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Posted at 2:01 PM ET, 05/21/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: 'SHREK' animator Walt Dohrn steps into the oh-so-green limelight

By Michael Cavna

rumple.jpg Rumpelstiltskin and Shrek (DreamWorks Animation)

A young aspiring animator -- let's call him "Walt D." -- comes to Hollywood with big dreams in tow. He wants to write animated films. He wants to create cartoon characters -- talking animals, perhaps -- that generations of Americans will embrace. Oh, and he's willing to do stints as a voice actor.

Yes, that description fits the mighty Walt Disney. But it also applies to another California artist born "Walter" on a Dec. 5: "Shrek" animator/actor WALT DOHRN.

"I like old Disney films that have an edge to them," says Dohrn, 39, who is head of story for DreamWorks Animation and who also voices Rumpelstiltskin in the studio's new "Shrek Forever After" (opening today). "Walt Disney and I have the same birthday [seven decades apart], and before I was 10, I had that as my trajectory -- I wanted to be Walt Disney.

"I even have a picture of me at Disneyland before I could walk," continues Dohrn, who two decades ago transferred from San Francisco State to CalArts, the storied breeding ground for so many Disney animators.

At CalArts, Dohrn would befriend "Shrek Forever After" director Mike Mitchell -- "I knew him way back when he had hair," Dohrn jokes -- and their creative kinship would pay off as they both worked on "Shrek the Third" before the fourth and "final" film in DreamWorks's lucrative Shrek saga (although a spinoff Puss in Boots film is in the works).

"We wanted to work together and wanted to find the right opportunity," Dohrn says of Mitchell. "We both loved the Shrek films, so it's great to be able to collaborate on a big film, at this level."

"Big" film, indeed. The previous Shrek films make up three of the six most commercially successful animated films of all time. And this is the first Shrek film released in 3-D -- though even with the increased ticket cost for 3-D, Paramount is managing this weekend's box-office expectations.

dohrn.jpg Dohrn at this month's premiere of "Shrek Forever After" (Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

For Dohrn, it's been a gradual ascension since graduation, Dohrn was involved with such projects as "Mr. Magoo" before hitting his Hollywood stride this past decade, working on "Madagascar" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" and joining the crew for "Shrek 2." But all his work in animation didn't prepare him for voice-acting opposite the likes of Mike Myers (Shrek) and Eddie Murphy (Donkey).

Fortunately, as an animator on "Shrek," all his work reading scenes with Myers and Murphy and Cameron Diaz (Fiona) and Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots) for many months did prepare him for such a prominent gig: voicing the franchise's newest villain.

"That's the strange thing," Dohrn says. "One of my jobs before this role -- as head of story -- was that I was the reader. I've been in the booth playing all the characters. I'd be 'Fiona' and 'Donkey' for Mike [Myers]. So when I was cast, I'd already had the opportunity to work with them. ... And it really is inspiring to have someone like Eddie Murphy be complimentary about your [voice] work."


In extreme, Hollywood-style shorthand, the plot of "Shrek Forever After" can best be described as "It's a Wonderful Life" meets "Faust." Yet in voicing the role of the new baddie Rumpelstiltskin -- the film's Faustian deceiver, or the evil version of "Wonderful Life's" angel -- sought other influences to help his character come alive.

"For sure, Patty McCormack in 'The Bad Seed' was one influence," Dohrn says with a certain relish. "I love that film -- the way she seems innocent on the outside but there's this danger right below. ... There's this line where she says: 'You're the most wonderful mother in the whole world' -- I got that tone from her.

"I also looked at Bette Davis in 'Baby Jane' and the Hitchcock film 'Strangers on a Train.' And Sean Penn in 'The Falcon and the Snowman' -- he's incredible; he's got this rapid nervous energy.

"All these great villains for all these films we love -- Rumpel is a stew from all that."

Dohrn not only had his biggest voice role, ever. "I got to help in the design of the character," says Dohrn, whose own rust-red hair color uncannily matches Rumpel's. "We did hundreds of drawings in the art department, trying to [perfect] his design. We gave him those big eyes so it looked like you could trust this guy. He gets the biggest eyes [because] we want you to feel sorry for him.

"We also wanted to contrast his size and look to Shrek. He's so small, but when you see him next to the witches, he's got this huge ego."

So with the new "Shrek" being released in 3-D, does Dohrn himself, as an artist, feel as though he's on the industry's cutting edge?

I"I'm pretty much a dinosaur in the studio," says Dohrn, who notes that he's a perpetual doodler. "I like things hand-drawn, even today. The story artists use Cintiqs, but I'm the only person who hasn't completely converted to computers. I like the Cintiq, but there's something about the raw emotional power of using paper and pencil. You (literally) put your blood and sweat into your work.

"And it doesn't matter where you are, you can create a scene. You don't need a computer."

So let's see. Dohrn is a self-described digital-animation "dinosaur" who has a hugely burgeoning voice-acting career opposite marquee names. Does this mean we'll see him move ever further into the oh-so-green limelight as a performer?

"No," Dohrn demurs. "I can't wait to get back into the dark."

By Michael Cavna  | May 21, 2010; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  The Animation  | Tags:  CalArts, DreamWorks Animation SKG, Eddie Murphy, Mike Mitchell, Mike Myers, Rumpelstiltskin, Shrek Forever After, Walt Disney, Walt Dohrn  
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