Things have been relatively quiet for DreamWorks Animation (DWA) in recent years, as it adapted to its post-Jeffrey Katzenberg status under new owner Universal Pictures. Last year, it released the conclusion of its popular trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon: The New World, which became a decent global hit, though its follow-up Abominable – the new DWA’s first original movie not based on pre-existing source material – didn’t quite connect as well.
Coming into 2020, DreamWorks had two sequels ready to go, but like everyone else, it wasn’t quite prepared for COVID-19. Trolls: World Tour was released in April using a unique method of Premium on Demand method that helped Universal create new theatrical deals just in time for The Croods: A New Age. The original voice cast of Nicholas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clarke Duke and Cloris Leachman have all returned with the new additions of Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran as the Bettermans, a more evolved family the Croods encounter on their journey to survive.
The sequel comes out seven years after The Croods, bringing together two long-time DWA vets in Producer Mark Swift and first-time feature Director Joel Crawford. Both have worked on many of DWA’s previous movies, Crawford starting as a storyboard artist on the first Kung Fu Panda 14 years ago, then acting as Head of Story on Trolls, before directing Trolls Holiday Special.
“A lot of directors come up through storyboarding,” Crawford told us in an interview a few weeks ago. “Essentially, you’re given a sequence to storyboard, and I remember Mike Mitchell, one of the directors I loved working with early on in my career, had told me, ‘Treat it like it’s a short. This is your own little short, and I’m giving you the end point and the start point but get me there.’”
Swift has been with DreamWorks Animation from the start, coming over from England to launch DreamWorks Animation after working at Steven Spielberg’s 2D animated company in London, which produced American Tail 2 and others. Oddly, Swift’s first project would have been an animated version of the musical Cats, but instead, they shifted to making Prince of Egypt.
“I’d never met Joel before I came to work on this film,” Swift told Below the Line in a separate interview. “I’ve seen him around, but I didn’t know him, and we never crossed paths across movies. The head of the studio at the time thought we would be a good pairing, and he put us together. It was effectively a blind date, and we got on really, really well and stayed on the movie and finished it up, which isn’t always the case. Some people come and go on these films, because they take so long.”
“It’s tough making sequels, figuring out the right story that justifies another one,” Crawford said about the genesis for what would become The Croods: A New Age. “You always tell the biggest, most important story in the first, and so you go ‘What’s the next evolution of that?’ When I came on, there had been multiple passes. When I came on about three years ago, there were different iterations of the script which had been done.”
“A version of it was started, but it got put on hold for various reasons,” Swift added. “I don’t think the story was getting the momentum the studio wanted. We inherited a script that came out of a roundtable, which was based on the original version of Croods 2. All versions have had the same DNA, which is that the Croods meet a new family.”
“That did seem like the big event that justified another movie,” Crawford continued. “The Croods, to me, is about change. It’s about evolution, but it’s about the world changing, and also the family dynamics changing. For me, that was a perfect reason to make another one, which is the Croods come across this other family who seems better in every way, and really challenges their worldviews.”
“Who that new family were, what happens with that new family, all of that differed between the versions,” Swift admitted. “So we inherited a version and made the changes we thought were right for the characters.”
Both filmmakers spoke about putting together the team and crew for bringing this initial idea to life. “Nate Wragg, the production designer, came on pretty early with [us],” Crawford began. “We had this interesting start point where none of us had worked on the first movie, although we were all fans of the first movie. Also, technology has evolved a lot, and there’s new character rigs. There was so much more control the animators had with mouth shapes, character silhouettes. We got a good amount of the amazing animators who actually worked on the first movie, but the tools were even better for them.”
“There’s a little bit of a Magnificent Seven that goes on with it,” Swift says about the process of helping the director assemble a crew around him. “Joel is a lovely, sweet natured guy, and this was his first movie as a director. I wanted to make sure he was surrounded by a team that would be really supportive, really talented, and experts in their field. For the most part, I knew with whom Joel was, you’d want a harmonious team on this movie, so we definitely leaned into that. We ended up with a really great crew, some new people to their areas, but it all worked out and they got on really well.”
Swift also elaborated on how creating the distinct look for the movie integrated with the writing process. “The story comes first, and that process was me, Joel, [Head of Story] Januel Mercado. Our Editor Jim Ryan has a great story sense, so we brought him into a lot of conversations. We were like a little unit working with the writers, so we spent a lot of time together in a room, laughing, making each other laugh, then the writers would go off and write pages based on the conversations that we were having.
