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Creating the World of 'Trolls'

School of Communications and Media Technologies hosts creative team behind the lovable animated musical comedy

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Trolls director Mike Mitchell and broadcast journalism student Whitley Sandretto. Photo by Bob Toy.

Twenty years after bejeweled navels and colorful sky-high hair fueled the latest troll doll craze, DreamWorks’ animated musical comedy Trolls offers a window to the world of the lovable ugly creatures. On October 20, director Mike Mitchell, co-director Walt Dohrn and screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger visited Academy of Art University to discuss the film at an event hosted by the School of Communications and Media Technologies.

Prior to the panelists’ arrival, School of Communications and Media Technologies Director Jan Yanehiro helped prep the crew and the crowd. “The show is nothing without a great audience!” she declared. Yanehiro solicited student participation in the event’s Q&A segment and assigned volunteers to a lineup to demonstrate the importance of planting the audience. 

Simultaneously recorded and broadcast via livestream, the event began with a clip from the film, followed by a discussion led by communications and broadcast journalism major Whitley Sandretto. 

With no established characters or rules to shape the trolls’ world, “We got to create all that from scratch, which was pretty exciting,” Mitchell said. The creative team welcomed the blank slate. “We explored themes a lot early on,” Mitchell said. Happiness emerged as the central idea. “It informs many aspects of the film—character design, colors, music.”

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(L–R) Trolls screenwriters Glenn Burger and Jonathan Aibel, co-director Walt Dohrn and director Mike Mitchell sit down with broadcast journalism student Whitley Sandretto for a special livestream event hosted by the School of Communications & Media Technologies. Photo by Bob Toy.

In the resulting vividly colorful troll society, love reigns and every day is a celebration. Select citizens can even poop cupcakes and fart glitter. It’s been 20 years since the trolls faced a threat from their nemeses, the Bergens, who believe that true happiness comes only from eating trolls. 

Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake lead a powerhouse cast of voice actors as the effervescently optimistic Poppy and the lone pessimist troll, Branch. “We feel like we broke the mold with the princess,” said Mitchell, noting that Poppy possesses neither a 24-inch waist nor uncomfortable shoes. 

She does, however, exhibit an attitude that at first seems naïve. The screenwriters took care to portray Poppy as untested yet grounded. “We needed her to be relentlessly positive without seeming dumb, and for her optimism to be well founded, even if she didn’t know it,” said Berger.  

When a crisis tests the trolls’ sunny outlook, Poppy and Branch team up on a rescue mission. “We were inspired by movies like Romancing the Stone, where a male and a female character go on a journey together,” said Aibel.

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Academy of Art University students line up to ask the Trolls team questions during the event’s Q&A. Photo by Bob Toy.

Every journey needs a soundtrack, and Trolls, which opens November 4, boasts an enviable one. With classics such as Sound of Silence, as well as original songs, the film takes advantage of musically talented cast members including Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, Gwen Stefani, James Corden and, of course, Timberlake, who also serves as executive music producer. 

Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” already a pop hit months before the movie’s release, was written specifically for Trolls. “When you see it in the film, it’s re-contextualized. He’s a scientist of pop songs,” said Dohrn, who also voices the characters Cloud Guy, Smidge and Fuzzbert.

Sandretto adeptly led the discussion, relying on a mixture of targeted and amusing questions to keep all four panelists involved. Her performance betrayed no hint that it was her first live interview. The conversation touched upon the timeline of an animated film and the differences between live action and animation, among other topics. 

When the audience got the chance to steer the discussion, communications and media technologies student Luke Lacy asked about the editing software used to make the film. He was encouraged to learn that the answer was Avid. “It’s cool that they use a platform I actually use. It makes filmmaking seem doable,” he said. 

The event sparked recognition on another level, too. Watching the Trolls directors and screenwriters speak, visual development student Jui Ying Hung saw the same joy and excitement she gets from drawing characters. “I think they really love their work,” she said. “They’re really happy, and I think the audience can feel that.”

Trolls, starring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, opens in theaters on Friday, November 4.