Saturday, December 22, 2007

DreamWorks Animation

DreamWorks Animation is best known for the Shrek franchise, which they followed up with Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Flushed Away, and the Bee Movie.

They were the first CGI animation company to release two features in a single year. At any given time they have as many as five films in development. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “K” in DreamWorks SKG has said, “Walt Disney made movies for the child in every adult. We make movies for the adult in every child.”

DreamWorks Animation occupies two campuses, one in southern California, and one in the Bay Area of northern California, linked with a high tech video conferencing system. Both campuses have designers, animators and technical wizards, but the architecture and atmosphere of the campuses is quite different.

The southern campus in Glendale is Spanish style, with fountains, goldfish ponds, tile floors, and arched hallways. The northern facility, called PDI DreamWorks, occupies a modern but attractive building overlooking the baylands of Redwood City. We arrived early, and I did a quick watercolor study of the industrial architecture nearby, which I have a fondness for.

The studio works hard to create a “culture of mentorship” at both campuses, with free classes offered after hours in life drawing and character design. There’s a hallway space called the “Blue Sky Gallery” where artists can show other facets of their creative life beyond what they do from 9 to 5. Breakfast and lunch are free, and we were told that most new hires gain ten pounds in the first month or two. Free food! I gained five pounds just at lunch!

A huge visual research library (above) is available on campus. Each film takes about four years in the pipeline. “Each project has its own aesthetic,” explained John Tarnoff, head of Outreach, “and it grows out of its story and characters.”

After my presentation I was honored to meet many of the DreamWorks artists, including Shane Prigmore. He did the sketch above just for fun in a character design class where the assignment was to imagine how Ronald Searle would draw Conan.

I also met artist Nathan Fowkes (below), whose "color keys" help establish the mood and lighting of the show—in this case Shrek the Halls. Other artists bring a different range of talents to the production process: modeling, rigging, texturing, lighting, and effects. “One of the strengths of our production process,” John Tarnoff said, “is our facial animation system.”

Students who are interested in working at DreamWorks animation might want to keep a couple of things in mind. I asked John Tarnoff what skill sets are not always covered in art schools. “Any visual designer who wants to be in this business,” he said, “needs to know what writing is about: motivation, characterization, and plot. The zeitgeist of this company is that we’re all storytellers.”

Jim Conrads, my host in the northern California studio answered the same question differently. He felt that artists need to develop the social skills: teamwork, compromise, and respect for others’ points of view. “Artists are usually taught to come up with their own personal expression,” he said, “but rarely encouraged to carry out another’s vision or blend with another’s style.” Below: The Redwood City campus of PDI DreamWorks.

And the portfolio you present should go beyond the common cliches of fantasy art. Kathy Altieri, head of Show Development, told me that she gives a presentation at art schools called “Chicks and Guns,” to make the point that you need to show a lot more than sexy girls and weapons. Your portfolio will stand out if you can draw all kinds of architecture, costumes, animals, and characters.

Thanks to everyone at both campuses, and best wishes on your ongoing projects.

Some photos of facilities courtesy DreamWorks.


Anonymous said...

james is it intimidating going to the biggest art studios and schools all across the united states? i can remember how intimidated i was just in painting class with a group of other great artists. i cant imagine what it might be like going to see and present infront of the best students and artist working in the united states every week, and somtimes twice a week or more. thats nuts!

by the way how did this tour form. it seemed like it was a tour to start off the new book. but now seems to be going in the direction of schools and huge art studios?

did you plan to tour these studios and schools and why did you choose studios and schools to present the new book. instead of the regular museams and bookstores?

hope i'm not being nosey. just very curious and jealous!


Anonymous said...

Good questions, Big E, and I should explain:

The Chandara tour has been a very different kind of tour, because I organized it, not some disinterested publicist. Lecture fees and book sales funded the transportation and food expenses of the trip, while the publisher generously agreed to pay for hotels.

I chose art schools because I was curious how art is being taught these days, and I chose movie studios because I knew that some of the most gifted artists work at those places.

For some reason I don't feel intimidated by being around incredibly good artists--I just feel lifted up by talking to them and seeing their work.

Gavin said...

I loved working at DreamWorks, and it wasn't just the 30lbs I gained there (ha! No freshman 15 at my current job at Google). What both companies have in common is a sense of providing a kind, productive atmosphere for professionals in their fields.

Nathan Fowkes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Fowkes said...

Well, we were absolutely thrilled to have you visit and I have to say to Big E that if there was any intimidation it went the other way around.

Yes, the free food at Dreamworks is fantastic but you should've seen it when the studio opened it's doors a decade ago. To draw talent and goodwill the food was utterly lavish with fresh baked desserts everyday at 3 and a freezer always full of Haagen Dazs bars. I honest to goodness quit eating dinner, having filled my calorie requirements before I got home.

I appreciated the industrial sketch having spent many lunchtimes sketching in that area. You might enjoy the blog of Mike Hernandez one of our art directors. If you go into his archives, he has some of the most beautiful industrial sketches I've seen.

Thanks again and Happy Holidays!!