An Interview with Andrew Adamson - Co-Director of Shrek

by Nick Jardine

    We were delighted to be given the opportunity recently to speak at length with the co-director of Shrek, Andrew Adamson about one of the most innovative animated movies (and fun DVDs) in recent history. Nick Jardine conducted the interview, and a wide range of topics were covered, including quite a few DVD-specific issues. We hope you'll enjoy reading this transcript as much as we enjoyed bringing it to you.

What does the director of an animated film do, in comparison to a live-action director?

    That's not an uncommon question, because animation has this strange mystery to it that what you see on the screen is the sum of many different components, whereas in live-action, when you walk on the set - the camera is there, the lights are there, the actors are there, the environment is there, they're all in the same room, and you roll and you get the scene and you're done. In animation, that same process can be stretched out easily over a year. You might record one actor one month, another actor a couple of months later. You will do the camera moves in some very rudimentary forms with the voices playing against them and that will go against the body part of the acting. The animation will be done, and then the lighting and all the texturing will be done after that. Effectively you went through the same steps, it was just stretched out over a long period of time. As far as the other aspects of directing are concerned - storytelling, working with writers and visual artists and production designers, all of those aspects are very similar. It's like directing in slow motion.

It must be hard to maintain a vision for individual shots and sequences over that long time period

The hardest thing is holding your instincts. I think there is a lot of good things that happen in film-making that are purely instinctual decisions. When you're on set, you're on location and you have to make a decision, it's a gut decision and you just have to go with it - you don't have any chance to go back and question that. In animation you always get the chance to question yourself. For instance, when a story artist pitches a scene to us, they will draw up the story board panel and act out the scene while pointing to the panel. That's the first time you really get the scene "played". You always have a kind of emotional reaction to that, and sometimes it will be great and you'll think the scene is working really well, but then you'll work with it for six months and you'll look at it and think "What's wrong with the scene, it doesn't work anymore!" You then have to go back and remember what it was you instinctually responded to in the first place, and you have to be able to hold onto those instincts.

How did you first get into film-making?

Kind of accidentally. I was initially working in computer animation in New Zealand in the mid 80s doing mostly station IDs, commercials et cetera. In around '91 I was recruited by PDI to come over (to America) and work on commercials and station IDs here. Around the same time, PDI were opening an office in Los Angeles, to get involved in feature film work. I came down here to work on a Barry Levinson film called Toys and I just fell in love with the longer format, being able to concentrate on something a little longer and really telling a story - telling a story people want to see as opposed to putting something on TV while they went to the bathroom. That got me more interested in using (film-making) as a storytelling method. Initially I was doing visual effects. I became an "independent" visual effects supervisor in doing a few Batman movies. I came around to doing animation accidentally when I was approached to do (Shrek), and I thought "I don't know" - it's animation and it takes a long time and I was really heading more in the area of live action directing at the time, but (Shrek) came up and I decided to try it.

Is the decision to cast well-known actors to only provide voices purely a marketing one, or are there other benefits?

I think it is a combination. While I think it certainly helps in the the marketing, the actors are stars for a reason. That is certainly the case with us. We knew when we were casting for the role of Shrek, we wanted a really good comedian - we knew it was a funny movie and we wanted somebody who could step into this character. Mike (Myers) is obviously amazing at that. Eddie Murphy was on this project before I was, because Jeffrey (Katzenberg - Dreamworks co-owner, and producer of Shrek) has had a long relationship with him and he has always wanted to do an animated movie with Eddie, so when this project came in he talked to Eddie about it very early on. The one thing you need to remember is that these people are stars, generally, for a reason and that is usually because they are very good at what they do. When you're doing animation, so much has to come from the voice you want the best voices you can get. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have to be stars, and they aren't always. If you have found a wonderful new comic that was just really great at what he does, then there is no reason not to use that person. I do think it helps with the marking, definitely. People like Mike, and Eddie, and Cameron definitely have a following. People going to the movie see Mike Myers in it, but they see Mike Myers as a character that he has never been before, as well - although he does that a lot, even in live action movies.

Mike Myers has a habit of playing many roles in his films - does he have any other roles in Shrek?

Yes, he's one of the mice. The mouse that sounds most like a beetle.

On the subject of Mike Myers, he re-recorded his dialogue for Shrek in a Scottish accent - was the expense worth it?

