Dream analyst: Guillermo del Toro brings his singular vision to animation studio

When he’s not hard at work on his own fantastical live-action projects like Pacific Rim, the alien-invasion sci-fi thriller going into production for Warner Bros. this fall, Guillermo del Toro has a second home where he is always most welcome. That refuge is DreamWorks Animation, where the visionary Mexican director first clocked in as a creative consultant on Megamind and Kung Fu Panda 2, then graduated to full-fledged executive producer on the upcoming Puss in Boots and Rise of the Guardians.

Calling his consulting role at DreamWorks “one of the best experiences of my life,” del Toro sees his side career as a logical extension of his longstanding interests. “I’ve been trying to do animation for a while. When I was a kid and began as a filmmaker, I did a lot of clay animation. I started an animation workshop back in the day in my school. It was a passion that gave birth to several short films. As I watched more animation, I started to feel very envious of the medium because of the control of the film language that it offers, in terms of color, textures, rhythm. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he envied Walt Disney because if he didn’t like an actor, he just tore him up!”

Del Toro approached DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him, “I would love to direct an animated feature for you. But I need to start working my way into that, relearning the tools, helping creatively, learning the process in the studio. So he immediately said: You can help us.”

Del Toro came to the studio as a fan. “Don’t forget how revolutionary the first Shrek was. Because it’s a franchise, it’s easy to forget how anarchic the first Shrek was, turning a lot of fairytale clichés on their ear, making the anti-Beauty and the Beast ending. But for me the hallmarks of DreamWorks are Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, and it was right on the heels of How to Train Your Dragon that I approached Jeffrey.”

As Del Toro recounts, “I came in at the tail end of Megamind. I helped them compress things in editing, I helped them devise a new opening that was circular. We took out about seven minutes, which is very rare in animation: When a movie is fully animated, it is sacred. If you pull out the calculator, seven minutes is 420 seconds multiplied by 24 frames each—that’s 1,080 frames! It’s brutal, but it made some of the fights a little punchier, it made some of the gags a little funnier.”

For Kung Fu Panda 2, del Toro loved the “emotion and pathos” of the footage he saw, but nonetheless was full of suggestions. “I helped them out with the villain, making him a little more dangerous, a little more edgy. Mainly, frankly, I was listening to the team—it was about talking to Jen [director Jennifer Yuh Nelson] and the team and saying, ‘You’re a little lost here,’ trying to get them back on track… I ended up affecting the story of Po and his father, the goose, and the hint of a romance between Po and Tigress—I helped them maximize some poignant moments.”

De Toro’s role expanded to executive producer on Puss in Boots. “We really reconfigured a lot more in Puss. We shaped the story of the villain, Humpty Dumpty, so he was memorable not just as a bad guy, but in his journey. We started devising ideas for him, how clever he was as an inventor. We created a little bit more of a mythology for Puss—how he got the boots, what they meant, what was his internal turmoil… One of the things I’m most interested in exploring is family and friendship—I thrive on that. We tried to make Puss have colors that that were unexpected. There were people who said, ‘Oh, we’re going to see another Shrek spinoff,’ and I became actively involved in trying to give the movie a different type of humor and a different type of beauty. We have moments that I feel are, in animation and in terms of pure cinema, really gorgeous, like the moment where they plant the magic beans and the beanstalk explodes and grows through many, many layers of sky and different lands. We talked a lot about making the design and color palette more truthful to Spanish and Latin architecture, bringing in Moorish architecture and Moorish tiles which are common in certain areas of Spain. And I was very much involved in shaping the arc of the story, the relationship between Puss and Kitty.”

It helps, of course, when your central character is already adored by a massive audience. “The beauty of Puss is how serious a character he is,” del Toro notes. “He is a tiny little guy with the voice of Antonio Banderas. What I love about Puss in the movie is not the broad comedy that comes from the outside, it’s the comedy that comes out of the character taking himself so seriously. He thinks of himself as the greatest adventurer, the greatest lover, even if he’s like three feet tall, and suddenly he breaks into catlike behavior—chasing a light, licking the milk. There are endless possibilities.”

Del Toro also has an executive producer credit on Rise of the Guardians (set for release on Nov. 21, 2012), based on the William Joyce book in which Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman join forces to battle the Bogeyman. “We’re creating a new mythology for the great guardians of childhood. We’re saying: This is not the Santa that you think he is. This is not your father’s Easter Bunny. This is not your mother’s Tooth Fairy. We’re presenting them in a really bold and crazy and exciting way. We’re trying to make compelling, incredible, propulsive stories of almost epic proportions for each of those characters. And in many ways, this is seen through the eyes of a young boy who holds onto those beliefs. We started from the get-go redesigning certain characters, questioning their function in the story. Thematically, we wanted the movie to have weight and the narrative to really deliver an idea to the audience. The Guardians has a tone you haven’t seen in DreamWorks movies. Most DreamWorks movies deal with genres or ideas in sort of a hip way, a little postmodern. But The Guardians is completely earnest, completely wide-eyed and enamored of the magic and full of a beautiful spirit.”

The Oscar-nominated creator of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy is also preparing his very own animated project at DreamWorks, a kids’ supernatural adventure called Trollhunters. “We turned in our first draft to DreamWorks, and we’ve done a couple of sketches. I am co-writing it with Tom Wheeler, who wrote Puss in Boots, and co-directing it with Rodrigo Blaas. By the time I go into production with Pacific Rim, I’ll be receiving reactions to it. We’re really happy with it.

Super 8 has a little bit of what we are trying to do with Trollhunters, to go back to the spirit of the movies where childhood, even though tinged with nostalgia, has more complications than are usual in animated movies, the trials and tribulations of growing up. It has young characters, but they are not cute kids that have one-liners. They have real growing pains. We throw those characters into a vast imaginative world that is both intimidating and fascinating. The contrast between the mundane at school and home and the adventures that ensue at night; the night before the math exam or the appointment with the dentist, you are a hero. It’s a little bit of wish fulfillment of my childhood, where I would have loved to be a hero at night and the school clown by day.”

Now that all of DreamWorks’ animated features are in 3D, how does del Toro feel about the extra dimension? “3D is fantastic when it’s done by the guys that are really pioneering it in a thoughtful and smart way, like Jeffrey or Jim Cameron. They’re not into it because it’s a trend, they are trailblazing something that will be a great tool to make the theatrical experience unique. Ideally, if 3D became uniform enough, then the excess ticket price could go down. As a tool for experiencing the movie, especially animated movies that do it right, I think it’s incredible for the kids. 3D can make a movie more immersive, like in Avatar. But for every movie that does it right, there are three that do it in a way that is not artistically interesting or just to raise the ticket price. Those movies damage the perception of the medium.”

De Toro begins filming Pacific Rim in a few weeks, and “during the shoot I will be completely MIA. But once I’m in post, I would love to resume my consultation with DreamWorks. I love it. Every minute I’m at DreamWorks is the happiest day of my week. The campus is fantastic, the work environment is fantastic, and the people—Jen, Chris [Miller], Peter [Ramsey], all the directors are fantastic. I have some of the best creative days of my life over there. That and three free meals, what can you say?”