“With someone like Nate, he also has a really good story sense,” Swift continued. “Part of the story is a journey as they go through different landscapes, and that felt like a perfect time to bring Nate in and just say, ‘Using you and your team’s imagination, can you brainstorm what would be really cool locations? And then, we can see whether our story can weave through that.’” Part of that collaboration led to the creation of the Bettermans’ brightly-colored home, which Swift wanted to feel like the kids’ first view of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the ‘70s family classic.
Crawford spoke about the tone of the comedy that came out of this process. “Big inspirations for me are character comedies. Arrested Development was one of the early things and comedies like Step Brothers. You just love to watch these characters on screen was a big part of the inspiration of the comedic tone. We would just get in a room together with the writers and producer, Head of Story, and we would just make each other laugh, and we would try and infuse it in there. Another element of the comedy, which is huge, came from the actual cast, who are amazing improvisers. I think in animation, it’s really special to be able to have spontaneous moments. This movie took three years to make, and things can get stale or very planned. Any opportunity to add some like spark that just seems like it’s only in there because it just happened in a moment is really precious to me.”
“I think not having Jeffrey Katzenberg across every movie probably gives the movies a little bit more of their own voice than they might have done slightly in the past,” Swift admits. “Jeffrey was so hands-on that everything went through a ‘Jeffrey filter.’ In lots of ways that was super-positive, but I do think it enables some more of these funky ways to come into the movies, at least at DreamWorks.”
Over DreamWorks Animation’s 22-year-plus history, it has created its own unique system and process for animation, which includes animating to the voice actors’ performances and having lead animators for each character. Crawford told us more about this timeline. “The process is we script it and then we storyboard, and in storyboarding, sometimes you change dialogue or find moments. Then we put together the pre-vis or the layout stage, which will have the scratch actors, it won’t have the real cast in yet. Once we are going to animation, we always work off of the actor’s performance and the actor’s voice.”
“There was a little bit of a lull when Universal purchased DreamWorks, and so there was this great pool of talented animators when we started up, we got the best of the best. Even the Head of Animation Jakob Jensen, he had worked on the first Croods, animating Guy. He’s an amazing animator, “ Crawford said. “Having the leads on each character [allows you to] delve really deeply into specific character quirks and attributes that someone is tracking throughout the movie. There’s the performance we get from animating the voice and the lipstick cam from the actual cast, but there’s so much that the animators bring in terms of their own expression, their interpretation of the dialogue. It’s awesome to have someone who’s supervising each of those characters throughout the whole process.” Crawford says that he usually likes introducing the supervising animators to the actors voicing the characters they’re overseeing, but that became impossible once COVID hit.
Swift also spoke on getting Composer Mark Mothersbaugh aboard to score The Croods: A New Age, which shockingly, is also the composer’s first DWA movie. “Joel kept going back to the score that he did on Thor: Ragnarok, and really liked the unexpected comic elements that Mothersbaugh brings with his music. This film has a little bit of a lighter tone than the first film. Its tone is Meet the Parents in a weird way, so we thought we could go a little more comedic, and he’s just delightful to work with. We have some original songs in there too, which we had a lot of fun with.” Mothersbaugh was friends with actor Jack Black, one half of the rock group Tenacious D, so he brought them on to perform a few songs, and then Black brought aboard fellow rockers Haim.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk to any filmmaker these days without asking how their show was affected by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. “Our original release date was supposed to be in September,” Crawford said. “Maybe a year and a half ago, a slot had opened up at Christmas, but when the pandemic hit, we were still on track to finish it in September. We then had to recalibrate and adjust to working from home. I was so used to sitting in the room with the animators, or actually, every department, all of us looking at it together, people just throwing out ideas and best idea in the room wins. When this hit, I was like, ‘We’re going to work from home? Separately?’ But we were all in sync. Everybody kind of stepped up and found creative ways to still bring the highest level of art to this process.”
“For a director, Joel’s extremely collaborative” Swift said about how Crawford himself stepped up to lead in his initial directorial role to get the movie finished. “He very much wants to hear all the ideas, and then try and path his course, and that gelled with how I like to work. For a lot of the crew, I think they really appreciated the dialogue and the communication.”
Croods 2: A New Age will hit theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 25.
All pictures courtesy Dreamworks Animation, LLC