Interview: Shelley Page, Dreamworks Animation
by Rachel Lambert, Editorial Staff Writer
Shelley Page is an awe-inspiring woman with an extraordinary career in the animation industry. She was one of the original Dreamworks Animation team members and is now Dreamworks’ Head of International Outreach. In addition to working in the field herself, she reaches out to young artists in search of new talent and storytellers for the future. After giving a presentation at NYU Tisch, she spoke with us about her career and her advice to aspiring animators.
What drew you to animation?
Actually I got into animation completely by accident. I started off as an illustrator, but I was very lucky to be offered a job doing some graphic design for a project that was directed by one of the great legends of animation, Richard Williams. After I worked for him for a little while as a graphic designer, he offered me a job.
As an illustrator I had spent many years doing things like children’s book illustration, packaging illustration, [and] costume design for theatre. But it was only when I started working for Richard Williams, and I saw my artwork begin to move, that I got addicted to the idea that illustration could be something more than a two-dimensional thing. It could be a storytelling device in three-dimension.
What have been some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
There are many, many things that have been very special to me, for different reasons. I have to say, of all the Dreamworks projects, How To Train Your Dragon was the special one for me. But from a career point of view, it was probably Shrek because I was part of the original development team, and it was such an amazing experience being surrounded by this extraordinary group of artists, developing something that became like a household property years later.
How did you become involved with Dreamworks Animation?
Well, I would love to say it was a deliberate career choice, but in fact, when I was working for Richard Williams, he was already being approached by the Walt Disney Company to set up a studio to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, so we sort of became part of the Disney studio even though we were based in London. When Roger Rabbit concluded and the studio wound down, Steven Spielberg who was the executive producer decided to keep the team together. He set up his Amblimation studio and I was asked to become head of backgrounds there, but after making two or three films at the London-based Amblimation, it was difficult for Steven to work so far away from his team. Some things fell into place, a new animation studio was created in L.A, and the core team from London was actually invited to come over and become Dreamworks Animation.
You are now the Head of International Outreach at Dreamworks. How did you obtain this position, and what do you enjoy most about it?
Well it’s a similar story in a way because the role didn’t exist until I took it on. We had recruiters who went out into the field looking for particular artists, but we didn’t really have anybody who was engaging with the schools and universities. So, some years back, we set up the Outreach department at Dreamworks. But by this time I had moved back to London and thus was given the task of being involved with the international schools, universities, film festivals, [and] some studios. I became the international eye of [Dreamworks] out there. So the job essentially joined me; I didn’t really join the position. After a while, it’s become a more formalized role where I’m really the point person for first contact with all universities that we hope to recruit new talent from in the future.
You also created the “Eye Candy Show.” What inspired its creation?
It was sort of accidental because in the early days when I was bringing exciting new work back from my travels in Europe and around the world, I had to bring it into the studio in my handbag. Literally my nickname was the “Mary Poppins of Animation” because I would always come in and say, “Oh, I’ve got this wonderful film. It’s just in my handbag. Let me show you.” And it was always on pneumatic tapes or VHS tapes (this is before DVDs). After a while I thought, “This is just too time-consuming,” so I compiled all the new work I had seen into one screening which I showed at Dreamworks, which became known as the “Shelley Show.” Lots and lots of people came to see that and were inspired by the work I showed. Gradually some international festivals got to hear about this screening, which I didn’t really think was unique, but it turns out there really aren’t many people doing something similar. I’ve given “Eye Candy” presentations at pretty much every major festival you can imagine in pretty much every country you can imagine. It’s sort of my traveling handbag full of new stuff.
What is the most important life lesson you have learned from your work and experiences?
Definitely the most important life lesson is to be open to all opportunities because if I had at any point in my professional career said “no” to something - because it was either too big a challenge or it was relocating or it was so much time for not much money – if I had said “no” to any of those things I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. But because I’m curious and like to challenge myself and am endlessly fascinated with what other people are doing, I was able to develop a career for myself that didn’t exist before. The life lesson is to accept the challenges that come your way and don’t hesitate. Even if you’re intimidated by something or you think it’s beyond your capabilities, you never know till you try, and I’ve always taken the role of having a go.
You have so many remarkable achievements. What do you look forward to achieving in the future?
I used to joke that if they ever discover life on Mars, I’ll be on the next spaceship saying, “Have you got any good animation schools out here?” I’m sure that Russia is on my horizon because I’ve already been to the Putin Mito out there, and I’m really looking forward to getting involved with the animation scene in Russia. On a personal level, I’m watching my son who’s a creative writing major now in his final year at college. It’s interesting seeing it from the parent’s side of view for a change instead of that of the student or the professional. I’m curious to see where that will take him.
And I think for Dreamworks, the idea of building this enormous new facility in Shanghai is just such a fascinating opportunity. I’ve made many great friends out there, and I’m so looking forward to seeing it grow into this huge enterprise. It’ll be a place where anybody visiting Shanghai who is interested in entertainment will come to. It’s a whole new world, literally.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in the animation field?
I think when I interview people who are interested in joining this profession, I’m always looking for two things. One is obviously that special skill set because you kind of know it when you see it. It’s someone who has that extra added sparkle. There’s always those people that stand out. And for those people, my advice is to be brave, and don’t just take the first job that comes your way that might get you a foot on the ladder or earn you a living. Take the one that’s really going to push you to do things that maybe you didn’t think you were capable of because that’s how you will really know what your potential is. Don’t underplay your abilities, but also focus on where your real strengths lie, and then go for it. The sky’s the limit.