The oral history of Shrek, the “ugly stepsister” that changed animation
Inverse speaks with the director, writers, and voices behind the 2001 DreamWorks masterpiece.
The history of animation can be divided into two eras: Before Shrek, and after Shrek.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine Shrek as anything but an instant hit. After all, the subject of the 1990 children’s book was always destined for Hollywood stardom, says producer John H. Williams.
“I thought Shrek was outrageous, irreverent, iconoclastic, gross, and just a lot of fun,” Williams says in the production notes for the 2001 movie. “He was a great movie character in search of a movie.”
The story of a green ogre who goes on a quest with a donkey to save a princess — all so that he can be left alone — was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and made DreamWorks more than $480 million. It spawned three sequels and a spinoff, with two more movies currently in the works.
But that was never the plan.
“It was the island of misfit toys to a large degree,” director Andrew Adamson tells Inverse. “Everyone who didn't work out on another project got sent onto Shrek.”
Shrek was also a pioneer in numerous fields, popularizing the use of contemporary songs and A-Listers (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz). It raised the bar for irreverent, tongue-in-cheek animated comedies. It’s a little crude. Twenty years ago, that personality was largely absent from the Disney films that monopolized the genre until the turn of the century.
In the decades since, Shrek has infused popular culture in a way that is unparalleled by almost any other animated film since The Lion King. It birthed Broadway musicals, TV specials, Shrek festivals, and countless memes — many of them sexually explicit. To be alive in the 21st century is to have seen at least one Shrek film and immediately recognize its titular green ogre.
But the making of the film was filled with wrong turns and uncertainty. At various points, we might have been deprived of the ogre and the memes. Two decades after it was released on April 22, 2001, Inverse interviewed eight people instrumental in the film's success about its remarkable ups and downs.
James Hegedus (production designer): I tend to think of DreamWorks at that time as Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. They said, “We're working on a show called Shrek.” I had no idea what it was.
Sim Evan-Jones (editor): I was working on Prince of Egypt and Sandy Rabins [producer on The Prince of Egypt] said, “You're gonna be our editor for Special Projects.” I didn't know what a special project was.
Andrew Adamson (director): Jeffrey was going through his “I want to make serious animation for adults” when he started DreamWorks, and this was sort of a bastard child. It was the island of misfit toys to a large degree. Everyone who didn't work out on another project got sent onto Shrek.
Hegedus: I got a call from Jeffrey asking if I would production design it. I told him no initially. We had several conversations, and over the course of a week I said, “OK.” I would say he's insistent and persuasive.
Adamson: I met with Jeffrey a couple of times, and in the end, we agreed to do a three-month probation. Really I think with Jeffrey it was the fact that I was saying no that made him want me, because he just doesn't like to get no as an answer.
Cody Cameron (storyboard artist and voice of Pinocchio and the Three Pigs): It was really a fun project to jump onto. It seemed like it was not the most important film at the studio at the time.
Conrad Vernon (storyboard artist and voice of Gingerbread Man): After I got done with Antz, they said, “There is a movie that's struggling right now. It's called Shrek, and we'd like you to come and help dig it out of its hole.”
Making it look right
Evan-Jones: Motion capture was in the air. The 2D people used to call it the devil's rotoscope. Rotoscope is how they used to do Disney stuff.
Adamson: The very first meeting I went to was the motion capture test.
Evan-Jones: It was basically going to be shot motion-capture by these guys called the Propellerheads. There were the three guys we knew [Rob Lotterman, Loren Soman, Andy Waisler]; then there was this other guy back in New York, who was the writer. It turned out the writer was J.J. Abrams. Abrams wrote the test we did motion-capture on. It was, like, 45 seconds. What they wanted to do was use puppets for the four-legged characters. They had people in fat suits. And it was just a big fat mess. It was a Shrek character that was not the same but not dissimilar to the one we ended up seeing in the movie: guy in a fat suit walking through an alley in a town and then he's mugged by this character they called the Mugger. Shrek was accompanied by the donkey, who was played by a person using their feet for the back legs and brooms for the front legs.
