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UNBRIDLED ENTHUSIASM CAN DREAMWORKS' JEFFREY KATZENBERG REINVENT THE CG-ANIMATED FILM?

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

He's saved animation before. But can Jeffrey Katzenberg revive the form a second time?

Don't bet against it. The 51-year-old former Disney executive proved his mastery of the successful second act when, shortly after getting squeezed out of the Mouse House in 1994, he teamed up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks, Hollywood's first successful new studio in decades.

And that company has given longtime industry leader Disney the toughest run for its money it has ever faced in the feature animation field. ``Antz'' was the first hit, all-computer-generated images picture not made by Disney partner Pixar. DreamWorks' next CGI comedy, ``Shrek,'' went on to become the second-highest-grossing animated feature of all time (behind Disney's ``Lion King,'' which was made under Katzenberg's watch) and the first to win an Academy Award.

But while digital animation has been triumphing at box offices and on red carpets, traditional, two-dimensional hand-drawn feature animation has been falling on hard times. The Disney animation revival that Katzenberg initiated in 1989 with ``The Little Mermaid'' has been sputtering recently, with revenues for ``The Emperor's New Groove'' and last summer's ``Atlantis'' coming in well below the mid-1990s highs, prompting layoffs in the company's huge animation department.

As for DreamWorks, it did pretty well, but not spectacularly, with the biblically based ``Prince of Egypt'' and not very good at all with ``The Road to El Dorado.''

The value of handiwork

But Katzenberg remains bullish on old-school animation - even if, in order to revitalize it in DreamWorks' latest release, ``Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,'' he felt it was necessary to technologically mutate the process as never before.

``We had many challenges in making this movie, not the least of which was we had to actually reinvent what people call traditional animation,'' Katzenberg says of his latest brainchild, a lightly dialogued look at the taming of the American West from the independently minded view of a proud, wild mustang. `` 'Spirit' represents, really, the first of what is a new kind of animated movie. We came up with a word for it inside our company; every time I say it, people giggle because it sounds a little silly, but it's called 'tradigital.'

``The reason for that is that we've taken the character acting aspect of traditional animating - which is what happens when an artist takes a pencil and actually creates life on a piece of paper, which the computer can't do yet, though I say 'yet' because there will come a time when it can - and yanked it into the 21st century by marrying it with absolutely state-of- the-art, 3-D CG technology. 'Spirit' is, in fact, the most technically complex animated movie made to date, more so than 'Shrek' or 'Monsters, Inc.' or 'Ice Age.' The difference is, it's invisible. We've done it in a way that you're not conscious of it, you don't really see it.''

As an example, Katzenberg points to ``Spirit's'' opening sequence, a three-minute continuous shot (the longest ever sustained in an animated feature) in which an eagle flies us on a grand tour of unspoiled natural landscapes. While all of the backgrounds and vertiginous camera moves were digitally created, the bird itself shifts seamlessly from hand-drawn to CG and back again, depending on any given moment's need for emotional identification or swooping excitement.

'Spirited' animation

This is hardly the first time computers have contributed to hand-drawn features. ``The Lion King's'' wildebeest stampede, for example, was mostly digital. But the extent to which ``Spirit'' intermingles the two methods is unprecedented - and necessary, Katzenberg says, in an era when young children more readily associate movie cartoons with ``Monsters, Inc.,'' ``Shrek'' or ``Toy Story'' than with ``Snow White'' or ``Cinderella.''

``Absolutely, audiences demand it now,'' he says of the extra qualities only CG - or a few million extra work hours of pen-and-ink users - can bring to an animated feature. ``The kids expect to be in these rich and lifelike environments, with dynamic moves and effects. The worlds have to have that kind of complexity to them.''

Yet Katzenberg adores the peculiar human qualities only living artists and their brush strokes can bring to moving pictures, and he's making every effort to preserve that in his 2-D films.

``It's the difference between an e-mail and a handwritten letter,'' Katzenberg says. ``Whether it's from a loved one or a friend or even a boss, God forbid, there's an emotion that comes through a handwritten letter. There's something that human beings do when we create on a piece of paper, we put something of ourself into that.''

Plus, Katzenberg hopes, audiences are primed for something with a little more organic warmth after a year's worth of CG spectaculars that, for all their cleverness and visual invention, seem to have settled into a rigid formula of genre conventions.

``I actually would be really concerned today if we were going to be the fourth CG, irreverent comedy after 'Shrek,' 'Monsters' and 'Ice Age,' '' he says. ``I can tell you, as an audience, personally, I need a rest from irreverent cartoon comedies. I need something different.''

Horse of a different color

``Spirit'' is different, all right.

``Animated horses have been avoided in the past as central characters,'' notes Kelly Asbury, who co-directed the movie with Lorna Cook. ``Their eyes are way up here and their mouths are down here, when you try to make them talk, it's comical.''

