Director Mike Mitchell had a ball with his latest DreamWorks endeavor, working alongside Walt Dohrn and a cast of musical virtuosos to bring the vibrantly colorful Trolls to the big screen. A musical animated adventure, pitting a community of colorful creatures against the unhappy, Troll-eating Bergens, Trolls has an unusual, tactile aesthetic, which comes down to the directors’ work alongside other DreamWorks artists, including Kendal Cronkhite, Tim Lamb and Priscilla Wong.
Of course, the success of the film also hinged largely on finding the right musical approach—and when pop sensation Justin Timberlake signed on as both Executive Music Producer and the voice of Branch, it ensured the film would hit all the right notes. Speaking with Deadline, Mitchell details his love of fairy tales, his relation to the Trolls toy brand growing up, and the process in crafting the film’s unique look.
What excited you about the idea of making Trolls?
I had worked for DreamWorks—I directed the last Shrek film, and then I left to do a few other projects. My friend Gina Shay called me and said, “We have these little characters called trolls.” I thought it was really neat; it was just the little creature with the big puff of hair, and I saw it as an opportunity to create a whole world.
I also saw it as an opportunity to work with people I really wanted to work with again, because DreamWorks has some of my favorite artists there, like Kendal Cronkhite and Tim Lamb. Joel Crawford, it was his first time to be head of story—I thought it was time for him to move ahead. I wanted to make Walt Dohrn my co-director: He was my head of story at Shrek, and it was far past due time for him to be a director.
Again, I just saw it as an opportunity to create. We could really let our imaginations go crazy.
Did you have any personal relation to the Trolls brand as a child, or prior to working on this film?
The only awareness I had was my sister played Barbie dolls, and she had a Troll doll that would come in and take Ken away from Barbie. It was kind of this evil little girl that would always seduce Ken, and it would make Barbie mad. That was my only connection with the Troll doll—which is disturbing, that I sat around watching my sister play Barbie dolls, but I guess that’s what I did.
The film occasionally functions as an homage to classic fairytales. What was the idea in integrating those narratives into the script?
We’re really into old fairy tales. I think that’s what drew me to the Shrek films, is I just love fairy tales. I love twisting fairy tales. Another strange thing that we discussed is, I love Miyazaki films. He always creates this fairy tale type of feeling, this world that feels like a fever dream. It always incorporates strange creatures. A lot of my friends that helped me on this film work on this show called Adventure Time, and I was like, if we could take that Miyazaki, Adventure Time feeling, and infuse that into a giant DreamWorks CGI film, I haven’t seen that stuff done computer animated. I thought that would be a really cool challenge.
Because there was no world, we got to create it. Aside from Cinderella, it’s not so much fairy tales, but we have a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with the kid riding down the hallway.
The Trolls seem tactile, almost as if made of felt. How did you conceive of the way this film would look?
When we first put this together, we said, “Wow, it’s got such a handmade feel to it, that the storytelling seems like a bunch of friends in a garage, making a film.” We found that really inspiring. We’re like, how do we keep this handmade film, knowing that we have another two-and-a-half years to make this? How do we keep that freshness? That lead to the discussion of, can we just do everything in these natural fibers? The technology has become so sophisticated for these CGI films that the goal seems to be to make things to look as real as they possibly can.
We wanted to take that technology and apply it in a different way. We wanted to make a tree, but it’s surfaced in felt, and the ground, instead of grass, it’s carpet. Instead of doing the skin with pores and beard stubble, we just made our characters like gummy bears that have been flocked in velvet. Then Kendal Cronkhite took it even further. She’s like, “Man, even the fire, all the effects are going to be made out of fiber and hair. Their homes are going to be made out of hair.”
She was also very helpful with the color, because we knew early on we wanted to make the film about something. We knew that it was going to be a musical, and funny and irreverent and strange, but we’re like, what is it going to be about? We thought we’d make it about happiness. I listened to a bunch of TED Talks on happiness, and we really started to discuss happiness, and how a positive attitude is undervalued.
That lead us to, what are the visual things we could do for happiness besides hugging or dancing? A big part of that is color, so we found that Tim Lamb took our theme of happiness and really put it into the character design, and informed the world, and certainly informed the colors, which I’m super happy about. It is colorful, but there’s a lot of thought that those guys put into it to make sure it wasn’t off putting. It’s really a nice balance of color.
You also work in different formats of animation at different moments. What was the thought process there?
We thought because the trolls are felted and flocked in velvet, that the way they record history would be through scrapbooking. We worked with this artist, Priscilla Wong—she was in her office, with felt all over the ground, and scissors and glue and glitter. Every morning when I went to go get coffee, you stop by her office and go, what are you doing now, Priscilla? It was so inspirational. Then you’d leave her office and you’d find a piece of glitter in your eyebrow like a week later.
She did that, and then we scanned it into the computer, and then we animated it using After Effects, but I think for the whole crew, it just made us even more connected to, how do we use this technology that we all love so much, but get away from the feeling that it’s all behind a screen? We really wanted to have that tactile, fuzzy immersion. We really wanted to hit that feeling.
How did you approach world building for the film, particularly the world of the Troll-eating Bergens?
This is a place where we spend most of our movie, so it can’t be this dark, grey horrible place. We still want it to have fun and whimsy. I collect children’s books from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and really loved the idea of a fairy tale world, but kind of mixed with the ‘70s, because that’s a time where not only do people remember playing with their troll dolls on the shag carpet, but we started to do research, and the ‘70s looks like a place where monsters lived. It’s a pretty weird aesthetic, and it’s got avocado greens, and oranges and browns. You’re not getting rid of color, but they’re really odd, awkward drab colors.
Then I thought, to kids too, the ‘70s is like a fairy tale time. Like a phone with a cord on it, there’s not even such thing as a pay phone anymore. It seems like another world. That helped us keep the whimsy.
What was it like working with such a musically-talented cast of actors?
It was interesting, because when we met Justin [Timberlake], we just wanted to hire him because he’s really funny on Saturday Night Live, and he’s got a really warm quality to his voice, but then he saw the music we’re doing, and he’s like, “Man, I want to help you guys do this. I want to be your music producer.” We’re like,
“Absolutely, please.” That’s when he gave us that hit song [Can’t Stop The Feeling!], which was just crazy awesome for us.
Not only that, but it also allowed us to have our actors together in the same room, which doesn’t happen in animation. Justin was always there to record the music with them, and they were all brought together to do the music. It was a really rare, cool thing.
Have you enjoyed seeing the proliferation of musical storytelling in animation this year?
I love it. I worked on Sausage Party—I storyboarded the food torture sequence. That film is just beyond wacky. I can’t wait to see Sing. I hope it’s a trend. I love animated musicals. It’s so weird that it’s come back, and in a really strange, different form, too. It’s more of these jukebox musicals, like songs that we recognize and reinvent and mash up. That’s neat.
What was your biggest challenge on Trolls?
The biggest challenge has to be the third act. We needed a song—the perfect song—to do the third act. This is before Justin wrote that song for us. We were listening to thousands of songs, which was actually kind of fun, to just sit and listen to songs and discuss them, but we could not find one. We were mashing up two, three songs at a time. We were trying every song, and it just wasn’t working for that moment.
That was the biggest challenge, but it went away instantly when Justin wrote that song for us. We discussed what our struggle was, we discussed what we needed, and it was his idea. He was like, “I’ll just write a song for you guys for this part. Let’s talk about what it needs to say and what it needs to convey.” That challenge was done as soon as he presented that song. He made very little changes to it. It’s essentially the exact same song that became a hit, and man was that a relief, because we were sweating that one out for a while.