“It turned out the writer was J.J. Abrams.”
Adamson: Jeffrey really came from animation and didn't like a lot of what was going on, so he rejected it outright and kind of fired everybody involved.
Evan-Jones: It was before they really had the computing power to do it properly. It was actually more data than they could cope with.
Hegedus: I made a suggestion that we do miniature sets with CG animation. So we did a little 10-second test with Illusion Arts that was designed to show a miniature set, including matte painting with a maquette stand-in of Shrek. That was presented and well received. It was beautiful.
Adamson: I wanted, and developed with James, this very impressionistic palette of rolling hills, with a huge amount of background detail. When we ran the numbers on that, [producer] Aron Warner was convinced that it wasn't practical at PDI [co-producer Pacific Data Images] because they had just managed to set up this infrastructure for doing Antz, and I wanted to break in and create a whole new infrastructure. We ended up with this agreement where if he could show me that they could do the [CGI] backgrounds to the level that I wanted out of the miniatures, then I'd agree to do that.
“DreamWorks at the time had no set house style.”
Chris Miller (storyboard artist and voice of the Magic Mirror and Gepetto): The work that PDI was doing…the technical achievements seemed above and beyond. DreamWorks at the time had no set house style. That was liberating as well.
Adamson: It was an exciting time to be pushing the limits. I was literally writing the software in those days. And it was hard. One of my proudest moments of the film is when Shrek is overhearing the conversation in the windmill and it's just a close-up on his face. And it's everything you need to know about how he feels. That I don't think had been achievable before then.
Hegedus: I felt like we were on the frontier every day. Nobody had been there. Our crew had to be recruited from around the world. It involved so many people.
Adamson: They had Prince of Egypt and El Dorado and Spirit in the real animation rooms, and then they put us in the overflow catering section. Where Sim and I were working, there were three sinks behind us. That was on the new campus in Glendale [Los Angeles]. We used to joke that we could get our hair washed while we were editing.
Creating the story
Miller: Our story team was located in Burbank in LA. We all worked in an open room without any walls, and there was constant communication with the story artists.
Adamson: DreamWorks was growing rapidly, so they were having to cast a really wide net, particularly for story artists. They would just bring them in and try them out and see where they fitted.
Vernon: They still didn't have a story.
Cameron: We didn't know quite what we were working on. The directors had changed so many times and the story had changed so many times.
Vernon: We had gone down a road where Shrek is a nice ogre who wants to be a knight...
Cameron: It wasn't until Andrew and Vicky [Jenson, co-director] came on board that we broke the story about being who he is now: someone who is misjudged, therefore he shuts himself off from the world.
Hegedus: During that time, Chris Farley was scheduled to play Shrek. Chris Farley was a heavy guy with a big neck and all that was exaggerated in the character: the big head, the big neck, double chin.
Evan-Jones: We were flying back to England for Christmas and we got the news he'd died from the guy we were sitting next to on the plane.
Adamson: We kind of lost our way for a considerable amount of time. It was devastating on a personal level. I actually said to Jeffrey, “Can you please fire me? I can't bring myself to quit.” But he didn't. And then Mike [Myers] came on and then we refocused and recentered.
Cameron: He started out doing the Scottish voice. And at the time when he was first doing it, it was much thicker, like the character Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. And then as the screenings were going on, it was probably Jeffrey's decision to just try it with his normal voice. And then I think people felt it just wasn't as funny as it was before.
Vernon: He did a Chris Farley impression at one point; then he kind of morphed that into a Jackie Gleason that he was doing. And I remember him saying, “I wanna re-record Shrek because I just don't think this Jackie Gleason voice is right.” He started doing the Scottish accent really well.
Hegedus: I think there was just a minor modification in the eyebrows. Jeffrey said, “We gotta get Mike's eyebrows in there.” They became a little longer and furrier, and we trimmed some of the neck fat back.
