Shrek: the black sheep of DreamWorks Animation
Aron Warner looks back on his role as producer on the first Shrek film for the The Official DreamWorks Animation Opus.
The original concept of Shrek was about an ogre wanting to be a knight but at that point it just didn’t feel like he was a character we wanted to tell a story about, so we had to try and figure out another story and how we could best preserve the work that had already been done. Then we hit upon the idea that all Shrek really wants is his home back.
The story starts out with Shrek having this very simple objective but as the story unfolds he comes to realize that there’s something more that he wants — something he never would have dreamed of having. I think that’s one of the things that makes the movie so special.
Once we had worked out our opening scene with Shrek in his outhouse, we had a clear idea of how to approach the comedy and what we were trying to say. We were all brought up listening to and reading fairy tales, but not many on our team could really relate to them. With Shrek it was the comedy that drove the whole thing and we were lucky enough to have possibly the funniest group of storyboard artists ever assembled.
In the early days Jeffrey Katzenberg was very hands-on, always encouraging us and pushing us to make everything as good as it could possibly be. Jeffrey was our partner, our sounding board, our voice of reason and our jester. There were so many obstacles every day and we were trying to do something nobody had ever done before; but Jeffrey gave us the guidance we needed. For us, if we could make Jeffrey laugh or make him feel something, we knew we were in a good place. The great thing about Shrek was that because we were at Pacific Data Images, we were the “ugly step-sister” of DreamWorks Animation; we were flying under the radar and left to our own devices. We had Jeffrey when we needed him, but he let us do our own thing and let us find our own voice.
All we were trying to do was make a good movie. We weren’t thinking, “Let’s make a statement about fairy tales.” We didn’t set out to differentiate Shrek from the Disney style. We were just going with what we felt was entertaining, what made us laugh and what felt right to us. There was a conscious effort for us to tell a story that we could relate to and I guess we weren’t people who naturally related to traditional Disney films or fairy tales.
It was still very early on in the evolution of computer generated movies and we were facing problems that nobody had ever tackled before. One of the great things about DreamWorks was that we didn’t see technical constraints, we just saw challenges. I remember Andrew Adamson spending a lot of time working with the CG supervisors and the lighters to figure out how to light this animated film in a way that had never been done before. Our goal was to make something that looked like nothing you’d ever seen and to push the art form of CG animation to places that it had never explored. Over the course of the Shrek films, you can see how the advancement of technology has continued to make things look even more realistic and tangible and at the same time more beautiful. This naturalistic look was what we were striving for on the original movie.
With Shrek we were creating a character that was fairly realistic in many ways and we needed to really push the rig to make sure that he could do all the things that we needed him to do. It was the genius of Dick Walsh, who was running the character department that really brought it all together. My favorite character has to be Princess Fiona because I just think she is smart, funny and very appealing. Donkey is obviously a hilarious creation too but the one character that made me laugh the most was the Gingerbread Man. I’ll never forget Conrad Vernon pitching the torture sequence for the first time. I’m not a very demonstrative person but when I saw that for the first time I was in hysterics.
The secret to Shrek’s success was that alongside the laughter there are some hugely emotional moments in the movie. For example, when Shrek overhears Donkey and Fiona talking about him, and misinterprets what is being said, thinking that she doesn’t want to be with him. I think coming up with that specific moment was an important part in our whole story development because it enabled us to show Shrek at his most vulnerable. It made the audience feel for him, but also for Fiona too because they were both on their own separate journeys at that point.
I think we knew about six months before the movie was completed that we had something really special on our hands, and everybody who saw the movie seemed to like it. What we didn’t know was how people would react on a wider scale and that came as a total surprise to us. The biggest compliment we got from the critical world was one movie critic saying that it was “as if an ‘indie’ studio had made this movie”. That made us feel great because that fit in perfectly with our aesthetic and our personality going into it. All along we kind of felt like the “black sheep” of DreamWorks Animation and it was nice to be recognized for that in a positive way. We had no idea at the time that we were going to produce something that would have such an impact, not just on DreamWorks Animation, but on the entire animation industry.