Spotlight On: Kendal Cronkhite

Kendal Cronkhite (Production Designer - Madagascar Trilogy)

Kendal Cronkhite (Production Designer – Madagascar Trilogy)

In celebration of DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, we thought we’d ask our friends at the world’s largest animation studio to give their insights into their journey from sketch to screen.  

Before joining DreamWorks Animation, production designer and art director Kendal Cronkhite began her career as assistant art director on Disney’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. By 1996, she art directed James and the Giant Peach and later that year signed with DreamWorks Animation to be the art director for their first computer generated film, Antz.

After the success of this film, Kendal joined the Madagascar team as Production Designer, and when it was a breakout hit, Production Designed sequels, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.

Apart from having worked at DreamWorks for over 15 years, Kendal was also accepted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009.

We caught up with her ahead of DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition.

How did you begin your career at DreamWorks Animation?
I began as an Art Director on Antz. I had come from stop-motion animation, having Art Directed Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

What inspired you to make your career in animation?
Tim Burton was my inspiration! I had no ambition to work in animation until I heard that Tim was making an animated film. I was a huge fan. At the time I was working as an editorial illustrator and my goal was to get a New Yorker or Rolling Stone magazine cover. I’m very happy with my animation diversion.

You worked on DreamWorks Animation’s first film Antz, how has the company grown since that time?
I remember when I came on to Antz that the only CG animated film at the time was Toy Story. None of us had ever done a feature CG animated film before. I asked how I’d design for a computer generated film… is there anything I should do differently? The directors said, “No, design what you think is right for the story and we’ll figure out how to translate it into a CG film”.  I’ve never approached the films any other way. It was the best advice! That was 1996 when most of us designed on real paper with pencils and paint. There was some work done in Photoshop, but not that much. Now, all our design work is done digitally, in Photoshop. It speeds up our design and art direction process because of quick, easy changes that can be made when images are created in layers. We no longer have to start over with a new painting when we change a day time scene to a night time scene. It’s very efficient.

The development of our CG software, pipeline, and processes are so astronomically different from when I started, I barely recognize it. Animators used to move characters by typing in code, now they actually move the points of the character model. Lighting used to do all kinds of tricks and workarounds to make the light feel like the sun, now it actually simulates sunshine in a real world way. It used to take days to render an image, now it can be interactive and happen before your eyes. There is really no comparison to the technology we used then and now. It has all changed very quickly and dramatically.

When I started I barely knew how to open email, let alone make a CG film. Now our crew comes in knowing how to make a movie, by themselves, on their personal computers. The education that has been created to support our industry has developed right along with us. It has created a very young, savvy, and incredibly talented group of people that work at DreamWorks.

How did your previous experience influence your work on the Madagascar films?
I think my previous experience has influenced many things in Madagascar.

One is the way I think about designing a film. I started in an alternative animation atmosphere on Nightmare, so I tend to like to push past what I’ve seen before in an animated films and do something new. That’s where the real fun is for me as a designer.

Two, is when I got to Madagascar I felt that we hadn’t really embraced cartoons yet in CG, and I really wanted to bring all that fun to the screen. This story was the comedic vehicle for that development. We really embraced the cartoons we grew up with and loved in the 1960’s and poured as much of that as possible into Madagascar, and in the process made it new again for a younger generation.

How long do you work on a film for?
Anywhere from 3-5 years. The Production Designer is one of the first leads hired onto the film and one of the last to finish.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Getting the opportunity to design for film every day and working with this incredible group of people to make these films. There’s nothing like doing a job you love!

What’s the most challenging?
First, realizing your dreams for a film. Then doing it on time and on budget.

Can you describe your typical work day?
There are two aspects to the production of a film for me.

One is the early visual development phase. During that time, I’m working with a small group of artists to figure out how the film and characters should look and how to dramatically tell the story in a strong visual way. I spend a lot of time in the art department and with the director.

The second phase is production. After we’ve decided on the visual approach for the film we start making it in all the various departments until it gets to the screen. During this time I’m on the floor constantly, checking in with every department throughout the day to make sure the vision is getting on the screen. I’m finished just weeks before the film opens in theatres.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a career in production design?
Study film. Study art. Study animation. Study life. Read stories. Become strong and facile technically, so that you can describe visually how you want to tell a story. And have a personal point of view.

Which DreamWorks Animation character would you most like to go on an adventure with?
All the great female characters like, Princess Fiona, Gloria the hippo, Chantal Dubois, Master Tigress, Susan (Ginormica), the Tooth Fairy, and Eep. Now, that would be fun!

What’s your next project?
I’m developing the film, Trolls. It’s a story based around those crazy troll dolls I grew up with as a kid. It’s hysterically funny and wacky!

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition runs from Thursday 10 April – Sunday 5 October 2014. 

Check out the full program of events and don’t forget to visit our ACMI DreamWorks Online Hub for exclusive behind-the-scenes videos, concept art, articles and insight into the world’s largest animation studio. 

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