Interview with the Creators of Trolls – The Happiest Film on Earth

The other day I had the pleasure of interviewing creators; Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, along with Production Designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin of the new (undoubtedly soon-to-be) hit film, Trolls. The interview was a round table between myself and two other film journalists at the exquisite St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead, Atlanta.

We had all screened the film at this point. It was very evident we were all on the same page with this film, shockingly delighted and quite frankly smitten. I’m pretty sure we were all eager to meet the masterminds behind the happiest film on earth to discuss why it’s relate-able, why its unlike other animated films, and that epic soundtrack (which was produced by Justin Timberlake and features five original songs including songs by Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani in addition to a number of classic hits from the 60’s – 80’s).

See Trolls, this Friday, November 4th in theaters nationwide.

trolls poster, trolls movie

Dreamworks 2016

Interview with the Creators of Trolls

Making a Film that’s Relatable to Everyone

I have to admit, when I saw the trailer for Trolls, I wasn’t sure if this film was going to be “superhero” enough for my eight-year-old son. Turns out he was glued to the screen the entire time because it’s relate able (not just to kids, but to all of us). Mike and Walt talk about the recent responses to the film:

Mike Mitchell:

We’re finding it’s really cool. We’re showing this film around, and it seems like boys are really digging it, which is nice because we thought for sure this was a geared towards girls but boys are really…

Walt Dohrn:

Well when we make the movie we make it for everyone; young, old, girls, boys. Like literally for everyone is our goal. So now that we’re showing it and we’re seeing young boys like that. I talked to a group of 14-year-old boys who saw the movie the other day and they were like, “It was great!”

MM:

So it’s good to get a little break from your superheroes and go see Trolls.

I think it’s relatable for them.

Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin:

The Branch character is completely relatable.

MM:

And he’s got a good message for them too because, not to get too serious, but all the news is so scary, not just for kids but for me. It’s scary and dark. The internet, I find it to be very judgmental and negative.

WD:

The world itself is a place of a lot of social unrest and violence and conflict, and that’s why we wanted to make a movie about happiness.

MM:

We’re hopeful that people will be open, and it’s nice that the older kids are digging it. They’re saying, “This is great. This is for us.” and that makes me feel good.

We’re seeing this evolution of animated films being not just for kids anymore. Gone are the days when you had to sit through ninety minutes of torture so you’re kid could go home with the feels. Now, there are subtle jokes and soundtracks that are holding the interest of parents. 

MM:

Yeah, that’s the way we do it, too. We like to make it for everyone because we have kids. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old.

WD:

I have a 13 and 3 and one on the way.

KCS:

And I have an 18 and 14.

MM:

So we make it for us and for our kids, and I think that’s the new way and why they’re so popular. These films are going up against Marvel films and doing really well. I think that’s why.

WD:

People say kids movie, and they are for kids, but we never approach it like that, ever. From the get-go it’s for everyone. Everyone in the world, which is a really nice challenge to us.

About the Soundtrack, the Mastermind Behind it and Why it Will Give You the Feels

The music in this film is amazing and also very relatable. As I was screening the film with my son I kept thinking, “God this soundtrack is killer!” It really had us both moving in the theater. And the vocals are so on point!We learned about the musical journey the film went through to become what it is now…which by the way is freaking amazing. (Get a taste of it here in this video).

KCS:

The music too, right? Because we can all relate to it.

MM:

The music from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and then Justin’s song that he made for us. “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” he wrote that song for the film! He helped update all these songs so I call this movie, I don’t know if I’m supposed to advertise this but, the Guitar Hero of movies. Because parents are like, “I know this song and I’m so happy that my kid is knowing this song now too.”

WD:

But it ends up being that the name Guitar Hero is now an old reference.

MM:

I know. They’re like no one plays Guitar Hero anymore.

WD:

We just can’t keep up.

MM:

Well, we’ve been working on the film for three years.

WD:

What’s funny is that song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” was great because we were really struggling with the end of the movie. How do we do this? It was all about transforming the Bergens. It was really hard to do with an inspirational speech.

MM:

Well we listened to a thousand songs and none of them could pull it off. We’re like, “This isn’t working for the film.”

WD:

Yeah. Traditionally a character would say – and Poppy’s got a little bit of a speech in there and she would kinda say, “Here’s what you guys need to do,” and all the characters would say, “Yes!” So we said to Justin that we need a song here that transforms a whole race of creatures’ world view. And he’s like, “Okay, I got it.”

MM:

And then he said, “And maybe I’ll make it a hit song.” And I laughed. I thought he was joking. “Yeah, why don’t you do that buddy.”

And he did!

WD: He did it!

Okay, I’m going to admit I cried. 

MM:

Oh, in “True Colors?”

Yeah, in that and then when the hit song came on.

MM:

You’re not alone. It’s so funny to watch this film. It does have some emotional moments in it. I think the tough guys in the crowd are very happy for 3D because it’s hiding their tears. You can see really tough guys in there sniffing and wiping their eyes in “True Colors.”

