mind?
MM: We had True Colours, we had Hello… Earth Wind And Fire… The Sound of Silence was in there as well… but what we had songs that had this certain kind of Earth Wind And Fire, seventies flare to them…
WD: That [funk] was a big influence on him…
MM: He said ‘I know exactly what you guys are doing and I can help you do it even better’… and we said ‘Let’s talk about this – we’re not sure you’re talented enough to pull this off’!! We don’t know if you’re the right guy for this job’. [Laughs]
WD: So once he was in there recording he was getting lots of information like, ‘What’s happening with the characters, what’s happening with the story’ and then he just took off with it.
MM: With his big hit song, we just talked about story wise what needs to happen and he went off and did it and came back with the perfect song that we wanted. It was just a demo and it was so perfect.
You’ve obviously seen the film loads of times through the edit etc. Is there a song you just can’t get out of your head now?
WD: All of them… now that the soundtrack is out, I put it in the car when I take the kids to school and they won’t stop listening to it.
MM: Yeah, mine love [sings] ‘Put your hands in the air’!
What do your kids think of your job?
MM: We were just talking about this … you know how Walt and I do voices in the film and as we’re working on it our kids are just available and we need little voices. We needed a baby and Walt has a baby, so he records little Iris… And my boys are 9 and 11 and we needed some young Trolls, so I go home and my wife thinks I’m insane… I pull them into the closet with me (because that’s the best place to record) and I go: ‘Ok guys, just scream at the top of your voice!’ They love it but at the same time, it’s not special to them. I think they believe that everyone’s daddy makes films and records them in the closet.
WD: A lot of times kids don’t get what we do…
Do you get weird reactions from them? Do kids ask you questions about Shrek etc as if they’re real?
WD: For the real young kids… Cameron Diaz would talk about this… People would say ‘Look honey, it’s Fiona’ and they’d ask her to say something to the kids and the kids are like: ‘That’s not Fiona! She’s not giant and green’… Our kids are different because we’re using them in the movie and they get it. But it is hard for young kids to understand – what does directing a movie mean? It’s hard for them to quantify.
MM: A lot of time my kids are directing me, they’re giving me notes. I bring a lot of work home and I’ll be doing storyboards and they look over my shoulder and say ‘You know, I don’t know if King Gristle would do that right there’.
Politicians have a history of not getting along and today we had a bizarre story about two UKIP MPs who had a punch-up at their conference! What advice would you give MPs about how to get along? Do you think they should have a hug before debating?
MM: Yes! Hug time, every hour, on the hour and it’s very simple. Wear a watch and you don’t have to think about it. The watch will bloom, a little light will come out of it and whatever you’re doing, stop and hug.
WD: Hug time… it calms you down, it’s a chemical reaction.
MM: But there is a science to it. The hug has to last seven seconds for it to work really well.
WD: A quick hug really levels you out.
MM: Personally I always pull away before the seven seconds – just with Walt – because I want to leave Walt wanting more…
DREAMWORKS TROLLS IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY™ AND DVD FROM 13TH FEBRUARY, FROM TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX HOME ENTERTAINMENT