Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Credit where credit is due

I've been a little hard on Dreamworks over the years on this blog. You might say that I look for opportunities to get in little digs at the world's second most successful animation studio.

In fact, you might even say that I was mentally composing a blog post entitled "The Pepsi of animation" when I first arrived at Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibit in Melbourne's Federation Square this past Sunday with my wife and two kids in tow. You might say this was the result of quickly scanning the walls and realizing that you know what? I don't really love any of these characters. You might say that.

But you might also say that I give credit where credit is due.

Even if I don't love all the characters or even most of the movies they appear in, I do love the commitment Dreamworks brought to giving us a truly interactive experience that brings us inside the world of making their particular brand of movie magic.

For a reasonable price of $22.50 per adult -- a price that seemed even more reasonable because we had one free ticket -- you're exposed to a gallery of pictures, movie clips, sculptures, models, how-to videos, touchscreens, dioramas and everything else you can imagine that basically charts the history of Dreamworks Animation. (With a few exceptions that I'll get to later.) The gallery is designed in three conceptual areas -- Character, Story and World -- and laid out in such a way to take you kind of chronologically through the creation process.


- A wall devoted to demonstrating the storyboarding stage. The wall is filled with index-card sized images depicting the Gingerbread Man torture scene from Shrek, with the hundred or so in the middle blank. Then a projector projects the image of a Dreamworks creative mind stepping through additional index card-sized images projected on to the blanks on the wall, creating the illusion of a complete storyboarding wall -- the man does the character voices and steps through the scene with a pointer. Then near the end we see the actual scene play out in the movie.

- A brainstorming session, which shows a table covered with notepads, scripts, discarded food containers, a large paper scroll, cell phones, and any number of other pieces of creative detritus. A projector factors in here as well, but it's projecting down from the ceiling, allowing images to appear and race across the notebooks, character faces to be scribbled on otherwise blank sticky notes, pages flipping in a book, and even a yellow highlighter magically coloring lines of dialogue in the script. Exceedingly well done.

- A wall devoted to showing the modern adaptation of Mr. Peabody and Sherman next to the source material from the 1960s. The Leonardo Da Vinci sequence was actually based on a sequence form the show, and it was a real education on the evolution of animation to see the final product next to its inspiration.

- A "drawing room" where you can experiment with the desktop software technology Dreamworks animators use. As this was intended for ages 6 and up and there was a long line, I am kind of making the assumption it would have been a highlight if we could have seen it.

- And last but the opposite of least, a circular theater that shows a four-minute virtual journey on board the back of the dragon from How to Train Your Dragon (and its sequel), which swoops through the island of Berk as it is created before our eyes. Starting with just a charcoal drawing of the dragon, "you" (as in the camera's eye) get on his back as he becomes a full-fledged creature, flying through an island environment that builds itself from its digital endoskeleton into the fully realized world you see in the movie. Although this trip made my wife a little sick, it dropped my jaw in wonder. I watched the movie twice.

Then there are just a ton of animation stills and walls devoted to particular films, sometimes with video monitors and talking heads explaining some key element of the creative process.

Dreamworks' movies mostly received some form of representation, even obscurer choices like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. It surprised me to be reminded that Antz was actually the studio's first film, which meant that it positioned itself as an alternative to Pixar before going back and doing some more traditional 2D animation (like The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and the two titles mentioned above). There were a few notable exceptions, however -- last year's hit Turbo was almost nowhere to be seen, and one of my favorite Dreamworks movies, Monsters vs. Aliens, was also absent. A couple of the sequels also didn't appear. While this did strike me with an instinct to nitpick, I guess it's also representative of just how much Dreamworks has actually outputted in the past 16 years.

As with any exhibit we attend with children, we didn't get to do or take in as much as we would have wanted before we left. But I commented to my wife that the virtual dragon ride was worth the price of admission alone. Having been queasy during it, I don't suppose she exactly agreed.

My quibbles with Dreamworks have rarely been with the actual animation, but more with the writing. I have always said that they just don't get the same quality writers as Disney/Pixar. Although Dreamworks might take this as less of an affront than if I said the reverse, that the animation looked shoddy, I suppose it's also a point of pride for them to have created characters and stories that have become beloved. Making something look good is one thing, but making us care intensely about that nice-looking this is the arguably harder task.

Looking at the body of work together, though, I did allow myself to get momentarily swept up in what Dreamworks has accomplished, and it made me eager to go back and watch a few of the films I haven't seen. They did a really good job with this exhibit and I am convinced that their catalogue is something to be genuinely proud of.

Yeah, they may be the Pepsi of animation. But when you're in a Pepsi mood, Pepsi can hit the spot.

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