Miller, Hui and Warner on Shrek the Third


The relentless Dreamworks Animation team that is finishing Shrek the Third only has a few more weeks until the film hit theatres. When was given a tour of the Pacific Design Image offices (aka PDI) in the San Francisco area recently, we had the rare opportunity to watch them hard at work as they frantically put the finishing touches on the third film in the popular animated franchise.

Co-directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui, as well as one of the producers, Aron Warner, talked to us about what the process has been like and what the audience can expect from the characters in the film, hitting theaters on May 18. Can you talk about making the transition from production to co-directing?
Raman Hui: It was a great experience for me. Because for the first movie, I was mostly concentrating on animation and helped a little bit of the storyboarding. And in “Shrek the Third,” I got to see the whole process of the pages – Chris and Aaron did a lot of the writing – and how it turned into a story. It was just great.

CS: You both come from different backgrounds, how did that affect your experience co-directing?
Chris Miller: For me it was easier because everyone, in every phase of the production, has a skill. Most everyone who has worked on the first two films helped, so it was a pretty well-oiled machined to step into. It was great support all around.

CS: The first two films were so successful. Were you anxious at all about the expectations?
Miller: If we worried about that, we would be paralyzed. We really worked hard to just concentrate on making the best movie. We wanted to make something that we love – the best possible film and not worry about the rest of it. ‘Cause when you do, it’s not fruitful. It’s out of your control.

CS: Are you amazed at how technology has evolved since the first “Shrek?”
Hui: Actually, it’s pretty amazing now we can handle a lot of things that we couldn’t have done in the first one. Like, we have a big shot with all the fairytale villains and all the fairytale creatures and all the princesses and everyone in town. We couldn’t do it before and now we can handle all that and it’s amazing!

CS: The humor in the films is popular with kids and adults. Do you make a calculated effort to make certain parts more adult or kid oriented?
Aron Warner: It’s not really calculated. If it doesn’t make us laugh, it doesn’t stay in the movie. So there’s stuff that makes us laugh that appeals to both our more adult side and stuff that appeals to our complete juvenile, childlike sense of humor. So we kind of end up with a good combo just by going with our gut. I think it would be awful to sit there and go “Kid joke here. Gotta have an adult joke here.” In a way I’d like to say we do calculate that ’cause it would make us seem smart, but we just do what works.
Miller: I mean, we’re aware if we are crossing the line too much or dumbing things down.

CS: Why do you think kinds love “Shrek” so much?
Warner: I think one of the things that does appeal to kids is the sense that we don’t talk down to them. It’s not who we are. As people it’s not who we are or as storytellers. We do sometimes walk the line a little bit, and if we screen the film and sort of sense that people aren’t getting something, we’ll back off of something or make it a little clearer. We try to just be normal and tell a normal story.

CS: How does this “Shrek” differ from the first two?
Warner: It’s very similar in tone. It’s full-on comedy as the other two are. I guess the differences would be that there are a lot more characters. It’s a bit more of a character-driven story. There’s a really strong story to it that propels everybody along. Not to say there isn’t a ton of humor to go along with it, but it feels a little more rooted in the story to some extent than the other two.
Miller: We have a lot of new performers – Amy Poehler as Snow White, Cinderella by Amy Sedaris, Cheri Oteri and Maya Rudolph – they’re great voices and they make great characters. They’re fairy tale creatures that we haven’t given voices to before. That goes for the villains as well. Ian McShane is great in the film. And I think that’s something new; we’re really getting the fairytale world and tying in all their stories.

CS: Are the challenges with this one more about being better than the predecessors, or are they purely technical?
Hui: It’s not a technical challenge. I mean, we let the story drive the technology. And it’s more like, “Ok, we want to do this. Is it possible?” And we get them to figure it out. It’s more about the story. It’s the third movie, but still keeping it fresh. We have a really unique and strong story to tell.
Warner: That’s the big challenge: to keep it fresh and keep it new. But also not have it be so completely unfamiliar that people are going to see it and go “I thought I was going to see Shrek.”
Miller: Telling Shrek’s story, a compelling chapter in his life. That was the goal.

