There are nearly as many legends about the origins of why and when Thomas Dam created the first troll doll as there are fairy tales, but let’s go with this one: In 1959, a poor Danish fisherman and woodcutter named Thomas Dam made the first troll doll for his daughter to counter her nightmares about baby-snatching folklore. The carved, wooden troll he crafted had glass eyes, woolen hair, magical powers and loved to make people happy. So happy that the little doll became a fad.
Mike Mitchell, director, and Walt Dohrn, co-director, of DreamWorks’ animated feature Trolls hope their characters have the same effect.
DreamWorks began work on a trolls film in 2010, bought rights to Dam’s trolls in 2013, and at about the same time, hired Mitchell and Dohrn, who pitched a unique story.
“So many films today are so dark, even the lighting,” Dohrn says.
“There’s room for all sorts of films,” Mitchell adds.
“We wanted to make something that makes you feel good,” Dohrn says.
The two men have been friends so long and worked together so often they complete each other’s thoughts. Mitchell had directed Shrek Forever After and The SpongeBob Movie, and had been a story artist on Shrek 2. Dohrn had been a SpongeBob SquarePants writer, a story artist for Shrek 2, and head of story for Shrek Forever After.
“We remembered that trolls make you happy,” says Mitchell. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where does happiness come from?’ ” adds Dohrn.
“Walt and I started there: Researching happiness,” explains Mitchell. “Out of that came the story,” chimes in Dohrn. “The colors, the design, the music,” says Mitchell. Dohrn agrees, “I love colors in films. I miss colors in film. Not too much color. We wanted a balance.”
“We knew Kendal [Cronkhite, production designer] and the team could pull it off. This is exactly the film we wanted to make,” adds Mitchell.
In Trolls, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the young, pink-haired, optimistic leader of the troll village, must rescue trolls captured by Bergen monsters. Bergen monsters only achieve happiness by eating trolls. So, with the depressed, recalcitrant troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) at her side, Poppy travels from the bright, colorful world of the trolls to Bergen town’s blues, grays, muted purples. and what Dohrn calls, “that ghoulish, avocado green and brown from the ’70s.”
“Our muse is a doll, but we wanted to make something cool, new, fun and a little edgy,” says Cronkhite. “We wanted to make something completely unexpected so no one would say, ‘Oh, this is a movie based on a doll.’ ”
According to art director Tim Lamb, “A project like Trolls could have looked very commercial. We wanted to bring as much artistry into it as we could. The film would take two-and-a-half years of our lives. We wanted to enjoy it.”
One of the first challenges was deciding how to portray the trolls. “Everyone loves the trolls,” says Lamb. “They’re cute and ugly. Putting a pin in cute and ugly was a big thing for us. We wanted to stay true to troll traits, but we wanted to make them appealing enough to watch for 80 minutes.”
At six inches tall, the digital trolls are a little taller than most troll dolls but, as in the real world, half their height is their hair, and the filmmakers gave their hair a big role.
“The hair is a source of magic for the trolls,” Cronkhite says. “We used hair as a base for everything. Their world is monochromatic, but their hair is brightly colored. They make their houses out of their hair. They use their hair as trampolines. They have zip lines made of hair.”
Perhaps hearkening back to the first troll doll, Cronkhite began to consider giving her CG trolls a handmade texture. “For a time, our trolls were going to be naked like the dolls, but I didn’t think we should treat our trolls as humans with skin,” she says. “So, I thought about giving them a Muppet quality. I remembered that Thomas Dam gave his first troll woolen clothing. All those thoughts were swirling. The word ‘handmade’ came into my mind. I thought, ‘What if they’re felted?’ I remember the moment I said it out loud. I was with our head of modeling. Then Tim [Lamb] said their interiors should be translucent, like a gummy bear. Then we went for more woolen hair.” Lamb adds, “And I said, ‘Why stop there?’ ” Then Cronkhite said, “What if we fiber-art the entire trolls forest?”
“And that’s what happened,” Cronkhite says. “Initially, it was expensive to make a fuzzy world because no one knew how. But the crew figured it out.” And thus, when Poppy travels to Bergen, she dances through an environment unlike anything seen in a CG-animated feature.
“We could have had our ‘beauty’ go into a scary forest on an arduous journey, but we decided not to do that,” Cronkhite says. “That wasn’t our movie. So we flocked the forest and made it more colorful and crazy with creatures Tim designed. Poppy is out of her element, but it isn’t dark and creepy.”
