Wednesday 17 July 2013

NY Times Profiles DreamWorks CCO Bill Damaschke

The New York Times has a great piece up highlighting one of the most powerful men in the animation industry: DreamWorks' Chief Creative Officer, Bill Damaschke. Damaschke may not be as well known to animation fans as Pixar's John Lasseter - in fact the article dubs him "The Quiet Force Behind DreamWorks" - but his influence and importance at the studio cannot be understated.

The article mentions how DreamWorks CEO and somewhat controversial figure, Jeffrey Katzenberg, has taken a distinctive step back in recent years, bowing to Damaschke's judgement. In fact, "I trust Bill’s taste more than anybody else’s, including my own," says Katzenberg. From the article:

"While Mr. Katzenberg is still involved in major artistic decisions, he has been moving further away from the day-to-day running of his company’s movie pipeline, which is expanding. DreamWorks Animation in 2014 will begin releasing three movies a year, up from two."

Damaschke is clearly a humble man, but admits "we put things in front of Jeffrey less frequently.” The piece zeroes in on this and Damaschke's influence for the studio's broadening of its artistic horizons, switching away from the "irreverent humor, pop culture inside jokes, lots of action, celebrity voices" that permeated all of their post-Shrek, pre-Panda work. Reference is also made to the fact, though, that the studio's latest film, Turbo, "certainly has some of that DNA," but with a helping of "atypical quiet moments" too.

On the reasons behind the creative shift at the studio, DreamWorks top brass seem to acknowledge that "while [their] original formula kept delivering hits, ticket buyers started to show fatigue." How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods co-director Chris Sanders weighed in on the emotional gravitas Damaschke now adds to the films, saying "Bill’s notes almost always attend to the emotional point of the story. He will stop us dead in our tracks and say, ‘But how does that character feel about this?’," adding that "Jeffrey, who we honestly don’t see that much, despite what everyone thinks, attends more to the audacity of the film.”

Damaschke has been with the Shrek Shack almost two decades, and has been CCO since 2011. Talking about one of the studio's more recent disappointments, Rise of the Guardians, he noted “Some of the things that we thought were cool may have given pause to the most important person buying tickets, and that’s mom. I’m still healing from the ‘Guardians’ experience, to be brutally honest with you.”

It ain't all a love-fest though, head to the second page of the article and you'll read some more post-Brave tension. Brenda Chapman, who left Pixar after being removed as the director of the studio's thirteenth feature and is now back working at DreamWorks, had a few choice words about the Toy Story studio's work ethic and, most notably, head honcho John Lasseter.

Chapman, who co-directed The Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks in 1998 and is now back there again after a short stint at Lucasfilm Animation, said "I left in part because I felt like I was being asked to do the same story over and over, I look at the movies DreamWorks is doing now, and I see the exact opposite happening.” The article explicitly says she was "pushed out of Pixar after clashing with that studio’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter."

"As Jeffrey has gained experience and age, and DreamWorks has grown, he has stepped back and allowed other people to run creative,” Ms. Chapman said. “At Pixar, it’s all John’s show.” She added of DreamWorks Animation, “you can butt heads here and not be punished for it, unlike at another place I could name."

Chapman with her replacement director, Mark
Andrews, with the Oscar they won for Brave.

I'm a huge fan of Brenda's, and a big lover of Brave, but it's not nice to hear these sorts of slanging matches going down. Chapman has a right to be annoyed, but I'd sincerely doubt Lasseter was acting out of personal pride or micromanagement - his job is, after all, to oversee the creative process at the studio. Regardless of who's right and who's wrong, public arguments like this only detract attention from the actually excellent film. And that's a sad eventuality.

Lasseter-bashing seems to be very in right now, with some Cartoon Brew readers even blaming him for a decline in quality at Walt Disney Animation Studios... Yeah, because pre-Lasseter Disney films like Chicken Little and Home on the Range were so much better than Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph...

Head on over to the NY Times to check out the piece in full. We highly recommend it.

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