Spotlight On: Phil Craven

“Once we have a basic idea in a certain setting (a cuddly panda in a kung fu world, for example) we usually start with two main questions: why would we care about the main character’s journey? And… what would be cool to see?”

Phil Craven, Head of Story for Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3

Phil Craven, Head of Story for Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3

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.  

Phil Craven grew up far from Hollywood, in a small town on the east coast of Georgia. After attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, he decided to follow his dream of working on animated movies, so he moved to California.

He first joined DreamWorks Animation as part of the story team for Kung Fu Panda, and then was promoted to Head of Story for Kung Fu Panda 2. Phil has a passion for drawing, writing stories, traveling, and pandas!

What’s was your first experience with DreamWorks Animation?
When I was in college, I saw the trailer for The Prince of Egypt, and it got me very intrigued to see the movie. The visuals, the music, and the epic tone combined for one of the best trailers I’ve seen to this day. That was my introduction to DreamWorks Animation.

How did you begin your career at DreamWorks Animation?
I moved to LA from Georgia with no job lined up, and I crashed on different friends’ couches for about a year before I finally got a callback from DreamWorks. I was interviewed by Jen Yuh Nelson for Kung Fu Panda, and hired to clean up rough storyboards drawn by one of my heroes, Rodolphe Guenoden. Now I’ve been here for 10 years and I still love it.

What is your role in the story department?
I am now the Head of the Story Department on Kung Fu Panda 3. I lead a small group of story artists to visualise the director’s vision for the movie in sketch form.

Can you describe your typical work day?
My days are divided up between brainstorming story ideas with the director and producer, drawing storyboards in my office, and meeting with the artists on my team to discuss their storyboard work and their ideas for the movie.

What’s the process of developing the stories at DreamWorks Animation?
Once we have a basic idea in a certain setting (a cuddly panda in a kung fu world, for example,) we usually start with two main questions: Why would we care about the main character’s journey? And… What would be cool to see? We start brainstorming ideas for a compelling character, as well as random ideas for the crazy adventures he could go on. Then we start narrowing those ideas down based on which ones help to tell a story about a lovable character who has a goal. The more ill-suited he is for his goal, the better!

How was the experience of working on Kung Fu Panda?
It was everything I dreamed of as an aspiring artist and storyteller. I got to experience the making of a movie from beginning to end, and I got to know many artists and co-workers who have had a huge influence on my life. Most of my best friends to this day are people I worked with on Kung Fu Panda.

How had your role changed by Kung Fu Panda 2?
I was invited to become the Head of Story for the movie, and I could not possibly turn that opportunity down. I was excited to work with the people I had grown to love and admire so much—and I was excited to gain more experience in a leadership role.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career?
One of the most important things I learned when trying to get started was to find a focus. I had many aspirations as an artist in film and illustration, but when I found my focus in storyboarding, it helped to open doors. The people who will hire you are looking for someone focused on a specific area of expertise. If you present yourself as having that focus, it can help in the hiring process. Then you can always look for ways to branch out into other areas later on.

Which DreamWorks Animation character would you most like to go on an adventure with?
I have to say Po is my favorite character to hang out with. He’s so optimistic and easygoing, with a constant drive to achieve his goals. But if he’s not available I’d definitely pick Toothless the dragon. Because FLYING.

What’s your dream project?
My dream project would be to pitch an original movie idea of my own, and direct it. Yes, I have a couple of ideas in mind already. No, I can’t tell you now!

Watch this video of DreamWorks Animation COO Bill Damaschke, Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jen Yuh Nelson and Phil Craven discussing Po’s dumpling training!   

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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