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Joel Crawford and Mark Swift on ‘Puss In Boots: The Last Wish’

// Interviews

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish feels like mainstream animation finding its voice again. Having now seemingly retreated from the purgatorial chase for photorealism, the leading minds in the industry have begun experimenting on the nuclear fusion between 2D and CG styles. These animation techniques seemed to be oil and water before projects like Paperman and Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse broke the barriers between them and, just like nuclear fusion, created a blast of light, creating a beacon of hope for those tired of the same four studios releasing the same styles of films.

To boil The Last Wish down to a film taking the “Spider-verse art style” would be reductive. Of course, it blends 2D and 3D styles and varies the frame rates of characters (referred to as ‘stepped’ animation), but this is done in service of the painterly, fairytale feel the movie aims for. Despite the undeniable inspiration from Spider-verse, The Last Wish feels like its own beast and acts as a statement from DreamWorks about where they see animation going. These films do not have to look the same anymore.

At the centre of this innovation is director Joel Crawford and producer Mark Swift. Both have been at DreamWorks since the 2000s, Crawford as a story artist on movies such as Bee Movie, Rise of the Guardians and the Kung Fu Panda franchise before being given the chance to direct 2020’s The Croods: A New Age. Swift has produced 10 previous projects with DreamWorks, starting with 2004’s Shark Tale all the way up to Crawford’s The Croods sequel.

Joel and Mark spoke to Skwigly about the success of the film, the challenges with establishing its style and tone as well as the state of the animation industry as a whole. Below is that conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Ryan: You guys look very excited for two people have been doing a continuous press tour for the last six months or so.

Mark Swift: The movie is so joyful, honestly, seeing its reaction and how people around the world have really embraced this film. You work on these movies for years and finally your baby goes out and we’re so happy and joyful to see how people have been receiving it.

Joel Crawford: That’s exactly what I was feeling too where it’s like, we are now feeding off the enthusiasm of the critics, of audiences and it’s so fun. It’s very rewarding to get this embrace from the world.

Oscar nomination morning must have been a fun morning as well, I imagine. What were your reactions when you got that news?

MS: I was a little groggy because it was very early in the morning and we were hopeful of an Oscar nomination. So I slept on and off, checking my phone. Eventually, I started seeing the texts come through and I was like, “yeah!” I quickly woke up at that stage.

JC: It was big news, but then it was so immediate where I gotta get my three kids ready for school. They don’t care that dad got nominated, so back to real life. No, it’s been so exciting.

One of the reasons the film has been embraced is because of the animation style. Did the existence of movies like The Bad Guys and Spider-verse act as guidelines for you?

JC: Yes and no. It’s wonderful what’s happened to the animation industry post-Spider-verse, where animated movies don’t have to be full CG, especially for the Western audience. Then with The Bad Guys innovating their own style was helpful as we’re developing the right look for Puss In Boots, being a fairytale painting. There’s still a lot of finding its unique look, but it definitely helps to have partners within the studio, who have been developing software and things to push the 2D Look.

Joel has mentioned in other interviews that, for a lot of the animators, this was their first time working on stepped animation. Mark, as the producer, how do you manage the time it takes for so many people to learn something new while making deadlines?

MS: The thing with artists and animators is that they’re excited to try something new. So there was an immediate embrace at the studio. Most of the animators that come from animation school, they’ve done lots of different styles over the years and to get the chance to actually work on some of that on a film, I think they were so enthusiastic. But it didn’t become an issue. The animators were so with us on every step of the way that it never felt like it was a huge challenge. There were challenges but we kind of got through them all in all, on time on budget, moving forward.

What were those challenges that are unique to this film?

MS: When we were trying to find our look, we had to find the right balance of CGI and 2D. Because we’re a sequel, we’re not brand new, people have an expectation of the Shrek and the Puss In Boots world. They know what Puss In Boots looks like, they want to pick him up and put him in their lap. And so, when you put a completely CG character in a completely 2D world, where do you switch on and switch off? He’s on a desk that’s 2D and he’s looking completely CG, it starts to look weird. A lot of our experimentations were like, “what’s the foreground look? What’s the background look? We get more painterly as you go off into the background. So, that was a little bit of a challenge finding the right balance in terms of the look.

Can you see this becoming the dominant animation style, the way that Pixar and DreamWorks established that CG realistic style in the 2000s?

JC: I would hope that it doesn’t, that it’s one of many styles. I think what’s so exciting is that DreamWorks has given this premise of, “the filmmaker should find the style and the tools to tell their story specifically.” You look at The Bad Guys and it’s innovative, it’s pushed this 2D, anime feel. And then [The Last Wish] being a fairy tale painting. I think it’s exciting to go, “can we keep, you know, finding new inspirations that are specific to the filmmakers?” But it is really great that we’re not chasing photorealism, or the CG look anymore. Some movies fully deserved to be that, but it’s nice when we can have so many animated movies in a year, and they can all feel different. That’d be wonderful.

MS: I think one of the big advantages of us, and Spider-verse, and The Bad Guys is that all these movies did well. And so from a studio perspective, it gives you, gives our studio, our executives, our team at Universal, a little bit more ability to go “Yeah, try something. Let’s give it a go.” I mean, we’ve constantly seen the short films and more independently minded animated movies taking risks and I think what we’re seeing is bigger movies now embracing that, and Joel says, being able to use whatever style suits the story best, rather than saying, “Oh, it has to look like CG, because that’s what makes them money. And if you do something differently, you know, you’re running a financial risk.” I think that’s loosening for sure, and in the next three, four years, I think we’re going to be really pleasantly surprised by how the animation industry is moving.