WD:

Yeah, in “True Colors” we saw that. When we start previewing the movie and it’s still in a rough form we saw people were kinda resistant to the movie but when “True Colors” comes on you could see people being drawn into it and holding back their tears.

MM:

Little kids, too, usually never get quiet in a film. Or when the film gets quiet they’re rocking in their chairs. It is like silent when that “True Colors” part comes.

It’s very dramatic; it’s very moving.

MM:

But that song is cool. The “Can’t Stop the Feeling” then is more of a happy cry, right?

Yeah, no the whole was just like emotional. The whole last 15 minutes was just really intense.

MM:

That’s a good feeling, right?

We talked the musical side of the film and how it evolved from the original vision. 

MM:

When we came on that’s what we brought. We were like, “We want to make this a musical.”

WD:

It’s not really a musical, we just call it a comedy adventure with music. We wanted the music to be integrated into the story more than we had done in the past like with Shrek and things.

MM:

We wanted to use songs that we knew like Needle Drop music, which we’ve kinda done in the past. So we got songs from all the different eras. Again, when we cast Justin Timberlake it was just for his voice because he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s on Saturday Night Live, and he’s so funny. So we had him come in for a voice and we started to pitch him early on some of the music that we had. I think we had Earth, Wind, and Fire, Lionel Richie.

WD:

Simon & Garfunkel.

MM:

And he went crazy for it. He’s like, “I see what you guys are doing, and I want to be a part of it, and I want to be your music producer.” And we said, “Yes, please!” Then it was cool because usually in these animated films the actors are all separate. Well because of Justin, he’s our lead actor, he’s also in there with whatever actor, like Anna Kendrick, he spent a lot of time with her singing. So they’re singing together, performing together.

WD:

I think that helped them create this bond that you see with Poppy and Branch that you normally may not feel because they became buddies.

MM:

Everyone on the crew. Guys, this film has been so weird. The whole crew is excessively happy and it’s kinda crazy. At the end it was like the end of summer camp. Everyone was crying and hugging.

WD:

The cult of Trolls.

So you’ll have to get a sequel to bring everyone back again.

MM:

Wouldn’t that be nice? We’ll see.

KCS:

I think that says something. Happy crew, happy movie. Happy movie, happy crew.

MM:

I think it comes out on the screen. I’ve never worked with a cast that was so energetic. James Corden is hilarious and can sing. John Cleese is so funny from Monty Python. Russell Brand is a freak.

The cast alone just blew me away. Hearing Anna and Justin sing together I like, “They need to do this more often.”

WD:

Did you see the footage at Cannes? We went to Cannes with them and they sang on stage “True Colors.” It was so vulnerable and fragile.

MM:

People were weeping in the audience.

KCS:

And that was the first time they performed it together, right?

MM:

Yeah, it was like it was meant to be.

KCS:

They were nervous.

MM:

Justin’s never nervous.

WD:

Anna was nervous, but only in an excited way.

MM:

Well it’s live, man, with the acoustic conversion. That’s all about the voice.

WD:

It captures that vulnerable and fragility that the characters have.

 

Creating an Animated Film Apart from the Rest

The question “What was the one thing you said we can’t mess this up, we gotta get it right? And what was the challenge in that?” was brought up. It’s funny because, despite the fact that this is not a superhero film, there is, in fact, a sort of ‘superpower’ within this film. The creators share with us the idea behind this one-of-a-kind ability and how it ties into the handmade element of the film.

WD:

I know what it was; hair.

KCS:

So yeah, the doll is our muse really. Half that thing is hair so it was, hair became written into the script as a source of magic for our characters.

MM:

Yeah, it’s like their superpower.

KCS:

Superpower, multicolored, which led kinda to how we visually helped tell the happiness story. We linked color and multi color to happiness, because that’s kinda hard to visually represent. But it worked because that was our inspiration, and it worked really well.

MM:

And they could change the shape of their hair. They could stretch it. They could swing.

And they made the wig!

MM:

Most importantly! They crawl up on Zooey Deschanel’s head and they make a Farrah Fawcett wig.

In rainbow colors!

MM:

Right!

KCS:

And then it kinda led to the fiber art idea for the look of the film where it’s all fuzzy and all fibery. So that handmade quality came from that as well.

MM:

It’s cool. The technology for these CGI films is so sophisticated now that things look so realistic. You can make skin look just like skin. What Kendal did with the trolls is she made them like gummy bears that had been flocked in velvet. Then even their homes are made of hair and the tree is made of felt. And the ground instead of grass is carpet. It’s really funky and weird.

WD:

We really wanted this handmade feel to the movie. We live in such a digital world and we obviously used digital technology to create the world, but we really wanted that handmade feel. I think that’s what people are connecting to.

See the hair and some other great clips here:

The conversation of the epic hair led to the scrap booking part of the film and the unique method in which the film was animated. I was shocked to hear the great lengths which the creators went to realize the magical world as we see it on the big screen. It also fits that scrap booking theme too.

