Interview: Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn talk ‘Trolls’, Justin Timberlake and getting into animation


Dreamworks have been hard at work creating the new ‘Trolls’ animation, which is one of the best animations of 2016. They’ve created a backstory for the beloved creatures from our childhood, and it’s magical, colourful and uber feminist. The theme of the film is happiness, and I think that’s such an important message to reinforce wherever we can. Animation in 2016 is the best it’s ever been and these films aren’t just for kids, they’re for families. All ages will be able to relate to ‘Trolls’ in some way, and that’s what makes animation so timeless and wonderful.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to sit down with the directors of ‘Trolls’ in a fancy Central London hotel. Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn told me all about the new film, and how they got into animation. It was truly fascinating to sit in the same room as two people who made some of my favourite cartoons growing up. These guys have contributed to ‘Shrek’, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ and even ‘Spongebob Squarepants’. They’re accomplished, humble and have some of the best jobs in the world.

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‘Trolls’ is centred around the theme of happiness, how did that impact/influence the animation?

Walt: It informed everything about the movie.

Mike: It informed the character designs, the colours, the music. You can’t make a film without a bunch of happy music in it.

Walt: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ definitely encapsulates all of that happy feeling.

The soundtrack mixes the old with the new, do you think that will attract not just children but families to come and see the film?

Mike: Absolutely. Do you remember the game ‘Guitar Hero’?

Of course, what a game.

Mike: I always compare it to that because parents my age really dug that as well, because they’d see their kids jamming out to an old song they grew up with. Walt and I really appreciate those needle drop type of songs that we call guilty pleasures. For example ‘Hello’, when the song starts everyone starts laughing because of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’, and it’s a joke. But by the end of it you feel sad for this little girl. For us it tells a story, and by the end of it you say ‘I can see why that song is still around’.

Walt: We love this idea of making movies for everyone. Even family movies we love especially because we both have families. It’s nice to be able sit and enjoy a movie with everybody, and I think having classic songs really does that.

Mike: We have some original songs by Justin Timberlake, and even Gwen Stefani sang for us. And Ariana Grande.

Justin Timberlake is the executive music producer on this film, how much freedom did he have within that role?

Mike: When it came to recording and designing music, he had complete freedom. The only restrictions he had was that he inherited a lot of songs that we already had, that were telling a story. And then his only other restriction was that we told him as we would tell an actor, what we need from a particular part of the film – especially towards the end, you have to come with a song that transforms an entire community’s view on life.

So, no pressure then? 😂

Walt: I know, right?! But, he would ask us a lot about it like what’s going on with the story here and how are the characters feeling? When he was coaching Anna to sing ‘Get Back Up Again’, it was important to know what the character was going through. So he definitely got a lot of information, but as soon as he got that we could just sit back and watch him work – which was amazing and incredible to see him sing.

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‘Trolls’ have been a popular toy for many years but as you’ve previously said there was no backstory to them. What was it like having the opportunity to create that story for these beloved characters?

Mike: It was incredibly freeing. My favourite thing about this film is that we got to create an entire world, and there were no rules. We bought in every one of our influences from Dr. Seuss to ‘Adventure Time’.

Walt: It was great to have a blank slate because I’ve worked on a number of sequels before which was fun, like the Shrek franchise. But this was great because it was anything that we wanted to do.

Who created the hug watch and what inspired it?

Mike: I have to say that was a board artist named Claire Morrissey, she came up with the hug time watch, and it just came together. We thought what are the visual things we can show that show happiness? Singing, dancing and then we were like hugging! And then she came up with this little watch that blooms up every hour on the hour.

Walt: It seemed kind of ridiculous at first, we wanted to show how absurd these trolls were and just how happy they were.

You’re both accomplished and well respected within the animation industry. As you previously said you’ve both worked on the Shrek franchise and ‘Spongebob Squarepants’. How did you get into the industry?

Walt: It came from CalArts really, that’s the California Institute of the Arts. You really build relationships while you’re there. Both in the industry and with your friends who are going out and getting jobs. I think that’s really what happened, the relationships that were built during school.

Mike: We all hung out and looked at each others artwork. It was a really special group of people, they all work at Pixar – the guy who created ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ we went to school with. At that school they bring in a lot of industry contacts to teach the courses and allow you to start making those connections. I also met a lot of amazing people from travelling the film festival circuit.

What advice would you give to those wanting to pursue a career in animation?

Mike: I would say make your own films and really study story – do your own thing. Don’t make a film for your parents, don’t make a film to get a job, there’s going to be plenty of time to work in the industry. Make your own film.

Walt: I look at a lot of students boards and work, and it looks like they’re trying to do the style of the company they want to work for. But every time I see a film of its own style, that is coming from a personal voice. That gets me excited.

Mike: Also, in any filmmaking it’s storytelling. Knowing something as simple as a first, second and third act and that you have a character, and that character needs something. Your audience needs to know that.

Walt: There’s a mathematics behind it I think, a foundation of story mathematics.

Mike: And it’s good. You can be even more weird and artistic when you know that.

How long did it take to make this film from pre to post production?

Mike: Three years!

What’s your favourite thing about working in the film industry?

Mike: Working with other artists and everyone has their own different style.

Walt: The community and being able to make something that you can share with so many people around the world, and give them good feelings and joy.

‘Trolls’ is out in UK cinemas on October 21 and US cinemas on November 4. 

Featured image courtesy of Think Jam.

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