Set Visit: Shrek 3

In many ways, the SHREK franchise represents the gold standard for animated features, a veritable cash cow that should continue to churn out buckets of dough for Dreamworks for years to come, so long as Mike Myers doesn’t tire of lending his inexplicably Scottish-accented voice to the main character.

Still, there’s no guarantee that the franchise’s latest installment, SHREK THE THIRD (opening May 18th), will match the remarkable success of its predecessors, especially with a summer movie season packed to the gills with big-time sequels like SPIDER-MAN 3, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END, OCEAN'S THIRTEEN and others. This year, it’s going to take a lot to escape the summer movie bloodbath triumphant.

With that in mind, I visited the PDI/Dreamworks facility in Redwood City , California , to find out what the minds behind SHREK THE THIRD have in store for us. (In case you’re wondering, PDI stands for “Pacific Digital Imaging.” Pretty sexy name, huh?) First, a quick synopsis of SHREK THE THIRD:

It’s been a few months since the events depicted in Shrek 2, and Shrek and Fiona are now happily married and living the good life in a castle in Far Far Away. Their contentment is suddenly shattered, however, when Shrek’s “frogger-in-law” King Harold passes away, leaving the big green ogre as the heir to the throne. Shrek already has his hands full trying to adjust to his new aristocratic lifestyle, and wants no part in presiding over an entire kingdom. So with the help of his pals Donkey and Puss-in-Boots, he sets out to find his only possible replacement, Fiona’s long-lost cousin Artie (aka King Arthur). Meanwhile, an embittered Prince Charming returns to hatch a new scheme of revenge against his old nemesis.

As you can guess, the latest installment involves elements of the Arthurian Legend, introducing the characters of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere to Shrek’s fairy tale universe.

True to the immutable Laws of Sequels, everything is bigger with SHREK THE THIRD – especially the cast. Shrek veterans Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Rupert Everett and Antonio Banderas all return to reprise their trademark roles. They’re joined by a host of notable newcomers, including Justin Timberlake, John Krasinski, Amy Sedaris and SNL players Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph.

The event at PDI/Dreamworks was billed as a “set visit,” thought the “set” consisted of a nondescript Silicon Valley office building where dozens of worker bees sat in cubicles, diligently working at putting the finishing touches on their high-profile project.

If you work at PDI, you’d better love Shrek, because the building’s interior is decorated as one giant homage to the highly lucrative ogre. From the boardrooms to the bathrooms, you can’t go anywhere without running into something referencing the franchise. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn I’d stumbled into the headquarters of some freaky cult, its members quietly making preparations to board a spaceship to another dimension.

After a hearty lunch, we were led into a screening room, where Shrek the Third co-director Chris Miller unspooled about 20 minutes of footage from the film. Not all of the scenes were finished, but what we viewed provided more than enough proof that the studio is intent on making SHREK THE THIRD every bit as good as the first two Shrek films, if not better.

Obviously, it’s impossible to critique the storyline, having only viewed a handful of scenes. I can say, however, that the quality of the animation has improved by leaps and bounds over SHREK 2. It seems as if every detail has been enhanced – especially in regards to background images – while still adhering to the uniquely stylized visual aesthetic that defines the franchise. I am also happy to report that, as of this writing, there are no songs from Counting Crows on the SHREK THE THIRD soundtrack. Whew!

After viewing footage from SHREK THE THIRD and taking a tour of the PDI/Dreamworks Animation facility, we sat down with producer Aron Warner and co-directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui, who took time out of their busy schedules to talk about their experience working on this summer’s most-anticipated animated film. Check it out.

Given the success of the first two Shrek films, were you anxious at all about the expectations for Shrek the Third?

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. 

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. It's amazing

How will Shrek the Third differ from the first two?

Warner:  It's very similar in tone. It's a 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’s stepsisters, 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.

Who do you think will be the breakout character in Shrek the Third?

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.

With so many characters, how do you create a story arch for all of them?

Warner: It’s almost impossible to do when you go down the list. It’s funny you mention that, because at the end of the film we were like, oh my god, how do we close all these stories and do it without feeling like there are 20 endings to the film? But I think we managed to do it.

Miller: Yeah. You have those characters that go through big changes and smaller ones. And then there are a few that just effect change. Fiona would be one of those.

Warner: That’s one of the challenges of her. She’s already way past everyone else. She knows what’s going on. She’s together. She’s smart. So it’s hard to kind of…where do you take that, without really telling her own story?

Miller: But it’s great, because she affects a lot of big change among her peers.

What was it like 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. 

You’ve got Arthur, Merlin and Lancelot. 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.

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.

The humor of the Shrek films is so popular with both kids and adults. Do you make a calculated effort to make certain parts more adult or kid oriented?

Warner:  It's not really calculated. It's kind of just like...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.

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.

What’s the biggest challenge of Shrek the Third? Are there more technical challenges?

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.

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.

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 (Katzenberg) 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. 

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.

Raman, what was it like making the transition from production to co-directing?

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.

With such a diverse group of people working on the film how does that affect your experience co-directing?

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.

How involved has Andrew Adamson been?

Warner:  He's great. When we do get him involved, it's after being away for a long time and having a really clear and concise eye on everything. He's a great ally. He comes around every now and then. I think it's a good experience for him to kind of revisit with us. And again, it's a fresh take and it's also from someone who understands the characters inside and out. So it's great to have that perspective.

Is it hard for him not to be so hands-on?

Warner: I know him well enough to know that it's hard for him to let go, but he's kind of forced to because he has so much else going on.

Is there 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.

Are there still the Disney in-jokes?

Warner: They’re in-jokes, I guess, but it’s more... 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.

Isn’t the scene where Snow White sings 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. 

With all the tech advances since the first Shrek, has there been any talk of going through the previous films and updating them?

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.

Are you working on the fourth one as well?

Miller: Yeah, there's work on the fourth one. 

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.

With technology advancing so rapidly, what will Shrek 12 look like?

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.

They’re working on a Shrek Broadway play. How do you think it’s gonna 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.

Some Minor Spoilers Ahead!!!

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.

So you can relate to the projectile vomiting?

Warner: Yeah, definitely. I do it all the time. (laughs)

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. (laughs)

What’s it like working with animators from all over the world?

Hui: Something about Shrek seems very global. I mean, I came from Hong Kong before moving to the States. We’ve got a very international animation group, but everybody gets it. We love all the characters.

Miller: Yeah, it’s not a problem.

What song are you using in the opening sequence?

Warner: The song at the beginning is an Eels song that they wrote for our film, that’s really great.

Miller: We’re thrilled to have it in there.

Warner: Yeah, we’re thrilled to have it in there. The big challenge of writing a song for the beginning of this film is Shrek’s doing something that he doesn’t like, so it’s not a happy, everything-is-great song, but you want it to be upbeat and fun. But he turned around and was one of the few people who was able to nail it right out of the gate, so he did a great job.

Warner: As always, it’s hard to find the right music for these movies. The tone is really a moving target. We go through hundreds and thousands of choices in some instances of songs and we hone it down to an idea and hopefully find the right thing. But I really think we’re in great shape in terms of the music for this one. 

Is Justin Timberlake doing a song?

Warner: No. We wanted him to act.

Do you have plans for the DVD?

Warner: We’re definitely working on the DVD specials now.

Miller: They’re really good.

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 phase. 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.

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.

What was it like switching the voices of Donkey and Puss in Boots?

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.

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.

Were they ever in the booth at the time?

Warner: No. 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.

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.

Will there be any cliffhangers?

Warner: At the end of the movie? No. I think it’s better this way, to have different chapters of Shrek’s life.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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