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Toon Tuesday : "Shrek the Third" artists & technicians tried hard not to ogre-compensate

Toon Tuesday : "Shrek the Third" artists & technicians tried hard not to ogre-compensate

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Prepared for an ogre makeover?

Well, get ready to meet a new and improved Shrek in “Shrek the Third,” a widely anticipated summer blockbuster hitting neighborhood multiplexes May 18.

But if all goes as planned by the film’s creative team, you won’t notice the subtle improvements. You’ll simply enjoy a funny, entertaining story featuring the beloved animated green ogre, his princess bride, Fiona, sidekicks Donkey and Puss in Boots, and a huge cast of storybook and fairytale creatures — from crowd favorites like Pinocchio and the Gingerbread Man to new characters of Artie, Merlin, Snow White and others added to the franchise’s third chapter.

The original “Shrek” film began production nearly a decade ago. New computer models of Shrek, Fiona and other legacy characters were constructed for “Shrek the Third,’’ a task that fell to Lucia Modesto, character technical director supervisor, and her team.

Lucia Modesto, Character TD Supervisor on "Shrek the Third"
Photo courtesy of PDI / DreamWorks

“The hard thing about rebuilding Shrek is he had to be better, but look the same,” Modesto said. “The motor inside Shrek is all brand new and the outside is almost the same.”

These new models gave animators much more control over Shrek’s movements.

“For the first time, we have more serious acting moments in ‘Shrek the Third,’ ” said Tim Cheung, head of character animation. “A little bit of a change in the brow movement can change the entire attitude or emotion of a character.”

Modesto and Cheung are two of 10 key people who talked about creating “Shrek the Third” during a recent media event at PDI-Dreamworks Animation, just south of San Francisco International Airport.

PDI / DreamWorks Animation Studio in Redwood City, CA.
Photo courtesy of PDI / DreamWorks

The day began with director Chris Miller screening about 20-minutes of footage from the upcoming PG-rated film.

“Everybody is back. All of the original cast,” Miller said, referring to vocal talent Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews and others.

That continuity is also reflected in the film’s creative team. Many of them worked on “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” or both. Many remain working on the franchise with “Shrek the Halls” — a holiday TV special for ABC — and “Shrek 4,” both in the production pipeline.

“So much of the crew in place worked on the first two movies. It was a pretty well-oiled machine to step into,” Miller said. “I just had to give them the room to do what they do so well and stay out of the way.”

Miller, who was promoted to the director’s chair after serving as head of story on “Shrek 2,” revealed a few story tidbits as he showed about a half-dozen extended clips.

Shrek and Fiona are still in Far Far Away. They want to get back to their vermin-infested swamp, but Fiona’s dad, King Harold the frog, has taken ill. With Harold sick, Fiona and Shrek have agreed to take over the day-to-day duties of the kingdom.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

But it’s one slapstick mishap after another as poor Shrek gets a taste of royal life. There’s brave souls to be knighted, ships to launch and a sidesplitting bit of business involving a wardrobe malfunction.

Harold would like to see Shrek become king, but Shrek doesn’t want the responsibility of the throne. Before he croaks, the king tells Shrek the only other person who can be lead Far Far Away is Fiona’s cousin, Artie — an underachieving student at Worcestershire Academy.

So Shrek sets sail with Puss in Boots and Donkey to find the gangly teen. But before the giant ogre leaves, Fiona tells him she’s pregnant — another responsibility that Shrek’s not ready for, Miller said.

With Harold dead and Shrek away, Prince Charming elicits the help of the villains at the Poison Apple Tavern to seize control of Far Far Away, declare himself king and give the villains their long-denied happily-ever-afters.

The miscreants swoop down on witches’ brooms and storm the castle a short time after Snow White has revealed her gift to Fiona at a baby shower — a live-in baby-sitter who also happens to be one of the dwarfs. “Don’t worry,” she tells Fiona, “I’ve got six more at home.” The baby shower is attended by Fiona’s mother — Queen Lillian — Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty and the ugly stepsister voiced by Larry King.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

“Prince Charming, voiced by Rupert Everett, is definitely the bad guy this time around,” Miller said. “In ‘Shrek 2,’ he was supposed to take over the kingdom. But it didn’t work out for him. He lost his mom and he’s got a major chip on his shoulder.”

