Interview With Jeffrey Katzenberg

Topic: Spirit - Stallion of the Cimarron

Location: Hotel Dolder, Zürich, Switzerland

Date: June 12th 2002

In the room: Me and him.

Note 1: Abriged German version can be found in number 28/02 of the magazine I work for, TELE.

Note 2: Some sentences are not complete - but I tried to give you the interview 1:1 ... that's just the way he talked.


Why horses?
Katzenberg: Well, they're just beautiful. There's just something that is so majestic about a horse. They're very beautiful and very noble. It's just one of those things: If you look at the eyes of a horse - I think there's a soul in there. So it sparked my imagination. Just what must they be thinking. What was it like to be in his world and his time.
You know, no one ever animated a horse before. They're hard to animate. So what startled me was that I actually realized that it's 10 years since somebody has actually told a story through the eyes of an animal [Huh? What about Dinosaur? Chicken Run?] "The Lion King" is actually the last one. So to me, that's just a giant missed opportunity because to me it's just some of the best animated movies ever made. Fables are told through animals. So step one was that. Step two was just sort of saying "well, ok what kind of an animal?" And horses are amazingly beautiful creatures. So that got me started.

You said they're hard to animate. Why is that?
Well it's just literally the anatomy of a horse. A horse is a horizontal creature; we're vertical. The spine is a stiff spine as opposed to a dog or a cat, where there's much more flexibility to it. The face of the horse is extremely elongated, which makes it very very hard to ... you know ... all the expressions of humans come between your eyebrow and your mouth. Well on a horse, the mouth is down here [shows], it doesn't have any eyebrows and their eyes are over here [shows]. Which is really really hard to do. So we made some creative adjustments in terms of the approach to the anatomy of a horse. But they are animation-unfriendly. However, having said that, our animators did just a spectacular spectacular job of really respecting the nature of the horse, the movement of the horse, the little nuances and characteristics of a horse. And at the same time made it animateable.

You did have help of CGI?
Yeah. Lot of CGI work in this. Other than the characters and closeups, everything in the movie is CGI. Even some of the horses are CGI.

Why didn't you opt for fully CGI then?
Because that's the one thing a computer cannot do yet. And I say "yet". What happened is you cannot actually get the emotions and the expressions in computer animation that you can get in hand-drawn animation. There's an organic thing that happens when an artist creates a character with a pencil on a piece of paper. It's the difference between an e-mail and a hand-written note. It's personal. Intimate. It actually has emotions.

But it's also a person that creates the creature on a computer.
Oh yeah. But well even on a computer it's a person [I don't think he got that question :)] The technique right now has an aspect of engeneering, whereas there is no engeneering aspect in hand-drawn animation. It's just 100% organic. When that engeneering aspect finally gets to a place where it has the qualities that you can get from a purely organic work, it will be the end of the pencil. But that doesn't make it any less creative or any less artistic. The people misunderstand the impact of the computer on animation: It's the friend of animation. It's not gonna put animators out of business.

When did you decide that the animals shouldn't talk? Did Disney's "Dinosaur" have any impact on that decision?
No, because we were well on the works when that came out. No this was really ... [searches for words] ... have you ever seen the TV-show called "Mr. Ed". (yeah) If you've just seen a second of it, you know enough. Because what you know is when horses talk, they're really silly. It's really stupid. Because it looks goofy. And since we were trying to do a story that was dramatic, that was a real adventure story which I wanted an audience to relate to this character. Not as a cartoon, but as three-dimensional - it was impossible to have the animals talk.
That was quite a creative challange. Greater than any I ever had to deal with.

So it's harder if you don't have an actor providing his voice?
Yes. Sure. It's really really tough. It makes something that's already difficult nearly impossible. It's a real challange.

Matt Damon is providing the voice of your narrator. His last animated movie "Titan A.E." flopped, probably because it was targeted at a more mature audience - who is "Spirit" targeted at?
Everybody. Everybody. Well ... "Titan A.E." ... unfortunately just wasn't a good story, that doesn't have anything to do with Matt Damon. Matt is really an actor. You know I picked Matt for this movie because he has such a youthful ... optimistic ... strong enthusiasm for life. There's a quality about his voice that  just makes you feel comfortable and calm. There's all hope. I wanted these characteristics for the voice of Spirit.

So he's his voice, not just the narrator?
Well what he represents is what Spirit is thinking. What Bryan Adams represents with the songs is what he's feeling. So it's a bit of a jigsaw because you have three things. You have the situation and the acting that the animator does. You have the narration which helps you a little bit in terms what the character is thinking, which is used very sparingly. We didn't wanna get in the way of it. And then you have the songs which tell you what the character is feeling and it's the combination of those three woven together that creates the tapestry of the film. A very very delicate ballance. And the fourth element which is equally important is the music of Hans Zimmer which emotionally tells the audience how they ought to be feeling. It's a very subtle but incredibly impactful aspect of the film. Critical.