WD:

Actually…we had a professional scrapbooker.

MM:

Kendal brought in a real scrapbooker and she had scissors and glitter all over the office.

WD:

You’d go get your coffee and the would be glitter and you’d see her there with glue and scissors. Those scenes were actually made.

KCS:

She did them practically and then shot them. Then we put them into the computer and animated them in After Effects.

MM:

It was really cool because even she was hopeful. She was like, “Man I hope kids see this movie and feel that they can go home and do scrapbooks themselves.” It was so creative. We also brought in a, who’s that person who made us a whole forest out of felt?

KCS:

Yeah, so when we decided to do this fiber art inspired world, just because we wanted it to have real authority and not just be “oh, I’m going to build a grey CG model and cover it in fabric.” So we hired a fiber artist, Sayuri Sasaki Hemann. We found her because she did this incredible permanent exhibit in the Portland airport of a jellyfish tank all done in fiber that was so beautiful. So what she did was take a bunch of our art and we said, “Just use it and build us a forest. And use every fiber technique you can think of because we are going to analyze it and pour over it.”

MM:

We put lights on it to see how it took lighting.

KCS:

How does it light? We used it as our reference and inspiration in all the departments that were responsible for building the world.

WD:

It seems really successful because the audience is saying it’s such a tactile world they feel like they could reach in and touch it.

MM:

In fact, some kids are reaching in to touch it.

WD:

The 3D really helps with what we call our “fuzzy immersion.” You feel like you’re transported to this little world that’s comfy and cozy and nice.

MM:

Kendal worked on 3D films before, and we did a 3D film years ago but it was just the beginning of it. That was around Avatar time. It was one of the first 3D films that we did at DreamWorks. This time we felt that we’ve got this, we really want to take advantage of the 3D.

WD:

Everyone worked together to get that feeling.

KCS:

Yeah, when you design the movie you create this visual structure of how you’re going to visually tell the story over the length of it and use elements to push the dramatics visually. So we also do that with camera and with stereo so we’re looking at where do we pull and push that stereo.

MM:

And you know what, usually that’s done on a graph computerly. She did it with thread! She had little natural fiber threads that brought us over the wall. Even behind the scenes everything was natural fibers and colorful threads!

KCS:

An example of that was we kinda had this troll camera. It’s like a macro camera because our characters are “this” high in a human world so when the camera is down on them the background falls out of focus really quickly which happens when you’re shooting insects or snails. We have all this great snail photography.

MM:

Like documentaries for bugs and stuff like this. The backgrounds are all out of focus.

KCS:

Which flattens the space. And that was our troll camera, but when the Bergens come in we open up and go really deep, also with the stereo. And then when Bridget comes down into Trolls and becomes friends with Poppy she comes into Trolls camera. So we play with the stereo camera a lot.

MM:

Yeah, there’s like two different worlds in our camera.

trolls poster, trolls movie

Dreamworks 2016

Are there any favorite quote that really translates the message of this movie that we can Tweet a lot?

MM:

Well, “Find your happy place.”

WD:

“The power of optimism.” Optimism is a practical and powerful tool that we have.

MM:

It’s underrated, an optimistic attitude. I think people look at it these days and go, “Oh that person’s too happy and naive.” I think there’s a lot of power to be happy and positive.

WD:

It is really practical. If you look at the film itself, Poppy saves her friends because she has this optimistic attitude that they’re alive. If it was up to Branch, he’s like “They’re gone. They’re eaten.”

MM:

We roll credits.

WD:

Yeah, and her friends wouldn’t have been saved. So optimism is powerful.

MM:

That and just happiness. It’s great to be happy. Why shouldn’t we be happy, especially these days? Entertainment has got a little dark, in my opinion, or I should say just the world itself.

WD:

Well what we found out was that we’re all born with this innate ability to be happy and that sometimes you need someone to help you find it. It was just this great idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or what situation or conflict you’re facing, you have the ability to be happy.

MM:

It’s inside; it’s inside you. That’s the message we want to get across.

In closing

My mind was pretty blown after seeing the film, but after hearing about the lengths the creators went to, to make this film what we see on the screen now, I have to say I am thoroughly impressed. So many right choices were made to produce this film from the soundtrack to the artwork, and it delivers a timely, positive message. Go see this film! It’s not just for girls or kids. It’s a film which speaks to everyone’s core.

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About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Senior Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. Christa has been traveling the world since 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

3 Comments on this post

  1. Hi! I love the article and the Q & A!! I would like to request for some edits regarding the name of the artist hired to create the felted model. (myself). It is Sayuri Sasaki Hemann, and not Sayuri Suzuki.

    Sayuri Sasaki Hemann / Reply
  2. […] what Director Walt Dohrn had to say in response to my recent interview question regarding the takeaway from the film. Our kids (and us adults) need to really consider this more. I […]

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