It's been a banner year for DreamWorks Animation, thanks to the studio's production of two blockbuster hit films with "Puss in Boots" and "Kung Fu Panda 2." Better yet, the directors of the films -- Chris Miller ("Puss in Boots") and Jennifer Yuh Nelson ("Kung Fu Panda 2") -- not only both started at the studio 14 years ago, but each nabbed Oscar nominations last month for helming the family comedies.
But while the directors' names are the only ones listed on their respective nominations, Miller told me in a recent interview that both films are undoubtedly the result of a massive team effort.
"Indirectly or directly, the release of those films in the past year involved every single member of that studio," Miller said. "Everyone's at least worked on one of these two films."
Based on the iconic character from Charles Perrault's classic fairy tale, "Puss in Boots" takes place before the character's appearance in the "Shrek" films. The film is new this week on Blu-ray and DVD (Paramount Home Entertainment).
Miller has amassed an impressive resume at DreamWorks Animation, including story artist credits for such hits as "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Monsters vs. Aliens," as well as director and screenwriting credits for "Shrek the Third." On top of that, he's done voice roles for several of DreamWorks' productions, including all four "Shrek" films (as the Magic Mirror and Geppetto, among others) as well as "Madagascar" (as the penguin Kowalski).
Also the head of story on 2004's "Shrek 2," Miller said he knew almost instantly that the then-new character to the fractured fairytale series, Puss in Boots (expertly voiced by Antonio Banderas), was begging to have his own story told.
"When he was being storyboarded, even before he was being animated, I knew even then that this character could have his own film and it would be fantastic," Miller recalled. "He was such a fresh character, and since we had so much latitude with the writing, we knew that we could write any history for him that we wanted. Whatever you could think of, you could attach to that cat."
Miller said that Puss in Boots had so much potential, in fact, that he could exist not as a spin-off character that would further the "Shrek" storyline, but as of an entity all of his own.
"We knew that Puss in Boots would feel fundamentally different than any character you'd see in the 'Shrek' universe," Miller said. "You could pluck him out and create a movie for him in a world that has its own tone."
"Puss in Boots" takes us back to the character's origins, where we discovered he was a kitten raised in an orphanage along with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). Growing up with dreams of being rich, the two get their chance years later when they, along with a sly cat named Kitty Soft Paws (Salma Hayek), seize magic beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) in order to grow a beanstalk that will take them to a giant's castle in the sky. It's there where they'll find the goose that lays golden eggs, but also discover that their lofty dreams weren't all that they were cracked up to be.
Production on "Puss in Boots" began more than four years ago, and unlike live-action films, Miller said the story was given room to evolve due to the pacing of animation production format. With the luxury of time on your side, Miller said, comes the opportunity to put together a good story that audiences will enjoy.
"With animation, the story is always evolving. From the day we started in January 2008 up until two months before the film came out (in November 2011), we were changing things," Miller recalled. "You should be able to put together a good story in animation because you're going to get a chance to look at the film in its entirety in some form at least a dozen times before the movie comes out. It won't be finished, but you'll see storyboards and some animation."
But once a sequence hits a certain point during the filmmaking process, Miller added, you better be ready to commit.
"The trick is having faith of what you're putting into production," Miller explained. "Once sequence 16 is being animated, for example -- once it starts to go down that path -- it's not coming back. Producing the film is almost like putting together a patchwork quilt. The movie may have 30 sequences in it, and you have to pick and choose which scenes you're really committing to."
The irony of Miller's work on "Puss in Boots" is that in reality, he's not really a cat person. That's not to say, though, that he doesn't have a soft spot for the furry, orange hero.
"I've had cats before, but I'm definitely a dog person," Miller said laughing. "But I really like this cat. He's a lot of fun. He's living a life that we all want in some capacity. Sure, Puss in Boots has a lot of other traits that cats possess: He's self-obsessed and definitely in love with himself. He has this sort of roguish, loner appeal, but at the same time he's all about honor and has this huge heart. He will do the right thing -- whenever put against the wall, he'll make the right choices."