October 31, 2006

DreamWorks CEO Animates Crowd

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Humor that talks up to children rather than at them — this is the vision that Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, proposed for DreamWorks and described to students and faculty yesterday in a full Statler Auditorium. The stage was set like a fireside chat for “A Conversation with Jeffrey Katzenberg: The Future of Computer Animation.” Jeffrey Katzenberg; Mahesh Ramasubrama-nian M.S. ’00, DreamWorks’ head developer of special effects; and Prof. Don Greenberg ’55 Ph.D. ’68, computer graphics, seated themselves in three large armchairs to discuss creativity, challenges and innovation in the world of computer animation and beyond.

[img_assist|nid=19348|title= Not just dreamers |desc=Terra Alpaugh / Sun Staff,
Jeffrey Katzenberg (far left), CEO of DreamWorks Animation. |link=none|align=left|width=100|height=91]

Katzenberg, true to his role as a leader of the entertainment industry, opened with a delightful crowd-pleaser: an exclusive seven-minute segment from DreamWorks’ upcoming movie Shrek the Third. Greenberg then posed questions to both Katzenberg and Ramasubramanian about the challenges of getting into the entertainment industry and the risks of creating high-budget computer-animated films. Katzenberg explained that his entry into the field of animated entertainment was “more by accident than by design.” Having “hit a ceiling” after six to seven years of work in government and politics, Katzenberg headed to California and found himself thrown into the entertainment industry by mentors whom he luckily met along the way. “I’ve been so blessed crossing paths with people who believed in me,” Katzenberg said. After working at Paramount Studios and serving as chairman of the board of Walt Disney Studios for 10 years, Katzenberg founded DreamWorks in 1994 with co-founders Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Although not one of these men have a college degree, Katzenberg expressed his belief that college is an “invaluable place to be” and encouraged students to be eager and passionate about pursuing their futures, saying, “people who come with enthusiasm and excitement find doors open to them.”

Katzenberg attributed the success of DreamWorks’ films, despite the high expense of about $150 million per movie, to their appeal as “broad populace entertainment,” attracting children and adults alike with a unique humor. He also highlighted the importance of DreamWorks’ understanding that risk-taking is necessary in order to make something unique and creative.

“Ultimately, you’re relying on your own instincts,” Katzenberg explained, emphasizing that the key to success is understanding one’s “right to fail.” During the audience question-and-answer session, Katzenberg cited DreamWorks’ first film, The Prince of Egypt, as an example of the “right to fail.” He expressed that although the decision to make the movie, however “beautiful and ambitious” it was, “now seems really stupid” in a strategic sense, it was a necessary step to determining the DreamWorks vision — one that he hopes will eventually encompass their mission statement: “We make movies for adults and the adult that exists in every child,” playfully modeled after Disney’s mission to “make movies for children and the child that exists in every adult.” Katzenberg also acknowledged the talent of the actors who use their improvisational and comedic skills to make DreamWorks’ movies “half of what they are, expressing that animation does not attempt to replace actors.

Greenberg stimulated discussion of the world of computer animation as well, covering the topics of technology’s place in our lives, innovations to come, and what the creation of an animated film requires. “Our lives are being more and more impacted and enhanced by the digital experience,” Katzenberg said. He also described that the rate at which the field is developing and moving forward is phenomenal. Katzenberg explained that DreamWorks’ software capabilities increased tenfold between each of the Shrek movies, allowing for a richer viewing experience each time. Katzenberg believes that creating software and simplifying interfaces are art forms that allow for the improvement of artist creativity and will continue to advance at warp speed.

In creating an animated film, Katzenberg noted the importance of choosing a good story to tell — one with a plotline that is engaging and appealing on both a domestic and international level. Additionally, he defined the word “animate” as “to make bigger than life” and described that in order to achieve this goal, DreamWorks continually looks for new talent and creativity on all frontiers.

Katzenberg also stressed the benefit of an interdisciplinary education throughout the discussion. He described the university as a place that “allows you to experiment and to express yourself” in many different ways. Ramasubramanian added his advice as a Cornell alumnus to take as many courses outside of your discipline as you can, suggesting that computer graphics students take courses in design, architecture and even acting. Primarily, however, Katzenberg emphasized the power of the individual. “Whether you’re going out with an idea, a story, or a skill that you have, what people on the other side want to see is how much you believe in yourself,” he urged. According to Katzenberg, the single most important skill to have in order to succeed is to “be able to sell yourself and your belief in yourself.”

The event ended in loud applause, and students appeared to be inspired by Katzenberg’s encouraging and insightful words. “I really liked what he said about creativity and innovation,” said Sang Eun Park ’10. Upon being asked what he hopes students got out of the discussion, Greenberg eagerly stated, “I hope one of the things that students got out of it is that it is really important not to be afraid to fail and take risks.” Greenberg also hoped that students appreciated Katzenberg’s unique view that considers people writing software as creative artists. With this in mind, Greenberg hopes to create a digital arts and graphics major at Cornell in the future.