Published Thursday | May 24, 2007
Bob's Take on Cinema: Omaha native animates Shrek

So what's it like to work on a blockbuster movie franchise, both before and after it has that blockbuster status?

I know of only one Omaha native who knows.

Terran Boylan, 42, was hired by DreamWorks as a computer animator in 2000, just in time to put some touches on "Shrek."

That name "Shrek," by the way, comes from the Yiddish for monster. The root word, in German, means terror or fright.

Who knew the story of a green ogre would become such a hit - especially after the guy who was doing Shrek's voice, "Saturday Night Live" star Chris Farley, died in midproduction?

DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg had wanted his friend Dan Aykroyd cast as Shrek, but Mike Myers, another "SNL" alumnus, snagged the role. Shrek's now-famous Scottish accent was a Myers afterthought.

Whatever accidents led to "Shrek," it hauled in more than $480 million worldwide. The making of the sequel was under way even before the original opened in 2001 and went on to win the first Oscar in the new category of best animated feature.

Boylan began at DreamWorks as a special-effects animator. In "Shrek," he created dust clouds blowing off a book cover and kicked up by Donkey on a forest trail. And that moment when Shrek digs out earwax and turns it into a candle? All Boylan's.

For "Shrek the Third," which raked in $122 million over the weekend to push "Spider-Man 3" out of the top box-office spot, Boylan served as a character technical director. In that capacity, he helped program computer controls for a character's movable parts. The goal is fluid, natural movement.

He did the same thing on "Madagascar" and "Over the Hedge."

What Boylan called "the legacy characters" - Shrek, Fiona, Donkey - got a makeover in "Shrek the Third" to reflect new capabilities in computer animation. The idea was to change the way these characters moved, making them more flexible for animators without changing their appearance. Boylan worked on the Gingerbread Man and on Dragon.

You might not notice that Donkey has new dynamic movement in his ears, or that animators can do things with Dragon's tail they couldn't before. But Boylan said that kind of detail is what makes an animated movie "pop" up there on the big screen.

Another Boylan specialty is hair movement - particularly on animals covered in hair. Those porcupines in "Over the Hedge" were a tough knot for Boylan. This time, he had to deal with Rapunzel's hair.

"So many CG (computer-generated) films came out in the past year, the audience really has a new expectation for what they see," Boylan said from the Los Angeles area.

The original "Shrek" featured 36 locations, each with a highly detailed environment in which the characters moved. At that time, it was unusual for an audience to be treated to so much beautiful scenery, he said.

"But now they expect that as the standard," he said. "We've developed better techniques for the animated characters to act."

Examples: nose wrinkles, and that brow space between the eyes. You'd never guess Shrek's face has hundreds of working muscles contributing to his expressiveness.

Boylan actually had to think hard to remember the specifics of what he did on "Shrek the Third," because he worked on it before "Over the Hedge" and before "Bee Movie," starring Jerry Seinfeld, which will be released in November.

What Boylan does - much of it alone, in a dark room - is not the glamorous side of the business. He's never met any of the stars who voice the characters he works on.

"I saw John Lithgow once," he offered. But Boylan's wife, Belinda, who works in the consumer-product marketing end of DreamWorks, did meet Myers in New York City recently.

Terran and Belinda married last October. They hope to get to Omaha before too long, because Belinda has never been here. Terran's father, Dan Boylan, is an abstract artist who lives in Omaha. His mother, Mary Dexter, is from St. Louis.

Boylan is now working on a 2009 feature called "Monsters vs. Aliens," a send-up of 1950s monster flicks.

"I have to tell you, I really love working on characters," Boylan said. "While I have the same job title I had six years ago, every new film has its challenges. We keep advancing the state of the art in character animation and setup.

"I haven't gotten bored yet."

Neither has his audience.

Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom

Copyright ©2007 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.