Hollywood sits at the intersection of art and commerce, an epicenter of moving stories and, ideally, profitable products. It’s a difficult balance to strike – we’ve all rolled our eyes at substandard movies and were speechless at the garish blockbuster ticket sales. But one studio that remains comfortable straddling that line is DreamWorks, the home of adorable animated hits such as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to train your dragon.
In 2016, Comcast Universal acquired DreamWorks for a whopping $ 3.8 billion in an effort to bolster results with four-quadrant family hits. Since the deal, DreamWorks Animation has released five Universal films that have grossed over $ 1.6 billion worldwide combined. Buyer’s remorse is not the case.
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One of the driving forces behind the studio’s continued success is Sean Sexton, responsible for character animation. After 17 years with DreamWorks – and credits on the aforementioned hits and others – he knows the studio as well as anyone. While chatting with Observer, we learned what separates DreamWorks from Pixar and what the future may hold for the studio and its fans.
Observer: You’ve been with DreamWorks for almost two decades. How did it happen?
Sean Sexton: I’ve always wanted to work at DreamWorks, more than any other company. I think it’s because when I was a kid Jaws was my favorite movie and I loved Steven Spielberg’s work. So when I found out in high school, through a Time Magazine article, that Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg, and David Geffen were starting a new studio called DreamWorks, that was it. Once I saw that, it was the only place I wanted to work.
It’s interesting because when most people think of animated movies today, they think of Pixar. What makes DreamWorks different from the competition?
I think Pixar is at the top of their game and always have been. They really set the bar. I wouldn’t have been upset working at Pixar, that’s for sure. But I think what sets us apart is the diversity and variety of our films. I think Pixar has this unique style of filmmaking and storytelling and it hits that sweet spot. Because of this, they have a brand that everyone knows and that everyone can relate to.
We always try to be a little different. I think this is our strength and maybe even some would see it as our weakness because our films are so different from each other. We’re gonna make a movie like How to train your dragon– it’s more live-action, it has a little more of a sense of realism and it’s almost like a great VFX movie in many ways. Then we release The boss baby after that, which almost looks like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Some people probably don’t realize that the same studio made these two films because they are so different from each other; I like us to do that. Our cinema generally covers this range and the animation style is generally based on the type of story we are trying to tell and the medium that best suits that story. That’s what I love about DreamWorks.
NBCUniversal from Comcast acquired DreamWorks in 2016. What was that transition like and how has the business changed, if at all?
I think we were all a little worried back then. When a big conglomerate like Comcast Universal bought us out, we feared things would change. But it was actually very fluid. We really didn’t notice it, almost at all, for a long time. The thing that we felt comfortable with was that the company has deep pockets and far reaching. It gave us a stability that maybe we didn’t have before.
They have an amazing marketing division and because they own so many stations like Telemundo, NBC, CNBC, etc., when we release a movie, it’s all over the place. It is distributed to all these different points of sale. It’s really good for our films.
They have this thing called Symphony that basically ties all of our movies to all of these other TV channels. Everyone’s job is to launch the film and do whatever they can to promote it. With How to Train Your Dragon 3, it was amazing because it was the first time that one of our movies had been released and everyone seemed to know it. Every time you turn on your TV, you see its advertisements, you see billboards, etc. I don’t think we really had that pressure when we had a cast at Paramount and Fox. It was like we had a really good support system here at Universal.
Besides the Trolls sequel, coming next year, what else can fans expect from DreamWorks Animation?
We are working on a Puss in Boots sequel which is directed by Bob Persichetti. I think it’s actually a way for us to get back into the Shrek universe, so it seems that one day there might be a Shrek following. We are working on Croods 2 and a theatrical CG version of Spirit. We are also working on many original films. We have about ten in development at the moment. The one that was announced is The villains, which is based on a children’s book about a shark, a piranha, a snake and a wolf. It’s, in a way, like ocean 11, so it’s like a junkyard movie. It’s gonna be really cool. It’s an original, it’s almost like a Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse type of film in that it will be quite stylized and avant-garde. Pretty edgy, but also kid-friendly and very funny. I think everyone is looking forward to it. All the animators want to work on this, that’s for sure.
I think we have about nine more in development and some sound absolutely amazing. Truly revolutionary films at the cutting edge of technology. So what happens at this point is we just develop them for a few years and when we feel it’s really ready and it’s good for the market then we’ll start giving them the green light. and move on.
What’s one thing about your job that fans might be surprised to learn?
I think when my wife met me she was surprised at the number of hours spent on this job. Because it seems like everything is fun and playful, which it can and sometimes is a lot, but it takes a lot of hours. It’s a lot of hard work. There are days when I’m here until one in the morning working on the shots for a movie.
The other thing that I don’t think people realize is that most animators don’t draw a lot. When I was a kid I drew all the time and that’s why I wanted to become an animator. But now with computer animation we don’t need it anymore, we just move around these CG puppets. Usually when I see family members they say, “Excellent, do you still like to draw? And they don’t realize that we don’t draw so much anymore. What’s cool is that I think a lot of kids who want to get into animation think they have to draw and some of the best animators I know don’t draw at all. So I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand, is that in order to be an animator, and even a really good animator, you don’t have to draw very well. You just need to understand locomotion and acting to be a host-and put in a ton of hard work and a lot of hours.
This interview has been edited and condensed.