To avoid the ``Mr. Ed'' effect, it was decided to make ``Spirit'' an essentially silent movie; only human characters speak and, occasionally, we hear the lead horse's thoughts voiced by Matt Damon. All other emotional and dramatic information is imparted visually or through Bryan Adams' soundtrack tunes.

``We spent four years making this movie and, realistically, when we set out it was a huge gamble,'' Katzenberg admits. ``This is the biggest gamble of any animated movie I've ever been involved with because it is so different. It's the first animated movie since 'The Lion King' told through the eyes of an animal - 10 years! Then you decide that the animal's not going to speak. Then you decide that it's a musical, but nobody's going to sing in the musical. It's gonna be a 'tradigital' animated movie. What's that? I don't know, nobody's ever done one of those before.

``You list all these challenges of it and it's scary. But great scary, you're driven every day to do it.''

Sounds like hyperbole, something the smooth-talking Katzenberg - who got his working world start in hometown New York politics - is unmistakably adept at. But there is apparently a lot of truth to even his most sloganeering statements.

``We're very honest with each other,'' ``Spirit'' producer Mireille Soria says of the closely collaborating executive. ``It's what makes working with Jeffrey great, actually; he says what he means and he means what he says. Jeffrey's committed - and committable! - to these movies and making them. He's passionate about it and he's smart, and that's a nice combination.''

Active, happy Katz

The famously workaholic Katzenberg, who claims to spend 90 percent of his working energy on DreamWorks animation product now, says his love for the medium began shortly after he and former boss Michael Eisner moved from Paramount Pictures to revitalize the then-moribund studio that Walt built.

``In 1984, I showed up on the Walt Disney lot,'' he recalls. ``Somebody said, 'That building over there, that's animation, it's your problem.' It started as a problem and - I can't explain it to you, I have no idea - but I loved it from the moment I understood it. I became an incredible student of Walt Disney's. I went back and read every single thing I could out of the archives there and really retraced his footsteps. He left bread crumbs the size of Volkswagens, so it wasn't that hard to follow.'

And Katzenberg is committed - we won't make the committable joke - to keep to Uncle Walt's path. Claiming that DreamWorks is in various stages of developing at least a dozen animated features, he notes a ``tradigital'' ``Sinbad'' is on the near horizon, along with the CG ``Shrek'' sequel and a new clay-animation ``Wallace & Gromit'' from the studio's ``Chicken Run'' partners, Aardman Animation.

Although the future of hand-drawn movies may be sealed by the economic performance of ``Spirit'' and Disney's 2-D June release ``Lilo & Stitch,'' Katzenberg refuses to be anything but optimistic.

``It's an amazing time for animation,'' he insists. ``There may be layoffs, but that's cyclical and those people are going to find other opportunities. Bottom line: There are great movies being made.''

'Katz' still having fun with the Mouse

While claiming that besting Disney's Michael Eisner, his arch-rival and alienated former boss, had nothing to do with it, Jeffrey Katzenberg admits it was sweet to win the first-ever best-animated feature Academy Award for ``Shrek'' last March.

``It was great and it was genuinely a thrill,'' says the DreamWorks co- owner and animation czar. ``But really, the making of 'Shrek' and its success with the audience was more than enough for me. Everything else that happened - all of the money that it made, the critical recognition that it got, the awards that were given to it - honest to God, that's like the cherry on the sundae.''

God forgive us, but we don't quite buy that. This is the notoriously bottom-line-driven ex-Disney film chairman speaking (who, incidentally, sued his last employer for an undisclosed - but reported quarter- billion-dollar - slice of the profits made during his 10-year tenure at the Mouseglomerate).

And if anything is more important to Katzenberg's new endeavor than profits, it's Oscars. After the surprise loss of DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg's ``Saving Private Ryan'' to Disney subsidiary Miramax's ``Shakespeare in Love'' in the 1998 best-picture contest, the studio has aggressively and successfully campaigned to take home the top trophy each time since: for ``American Beauty'' in 1999, ``Gladiator'' in 2000 and, although co-distributor Universal handled most of the politicking, ``A Beautiful Mind'' in the last go-round.

Katzenberg makes no apologies for the often-criticized, scorched-earth tactics DreamWorks' Oscar campaigners employ.

``We are competitive about it and we always will be,'' he says. ``We love the movies we make and are very proud of them, so we're very ambitious in seeing that the films get whatever acknowledgment and reward possible. That's a lot of the reason why good filmmakers want to come work at DreamWorks; they know that for every movie we put out, live-action or animated, we will do everything that we can to support it.

``When they know that the owners of the company really care a lot - maybe too much! - that's a very appealing thing for people.''

- B.S.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Mane event

Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks ride herd over a new breed of digital animation with `Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron'

(2) Singer Bryan Adams, far left, and Jeffrey Katzenberg with the live Spirit.

(3) no caption (Shrek)

Box:

`Katz' still having fun with the Mouse (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 26, 2002
Words:1830
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