Poppy is pink from head to toe, with a blue felt dress and a green headband that has blue felt flowers. Her father, King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) is orange with fuchsia and gray hair and mustache, green felt pants and an aqua felt vest. Other trolls are as colorful. DJ Suki (Gwen Stefani), for example, is deep pink with orange hair and an aqua nose. Creek (Russell Brand) is purple with yellow felt pants and blue and green hair.
Pieces of felt even help tell the story directly. Poppy makes scrapbooks from pieces of felt, and the animated scrapbook pages provide a narrative.
NOT SO HAPPY
Bergen, however, is another story. The characters are human-sized, big enough to eat a troll, and round enough for us to believe they have good appetites. Some time earlier, before Poppy’s father had given leadership of the trolls to his daughter, King Peppy had helped the trolls escape Bergen, and the Bergens have been unhappy since. In fact, the Bergen king tells his son that he’ll never be happy.
“But we want them to achieve happiness,” Dohrn says. “Especially me,” adds Mitchell.
Bergen King Gristle (John Cleese) is avocado green and wears a brown suede-looking suit and a robe with a fur collar. His rotund son, Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is a lighter shade of avocado. The King’s chef (Christine Baranski) is purple, has a very long face and is determined to capture the trolls again. The only character in Bergen with a touch of pink is a wide-eyed, pigeon-toed scullery maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel). She’s light purple, but she wears a pink dress and shoes, has pale pink hair, rosy cheeks and a disarming, charming overbite.
“Craig Kellman designed the Bergens,” Cronkhite says. “We referenced the late ’60s and early ‘70s, when the troll dolls were popular. The trolls are like the hippies of the ‘70s, and the Bergens are more the suburbanites. They’re kind of the monsters in our movie. We don’t like them. They represent the worst of the ’70s — polyester, plastic. They litter and pollute. Their food is monochromatic fast food.”
The Bergens have leathery skin, greasy hair and they drool. Each Bergen had its own design and model. “We tried to match different bodies with different heads, but the neck was a problem because of the design differences,” says visual effects supervisor Philippe Denis. “However, even though the characters were so different, when we put them together to make a crowd, they really felt like they were in the same world because of the design language.”
For the fuzzy trolls, which look more similar from one to another, modelers worked with generic male and female models, plus what the crew calls a “snack pack” of heroes, which were Poppy’s friends. “When I looked at Kendal’s concept art, I got very excited because the visuals were so different from anything we had done before, but right away I saw lots of hair — huge hair — the fuzz, the clothing, the texture on the ground,” Denis recalls.
For the most part, a troll’s hair stays upright, but it can stretch a great distance and bend into unusual and useful shapes. It’s more like wool than human hair; silky, but diffuse rather than shiny. The trolls can use their hair as a tool or even a weapon.
The effects crew spent nearly a month of trial and error before they were satisfied with the way the hair reacted as the trolls moved through shots. They started with Poppy’s hair in her candlewick design.
“It was important to get the simulation right,” Denis says. “At first the hair was either too stiff or moving too much and distracting. So we stopped trying to work with the stylized hair and began running simulations on generic hair to get the feel of what troll hair can do. It needed to spread when shaken, but not too wide. There had to be a lightness to the feel, lighter than if it were string.”
When the hair becomes a ribbon, it’s driven by animation rather than simulation. “Animators could stretch and place guide curves,” Denis says. “Then the character effects team defined the motion and overall shape of the hair. The guide hairs are driven by character effects, and the in-between hairs are driven by geometry.”
When the trolls, and for that matter, the Bergens, move, the simulation engine moved their clothes with them. “We had to scale the clothes for the little guys, so they’re pretty rigid because of the thickness of the felt,” Denis says. “The Bergens are more human-sized.”
To give the trolls — and the environment around them — the fuzzy, felted, fabric-art texture designed by the artists, the effects team used displacement and fur.
“The trolls are like gummy bears with fur,” Denis says. “It was a challenge. When we started production, we created a beautiful image. Then, we had to make sure the detail could render for the length of the film. There is lots of fuzziness in the film — the trolls, the other creatures, the world around them.”
Level of detail helped manage the rendering requirements. DreamWorks uses a proprietary scan-line renderer. “When the trolls are away from camera and small, we use displacement,” Denis says. “When they’re close enough to see the fuzz, we use a fur shader.” The crew handled elements in the environment similarly. Trees, for example, might be geometry with fur shaders or displacement.
