Business diary: Bill Damaschke

As president of DreamWorks Theatricals and chief creative officer for DreamWorks Animation SKG, Bill Damaschke oversees the $1.96bn Nasdaq-listed company behind films such as Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda. Mr Damaschke is based at the company’s headquarters in Glendale, California.

● We work on projects that take years to come to fruition, so my work tends to be split between projects happening now, like Shrek the Musical and the movie Kung Fu Panda 2, and things happening in five years’ time. So, on the one hand, I will be doing sales and marketing for something that is about to come out and on the other hand there are creative and casting decisions for something the audience won’t see until 2013.

● We make two to three movies a year. I have been back and forth to London eight times this year already as we have ramped up Shrek the Musical, which opens in London on June 14. I am currently involved in nine movies as well as the theatre project.

● I start my day at 5.40am because it doesn’t sound as early as 5.30. I catch up on e-mail and chat with the team in London; as New York wakes up, I talk with them. I normally arrive at the office between 8:30am and 9am. I work at our Glendale campus, which has 1,600 people, who are mainly artists. Everyone is focused on images and stories, so it is a very creative environment.

I love working with artists. Guiding their collective thinking can be like herding cats sometimes but I share many of their characteristics.

● In addition to ubiquitous i-gadgets, I always carry a pencil and paper. Almost any animation starts with a pencil and paper because that is the easiest way to draw an idea quickly. Then it goes to the computer modellers, who make a 3D puppet, then specialist riggers put on the muscles and skeleton. Despite the rooms of technology, many time-tested skills – and job titles – are still in use.

● Day-to-day observation of the real world is essential. In an animated film, everything has to be built and put in the frame. Unlike live action films, you get no sounds or images for free. Someone has to think of every single detail you see or hear – if there is traffic noise in the background, someone thought of that.

Some of the ideas are led by directors and film makers. Some originate here at Glendale and some are based on books. The development process is very long: the original Shrek book, about an ogre’s journey to find his soul mate, was first published in 1990, is only 26 pages and the ogre looks very different from ours.

We are bringing out a Puss in Boots film this year based on the traditional character introduced in Shrek 2. It will be different to Shrek. There are fairy tale aspects but it is much more like Zorro or Indiana Jones.

● I have always had one foot in the theatre world. A lot of processes in animation and theatre are almost the same and this has been the case on Shrek particularly. Both are very collaborative, take a large team of actors or directors, and are very iterative. The biggest difference is that in animation everything is very controlled and in theatre you have the chaos of being live – anything can happen. The set and the lighting and the sound work like clockwork but actors respond to a live audience and every one of the eight performances in a week is subtly different.

● I try to be present among the creative people as much as I can. Hopefully I am their confidant and cheerleader – and sometimes, I suppose, I have to make tough calls, choosing one creative option over another.

I started as a production manager and associate producer on films at the company. I am not the person who says No – although sometimes budget and schedule limits are what you need to make things happen.

● Animated movies have only been made as they are nowadays for 13 years; we had Shrek’s 10-year anniversary recently, so we are all feeling very nostalgic. The power of the tools has grown enormously and the audience has broadened – the stories have become more sophisticated and they no longer appeal to just families.

In some ways, we’re only at the beginning of what animated films can be.

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