Pitching the gags
Miller: Everything we drew was drawn on a piece of paper. It was the aspect ratio of the movie. Soon you'd build a gorilla's nest of drawings and pick out what you needed, pin it to a board in order, and then everybody could come in and look at it.
Adamson: The story artist would end up playing all the characters they were pitching.
Cameron: I'm kind of a shy person. I do voices and stuff, but really I'm not one to go out in public and be the center of attention. So I would get butterflies before pitching.
Adamson: Jeffrey would always sit front and center and everyone would be trying to get him to laugh.
Cameron: Usually it was everyone in a mosh pit in chairs. Jeffrey at the front could wheel across as the story artist was pitching if he wanted to move around the room.
“How do you torture a gingerbread man?”
Vernon: The board team cracked the whole fairytale creatures aspect of it — Farquaad displacing them all to Shrek's swamp. They gave me the Gingerbread Man scene. So I went back to my desk and sat down. I was like, “What do I know about the Gingerbread Man?” And I had this little TV set with a record player on top of it. And on one side of the record was the “Gingerbread Man” and on the other side of the record was “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” That's when I got the idea: What if they were torturing the Gingerbread Man for the information? How do you torture a gingerbread man? Well, you break his legs off, you dunk him in milk... I was like, “Maybe he doesn't sing the “Muffin Man” song; maybe it's like an interrogation.” I wrote it out on a piece of paper and then boarded it out. And when I pitched it, I used that voice.
Adamson: I remember very clearly Conrad pitched the Gingerbread Man sequence and Aron Warner and I were literally just crying with laughter.
Cameron: Honestly, I think it was when Conrad had pitched the Gingerbread Man scene that Jeffrey decided, “This is exactly the type of humor.” Conrad's scene kind of nailed it.
Vernon: And they tried for about two months to find actors to replace me, but they finally just said, “Screw it. We can't find anyone. Can you do it?”
A strange kind of snobbery
Miller: After years of struggle, there was this sort of epic, almost earnest quality to the filmmaking [at DreamWorks]. All great, but Shrek was like the ugly stepsister. We had this internal us vs. them idea.
Adamson: Everyone knew when a screening was happening at DreamWorks. There was always the hope that yours wouldn't be one that everyone knew about for the wrong reasons.
“Suddenly it was free rein to make it a full-on comedy.”
Evan-Jones: I can remember someone quite high up at Amblin [Steven Spielberg's production company] saying to me that it was their red-headed stepchild; this unwanted thing. People were so up their arse.
Miller: The opening scene, where Shrek is reading the fairytale book and then it's revealed that he's in the toilet...that got a laugh at a screening, and then suddenly it was free rein to make it a full-on comedy.
Adamson: We really did make the movie for ourselves, and made it accessible for children rather than making a movie for children that was accessible to adults.
Evan-Jones: There was always a little bit of a rebel spirit about the Shrek gang. There was a shared empathy that everyone wanted to do things in an unconventional way.
“They tried to stop it a number of times.”
Hegedus: We really felt that we were on a cutting edge. There wasn't something to reference to or look back on. If there was something we didn't know about, we'd just make our own rule.
Vernon: We were going so outside the bounds of typical animated fare. The studio definitely knew that it was dangerous. It didn't let us, the board artists, in on that. But I can tell you without a doubt they tried to stop it a number of times. The battles were hard-fought and hard-won.
Recording the dialogue
Adamson: Eddie Murphy was on right from the beginning. Nobody can own a line like Eddie Murphy. In the room with him you just never knew where he was gonna go. And he's so fast. Eddie and Mike ended up doing a lot of improv. The whole parfait section was improvised by Eddie.
Harry Gregson-Williams (composer): I remember hearing Jeffrey talking to Andrew in the back of my composing room one day, and they were talking about the fact that they had to get Eddie Murphy to ADR a line in a limo in New York. They couldn't get him into a studio in time.