Yes, definitely. Going in, we did what we do with most actors which is to say that the characters are already very caricatured, and that we don't want the voices to feel cartoonish, and just to use their normal voice. The thing that we learned with Mike is that he is at his best when he creates a character from scratch. As you say, he often plays many characters in his movies, he's like Peter Sellers in that way, in that he will just invent a role and step into it. When we went back and did it with the Scottish accent, that is what it really enabled him to do. Suddenly he wasn't just Mike playing a role, he became Shrek. It was really worth it.

Do you use the way the actors perform their voices to control the animation?

Not to control it - what the animators do is a creative thing, and finding nuances within the voice is what they are very, very good at. Very often when we are recording with somebody we will say "can you smile when you are saying that" because you can hear the smile in the voice. On top of that we usually record video footage while they are playing the role and recording the voice so that if there is a particular facial expression they do while we're recording that we want the animator to cue off, we can show it to them. We can say "look, Mike did this great thing here, and I want to see Shrek doing that". Largely it comes down to the animator really listening to the voice and hearing the expression and often they will add another little nuance to it - something the actor was not doing when he was performing it but that maybe just adds a little extra something.

How much freedom do the animators have, as opposed to how much is under your control?

None! They do only what I say and nothing more! (kidding) The great thing about animation for me is that usually we will have the scene editor with the voices and we will give that to an animator, tell them the general intent of what is going on in the scene, and they will then do a first pass of it. That will become a block-down pass where they will just show you what they are thinking. As a director, you tend to respond to that. Sometimes it might be "you know what, you're going down the wrong path", but more often it happens that it is more like "that is something I had never thought of - you're doing a little thing with the face there I wouldn't have told you to do, and it's better than I expected." Those are the moments you hope for, and we were very lucky to get a lot of those in this film - we had such wonderful animators. To me, that is when the characters come to life, and if you have to do it yourself, you don't get this moment of getting to see the characters come to life. It depends on the situation, sometimes it gets very dictatorial, where if you have a certain thing you need to achieve, then you say to the animator "look, I need this to happen right here", and other times it is completely up to them.

In you bio, I read that you have signed on to direct Shrek 2 - what stage of development is that in?

We're in the process of trying to figure out the story right now. It's a bit of a challenge. We had a story that was very well received, the characters are well known, and that puts restrictions on what you can do with them. People's expectations are high, so we have to figure out a really good story, so it is still in pretty early stages right now.

Were you surprised with the success of Shrek at the box-office?

Definitely. I knew it wasn't going to be terrible. Because you get to see the movie a lot of times as you're making it, and you get to show it to a lot of people there was a point along the way when I knew it wasn't going to suck. I don't think I ever anticipated the level of success that we actually received.

Was it an intention right from the start to appeal to not just children, but to all age groups, including say teens and the youth market?

Not really. It's very hard to be deliberate about that, to set in gear and to try and do that. It was really just about making a film for our own tastes, and I think we were just lucky that our tastes vary across that range. I grew up watching MTV and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, a pretty wide variety of different kinds of things - English TV, American TV and so we ended up with a fairly broad spectrum of comedy in the movie. Kids love it when Donkey just runs into a wall and falls over, adults love some of the more sophisticated parody and so on, and then there are moments that I think cross both lines.

Shrek is very much a fairy tale, a fantasy film. With Lord Of The Rings set for release later this year, do you think there is a resurgence in that genre taking place?

With New Zealand directors, definitely! I think there has been a little bit of a resurgence of that, and I think that it is a little bit of a backlash to the reality movies. The mid to late 90s was known for movies like Twister and Volcano - basically every natural disaster that could happen did. There has also been a lot of reality television, starting with the cop shows and now of course, Survivor and programs like that. In the last year or so, the thing we saw was Moulin Rouge which was a return to an old style of musical that hadn't been done for years. I think it is to some degree a bit of reaction to reality. There is a wonderful thing that film can do, and it is to take you to places that you have never been and never seen, and that is what I found appealing about working in such a fantasy world was being able to create a place that is familiar in some ways - a bit like a dream, it is familiar in some ways, yet it is completely made up and is completely fantasy.

Turning to the DVD of Shrek, were you involved personally with the transfer?