Could you talk about the rhythm that the action in this film possesses?

JC: I think first of all, with the style that we’re pushing, on one hand, there’s CG, traditional style, which is 24 frames a second and each image is held for one frame. It’s nice and smooth and grounded. And then in the action scenes, we lean more toward what might be considered an anime style, which is a traditional hand drawn animation, which we call ‘stepped,’ where you have certain images that are held, not for one frame, but maybe 2, 3, 4. What the effect is, you’re getting to see poses that are extreme, that catch your eye longer, and it feels hyper fantastical, it doesn’t feel like reality, it feels pushed, and superhero like.

We really wanted to make sure we weren’t just doing it because it was cool, that we had a concept behind it. It all boiled down to the story being about a superhero, Puss In Boots, who is this larger than life icon who doesn’t realise he’s mortal. We were able to use action scenes that feel so fun and turned up in the stepped animation, and then contrast it with moments where Puss is feeling anxiety, and feeling connections, and this grounded kind of reality. Using CG in a way that the audience, whether they know the technique or not, experiences that ride, because there’s two different styles.

You say you don’t do it just because it’s cool, but it’s really freaking cool. 

MS: The ideal is when you have something that works and fits, and then it’s also cool.

Did you have anything where it has that cool factor, but breaks the immersion a little too much?

JC: I think for us we’re telling the story in an authentic way where we’re making sure the story works for the characters. I’ll take the moment where Puss is in the bar, and he gets cut. You could say, Is that too shocking? But Puss is this larger than life character who has this big ego. He sings in the opening song that he’s never been touched by a blade. We needed Puss to wake up and feel something he had never felt before, fear, in this case. There’s this shocking red background in that moment, which is very stylized, but I think the audience feels a new tone. They feel fear for the first time, not only in this movie, but also in the previous Puss In Boots movie or the Shrek world. It was important that the audience almost get shocked awake, with Puss In Boots. I think as long as we are sincere to the character in these moments, we weren’t questioning whether it was too far because it just needed to work authentically for the story.

MS: And it needed to be like that because this movie up to that point is a riot. He’s defeating everyone, he has a laugh at the doctor’s office explaining all these previous lives. Everything is fun. But the journey of Puss being down to his last life, we needed a 180 spin, not just for Puss, but as Joel said, for the audience. That’s really when our movie starts, this new adventure for purpose. We joke about this [bar scene], it was one of the first sequences we did and we had to show it to our executives. Obviously, we’re making what we think is correct, but we have tiers of approval at the studio. But immediately our execs were on board, they were like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it needs to be.” It was great that everyone could see it.

JC: I think that they understood the movie as a whole was going to be a joyful, comedic adventure. But without this moment of feeling the actual stakes, without feeling fear and vulnerability, the audience could never come away from this movie feeling joy and appreciation. Because you have to go dark to go to light. What we’re happy about is that the studio and us, we all saw the same movie. What’s really cool is seeing how that experience is resonating with audiences of all ages now.

It is that bar scene that makes you think “Oh, they’re really going for this.” It’s a great feeling to have when you’re sitting in a cinema, it’s such an adrenaline rush.

MS: So many user reviews on Letterboxd or wherever are like, “They didn’t need to go this hard, why did they go this hard?” And that’s awesome. People are picking up on that and are excited by that.

2023 has already been a tough year for animation with studios and streaming services cancelling so many animated projects. What’s your perspective on that?

MS: Look, we’re super lucky. We’re at DreamWorks so we’re a little sheltered from that because we’re very well supported. At Universal particularly, we’re huge believers in the feature animation wing. For me, personally, I think there’s been an explosion in animation over the last five, six years, where so many projects are getting made at all the streaming sites. It was an incredible time, but I think there was a part of us always asking, “Is this gonna last?” 

I’ve been in animation now for 30 years and there’s peaks and valleys in animation all the time. There’s moments where it’s like going so well, and then drops down a little bit. We had this when 2D animation started to fade away around the 2000s. So I’ve been around a few of these peaks and valleys and I think the animation industry is in a really healthy position. We may not be making quite as many movies or TV shows we made a year ago, but compared to where I started off, it’s a really healthy industry.

JC: We are in our own little bubble here at DreamWorks because the point of view of Dreamworks and Universal has maintained. We’re making big, sophisticated, nuanced movies for the theatre experience. Obviously, the movies can be viewed in any format possible, but the biggest, grandest animation deserves to be on the big screen. It’s so beautiful. It’s such a wonderful art. Universal have continued to push for the theatrical experience, as opposed to some other studios that have gone straight to streaming. I think when you send something straight to streaming, it’s fine but I’m appreciative that we’re making these movies for an audience experience. 

When we’re talking about this movie, not only is it worth seeing on the big screen for the painterly style of it and the animation, but also the range of emotions that a group of people are sitting in the theatre, experiencing laughter and joy together. Maybe there’s some tears. A whole audience, kind of like a migration of birds, feeling these emotions, synchronised, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s something I’m grateful for that we continue to be able to do here at DreamWorks.

PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH is out in cinemas now

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