Adamson: I was at a restaurant and I had a Scottish waiter. He sounded really like Mike Myers' Scottish voice. And I said, “I know this is a really cliched question to ask in LA, but you're not by any chance an actor, are you?” And he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I am.” So he came and did a lot of temporary dialogue for us. We tracked down a guy who was an Eddie Murphy impersonator and had him do stuff for us.
“We tracked down a guy who was an Eddie Murphy impersonator.”
Cameron: I was trying to do Swedish pigs and someone thought they sounded German. It was kind of a Swedish-German pig.
Clive Pearse (voice of Ogre Hunter): My mother was visiting from England; I had some other friends. We were supposed to go and clamber our way up to the Hollywood sign as a hike. I got this notification – which might have been a page at the time on my beeper – to say, “You have an audition.” I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, I've got to cancel my entire day with all my friends or I can just say that I'll pass.” Off I went and did my various bits and pieces that were part of the script. I actually have the first line in the movie, which is, “He'll grind your bones for his bread.”
Building the music
Gregson-Williams: The first tune in the first movie – a tune in C-minor, in 3/4 – that became the fairytale. And then boom, in comes Smash Mouth.
Evan-Jones: That was the era when animated films had to be Broadway musicals. As we were developing the storyboard, the first thing I used that Andrew really loved was the Donovan song “Season of the Witch.” We could see that there was something really unusual about it.
Gregson-Williams: I thought perhaps a cello would be nice as a featured instrument around Shrek – could be something a little bit clumsy about the cello perhaps. It had to be sort of lumpy and grumpy and a little edgy and bad-tempered. I suggested my best friend, Martin Tillman. John [Powell, co-composer] said, “Get him to bring a double bass.” I said, “He doesn't play the double bass.” He said, “Great, get him to bring a double bass.” So I called Martin and said, “Look, mate, this is a weird one, but if I hire a double bass, could you come and play it?” He said, “That's like asking me to play the flute, for Christ's sake.” So he did come in, and it was pretty lumpy; it wasn't perfect. And it was perfect because it was imperfect.
Evan-Jones: Andrew and I had wanted to use “I'm A Believer” somewhere at the end, during the wedding. We had sung a version where we did it like monks, and that didn't work. And I mentioned that to my wife, who's also British, and she said, “Oh, you wanna use the EMF version” with Vic Reeves singing. She gave me the cassette and that's the version that we animated to.
The view from the top
Gregson-Williams: I remember saying to Jeffrey when we were nearly finished with the film, “Jeffrey, do you think people will know what a Shrek is?” He said, “Well, no they won't at first, but if you look at many of the most successful animations in the history of animation, their title tells you absolutely what it is. There's no subterfuge.” Bambi. Snow White. Cinderella. He was bang on, wasn't he?
Adamson: We had one screening where we'd scored something really high. And I remember Jeffrey saying to me afterward, “Get ready for this. This may only happen once in your life.”
Miller: Having a big premiere was vital. I remember how devilishly happy Jeffrey Katzenberg was. I'd never seen him like that.
Adamson: The movie coming out was kind of a blur. The whole process was very disorienting. I think it's very easy to lose track of who you actually are. I would sometimes be telling a story or anecdote and I wouldn't remember if I'd already told that journalist that story or anecdote.
Miller: They trotted it out really well. It was everywhere.
Cameron: It was an amazing first-time experience. I did see the film three times in the theater – once with my parents, once with my grandmother, and once by myself – because it was so much fun to watch it with an audience.
Pearse: I love animated features, and to be in a clever, sly one was a boon. I think I'm terribly lucky to have been a part of that.
Adamson: I miss working with Jeffrey. In those days he was really trying to do something different, which I really admired. DreamWorks was very much built around his vision.
Gregson-Williams: I owe so much to Shrek. I had an amazing decade doing a Shrek every two years. I went on to do Shrek 2, 3, 4, and a couple of TV specials; Scared Shrekless...
Vernon: When it came out, it just skyrocketed. As soon as it hit big, immediately everyone was like “OK – start working on a second one.”
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