Yes, definitely. For two reasons really, one for the DVD itself, and also because we released it at a digital projection cinimaplex here. The first step of that was actually colour correcting it digitally, which was an amazing experience. Basically, you sit in a cinema and colour correct in real time on a forty foot screen, which is really great. Then, because the film originated digitally - we weren't scanning film or anything like that - the transfer to DVD was a pretty straightforward process. We just set up some basic parameters, and we could then just apply the colour correction we had done for the digital projection, and it was a pretty straight through transfer. What you are seeing on DVD on a good monitor is really more how the images were intended to look than in fact most of the film projection you see. There's a lot of variance in film projectors, between cinemas, and in the film process between different prints. In some ways the DVD transfer is probably the most consistent, and closest to what we were aiming for.

Was Shrek's eventual DVD release considered while it was in production for theatrical release?

Not specifically, other than the medium of DVD has grown a lot in the years since we started this film. I tend to be a perfectionist anyway, but it definitely was one of the reasons giving me justification to make sure things were perfect. Visual effects and animation are always a "sleight-of-hand" process, a bit like a magic trick. If you only see the trick once, you can get away with it, but when people can go back and stop frame, and go over it again and again, you have to make sure it is a pretty good trick. It meant that if there was a little thing wrong with an image then I had justification for making people go back and fix it.

Are you happy with the transfer that has been done for the Shrek DVD, both from a technical and creative point of view?

Yes, definitely. It is one of the better DVD transfer because it was digital all the way. So much of it depends on how you see the image - what monitor you see it on - but certainly when I've seen it on good high resolution monitors that show the full DVD resolution, it looks wonderful. There is a definite clarity to it that we saw in the digital projection that we didn't really see in the film projection.

Would you say that the DVD of Shrek is better than the theatre version?

In some ways I think it is. I would definitely see it both ways, as there are things you will see on the DVD that you don't see in theatres, but it's never going to sound as good at home. Although with the surround sound systems, the home viewing experience has become much more immersive and closer to the theatre experience than ever before.

The international (non R1) version of Shrek misses out on a DTS soundtrack and that has made many home theatre aficionados angry. Do you think this will disadvantage non-US audiences?

Really? I didn't know that. That is the first I have heard about that, I will find out more about it. However, if you have a good enough system, I would be interested to know how much audible difference there is between the formats. I know from my own experience with home recording that the difference between bitrates comes down to "how much difference do you actually hear?" I know that Dolby Digital is quite good, so I would be interested to hear how much difference there is between the DTS and the Dolby Digital. On the upside, your pictures have more resolution.

In that regards, when you sit down to watch a movie on DVD, what is your preferred format, and why?

I always try to watch widescreen - I don't like to see pan & scan films - I wish that I had a great sound system at home, but I don't at the moment. Basically I put it in and play it through my stereo right now, which sounds pathetic, but I am in the process of trying to move house, so my intention ultimately is to get a high-res video projector, and a surround sound system. As far as the difference between DTS and Dolby Digital, I haven't really looked into that.

More specifically, do you have a preference between NTSC and PAL?

I just watch NTSC because it is so much easier here. As an overall thing, I prefer watching films in PAL because the frame rate is much closer without the 3:2 pulldown issue, the image resolution is much better, and the colour resolution is better, so if it was absolutely up to me, I would watch PAL.

When you were doing the transfer, at what stage did you differentiate between PAL and NTSC?

At no point that I was involved in. We do the frames to 1.66, even though we project 1.85, so we have the extra frame height in either case, so we have the extra resolution there, but the transfer is done completely out of house, by somebody else. I didn't have anything to do with it after the point we do the digital intermediate, so I had nothing to do with the PAL transfer.

The A Bug's Life DVD is considered by many to be the reference for DVD transfers in regard to video quality. Are you hoping that Shrek will take this honour?

I haven't really thought about that. I certainly think that they have done a really good job with the extra features they have put on there, and the entertainment factor of just going through the menus. We have some great stuff with the re-voice studio that is interesting and quite innovative, but sure, I'd be quite happy if it takes that title!

Did you personally have any involvement with the creation of the re-voice studio?

No, I didn't. They first showed that to me when it was only partially developed, and I was a great advocate of it, but I wasn't involved in the creation of that. Basically they came and allowed me to play with the menus, and come up with ideas for the menus which was a lot of fun, and some of the extra material like the additional three or so minutes that we have at the end of the movie. Again, they just came and said "we just want to do something extra for the DVD and video release", and to go off and play and come up with some ideas, so that was a lot of fun.