“When the camera pulls back, the texture becomes just displacement,” Denis explains. “But the shader had to respond to the light, so the trees still seemed like felt, not plastic. Every time I did surfacing rounds, I knew we were in good shape when I wanted to touch the fuzzy thing. It became a checkpoint.”
SETTING THE TONE
The biggest challenge for the effects crew, though, was the number of sets. There’s the troll village, Bergen town and many environments in between.
“The challenge and the fun was that our effects needed to fit into this kind of handmade world. Almost like a stop-motion world,” Denis says. “Our grass was felt. Our fire looks like hair. Our hair looks like fire. For dust, we use a little piece of fuzz. And we made the tree roots from a sheet of gauze-like fabric. It isn’t stop-motion. There’s blur. But there is a little feel of that.”
Throughout the film, the crew used shallow depth of field, matte paintings and digital matte paintings — projections onto 3D geometry — whenever possible to reduce the rendering load. During one musical sequence, for example, Poppy travels through 27 different environments.
“We had almost one environment per shot,” Denis says. “It was very graphic. Each beat had a different color. It becomes more abstract as she leaves the troll village, and then gets totally abstract. Really colorful — but, with only one or two colors for a simple read.”
On the other hand, for a sequence set in the troll village, the artists have Poppy sing in several unique, fully lit, fully surfaced 3D sets. Throughout the film, music carries the narrative, with songs selected by the directors with help from music producer and Branch’s voice, Justin Timberlake.
“It was a musical from the inception,” Mitchell says. “If you’re doing a film about happiness, you need singing and dancing.”
“Of course, the trolls would be full of song,” Dohrn says, “colorful music to tap into immediate emotion. Plus, there’s a great tradition of using music in animation. Our music is non-traditional, but our film has its roots in animated musicals.”
“We had to do it in a way that the musical numbers didn’t stop the story,” Mitchell says. “And keep the narrative going,” Dohrn adds.
SONG AND DANCE
David Burgess headed a team of 32 animators who worked on the film — 20 in Glendale, CA, and 12 at DreamWorks Dedicated Unit (DDU) in India. Rather than assigning animators to particular characters, animators worked on all the characters in a sequence. DreamWorks’ proprietary animation software Premo helped facilitate that.
“Premo’s sequence browser made it easier to cast animators with five or six shots in a row,” Burgess says. “We called it working chunky style. The animators were responsible for everything in a chunk of shots. Premo made it possible to look at the teensy parts or at the chunk holistically and make sure the shots flowed together seamlessly. And, the realtime manipulation at high res is just so huge. No matter what you do, you can see how they will look and feel. You don’t have to go to a low poly count mode. The high res is there and ready for you.”
Whatever the shot, though, the trolls were the most difficult characters to animate. “The Bergens were easier because they were more human and naturalistic,” Burgess says. “The trolls were the biggest challenge because they were so small and pushed. They had stubby arms and legs and big heads. We had to cheat like crazy. And because the movie is a musical, we had choreography.”
The crew brought in dancers who performed the choreography for reference, but that wasn’t as much help as the animators had hoped. “Some choreographers had made cool dance moves that our stubby little trolls just couldn’t do,” Burgess says.
The felted environment also gave the animators a new world of challenges. “Everything had texture and was fuzzy,” Burgess says. “We had to make sure we could see the environment so the trolls wouldn’t end up sunk to their knees. We tried to get high-res versions of stuff they’d directly interact with or shadow layers to see the depth of the fluff.”
It’s amusing to think of animators worrying about trolls sinking to their knees in fuzz, but in fact, it’s a perfect example of how far CG has come. “We couldn’t have done this movie 10 years ago,” says producer Gina Shay. “We didn’t have the tools for the hair, for the fuzziness of the environment. We had to create a whole new system just for glitter.”
Many CG films attempt to bring the visual language of live-action films into the animated world. This film does not. “That’s what was so exciting for me,” Denis says. “We were trying something different. The light still responds to the world, and the world feels tangible, but there was room to design, to interpret, to try different ideas.”
Trolls is DreamWorks’ first CG musical. There are dance routines with trolls doing impossible things with their hair. The characters travel through fabric-art worlds populated with strange creatures made of felt and glitter. There’s danger. There’s irreverent humor. “We wanted to create a signature world,” Shay says. “We decided the trolls are the happiest, most joyful characters in the world, so we created a world just for them.”
“This movie comes out just before the [US] election,” Mitchell says. “I think people don’t want to see a movie at that time about destroying the world. I think they want to feel good. This is a movie for people who want to be happy.”
Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Post's sister publication, CGW.