Dream Maker

UPDATED: March 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2012

“Keep it small.” That’s the very un-Hollywood mantra of Hollywood exec Bill Damaschke, chief creative officer for DreamWorks Animation. In a town practically built on the idea of “big”—big explosions, big names, big signs, big… er, cup sizes—the former actor tries to scale things down. “You can’t allow size and structure to overshadow art and creativity,” he says. “If you do, that’s when you’re done. You have to keep it small.”

In fact, Damaschke is adamant that DreamWorks Animation creates “bespoke” movies, which, since the company’s creation (as a division of DreamWorks SKG, founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg), has included blockbusters such as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and, most recently, Puss in Boots. More than 2,000 staff members craft these custom-made “small” films, which generate more than $750 million a year (their annual revenue for 2010 was $785 million).

That’s big business for a bespoke company.

But it all starts with tiny teams, says Damaschke. “That’s where real innovation comes from. Every movie starts with one or two people”—usually the director, writer or producer—“and then we keep adding people individually.” When that team gets bigger, they break it up into yet more teams so that no member—or artist, as Damaschke calls almost everyone he works with—feels like a cog in a wheel. (To keep the lines of communication open between teams, the groups get together for weekly “show and tells” across departments to share their work with each other.)

“That’s the thing about creating a ‘creative culture’: When you build small teams organically like that, cultures form on their own. I’ve noticed that every team has its own culture, and each movie develops its own distinct culture, too.” Damaschke doesn’t mind a bit. “We don’t have a house style that we make everybody adopt.”

Going Off Brand

That’s another way Damaschke keeps it small: He avoids the lure and comfort of the brand, the house style. While many companies spend millions solidifying their brand—before they even produce their first widget or provide their first service—then drop millions more selling that brand to the world, Damaschke thinks that the key to creative success is to forget about branding altogether.

“The moment you think narrowly about what you do is the moment you give up innovation,” the 48-year-old says. Being precious about your brand is a creativity killer, he says. “A brand shouldn’t constrain you; it should empower you.”

Case in point: “After the success of Shrek, everyone wanted to brand us as that hip animation company that does satirical, irreverent films with lots of pop-culture references,” he recalls. (A brand which, by the way, most film studios would die for.) “But we look at each film as an original. We need to think differently with each project if we’re going to be successful. How to Train Your Dragon and Madagascar are both DreamWorks, for example, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. That idea of ‘This is just the way we do it’ will never be the way we think.”

On Being an Artist

But to allow cultures to create themselves and to start each film project without the framework of a brand—in a town where image is everything—requires plenty of trust. And that’s something Damaschke has never had a problem with. As a former actor, he respects the creative process and allows it to happen without too much interference. “I have a lot of affinity for people who are artists. Most of the people here are artists in some way, whether they’re working on images, sounds or technology. Ultimately, they’re all creating art and putting it up for evaluation. And that’s a collaborative process. I know I have to make hard decisions sometimes and move things forward, but I think if I do my job in a way where I approach those decisions with wanting to get the most out of everyone as an artist—if I come from that energy—people respect it.”

Apparently, they do. DreamWorks has been high on the list of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past three years running. (Free breakfast and lunch, movie screenings and afternoon yoga probably don’t hurt either.)

Damaschke has had many years to perfect his supervisory skills: The oldest of seven kids, he’s been managing people since his childhood in Justice, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “In some ways I feel like I’m the older brother in the company. It doesn’t feel much different than how I am in my family,” he says.

For an oldest child, Damaschke had an uncharacteristically impractical dream: To be the next Robert Redford. He attended Illinois Wesleyan University because it had a strong musical theater program and then moved to New York City, where for five years he performed on and off Broadway and with touring companies. On a whim, he decided to give Los Angeles a try. There, he landed a few commercials and guest roles (including—for anyone who was a teenager in the mid-1990s—a role as a salesman in one episode of My So-Called Life).

Again on a whim, he started cold-calling movie studio hotlines and got a job as a production assistant on the Disney animated film Pocahontas. Ten months later, in 1995, DreamWorks hired him to be a production coordinator for its first animated feature, The Prince of Egypt.

Watch Out, Robert Redford

After more than 16 years with DreamWorks (who says relationships don’t last in Hollywood?), Damaschke’s got more than 20 movies under his belt, an Oscar nomination for Shark Tale (he was the producer), and a high-as-it-gets title. “Being here for as long as I have, it’s super-unique. I still remember when we were just a startup, and I still think of us that way, in perpetual startup mode.” Which is a good thing, he adds. There’s no autopilot mode when you’re a startup.

And in an entertainment industry that’s transformed every day by changes in technology, autopilot would be disastrous. “You always have to be thinking about what will be happening five years from now. We were one of the first studios to create a dedicated CG [computer graphics] animation studio when we realized that that was the way of the future. It’s always something new.” In 2004, DreamWorks was the first company to release two CG movies in a single year, Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. The emphasis of the last several years has been on perfecting 3D technology.

So how does he know what’s coming next? He looks to the kids in his family. Though he has none of his own, he has “lots and lots of nieces and nephews” and he watches them at play. “You have to look at what 5-year-olds are playing with. What technology will they be using when they’re 10? What will they expect out of a movie?”

But for all the talk of the future, Damaschke’s main business strategy is to focus on the now. “You must be present. It’s the hardest thing to do. But what you’re not doing should never be less important than what you are doing.” Damaschke doesn’t check his phone while he’s in a meeting. He doesn’t look at his email when he’s on the phone. “You can’t be disconnected from the people you work with. It’s disrespectful, but it’s also, ultimately, inefficient.”

For now, the present means heading to post-production meetings for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which hits theaters June 8. He hopes that people appreciate the movie’s story and images, and that the film does well. Just don’t call it big.