by Michael S. Palmer
Last week, High-Def Digest was lucky enough to snag an invite to Shrek Day hosted on the Dreamworks Animation campus in Glendale, California. Journalists got a personal welcome from CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, a short studio tour/Animation 101 lesson, a chance to record our voices as Shrek or Fiona, and an exclusive first look at 'Shrek The Whole Story' 4 Blu-ray boxed set which hits stores on December 7 (currently for the low price of $40.49!).
Mr. Katzenberg spoke about how the Shrek franchise isn't only big-business for the sixteen year old animation studio. After his hugely successful years rebuilding Disney animation in the early 1990s, Mr. Katzenberg left to do something different. To forge his own path. Disney, he said, will always be regarded highly for what it does, but Katzenberg and crew wanted to create something unique and defining. They tried many things in the early days, including 'Prince of Egypt' and 'Chicken Run'. But it wasn't until 2001 when a large green ogre, voiced by an international man of mystery, hit cinemas that Dreamworks Animation found their brand. Or as Mr. Katzenberg called it, their "north star."
Since then, all four Shrek films have grossed $3 Billion dollars at the box office. 'Shrek' won the first Academy Award for Animation. 'Shrek 2' is the highest grossing (domestic) animated movie of all time. 'Shrek the Third' holds the record for the biggest opening weekend for an animated film. And 'Shrek Forever After' is the highest grossing (international) animated movie of all time. All together, Shrek is the #1 animated franchise, and the #5 film franchise in cinema history.
Whew, that's a lot of records.
Next we were off for our studio tour. And let me tell you, I wish all work environments were like this. Dreamworks Animation sits right next to a major southern California freeway, but you can barely hear it thanks to a courtyard fountain, and the waterfall tumbling into the coy pond (apparently, if the fountain is off, it's code for the employees to be extra quiet because Mr. Katzenberg is conducting an outdoor interview). There is a genuinely casual and relaxed atmosphere for a place where so many hard working hours are spent. Perhaps it's the lovely row of olive trees which no longer produce olives, or maybe the free breakfast and lunch provided to all who dwell within. Either way, we toured the campus and learned a layman's overview about developing a 3D CGI animated film. I won't go into it all here (there's really too much even in the short version), but they develop stories and scripts for a couple years before they hire the voice talent. This allows them to make mistakes and hone the story before they start getting into expensive computer animation. Then, after the voices are recorded, it can take another 2-3 years to finish the films given the layers and layers of complexity within each frame.
After a quick recording session, where yours truly managed to do the single lamest Shrek impression in the history of bad impressions, we went back to the Dreamworks Digital Dailies Room. This is a room where Dreamworks Animation execs and filmmakers gather twice a day to see scenes and artwork for all their in-progress projects.
For Shrek Day, however, they had wheeled in one of those $100,000 100-inch Panasonic plasma screens, a whole boat-load of PS3s preloaded with discs for scene-by-scene DVD vs. Blu-ray comparisons, and a consumer grade B&W 7.1 surround sound setup. It was time to show off the goods.
Funny, one doesn't really think of a computer animated film as needing restoration. Shouldn't digitally made modern films be in perfect condition? Oddly enough, not necessarily. Consider that twelve years passed between the first and last rendered frames on 'Shrek' and 'Shrek Forever After'. How much have your computer, cell phone, or home theatre technologies changed in all those years? Quite a bit, I imagine. The first 'Shrek' was actually finished and color graded on film. For its impending Blu-ray premier, Dreamworks went back to the original materials where VFX Supervisor Wendy Rogers noticed a number of "render artifacts" on the older film. After correcting nearly 700 shots, 'Shrek' was then digitally color graded to better match the rest of the franchise. As expected, the results were easy to see. DVDs of the 'Shrek' franchise don't hold a candle to the new Blu-rays in terms of color vibrancy, detail, and depth. Each of the first three films has also been converted to 3D.
As the visuals were being revamped, Dreamworks also decided to convert the original 5.1 tracks to more immersive 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Much like my experience last week at Dolby (only this time using more affordable gear) the 7.1 mixes were heads and tails above their scene-for-scene 5.1 comparisons. Not only are they brighter and more dynamic, but the world itself is wider, surround pans are more precise, and the sound effects more interactive. Similar to the process I learned about during my short chat with Tim Hoogenakker at POP Sound, these new 7.1 tracks 'Shrek the Whole Story's are discretely mixed and utilize effects elements never heard in the theatres to fill out the soundscapes. Hello, demo.
As for what to expect on the four Blu-ray boxed set itself? There's a ten year franchise retrospective with the filmmakers, a number of new and classic featurettes in HD, an all new holiday sing-a-long film entitled 'Donkey's Caroling Christmas-tacular', and 'Shrek's Yule Log' (which features 25 custom appearances from cast members interacting with what is usually simply a video of a fireplace).
In the future, look forward to enjoying the 'Shrek' universe via next year's 'Puss N' Boots' spinoff, the touring Shrek musical, or one of their two specials (Halloween and Christmas) which are slated to air annually on ABC.
Many thanks to the kind folks over at Dreamworks Animation and Paramount Home Entertainment for a fun, informative morning. 'Shrek the Whole Story' is out December 7 in 2D, and the 3D boxed set will be available in late November exclusively with the purchase of a Samsung 3D television.