CS: Are you working on the fourth one as well?
Miller: Ya, there’s work on the fourth one.

CS: Is it hard to look at making the fourth one different and better?
Warner: We just started working on the story, and I think from what we have so far it’s great. It’s incredibly compelling and I feel really good about it.

CS: How much do you let the actors improv and add to the script?
Warner: As much as they want.
Miller: We encourage it. It’s great when stuff like that happens and it sticks.
Hui: And then sometimes they would have some lines and we would go back to the storyboard and map out and see how we could fit that into the sequence. It’s a very organic process.
Miller: Anything that’s fresh is great. Animation, by nature, it’s very contrived. Everything is planned. Anything that feels extemporaneous really comes to life.

CS: Who do you think will be the breakout character?
Warner: There’s a lot more characters so it’s kind of hard to say. Artie is incredibly appealing, Merlin is very appealing, the princesses are hilarious and the villains are great. There’s an additional number of characters that we won’t talk about that I think will be really appealing as well.

CS: At this point in the franchise, how much autonomy do you have with the studio? Do you still have to sell things to the studio?
Warner: We don’t have to do a lot of selling. Jeffrey is a good partner. He’s great at coming in and just giving us really concise, clear notes about what doesn’t make sense. He really doesn’t argue with us about the jokes. There’s definitely stuff in this movie that we think is really funny and he’s like, the whole time, passive. But then when you see it with an audience, they laugh. And vice versa. There’s stuff that he pushed for and we were like, “No, we don’t want to do that.” And then we see it again and it was funny. It’s a lot of give and take.

CS: How much testing of footage do you do with audiences?
Warner: We do very little actual public testing. But we watch the movie 500 times, literally over and over and over again. We’ll bring in other people in the studio, sort of keep it in the family, and people that are working on other films and get their opinions.

CS: Talk about working with Justin Timberlake?
Miller: He’s a joy. A really natural comedian, but really strong actor, too. The great thing about working with him is that was one of the hardest characters – a 16-year old high school student. It was difficult to find the truth behind that character. And we batted him around for a year I think before Justin even came in. And then we batted him around with Justin when he came in. The good news was, the more we got together with him, the more the character developed and became more like him and more his sensibilities and comedic sensibilities. We were finishing in a really great place.

CS: Where is Guinevere?
Warner: She did have a much greater part way back when, but we kind of found along the way that we were telling too much Artie story, and needed to kind of concentrate back on Shrek. So we ended up getting away from some of that. She’s one of the high school girls and she’s got a bit of a bite. She’s not really nice.

CS: Do you have the Sword in the Stone?
Miller: We don’t have the Sword in the Stone. We did at one point. We really tried to roll on the Arthurian legend into this film and find a way. The original concept was Shrek. Shrek was really responsible for the Arthurian legend and we tried to approach it like that. That would be the twist. But the further we went down the road, the more we realized that’s not Shrek’s story, that’s Arthur’s story.

CS: Any “Narnia” wink wink nudge nudge stuff?
Warner: Not at all. I will say that we don’t have a lot of pop culture references in this one. There are a few here and there, but it’s not our mainstay.
Miller: We’ve kind of pulled away from it, just because it seems like since the first “Shrek” came out, a lot of animated films have sort of grabbed on to that idea. So we’ve gone away from that.

CS: Are there still the Disney in-jokes?
Warner: They’re in-jokes. I will say, the stuff is more about what we grew up with and what’s in our consciousness than it’s ever been about pointing fingers specifically at anybody. So when you do a “Shrek” story with princesses in it, you are going to remember what the princesses did in stuff that you grew up with. So you’re going to end up wanting to have fun with that.

CS: Isn’t the Snow White singing to the birds a direct nod to the Disney film?
Warner: It’s not a direct nod to the Disney film necessarily, but it’s definitely a nod to what we know Snow White shouldn’t be doing. To be honest, I don’t even think I ever saw Snow White. I don’t remember That being said, it’s so in our consciousness. It is what it is.