As Charming’s minions search for Fiona, she and her guests escape into a network of catacombs. The rest of Far Far Away’s residents are not as fortunate.

The villains, including Captain Hook and Rumplestiltskin interrogate the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio — who has mastered a very lawyerly way of speaking — and the Gingerbread Man, whose life flashes before his eyes in another great scene.

“When you have all these characters, you want to spend some time with them. But at the end of the day, they’re there to support Shrek’s story,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Shrek finds Artie, voiced by Justin Timberlake. Artie thinks about his chance to turn from zero to hero and accept the crown, but he runs away because he’s afraid of the responsibility.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

“This is where you begin to see how similar Shrek and Artie really are,” Miller said. “They share certain personality traits — very stubborn, very much outsiders. It’s all very difficult for Shrek to deal with.”

After crashing their boat on their way back to Far, Far Away, the foursome heads to the home of Artie’s former teacher Merlin, voiced by Eric Idle. The wizard agrees to help transport the gang to the kingdom. Unfortunately, his sorcery isn’t what it used to be ...

Puss and Donkey find that they’ve switched bodies in the mystic transit. Puss has Donkey’s exuberance and Donkey now possesses Puss’ swashbuckling charm.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

Eventually, Shrek, who’s now been imprisoned beneath a theater, uncovers Charming’s plot to change the outcome of fairytale history by putting on a play wherein he slays our big green friend.

This leads to Fiona and the other princesses having to save the day in an action sequence that turns more than one fairytale convention on its head. After the footage, we moved from one aspect of the production to another, meeting with the various creative talents.

The first stop was a session with production designer Guillaume Aretos and art director Peter Zaslav. They showed off several drawings, sketches and detailed models — Far Far Away’s castle, its catacombs, the Worcestershire Academy and the ship used by Shrek and the gang — built before the film was animated.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

Aretos elaborated on the difficulties behind realizing the new challenges the art department set for itself on “Shrek the Third.”

“Every Shrek movie typically happens on the span of three days and it’s a road movie,” he said. “Every time we travel to lots of places, which we shouldn’t do in a CG movie because it’s difficult. But we’re not very smart, so we keep doing it.

“We travel everywhere in this film,” he continued. “There are 82 locations and only 15 that we’ve used in the previous movies. That means 67 of them are new — places we’ve never taken audiences before.”

Zaslav explained that for “Shrek the Third,” the filmmakers and his team wanted to do something different with the environments.

Copyright 2007 DreamWorks Animation

So where “Shrek 2” was set in Far Far Away and that was based roughly on Southern European cities, architecturally speaking, “we wanted to do something different because Shrek was going through a period of doubt about becoming a father,” he said. “We wanted to give it a little bit moodier, slightly darker, colder tone. We looked up Northern European locations for inspiration. So we end up seeing a lot of fall colors that we didn’t see in Shrek 2.”

The pair also described how some of the artwork for the film was inspired by Old Masters, including a set piece borrowing from Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.”

The second stop was a visit with Nick Walker, the head of layout for “Shrek the Third.”

Nick Walker, head of layout on "Shrek the Third"
Photo courtesy of PDI / DreamWorks

“I’m essentially the director of photography for the film,” he said. “CG films actually work more akin to a live-action film than traditional animation. We’ve obviously got a virtual set and a virtual camera shooting virtual actors on that set. So layout is the group that actually goes and figures out where that camera and those actors will actually be standing on the set.”

That camera work even involves a momentary jerk or not quite centering the frame on the action to make it feel more like a film that was shot, not composed in a computer. Another thing Walker’s team did involved recreating that sense of shooting a steady-cam shot on an ocean, creating special software that slightly lags the rolling waves and makes the action far more believable.

Another thing Walker talked up was an orbiting camera shot in key scenes to underscore one of the main themes of “taking responsibility.”

“It’s just that subtle little language thing,” he said. “It just helps make that moment feel right and appropriate and supports the overall concept of the theme of the film.”

After Walker, we visited with Modesto.

