Fairytale enters the digital age

Every year sees the release of action thrillers and star-studded dramas that make their bid to become the “summer blockbuster” movie. This year will be no exception, with a number of big-budget flicks vying to be the top draw. But this summer the movie that grabs the attention of most Americans may not resemble the big-budget action films of years past. In fact, it is a cartoon.

Shrek (DreamWorks) opens this summer and is already surrounded by a buzz that is raising eyebrows. The Hatchet spoke with John Lithgow, who lends his voice to Shrek, at a college roundtable, as well as with the film’s directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson at a Los Angeles screening of the new film to get the real story about the making of Shrek.

From its inception Shrek was a film meant to appeal to a wide audience.

“They’ve created a movie that is delightful to not just kids and adults but kids in-between,” Lithgow said.

The film tells the story of Shrek, an anti-social ogre voiced by Mike Myers, who lives alone in the woods quite happily until he finds himself bombarded by magical visitors. Fairy-tale creatures of all shapes and sizes show up on Shrek’s doorstep seeking refuge from the evil Prince Farquaad, a classic storybook villain voiced by John Lithgow, who wishes to capture and destroy them.

Lithgow describes his character simply.

“He’s a little character with delusions of his own grandeur and stature,” he said.

Shrek sets off from his forest home to see Farquaad not so much out of a sense of responsibility but to get the creatures off his land. He takes a talking donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, with him on the trip.

The plot seems somewhat juvenile, but its humor finds a place in the hearts of adults. Lithgow attests that Shrek is suitable for any age.

“It’s a tradition developed over centuries, this ability to put on a show for the whole family where the adults and the kids are laughing at the same time, at the same jokes, for completely different reasons,” Lithgow said.

Shrek and Donkey soon find themselves on an adventure that takes them through castles, encounters with dragons and eventually leads them to the whimsical Princess Fiona, voiced by Cameron Diaz. The three team up and take on the great, though rather diminutive, Prince Farquaad.

The film’s directors had a clear vision for what experience they wanted to give viewers. Jenson said they “wanted it to feel like you were stepping into the fairy-tale book itself. This is (Shrek‘s) own unique look.”

Shrek does offer a unique look. A team of 275 artists labored for three years to perfect the animation used in the film. What is more impressive than the man hours spent making the film is the precise detail that make up each scene.

Animators created characters in full detail on computers.

“All the movement is a combination of muscle movements that we have programmed under the skin,” supervising animator Raman Hui said. “The characters are actually crafted with organs and muscles.”

This attention to detail is clear throughout the movie, and the animation is slick to an unparalleled level.

“It seems very revolutionary, like raising the bar … people are like `oh my god, something new, (I’ve) never seen anything like this.’ That’s how everyone is talking about this movie,” Lithgow said.

Lithgow said taking on the role of an animated character is different than real-life acting. He said he had a difficult time finding inspiration when he was simply a faceless voice.

“You’re sort of working in the dark when you’re the voice for an animated character, no matter how well they describe it,” he said.

Although Shrek marks directorial debuts for both Adamson and Jenson, the film comes out professional in every respect. This may have to do with the working atmosphere the rookie directors created. Lithgow describes the directors as “off-beat kind of eccentric people” who “kept it pretty loose with lots of improvisation.”

Adamson had a few tricks in mind for the style of the film. The result of this effort is an original feel to the film, characterized by wide and beautiful shots of virtual landscapes. The movie also includes somewhat unorthodox camera styles which often jerk images quickly around.

“We wanted to give it a live-action more independent kind of feel to filming,” Adamson said.

The process to create Shrek started some five years ago and has progressed slowly from conception and creation. The story is based on the short children’s book “Shrek” by William Steg that is shorter than 20 pages. “Taking (the book) into an 86 minute movie took some doing,” Jenson said.

After film creators planned the initial story, they brought in actors to voice the characters.

“Animated movies are like a skyscraper,” Lithgow said. “The voice is the steel girders that you build around.”

The actors who voice each character recorded separately throughout the course of the movie’s production and never actually worked together. This leaves the job of creating chemistry among characters to the animators, Lithgow said.

“The animators are really the one’s that create the chemistry,” Lithgow said.

The long production cycle left Lithgow happy with the product but also in an odd state, he said. After spending years in and out of the studio, he said he forgot much of his performance.

“After that long you see the movie and forget you ever said that,” Lithgow said.

Shrek looks to be one of the summer’s big hits. Its innovative animation and inspired dialogue create the recipe for surefire success. The film breaks the boundaries of animation and takes the chance to poke fun at the children’s movie genre, attacking past classics in a tasteful yet hilarious manner. Bridging the gap between child and adult cinema Shrek asserts itself as a movie classic, or at least a hit summer film.

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