Regarding the extended sequence at the end of the film, was that created just for the DVD release, or were they created for but cut from the theatrical release?

In the case of the after party, we have this extra footage, which is like the "after the wedding party" and that was created specifically for the DVD. We hadn't intended to do that otherwise, and it was a challenge. We had a lot of characters that we'd seen in the movie like Pinocchio and the Gingerbread Man who played relatively minor roles, so when they came to us with "we want to do some extra material", we though it would be fun to revisit those characters. So we did this karaoke party that was just there purely because it was fun. For the menus we do a similar kind of thing. Each menu is a comic vignette, you get to select different characters that take you to different modes and different parts of the disc, and in each case they will take you from a comic vignette to another comic vignette. So you get a chance to revisit those characters.

With the caricatures featured in the movie, did you have any particular targets in mind for the parodies?

Pretty much nothing was sacred - anything that was funny we would play with. There were definitely a lot of things that didn't make it into the film, a lot of parody. There are a lot of fairy tale creatures to play with and we ended up picking the funniest. We would go into a room and sit around a table and have to come up with funny ideas for different fairy tale characters. One of the things we got to do a lot of was juxtaposing those characters into new roles. The fun thing about the extra material such as the karaoke party is you have the Gingerbread Man singing Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. Just conceptually, it's funny just to have the gingerbread man singing, then the fact that you can take a contemporary song adds another layer to it, and then the fact that the song was actually related to what was going on in the movie. The characters like that, the ones that came to life in the movie allowed us to go that step further as far a parody. Because the movie itself is very anachronistic - we play around with parody from The Matrix, we do things where there is suddenly a Polaroid camera in the middle of a medieval town - it enabled us to do the same kind of things in the menus as in the initial material.

Moving for a moment to DVD in general, the last few days has seen incredible hype surrounding the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace on DVD. Do you thing that this level of hype is warranted?

Well, I haven't seen the DVD as yet, but I heard that it was very good. I heard that the extra material on the DVD is actually very interesting, but I haven't seen it myself. As far as the hype over one particular DVD being released, Star Wars carries with it a long heritage of fanatical fans and as I say, I've heard that the material they've put on there is very good, and very informative, so I guess those people would want to hear and see that information. I don't know if any hype is really that warranted, but I'm probably going to go out and buy it, now that it's out, and I'll probably watch all the additional materials, so I guess that it is warranted.

Excluding Shrek, what is currently your favourite DVD?

Two things at the moment that I've been watching a lot of. One is the Black Adder series, that came out as a box set, which is great because you don't get a lot of British comedy here, and even though I've seen the whole series before, it's great to revisit. The other thing is a series called Dekalog which is a Kieslowski (who directed the Three Colours trilogy) and passed away a couple of years ago, did a series for, I think, Polish TV. Every now and again, some festival theatres will show these films, but they are pretty hard to watch and they released a box set of that - he's just an amazing film-maker. Those would be my favourite two at the moment.

Given the complexity of the animation in Shrek, where can computer animation go from here?

I don't think that it will get more complex, I think what we are finding now is that it is a medium that is capable of doing many different kinds of things than it has before. Obviously with Shrek and Final Fantasy, and other movies that have come out recently, there has been a certain level of reality that has been approached. At the same time, in the near future, I think movies will become more stylised. I think it's a medium that has reached a level of maturity now where it's kind of open to the imagination. We really are at the point of saying, "if you can imagine it, it's probably possible." I just hope it leads to people telling more varied, more stylistically different stories.

As animation can go places that live-action can't, do you think that it will become more important than live-action, or do you think that it will always be looked at as a children's medium to some extent?

I think it is being taken more seriously now, we say with Shrek it crossed a few boundaries. We went to Cannes, and it was a very unique event that an animated movie would be accepted into that area. It has obviously crossed a lot of boundaries in terms of the age groups of people going to see it, so I think that some of those boundaries are breaking down. I think Toy Story originally broke many of those boundaries. I think you used to hear a lot of "I wouldn't have gone to see this movie but I really enjoyed it", or "I went with my kid, and I was really surprised how much I enjoyed it." I think the more that happens, the more people are going to go and see animated movies. I don't think that's a threat to live action any more than photography ended up being a threat to painting. It's a different art form, it's a different medium.

Well, I've run out of questions, and my half hour. Thank you very much for your time.

Not a problem at all. Nice to talk to you.