Have you ever any ambition to a completely mature animated film, even an R-rated film?

Do you have any relation to Japanese anime?
Well there's some amazing work getting done and I'm sure I have been influenced by it when I watched it over the last 20 years. So I certainly got some inspiration. Style, look design, cinematography. But I've not wanted to do an R-rated movie. You know I like to make movies for everybody. If you go to R-rated films you just start do deal with things that are less interesting. Violence. Sex. Language. The sort of aggressive sides of those things, they don't interest me.

If you think back to 1998: If "The Prince of Egypt" had flopped, would you have done the same thing as Fox that shut down its animation branch after "Titan A.E."?
No, becase we commited to build an animation studio. And certainly "Prince of Egypt" was very ambitious movie to take on as a first film. But I also think that we had to take that kind of risk in order to establish that DreamWorks was going to go its own path and that we're not to be like a lesser version of Disney. That we were not going to be trying to copy them and make Disney-films. That is as much out of my respect and admiration of Disney as my own personal pride of wanting to do something special and different and unique. And here we are having out 6 movies.
I know there's a safer, easier kind of movie to make than we've made, but it doesn't interest me. I mean I never make a cartoon for kids. I'm sure we'd do it well or as well as Disney - but I know how to do that. And I just have greater ambition than that. And pride wanting to do something special. So even with "Spirit" which is a G-rated movie ... Disney would not make this movie this way. It's just too challanging and sophisticated in a way that is not targeted at their audience. And I don't say that in a bad way, I don't mean in any way to put them down, but we're just different. They wouldn't make "Prince of Egypt", they wouldn't make "Shrek", they wouldn't make "Ants", they wouldn't make "Chicken Run" - they wouldn't make the movies we make. And that's good. What it means is that the audiences get different kinds of films. And there's real diversity in animation. And if there are gonna be more movies made, there must be, otherwise the audience just gets tired of it.

Now that DreamWorks is running smoothly, have you resurrected the plans of a production complex?
No. It was not a very good idea. You don't need a facility to have independence. In fact having a facility makes you dependent. You're married to bricks-and-mortar. And in an age in which the world is becoming digital, to be married to bricks-and-mortar is actually a hinderance.

You can have animators around the world.
Absolutely. Well, we do have an animation studio. It's state of the art. And another one up in Palo Alto, California, and we're just moving in this fall. A brand new 120 000 square foot complex. And there's Aardman animation in Bristol - so we have facilities. What we don't have is a backlot for the live action business. That's the thing we abandoned. We didn't build stages, a studio lot for the live action.

Is that why DreamWorks has so many cooperations with other studios like "Minority Report" with Fox?
No that's not why. That's for creative reasons. Those are partnerships that were have never done for any other reason than creative elements. We have never done it for financial reasons. "Minority Report" is a Fox project and they wanted Steven Spielberg to direct it, so they had to give half the movie to us. In return we did the same thing with them. We had a movie called "Road to Perdition". And in exchange for giving us half of "Minority Report", we gave them half of "Road to Perdition". We did it with Universal: We gave them a half of "Gladiator", which we wanted a partner on, and they gave us half of "Meet the Parents". We've done a dozen more co-ventures that way.

Back to animation: Do you still have faith in traditional 2D-animation?
In terms of pure 2D-animation: No. It's finished. Pure 2D-animation in which everything is done by hand. It's over. Gone. No reason any more than you'd say the Gutenberg printing press, if I had faith in it, I'd say absolutely not. But if you'd say if I have faith in the written word, the printed word, the answer is absolutely yes. You just don't print on the Gutenberg printing press anymore, it's obsolete. There's a more efficient way to do it. What I caution you not to do is to interpret that as that I think the artist is obsolete. The artist isn's obsolete at all. The animator, the actor in animation, or the painter in animation, is as vibrant and critical of the essence as they ever were.
The difference is you don't paint on canvas, you paint on a computer. Electonically. Which by the way doesn't look any less good - for what we do. I do not suggest that Monet could paint on a computer. And if he could, it wouldn't have the textures to it that a canvas has. But I'm not looking for those textures. The textures that we want with movie screens, we can actually achieve as effectively and much more efficiantly by computer.

I read today that your project "The Tortoise and the Hare" is dead ...
No, absolutely not true. It's a journalist who wrote a story. Absolutely not true.

So you're still working with Aardman.
Yeah we got four or five movies with them. "Tortoise and the Hare" is one of them.

And the "Sinbad"-project that's coming up? That's gonna be 2D?
It's gonna be a mix like "Spirit". And it will mix 2D and computer in an even more challanging way. Brad Pitt is in it and Catherine-Zeta Jones. That one will arrive next year.

Thank you very much.

(c) 2002