The Guys Behind the Trolls: Q&A with Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn

Claudia Sanchez

Deputy Scene Editor

With its bright colors and use of innovative animation techniques, “Trolls” is the perfect cheery break we need from our current political climate. The movie follows two trolls, cheery Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and the cynical Branch (Justin Timberlake) as they go on a quest to save their friends from the Bergens, chronically unhappy creatures who can only feel happiness by eating Trolls.

In the middle of their promotion tour, co-directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, visited the Ritz-Carlton on Oct. 21. Drinking fresh pressed juice in a sunny conference room, they talked about the making of “Trolls,” the future of animation, and their inspirations.


Where did you become animators?

Walt Dohrn: San Francisco State had, at the time, an interesting animation and film program, and I really love the city. I came up here, but I really wanted to be down in California Institute of the Arts.

MM: I went to CalArts for live action filmmaking. But then I was walking around the animation department at CalArts and I saw some of Walt’s artwork, and I was very inspired by that. I was like, “I’m gonna transfer over here, into animation.” What’s great is that it’s all storytelling and creating worlds and characters, and I think it’s something we both wanted to do when we were kids.

How is the filming process for an animated film different from a live action one?

MM: In live action films you work on the script first. And so you get that really nice, and then you cast, and then you’re shooting, and then you edit it together, and you do sound effects and music and mix and you’re done.

In animation you’re doing all that at one time. As we’re writing it, we’re also editing it together, and then we’re tearing it down, and we’re remaking it; it’s almost more like workshopping a play. You’re just putting it up on the screen and we all watch it, even if it’s in its roughest form with us doing the voices. We don’t want to bother the actors as we change things so often and try out new things, and that’s how Walt gets to do voices in our films, because sometimes he does a voice we cannot replace, like Cloud Guy.

WD: That’s how our kids end up in the movies too, because we use them. It’s easier to grab our kids. They are members of SAG, I have to say.

MM: As long as it takes, it’s a very loose, energetic, creative way to work.

Walt, this is your first full length film as a director, congratulations!

WD: Yeah, co-director!

MM: He was super ready for it, like, you know he should have been directing a long time ago because he’s just one of the most talented people that DreamWorks has. He works on everything behind the scenes, like every [DreamWorks] director has Walt help them out on their films.

WD: I was head of story when Mike was directing one of the last “Shrek” movies, and it was nice and he brought me on to take a bigger role on this movie. I got to be involved in a lot more departments that I haven’t worked in before; a lot more hands-on with all the animators and the lighters and the painters. It was super fun, thanks Mike.

MM: You’re welcome Walt. Finally! It’s taken 3 years for him to thank me.

WD: I’ve been busy!

How has your experience as animators helped you as directors?

MM: It’ nice to know how difficult everyone’s job is, because we’ve done it ourselves. It really does give you insight. We know that this is not an easy task to pull off, what we’re asking you to do.

WD: I think it gives a lot of respect among other artists on the crew, knowing that we’ve been through the ranks and we’ve done every little aspect of making animated movies.

How did you create and decide on the Trolls’ visuals?

MM: Well, first we were inspired by Miyazaki. We just love his films and he creates these fairytale worlds for a fairytale you’ve never read before, and you’re like, “what is this world of strange creatures?” We like that. A lot of our friends work on “Adventure Time,” and I just think that’s such irreverent weird comedy that we wanted to pull both of those elements into a big Dreamworks C.G.I. adventure film just to see if we could do that. Beyond that, we really like Jim Henson and Dr Seuss books, and that seemed to creep its way in, and so really we used everything we’re inspired by, and we put it in a big blender.

WD: We wanted to make something that felt handmade, and I think that was something that we kept coming back to. It’s all made in the digital world, but we want to really craft something that felt intimate with the audience.

What advice do you have for aspiring animators and directors?

WD: I would say that technology out there now is so, I should say advanced, but at the same time attainable, where you can make a film in your own garage by yourself. I would encourage everyone to make their own film and make it what you want to make it in your own style.

MM: When we hire people we’re looking for people with their own style, not someone who’s trying to get a job somewhere or trying to mimic someone else’s style. Do your own thing, your own style.  

WD: And that’s important, doing the hard work. But I tell everyone, even our board artists now, because they can get really wrapped up in their own work: “Don’t forget to go out and connect with other people.” You know, make emotional connections. Go out and have experiences…make sure you’re doing other things besides just doing your work.   


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