In addition to talking about rebuilding Shrek, she talked about making crowd scenes far more believable by creating a half-dozen basic male and female character models with thousands of variations. Not only were animators able to change things like eye color, hair styles and a whole host of costume pieces, but these basic models could see alterations in width of shoulders, hips, length of arms and legs, etc.

Tim Cheung, head of character animation for "Shrek the Third"
Photo courtesy of PDI / DreamWorks

The fourth presentation was led by Cheung, who said that his job is “to make sure the quality of the animation is up to par and consistent throughout the entire film.”

Working on “Shrek the Third” is “like working with an old friend,” he said. “You know the character, you’re familiar with it — but that’s a good thing because you can then concentrate on the performance.”

Still, there were challenges, especially animating the new character, Artie.

“I don’t know if anyone has teenagers at home, but teenagers are challenging,” Cheung said. “Their mannerisms, the way they carry themselves. You can’t make them too old or too young so kind of finding that balance was pretty tricky.

“Artie is very realistic and to have a character look realistic, you kind of have to have the animation to reflect the emotion to make it look believable. To do realistic animation is pretty challenging. ... The more realistic the character it is the harder it is.”

When we finished with Cheung, we headed into a session with visual effects wizards Philippe Gluckman and Matt Baer.

The team has mastered many of the water, smoke and fire effects in earlier Shrek films. The challenge for “Shrek the Third,” Baer said, was creating the visuals of Merlin’s magic. They also got to shoot reference footage of a burning bra to help animate a sequence involving the empowered princesses.

"Shrek the Third" producer Aron Warner and co-directors
Chris Miller and Raman Hui (L to R)
Photo courtesy of PDI / DreamWorks

After meeting with the creative staff, we sat down with Miller, co-director Raman Hui and “Shrek the Third” producer Aron Warner.

“It’s amazing working with this crew,” said Hui, a veteran of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2.”

“It was a great experience for me,” he said. “In the first movie, I was mostly concentrating on animation and helped a little bit on the storyboarding. In ‘Shrek the Third,’ I got to see the whole process.”

Warner, who co-wrote the screenplay with Miller, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, called the story for “Shrek the Third” a “natural progression of this guy’s life and his development as an adult.

“It’s very similar in tone to ‘Shrek’ and ‘Shrek 2.’ That’s 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 this time around,” he said.

“If something doesn’t make us laugh, it doesn’t stay in the movie. So there’s stuff that that appeals to both our more adult side and stuff that appeals to our complete juvenile, childlike sense of humor. We end up with a good combo just by going with our gut.”

Continuing, Warner said, “I guess the differences would be that there are a lot more characters. in ‘Shrek the Third.’ It’s a bit more of a character-driven story. There’s a really strong story to it that propels everybody along.”

  • I agree with your comments on both "Titanic" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", but obviously, a few people thought them entertaining enough, flaws or not, to see at least once.

    I guess it all boils down to what your definition of quality is. But, if you stop and think about it, when was the last time any major studio turned out anything of a quality movie? I can't remember when the last time was that I saw a good quality move.

  • GrumpyFan said:

    "I guess it all boils down to what your definition of quality is. But, if you stop and think about it, when was the last time any major studio turned out anything of a quality movie? I can't remember when the last time was that I saw a good quality move."

    You've got a point there. There are some good quality movies out there, but not as much as there used to be.

    I mean, "Babel" was one of the strongest movies I saw in a long time, and in animation.. Well, that is harder.. Hmmmm.. "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" was a fine piece of animation, one of the best. And I guess "Toy Story 2" was the best computer animated movie in recent past.

    My personal favorite when it comes to quality in traditional animation is a lot older. In that field I have to say "The Little Mermaid" was what I consider the peak in traditional animation. But that's subjected to debate.

  • Thought I would chime in on the Dreamworks-bashes-Disney thing.

    How anyone can honestly be either offended or surprised by that is beyond me. Disney & Pixar are the kings, the top-o-the-heap, the cream of the crop... and have been for a long time. Everyone beneath them will ALWAYS take pot shots up the food chain. It is a COMPLIMENT. I don't care how cheap the shot at Disney is, they wouldn't do it if it wasn't because they secretly (or not so secretly) admire/want to be like/ are jealous of Disney to begin with.

