Hall H at the San Diego Comic-Con kicked things off with a panel covering DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming projects, Trolls, and The Boss Baby. The former centers on a story about the nostalgic toys of the 90s where the title characters live in what looks like a world of arts and crafts that is drizzled with felt and glitter, then topped off with some sweet sugar. Now it may sound like the film has one too many fun bubbles, but Trolls is actually surprisingly well-balanced.
During the panel directors, Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn said they wanted Trolls to explore the themes of happiness. Where it comes from and what happens when it gets taken away. And because the trolls do not really have a mythology, the directors decided to build one surrounding these characters while exploring that theme.
The two revealed that there are two kinds of characters. The trolls are a happy group that loves to sing, even if it is just singing about singing. They are led by Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), a joyfully optimistic bubbly pink troll who just can’t find a reason to be sad. Then there is Branch (Justin Timberlake) a rather cantankerous gray troll who would rather stay isolated and alone.
The villains of our story are called Bergens a rather depressing bunch who is even more miserable than Branch. However, they only find joy in eating Trolls, who apparently taste like a cupcake wrapped in bacon. That’s when we learn more about the polarizing relationship between Poppy and Branch, and what drives the two to work together when Poppy’s friends, known as the Snack Pack, gets kidnapped. She asks Branch to help her on her quest, only to see just how overly paranoid he is of the Bregens and ultimately gets denied.
You see, the reason why Branch is a miserable troll because something devastating happened to him, which drained him of his color. Despite his refusal, Poppy let’s the surviving group of trolls into his bunker, leaving him to decide if he should stay or go with her.
Our next clip revealed one of the original songs that will be used in the film. As you might expect, the song is blissfully happy and optimistic about the hard road that lies ahead. Poppy has no fear even though she has her run-ins with all sorts of creatures with felt-like textures. Sometimes the creatures eat other creatures and then are themselves eaten by a much larger creature. This is just to establish how Poppy was unaware of just how big the world is, but how she is driven by her optimism when Branch makes a last-minute rescue to save her.
In another clip, we see just how depressing the Bergens are as they sing Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” with low sad tones. And that is what makes this film work. It is their courage to use any song, not just top 40 stuff, to drive the story.
We were treated to an interview right after the panel ended where we learned much more about the film.
Dohrn spoke about how much it was a joy to use music to this extent. It was new territory for the director, who found relief when he realized Justin would be coming in to do work. Mitchell says the CGI technology know allows them to make anything very realistic, going as far as mentioning How To Train Your Dragon, another Dreamworks film, to say how detailed their work was and how far the CGI technology has come. But as aforementioned, this world may look like a forest, but it has different textures to it. “We built a very realistic forest, but then we applied different textures to it, like felt and carpet,” said Mitchell. “Our Trolls themselves sort of look like Gummi Bears wrapped in velvet.”
Mitchell talked about how everyone who worked on the film grew up on Sesame Street, and how they used that as somewhat of an inspiration.
Despite the great chemistry the characters have, Timberlake and Kendrick didn’t do too many recording sessions together. Timberlake joked maybe that was why it looked like they had great chemistry. But he said they did collaborate together on the music. Adding that the fact that characters look great on screen is a tribute to Mitchell and Dohrn’s directing. Kendrick chimed in by saying the two directors would do the work of half the cast by making funny faces or impersonating fellow cast members.
“Because you are not at the mercy of live-action, you can try a bunch of different things,” said Timberlake. “That’s one of the great parts of making an animated film. You can really go back and tinker your character.” An example would be when Timberlake was worried that Branch would be too cantankerous, but “because of how hilariously optimistic Anna’s character was, the more arming I was, Mike and Walt said things were working.” Kendrick said she loves improving. “I really crack myself up,” she said jokingly. “I did way more improve in this then when I started doing improv comedy in a live-action movie, because whenever I say something I’m imagining a fuzzy six-inch pink creature saying it.”
The film is a five-year process with the story being continued to develop throughout the years. This includes script, story ideas, and possible actors they would like to see voice these characters. “We are writing the script as we are making the film,” said Mitchell. “That could be really great and it could be really strange.”
When Kendrick was first pitched she was treated to a tour of what inspired the film, clearly excited by what she saw, she told the directors that they should take the material on the road. It was then she realized how small her role was in the film. “It was a humbling and awesome experience.” She even wrote the forward for the whole book.
The Troll’s soundtrack is a combination of top 40 hits with original songs. Describing his most recent release “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” Timberlake said it was written specifically for a big moment in the movie, which he says is the triumphant peak of the movie. However, he says the clearance process for songs is crazy. “There’s so much you can do with music, you can really transform anything in a movie with music,” said Timberlake. “The other thing is, I wanted to take a more modern approach, so something like ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ I kept referencing for some reason, I don’t know why, I kept referencing ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or ‘Grease,” or ‘Urban Cowboy.’ Why do these have John Travolta in them.” He expressed how he wanted to give the film its own DNA, even though he was contemporizing cleared songs. But the important thing was that the songs matched the look of the movie, which was “pop.” “The colors pop,” said Timberlake.” The vibe of the movie pops. Literally, our hero has pop in her name.”
There was no real voice prep work necessary, although Kendrick admits that there were times where she reverted to a cartoony voice and the directors asked her just to do her normal voice. “It’s hard not to because the lines are so optimistic and it’s hard not to do a cartoony voice,” said Kendrick. “It’s wise of them to have us use our normal voices and make those characters feel really grounded. It’s such a surreal world and you want to bring some truth and spontaneity to the characters.” Timberlake agreed adding the recording process let’s you get to do the line 10 different times and pick apart at it, which you don’t really get to do in a live-action film. “The point is for these crazy looking mythical creatures is to feel as human as possible,” said Timberlake.”
During the Hall H panel, producer Gina Shay talked about empowering girls through song and deliberately making someone like Poppy cheerful and optimistic and not worrying about her body image. Something of a positive message that is rarely expressed in film. Kendrick said the song had many different versions, with Timberlake adding that one of the versions sounded like “Oh, Mickey You So Fine.” While it gave the song adrenaline, it took away from its message and sounded more satirical. “That song was really fun to me because I think it is the most psycho she can be in a piece of music,” said Kendrick. “The other things like ‘Move Your Feet’ is more performance, and ‘Sound of Silence’ is a bit more performance and she is having a good time. But that is showing all these layers to her personalities. I just love that she is tiny and has pink hair, and loves parties, but she is also on this adventure to save her friends. She is the one who goes after her friends in that song. It is this awesome platform to psyche herself up, and be brave and courageous while being tiny and pink.” Timberlake added, “That song is definitely Poppy’s version of alone time car singing.” He revealed that this was one of the songs that kept touching it up because the animators kept adding new ideas for what was physically happening to her character, so they had to go back and rewrite it to match the lyrics.