CS: Shrek is gonna have a baby. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
Warner: Yeah. It’s the right time for everybody who works here, too… There are a lot of parents. A lot of us are entering into that phase of our lives, so it’s very relative.

CS: So you can relate to the projectile vomiting?
Warner: Yeah, definitely. I do it all the time.

CS: Can you say what the name of the child is?
Warner: I just can’t. There are no children. I don’t know where you guys got the idea from.

CS: With all the tech advances since the first “Shrek,” has there been any talk of going through the previous films?
Warner: Oh God no. That would be horrible.
Miller: That sounds more like a punishment for the afterlife.
Warner: I don’t think it could be helped remotely. I don’t watch the first “Shrek” and go, God, that’s so old school. The only thing I think of when I watch them is that it would have been great to have more time, just for the animation, just to make it better.
Hui: Mostly the background characters.
Warner: Yeah the background characters.

CS: Would “Shrek 12” look completely different?
Warner: I think we’re gonna have the technology to make it look completely realistic. If we want to or not is an artistic decision. These are stylized films and I think we’ll always stay that way. Otherwise, it just gets creepy. And then you wonder, why aren’t you doing it live action?
Miller: It’s a stylized world, slightly caricatured.

CS: How do you think it’s going to translate to the stage?
Warner: I think it’s gonna be fantastic. I’ll sing a couple songs for you right now. I’ve seen quite a bit of it. I don’t like Broadway – but I never imagined. We joked about something like this. But what happened was we went and got this incredible team of people. So the whole thing is being done with great integrity and honor to the franchise and I think it’s gonna be awesome. It’s really unexpected.

CS: Can you talk about working with different animators from all over the world?
Hui: Something about “Shrek” seems very global. I mean, I came from Hong Kong. We’ve got a very international animation group, but everybody gets it. We love all the characters.
Miller: Yeah, it’s not a problem.

CS: Is Justin doing a song?
Warner: No. We wanted him to act.

CS: What are your plans for the DVD?
Warner: We’re definitely working on the DVD specials now.
Miller: They’re really good.

CS: How far in advance do you plan for things like that?
Warner: We’re working on them now. We basically are kind of in the idea face. Most of that stuff can be done fairly quickly. So we’re batting around a bunch of ideas.
Hui: We have to finish the movie first.

CS: When do you think you’ll be finished?
Miller: Basically, not very long before the premiere. We begin our final mix week after next and then it’s sort of a couple weeks of that and then a couple weeks of making sure answer print looks good. So it’s pretty imminent. It’s about four to five weeks.

CS: Please talk about when Donkey and Puss in Boots switch bodies?
Miller: It was really fun, a really cool challenge for the animators.
Hui: Exactly. They had to animate the cat but at the same time use the expressions of Donkey, and vice-versa.
Warner: It took us about a month to figure out what to call them in dailies. We’d go, so Puss needs to…you mean the cat? You mean Donkey? Which one. So we finally got the language down.
Hui: And sometimes we’d be in dailies and we’d look at a shot or sequence and go, is that Puss or Donkey? Do you remember?
Warner: Yeah, if you’d go out of continuity, you’d really start to get screwed up. But it was really fun to see Donkey act like a cat and vice versa.

CS: The actors must have had a ball doing that.
Warner: They had a great time. I think they generally all had much more to do on this film and much further to go, and they all kinda got pushed out of their comfort zones a little bit.

CS: Were they ever in the booth at the time?
Warner: We really never had that opportunity, given that many of them are popular and busy people in the industry. It’s impossible to get them together.

CS: What do you mean by “pushing them out of their comfort zone?”
Warner: We just pushed their characters and their characters did different things in this film than they’d done in the past. Fiona takes complete control of these spoiled princesses and has to turn them into these fighters. Stuff like that.
Miller: Pushing characters in a different direction.

CS: Are there going to be cliffhangers?
Warner: At the end of the movie? No. I think it’s better that way, to have different chapters. also got a sneak peek at footage from the third film which you can read about here and you can read more on Shrek 4 and “Shrek the Halls” here!

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