    If people ignored Disney entirely I would be very worried.

    The ability to not only laugh, but to laugh at oneself (aside from being very theraputic) enables you to keep things in perspective. Plus, some of the Disney jabs are stinking hilarious!!! Enjoy them.  ;o)

  • My only observation - since there should be no Shrek bashing, lest I have to beg Jesse Jackson for forgiveness for my Dreamworks insensitivity - would be one of marketing. They invited press to the animation facility and it sounds like the theme of the presentations were "Shrek 3 - it was soooo HARD !" For now, the marketing should focus on seeing the characters again and how funny it will be. The presentations reported on, belong in a dvd extra, not pre-release hype.

    My only other observation - has Fiona always been about half the size of Shrek? Can't some computer program - that is very hard to operate and understand - keep track of that kind of thing?

  • I don't care how good Shrek looks. It's still CRAP. Nobody needs to see this. When I get photoshop, I'm gonna make a picture of Jack Sparrow and Spiderman throwing Shrek off a cliff. Then that gets to be my desktop background. And when I saw the Shrek 3 trailer this past weeked, it doesn't look even as good as Meet the Robinsons. Oh, Burn.

  • I don't care how "good" shrek looks. shrek is CRAP. I am spelling shrek with a lowercase "s" because I want to show it the most disrespect I can while still writing about it. I hate shrek and dreamworks (same thing with the lowercase letters). I hope that shrek 3 makes no money and that dreamworks goes bankrupt. When I get Photoshop, I'm going to make a picture of Jack Sparrow and Spiderman throwing shrek off a cliff. I hate shrek. And anyway the animation didn't look that good in the trailer that I saw last week at the movie theater. Ratatouille's animation looked better on low-res on my computer screen on the 9-minute preview on Disney.com. Oh, Burn.

  • Hmm, funny how all that work was done behind the scenes just to keep it looking terribly mediocre. What with off-model character designs that would never, ever meet even the lowest grade Disney movie's standards you'd think they could have just left everything alone.  Comparatively, you can see the difference in a Dreamworks film and a Pixar film. I will never buy the idea that Dreamworks animation looks that way because it want to keep a certain "style"...it's just sub par...watch any Pixar film and you'll see the difference.

    The problem with Shrek is that  Dreamworks gave us "just good enough" I mean really, just one look at the characters will tell you that...there is nothing endearing about any of the characters in any of these films. Look at Shrek's snow white and tell me they gave it their "best"...when I see these characters I want to walk up to them and say, "nope Sorry...take it back...TRY HARDER!"

    Now I know there are lots of you saying "But I like the shrek movies" which is fine, but I think its the audiences duty to let the studios know that we don't want to shell out money for just mediocre. Take for example Madagascar...A cast FULL of hilarious comedians and big names to flash around. The problem is that none of the characters were allowed to be funny...Chris Rock and Ben Stiller are hilarious, but in Madagascar I could barely stomach anything they showed us...mediocrity in degrees...If Ben stiller cant be funny in his own way, then why cast him? To get audiences to think it's going to be like funny movies they've seen before. I could barely recognize his character when I heard the Lion in Madagascar, that's how bad it is...Now go watch Genie in Aladdin and look at the difference... You know what I mean...there is literally a quality fift between these two studios...and that's why I'll save my $10 when "Shrek the Mediocre" releases this summer...

  • Just a couple of points:

    Yes, Fiona is smaller than Shrek and always has been ... one of the artists said Shrek could literally swallow Fiona's head.

    Also, none of the artists grumbled about how hard their jobs were ... in fact, they seemed to delight in the refined software because it gave them more control for those important emotional moments and enabled them to create a better movie with more effective crowd scenes, etc.

    And, getting back to that character model argument that curmudgeon mentioned and Baxter added to ... one of the advantages of computer animation is the modeling -- every character is ON MODEL. Now, you can have a beef with the way those characters were designed look -- and, I agree, that Pixar kicks butt in this aspect -- but thanks to the computer, they are on model.

