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The DreamWorks Machine - Wired 06/03/05


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  • The DreamWorks Machine - Wired 06/03/05

    Article from Wired - June 2005
    The DreamWorks Machine

    Disney escapee Jeffrey Katzenberg knows the animation business. He also knows his toon factory can't compete with Pixar on quality. So he's making it up on volume.

    It's early in the production of DreamWorks Animation's latest assault on the box office, Madagascar, and codirectors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell have hit a snag. They're at a key moment in the first act when the main character, a neurotic New York lion named Alex, wanders into Grand Central Terminal and goes toe to toe with a little old lady. It's supposed to be a really funny scene, but it's missing a beat. So the directors call in Jeffrey Katzenberg for a bit of inspiration.

    The CEO settles into a chair next to McGrath in the DreamWorks LA office while Darnell looks on from the other end of a proprietary collaboration system 400 miles north at the company's Redwood City studio. McGrath fires up the scene on identical monitors in each location. The granny slams Alex's oversize head with her purse, stunning the lion, and shuffles away to catch her train. The directors eye each other nervously via huge hi-def screens and then turn to the boss. "It's great," Katzenberg says, "but what I think you need to do is have her kick him in the nuts."
    Katzenberg is quick to express his admiration for Pixar - and also quick to point out that it was he who saved the studio from financial ruin by signing it to a distribution deal while he was at Disney. He speaks reverently of Pixar president Ed Catmull and his team of technologists and says that Pixar creative head John Lasseter has the storytelling ability and natural instincts of Walt Disney himself. But DreamWorks isn't trying to be Pixar. The two companies approach animation from opposite ends: art and finance. Or, it must be said: quality and quantity. If Lasseter is Disney, Katzenberg is P. T. Barnum.
    With a head for numbers and an eye for packaging talent, Katzenberg has become the ultimate formula guy in the world's most formulaic industry. And there's one formula he's been trying to replicate for his entire career. "The Walt Disney Company recorded every single thing Walt Disney said, did, looked at, or imagined," he says, referring to journals of the master's work methods, management style, and creative process. "It's all there. I studied it. Walt Disney left breadcrumbs the size of Volkswagens, and you'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to follow them down the path of making these movies."

    Katzenberg may not possess the imagination that Walt Disney had, but from a management perspective, he's an awful lot like the old man. Disney, too, was involved in every element of his studio's movies and drove his animators hard. While he had a few animator stars, he relied more heavily on volume artists - mostly women - to do the bulk of the work at much lower wages. It was efficient and cost-effective, but it also led a group of disgruntled animators to defect to rivals.

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