Hollywood sits at the intersection of art and commerce, an epicenter of emotionally moving stories and, ideally, moneymaking products. It’s a tough balance to strike—we’ve all rolled our eyes at sub-par films and gawked at the gaudy ticket sales of blockbusters. But one studio that remains comfortable straddling that line is DreamWorks, the home of lovable animated hits such Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
In 2016, Comcast (CMCSA) Universal acquired DreamWorks for a whopping $3.8 billion as a move aimed at bolstering the bottom line with four-quadrant, family-friendly hits. Since the deal, DreamWorks Animation has released five films under Universal that have grossed more than $1.6 billion worldwide combined. Buyer’s remorse, this is not.
One driving force behind the studio’s continued success is Sean Sexton, head of character animation. After 17 years with DreamWorks—and credits on the aforementioned hits as well as others—he’s as familiar with the studio as anyone. In 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 nearly two decades. How did that come about?
Sean Sexton: I have always wanted to work at DreamWorks, more so than any other company. I think it was because when I was a kid, Jaws was my favorite movie and I loved the work of Steven Spielberg. So when I found out in high school from 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.
That’s interesting because when most people think of animated films today, they think of Pixar. What differentiates DreamWorks from the competition?
I think Pixar is at the top of their game and they always have been. They have really set the bar. I would not have been upset to work at Pixar, for sure. But I think the thing that differentiates us is the diversity and variety of our films. I think Pixar has this one style of filmmaking and storytelling and it hits this perfect sweet spot. Because of that, they have a brand that everyone knows and can relate to.
We always try to be a little different. I think it’s our strength and maybe even some would consider it our weakness because our films are so different from each other. We will do a movie like How to Train Your Dragon—it’s more live action-y, it has a little bit more of a realistic feel and it’s almost like a great VFX movie in a lot of ways. Then, we release The Boss Baby after that, which is almost like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Some people probably don’t realize that the same studio made both of these films because they are so wildly different from each other; I love that we do that. Our filmmaking usually runs that gamut and the animation style is usually based on the type of story we are trying to tell and whichever medium works best for that story. That’s what I love about DreamWorks.
Comcast’s NBCUniversal acquired DreamWorks in 2016. What was that transition like and how did the company change, if at all?
I think that we were all a bit concerned at the time. When a big conglomerate like Comcast Universal acquired us, we were worried that things would change. But it was actually very smooth. We really didn’t notice it, almost at all, for a long time. The thing that we felt comfortable with is that the company has deep pockets and a large reach. It gave us a stability that we may not have previously had.
They have an amazing marketing division and because they own so many stations like Telemundo, NBC, CNBC, etc., when we release a film, it’s everywhere. It gets distributed to all these different outlets. It’s really good for our films.
They have this thing called Symphony which, basically, ties in all of our films with all these other television channels. Everyone’s job is to launch the film and do whatever they can do to promote it. With How to Train Your Dragon 3, it was amazing because that was the first time that one of our movies came out and everyone seemed to know about it. Whenever you turned on your TV, you saw its commercials, you saw billboards, etc. I don’t think we really had that push when we had distribution at Paramount and Fox. It felt like we had a really great support system here at Universal.
Besides the Trolls sequel, which is coming next year, what else can fans expect from DreamWorks Animation moving forward?
We are working on a Puss and Boots sequel that’s being directed by Bob Persichetti. I think it’s actually a way for us to get back into the Shrek universe, so it seems like one day, there might be a Shrek sequel. We are working on Croods 2 and a theatrical CG version of Spirit. We are also working on a lot of original films. We have about ten in development right now. One that has been announced is The Bad Guys, 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’s 11, so it’s like a heist film. It’s going to be really cool. It’s an original, it’s almost like a Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse type of film in that it’s going to be pretty stylized and cutting-edge. Pretty edgy, but also for kids and very funny. I think everyone is really looking forward to that one. All the animators want to work on that for sure.
I think we’ve got another nine or so in development and some sound absolutely incredible. Really ground-breaking, cutting-edge films. So what happens at this stage is we just develop them for a few years and when it feels like it’s really ready and it’s right for the market, then we will start greenlighting them and moving forward.
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 how many hours go into this job. Because it seems like it’s all fun and games, which it can be and very much is at times, but it’s a lot of hours. It’s a lot of hard work. There are days where I am here until one o’clock in the morning working on shots for a film.
The other thing that I don’t think people realize is that most animators don’t draw very much. 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 to, we just move around these CG puppets. Usually, when I see family members they say “awe, do you still love drawing?’ and they don’t realize that we don’t actually draw that much anymore. The cool thing is, I think a lot of kids that want to get into animation think they have to draw and some of the best animators I know don’t actually draw at all. So I think that’s something a lot of people don’t understand is that to be an animator and even a really good one, you don’t actually have to draw very well. You just have to understand locomotion and acting to be an animator—and put in a ton of hard work and a lot of hours.
This interview has been edited and condensed.