    Besides, it's simply not true that PDI/DreamWorks hasn't created great-looking characters for their movies -- with Donkey's girlfriend/wife the dragon and the awesome Puss in Boots simply being two well-drawn and conceived examples. Maybe you don't care for the more realistic (human) characters, but I'll take the ones in "Shrek the Third," over the soul-less dead-eye characters of motion capture animated films like "Polar Express" and "Monster House" any day of the week.

  • Ponsonby Britt said:

    "Compare this with the wonderful character designs in both "The Incredibles" and the upcoming "Ratatouille". By taking a more fun, caricatured approach, Brad Bird has once again created a cast of characters that are distinct personalities, helped considerably by their contrasting face and body types. In short, these characters, though caricatured, come off as being more human than the realistic mannequins that inhabit the world of "Shrek". I must admit, I've never understood the mass appeal that the "Shrek" films seem to have to today's audiences. No accounting for taste, I suppose..."

    Bless you!  Its good to know people with good sense and taste still exist.

  • Shrek's not about design, and they can't well implement a new design scheme on the third movie. They're a middle ground between Polar Express and the Incredibles: Better than the former, but is that really something to brag about?

    I find it extremely telling how MGA has made appealing dolls out of the Shrek Princesses by using faces that don't look anything like the movie characters

  • Let me define off  model...go to the Disneyland "Mickey and Friends" parking structure and look at the Characters all over the walls sometime...they are definitly Mickey Goofy and Minnie etc.. but they look off or like there's something wrong with them, as though they used the Disney's Golden childrens books from the 70's  as a site example. That's what shrek reminds me of. I see the designs and think...Unacceptable...off model. I know this because I've seen Excellence, and I've seen mediocrity...and there isn't a shred of evidence that shows any sort of excellence in the Shrek Character designs. The point is, whether you have bad taste or great taste... it's not about TASTE at all...it's about us accepting just "status quo"...and Shrek appears to be... "Just bad..err..good enough" to make Dreamworks more money...It's a sinking ship friends....a sinking ship I say...not just for Dreamworks vision of things to come, but also in our expectations, and those who root for the Shrek movies to continue have been hooked...  I believe Shrek speaks for all mediocrities... he is their patron saint.

  • i'm gonna see this movie because i like the Shrek movies. but it's no secret that Shrek is really Dreamworks' only saving grace. they have nothing else really and Katzenburg is milking Shrek. There's no doubt the movies will carry into the 8's, and that's fine, but in the end that's all Dreamworks will be known for.

    if you think about it, Dreamworks is the ghetto version of Disney. mostly all of their "kid" movie are PG and full of fart/burp/booger jokes plus foul language (Donkey says "hell" in Shrek 1, and Shrek did that whole "I had to save my ass" in the same film). Disney's kid films have only had 1 PG rating, and that was for The Black Cauldron; however that movie was a little violent and did not once stoop itself down to foul language level.

    in the end, Dreamworks has hits. Shark Tale, Shrek, and others have come and gone. but that's the thing, isn't it? they have come, but now are gone. where is Shark Tale or Robots now? rotting on the DVD shelf at Target. even the Shrek DVDs are out there collecting dust. these films are fine once, but they do not hold the magic and that extra timelessness that the Disney films do and therefore pale in comparison.

    but where is Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and a whole host of others? they're right here on my personal DVD shelf being watched over and over by my kids, their friends, my wife, and myself. those are true movies.

  • Uhm.. Linklewtt, you're incorrect about a few things. First of all, they have had several PG-rated animated films. "Home on the Range", "Lilo & Stitch", "Atlantis: The Lost Empire", "Treasure Planet", just to name a few. And second, "Robots" isn't from DreamWorks. It's a 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky Studios movie.

  • Wow, I hadn't realized so many people hated Shrek!  While I could do without the fart jokes and the occasional cuss word, I enjoyed the first and second movies.  The animation of the meadow in Shrek 2 was top-notch.  I enjoyed the little bits of Disney-parody (bashing? maybe) from the moment Shrek and Fiona entered Far Far Away and were met at the gate.

    I will see the third, and I hope I enjoy it.  If I do, I'll let you know - and I suspect I won't be alone.

  • ok, Disney has had more than 1 PG film...but the point is that they never stooped to cussing like Shrek does. Home On the Range had that reference to boobs, but besides that it was mostly violence in those other films, right?

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