New exhibition from DreamWorks Animation takes visitors behind scenes of its movies

DreamWorks Animation is the mother of all such studios with 31 films produced. An exhibition will display digital storyboards and other items from its films

Mr Peabody & Sherman (2014) diorama. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A creative reconstruction of the storypitching process which shows storyboard artist Conrad Vernon pitching a scene from Shrek (2001). Vernon is also the voice of Gingerbread Man in the entire Shrek series and a co-director on Shrek 2 (2004). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A maquette of Tigress from Kung Fu Panda (2008) at the DreamWorks exhibition. -- PHOTO: ANDREW MORLEY
A scene from Madagascar (2005) by artist Alex Puvilland. -- PHOTO: DREAMWORKS ANIMATION
Circus scenes (above) and tiger mural from Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

These days, when Disney and Pixar animated movies seem to be grabbing the awards and headlines - Frozen! Finding Nemo! - it is easy to forget that DreamWorks Animation exists.

But if output and grosses are anything to go by, DreamWorks beats Pixar by a mile.

Pixar has released 14 films; DreamWorks has made 31 - for every Finding Nemo and Toy Story, there are two Shreks and How to Train Your Dragons.

The man behind DreamWorks Animation since day one is co-founder and chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, 64.

Speaking to Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles, he talked about what makes a DreamWorks movie different from those of his former employer, Disney, which now owns Pixar.

"Our movies tend to be PG films, they are not G-rated, and theirs are mostly that," he says, referring to how his company's works are often, though not always, edgier than those of his rivals'.

"Our movies are comedies, they have comedic premises. Not every one, but a vast majority. There's an edge and an attitude, of subversion and irreverence and satire. Those qualities are a little different compared with movies from Pixar or Disney," he says.

"They are not better or worse, they are different."

In The Croods (2013), for example, a story about a group of cave dwellers struggling against the odds, the attacks of vicious animals on the family are played for laughs.

That willingness to explore the naughtier side of comedy and to just release more films in less time has reaped dividends.

DreamWorks Animation has earned grosses of close to US$13 billion globally from the time it debuted with the insect world of Antz (1998) till earlier this year, when it released the space alien comedy Home. Pixar, from Toy Story (1995) till 2013's Monsters University, has made a smaller US$8.5 billion worldwide.

Opening tomorrow in Singapore is DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, a show featuring objects that will, as Katzenberg describes it, "give insight into how artists work, show the art and science of animated storytelling".

"It takes four years and 400 artists," he says, describing what it takes to complete an animated movie.

The show has 400 displays, covering all 31 films from Antz to Home, and features sketches, storyboards, models, masks and other art. There are also several digital interactive displays.

There are three sections to the show. The first, Character, shows how artists bring to life the persons and creatures in a story, from rough sketches to maquettes, or 3-D models that serve as references points for digital animation.

The next section, Story, deals with how narrative flow is created, showing how artists, directors, writers and producers use storyboards and other tools to collaborate.

Finally, in the World gallery, visitors will be shown how teams work to visualise a universe for the story and characters. This is where the highlight of the exhibition, Dragon Flight: A Dragon's Eye View Of Berk, resides. Here, viewers "fly" over the lushly detailed landscape of How To Train Your Dragon, projected on a wrap-around screen.

The exhibition grew out of a collaboration between the studio and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and was first staged in Melbourne last year, before it went on tour.

At one digital storyboard, Katzenberg notes, visitors can see one artist, the acclaimed Conrad Vernon, giving a voice performance of the character of the Gingerbread Man in Shrek (2001).

When Vernon did it the first time, he was trying to show other artists what he had in mind, but it grew to be more.

"Lord Farquaad is interrogating Gingy in the torture chamber and Conrad performed, for the very first time, the storyboards he created, by doing the voice of Gingy. He was so good at it, he became the voice of Gingy and has been the voice for all the Shrek movies," says Katzenberg.

How Vernon made Gingy come alive is shown on a digital storyboard in the Story gallery of the exhibition.

ACMI senior curator Sarah Tutton tells Life! in a telephone interview from Australia that that those "moments of humour" that are such a DreamWorks trademark will be apparent in the video component showing the animators acting out the characters.

She says: "On one side you see them acting, and on the other side you see the final animation.

"That very much shows the lightness and silliness that they create."

But if there is a DreamWorks trait when it comes to voice acting, it is to go big, to hire A-listers in almost every voice role.

So while Disney goes with one star, Kristen Bell, and employs Hollywood unknowns such as Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff for its Frozen (2013), DreamWorks will splurge on all-star packages, such as Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger and Robert DeNiro for Shark Tale (2004), or Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen and and Hugh Laurie for Monsters Vs Aliens (2009).

Katzenberg thinks this is money well-spent.

"As a studio head and as a producer, I want the very best talent in the world in our movies. Who doesn't? If I can have Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Mike Myers or Eddie Murphy - and I could go on, they've all been in movies of ours - these are the most talented actors in the world. That's why they are movie stars," he says.

"Our movies appeal to a wider, grown-up audience because there are many people who are fans of these actors and actresses and that adds to the enjoyment of these movies," he says.

Not every DreamWorks film works, either financially or critically.

A string of hits based on the How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and Shrek franchises was followed by duds such as Rise Of The Guardians (2012), Turbo (2013) and Mr Peabody & Sherman (2014).

The chief executive promised investors that he would slow down the pace of production to refocus the company on making quality pictures.

As for the widely reported news that Shrek Forever After (2010), the fourth in the franchise, would be the series capper, Katzenberg adds that things are not as final as they seem.

"We've told four stories with Shrek and some day, we might tell a fifth. That story has not come to an end."

Katzenberg, who is a father of two with wife Marilyn, calls himself "the chief cheerleader" when asked what his main role is as head of an animation studio.

"I'm there every day, cheering them on," he says.

Asked if he plays a part in the creative direction of writers and artists, he says he calls himself "an active catalyst".

"I push and pull and drive them to find the best possible version of what they are dreaming."

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