Director shares production magic behind ‘Trolls’

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

“Trolls” is DreamWorks Animation’s uplifting, brightly colored animated feature, which is a total giggle fest.

A young troll princess named Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick, “Pitch Perfect”), known as the happiest troll ever born, needs to save her friends from the perpetually pessimistic Bergens, who eat trolls as their sole means to experience happiness. In order to succeed on her mission, she needs the help of the curmudgeonly, over-cautious troll Branch (Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network”) who is against almost everything the trolls stand for: hugging, singing and dancing.

Technique sat down with Director Mike Mitchell (“Sky High,” “Shrek Forever After”), Co-Director Walt Dohrn (“Peabody and Sherman,” “Shrek Forever After”), and Production Designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin (“Madagascar” series) to get a sense of the behind-the-scene production that went into crafting this film.

The troll characters were inspired by the smiling wooden troll dolls first created by Thomas Dam, a Danish woodcarver who made the first doll out of wood and lamb’s hair for his daughter. Filmmakers also alluded to a more traditional, fairy-tale version of trolls with the films’ antagonists, the drab Bergens, a complete contrast to the tiny, colorful trolls.

The theme of this movie very blatantly focuses on the search for happiness, but the directors felt that this was an important film to make, due to the current affairs of the world.

Darth explained, “There is a lot of social unrest and a lot of violence in the world, and we consciously said, ‘Let’s make something about happiness that makes people feel good.’”

Since they wanted to examine what goes into happiness, the production team researched many different sources on the subject of happiness from TED talks to a four decade long Harvard study.

As for the animation, the movie is a visual feast with an immersive world with amazing attention to detail.

“The technology in CGI films is so sophisticated; you make things that look really realistic … so Kendal took that technology and went the other way where our trolls are like gummy bears that have been flocked in velvet, and the forest is made out of felt. The leaves are felt, and the ground is all carpet,” Mitchell said.

Darth also noted that “we live so many more lives on screen these days, and we accept that. We made this film with the technology, and we certainly wanted to reconnect with the handmade quality.”

This decision returns to Mitchell’s and Cronkhite-Shaindlin’s roots, as they originally met while working at Skellington Productions where they worked on “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” two famous stop motion films.

“Trolls” features both 2D and 3D animation as the trolls love to scrapbook. To achieve the 2D scenes, the artists physically created the look with scissors and felt. The team then shot the different parts and animated them in Adobe After Effects.

The film also showcases some ridiculous hairography with the the trolls, who use their magical hair as a superpower. The trolls can change hair color, grow it at any shape, stretch it like a monkey’s tail, and can even come together to make an entire Farrah Fawcett wig.

Cronkhite-Shaindlin noted that “[they] pushed for more of a yarn look, more [fibrous look],” which is in-line with the handcrafted world.

Although hair is traditionally known to be the most difficult to animate, the production design team faced a bigger challenge with glitter. The computers really did not understand how to interpret glitter, so the technicians had to determine how to create a realistic look, from how it reacted when it moved through the air and on the skin to how the light reflected it, and much more.

“They wanted us to take glitter out of this film, and we said, ‘What, this whole story doesn’t make sense without glitter,’” Mitchell said. “Kendal covered naked trolls in glitter. They’re like walking disco balls.”

The looks and design teams not only echoed Danish themes as homage to the toys’ origins but also drew world building and character inspiration from The Muppets, “Adventure Time,” and Hayao Miyazaki films. The team also wanted to create a body-positive, untraditional princess to match the actress voicing her, Anna Kendrick. Poppy is completely shoeless, and like the rest of the trolls, features a fairly stumpy body.

In “Trolls,” the music is showcased less like a traditional musical but rather has instances where characters stop and consciously sing to each other during the film. Dohrn noted that, “We didn’t want anything about this film to be traditional … we love old Disney animated musicals, but we didn’t want to be a traditional musical. We even say that it’s a comedy adventure with music.”

“We didn’t want our storytelling to stop for a musical number and then carry on. We wanted the music to help tell the story,” Mitchell furthered.

Justin Timberlake took a bigger role in the film than originally intended. He was only supposed to voice Branch. However, after hearing the directors’ “needle drop style” selections  music from 70s, 80s, and 90s,” Mitchell said that “[Timberlake] was like ‘Yes, I will do the voice, and yes, I want to be more of a part of this,’ and he became our music producer. He reproduced and imagined those classic songs, but he also wrote original songs for us, like ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling.’”

Darth continued, “He wrote it to solve a story problem we were having in Act III. We were pitching him this idea and how we transform the Bergans at
the end of the movie. Usually, you do it with a motivational speech or something, but that didn’t ring true. The song literally has people dancing in the theater, so they
accept that the Bergans can change that way … he redid all those songs to feel like they fit into the story.”

Since Timberlake served as a music producer, he was able to uniquely interact with the rest of the cast and guide them through their singing, which the directors feel “helped Justin’s and Anna’s characters have a bond that you might not normally see in animated movies.”

He also had the chance to work with Co-Director Walt Darth one-on-one as Darth played the character Cloud Guy in “Trolls.”

“We have him in the recording booth, which is rare for all these actors to all come together in the animated film, usually they’re recorded separately. Walt was in there with Justin improving, playing back and forth,” Mitchell said, which added a
more spontaneous feel that the scene captures.

Trolls features an all-star cast not only with the main characters, but also in the supporting cast including James Corden, Russell Brand, Gwen Stefani and many more Hollywood big-hitters. The team dubbed them their “triple-threats.”

“They were all tremendous actors, but every one of them had this weird sense of humor. They were all naturally funny, which helpful when you’re trying to make a funny film, and then every one of them can sing very well. Like Zooey Deschanel, who plays Bridget, has this beautiful singing voice. Anna Kendrick. Forget about it. Gwen Stefani, can sing apparently,” Mitchell said. “All of them were so clever and so funny. Like James Corden has so many funny jokes that we just couldn’t fit in the film.”

The film does not only feature big-time film stars. Sharp-eared audience members can pick up famous YouTubers featured in the film in minor roles, most prominently Glozell, Branch’s grandma. Sharp-eyed watchers might even see her trademark green lipstick on her character.

“We want to appeal to everyone, all age groups. There’s an age group; these are the people who influence them. They’re really funny people, and fun people to hang out with, so we brought them on for small roles. I think it worked out. We definitely recognize new media and the importance of the genre,” Darth said.

“Those people are so fun. All those YouTube stars, they’re so silly and funny,” Mitchell added.

Though the jokes, the visualizations and the music are all wonderful assets of the film, above all, the producers wanted the film to be unexpected.

“When we were talking on the phone from the beginning, they said that they really wanted this movie to be unexpected. For me, that was sign me up. And I feel like it is; I feel like people go in not exactly knowing what to expect,” Cronkhite-Shaindlin said.

The animated film, “Trolls,” dances its way into theaters everywhere on Nov. 4.